The controversy of the so called “John Brown Bell” has once again been raised in the John Brown academic and historical circles.
|Middlesex News article October 22, 199|
The building known as “The John Brown Fort” was the armory building at Harpers Ferry prior to John Brown’s raid in October 1859. The bell that hung in the bell tower was in all probability used as a fire alarm, to signal danger, and perhaps as a shift change signal for workers in the Federal Armory and other local buildings.
As with many aspects of John Brown and Harpers Ferry, there is a story that resurfaces periodicallyabout how John Brown planned to ring the bell to call the slaves to his side that fateful night. This is in all probability a myth (see below). There is no known historical data to support this idea, but it does make for great story telling.
Fast forward to 1861 – A newly formed militia group from Marlboro (original spelling) Massachusetts, the Company 1 of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers, were assigned to enter Harpers Ferry to seize anything of value for the US Government. The only thing they found of value was the 700 pound bell hanging in the bell tower of the armory building. Knowing that their Hook and Ladder firehouse back home did not have a bell, they decided to take the bell with them.
According to a speech by James M. Gleason to the Sons of Veterans of the G.A.R in Marlborough, the soldiers realized the bell was the official property of the United States Government, and to take the bell back home, they would need to have permission from the Provast Marshall. So they hid the bell in the river, until they could obtain that permission. Accounts tell that the soldiers did obtain this permission and retrieved the bell and continued on their original mission.
|Elizabeth Little Ensminger|
While camped near Williamsport, Maryland, the soldiers befriended the family of William and Elizabeth Ensminger. William Thomas Ensminger was born in Williamsport, Maryland, on the 30th of November 1822. Elizabeth Little Ensminger was born in Clear Springs, Maryland on the 19th of February 1836. William died on 26th or April 1873, and Elizabeth Little Ensminger lived out her life on the farm. In 1874 she married George W Snyder.
When the Company was ordered to continue into enemy territory, the men knew that they could not feasibly carry a 700 pound bell with them into battle, so they asked the Ensminger’s to hold onto the bell for them. Elizabeth Ensminger promised the boys she would take care of the bell until they returned for it.
Many of the young men in Company 1 of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers died during the war, and no one returned to the Ensminger farm to retrieve the bell. During the Battle of Antietam, the Ensminger’s had the bell buried in their yard to hide it from sight. Seven years later, in 1869, they recovered the bell and rehung it on the stand the young soldiers had built for it in 1861. And there it remained for many more years.
The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) John A Rawlings Post #43 was established in Marlborough in 1868. The G.A.R held annual meetings, called encampments, where Veterans of the Union Army congregated together for support, recognition and a chance to social with other Veterans. The encampment for 1892 was held in Washington, DC, just 80 miles from the Ensminger farm. Some of the original members of Company 1 of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers attended the encampment and decided to travel the 80 miles to visit the Esnminger farm.
They located the farm, and the matron of the household, now Elizabeth Snyder, and she not only remembered “her boys” but insisted that they spend the night and talk about old times. The subject of the bell was raised, and the men were quite surprised to learn that not only had Elizabeth protected the bell during the Civil War, but she was still protecting it 30 years!
|Marlborough Historical Society Archives|
Money was raised, and the bell was shipped from Williamsport, PA to Marlborough, MA, where it was hung on the front of the G.A.R. building, and ownership was given to the John A. Rawlins Bldg. Assoc., with clauses prohibiting the sale, or loaning of the bell to anyone. This ownership continues through today. The bell hung on the building for many years.
In 1968 the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce voted to build an official bell tower for the celebrated bell. The tower was completed in September and the bell has resided in the large brick tower ever since.
|Joan Hartly Abshire|
The newest controversy has been raised by a commercial real estate broker from Charleston, WV named Howard Swint.
Swint believes, and is willing to take his case to court, that the bell is the property of Harpers Ferry, belongs in the bell tower of “The John Brown Fort” and should be returned to Harpers Ferry post haste. He states that there is no documentation on file that granted permission to the Company 1 of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers to take possession of the bell and remove it to Massachusetts. The late Boyd Sutler, historian and John Brown scholar, also researched the “John Brown Bell” earlier this century, and he also concluded that he could not find the reported paperwork.
But, paperwork can and does get lost, misplaced and misfiled all the time (the indictment of Rev White for shooting Frederick Brown was just recently found in an old cardboard box at an historical society). Papers get lost, files get misfiled, records get distroyed either by natural disaster or for lack of storage space. How many people in the twentieth century would know the significance of a request to move a bell in 1862? It could have been trashed, for all we know. Swint is basing his case on the fact that there is no known paperwork for the transfer.
But items get stolen, transferred, moved, taken, lost, destroyed and mishandled during war. This is a very sad fact of war, even today. This is why our troops take control of national treasures and museums in the Middle East, so we can prevent wholesale looting, smashing and mismanagement of items of value. Swint’s argument is that the bell should be returned because it was stolen from a National Armory. If that is true, do we return everything that was “stolen” during the Civil War? As Louis Decaro, Jr. points out on his blog,
“Shouldn’t the State of Virginia return John Brown’s papers to Alice Keesey Mecoy and other Brown family descendants? The point is lots of stuff gets stolen by superior force in times of conflict and a case can be made for this stuff to be returned. But the city of Marlborough may wonder why they should be expected to do so, simply because some folks in West Virginia want “their” bell returned.”
I find the entire “Bell Controversy” perplexing. John Brown had nothing to do with the bell – the only connection is that it hung in the fire house (now known as John Brown Fort) in Harper’s Ferry when John Brown was there. He did not ring it, he did not touch it, I doubt he even gave it a passing thought. So why are people so insistent that “it must be brought home to Harpers Ferry?”
I am proud to show off my “John Brown treasures” – a piece of the Adair house, John Brown Jr’s military manual, Annie’s photograph. But why is the bell linked to my ancestor? Why is it so important to Swift, and others to return the bell?
I did quite a bit of research on the “John Brown Bell” years ago when I first heard about it. I thought it was an interesting story and one that I could publish easily, since at the time, I thought it was a wide open basically un-researched subject. While doing research, I found a wonderful publication by Joan Abshire that I highly recommend,
“The John Brown Bell
The journey of the second-most important bell in American history, from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Marlborough Massachusetts.”
From what I have read about the bell, it is well respected and treated with honor in Marlborough. Probably with much more honor and respect than any bell in America, other than the Liberty Bell.
The bell is just a bell to me, no more and no less than that. I do not see any connection to Grandpa, or any need to return to it to Harpers Ferry.
The myth of John Brown Ringing the Bell — while it makes for a great story and a wonderful visual; John Brown getting the weapons gathered together, and as he and his men are leaving the armory ringing the bell to alert the local slaves that the uprising has begun! – it is not feasible. Had John Brown succeeded in his plan, the town of Harpers Ferry would not have been aware of him and his men, yet ringing the fire alarm bell would have woken the entire town and alerted everyone in the area to the fact that something was wrong. After all his methodical planning, I do not see John Brown willing to make that much noise. Below is an explanation as to the start of the myth, from Joan Abshire’s book:
“4. The bell was going to be rung to summon the slaves
I really feel badly about this one because I think it would be so neat if it was true. But it just isn’t. I couldn’t find the least little shred of evidence that pointed to that conclusion. I think someone made it up, possibly my friend James Gleason, because his account is the first place that it appears. The fact is that the bell is never mentioned at all in any of the other accounts I read, except the book put out by the G.A.R. and the newspaper clippings that copied it. And in fact, one of the rangers at the park who went out of his way to help me, was of the same opinion. “