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POST: The Lively Odyssey of the "John Brown" Courthouse by Jim Surkamp 5056 words


VIDEO: The Lively Odyssey of the "John Brown"Courthouse TRT: 15:31.



Made possible with the generous support of American Public University System, providing an affordable, quality, online education. The video and post do not reflect any modern-day policies or positions of American Public University System, and their content is intended to encourage discussion and better understanding of the past. More:




1_The Lively_Oddyssey

2_From its creation in 1836 this storied courthouse

From its creation in 1836, this storied courthouse was the focus of the world during the trial of the John Brown raiders in October-November, 1859; then a casualty of shells and minie balls October 18, 1863, then again August 22nd, 1864, and scavenged constantly by souvenir-hunting Union passers-through, reducing it to a roofless, nearly floorless wreck in 1865 – as one wrote “a cesspool from which hope would spring eternal.” In a herculean effort of defiance and grit, the townspeople scraped together some $20,000 to build it again and eventually would get all the county legal functions back into this courthouse from the new opulent, magisterial courthouse built in Shepherdstown by Rezin Davis Shepherd. Then it achieved greatness by having its second treason trial – said to be the only American courthouse with that pedigree – with the trial of miners leader, Bill Blizzard and many others, in 1922.


The Lively Odyssey of the “John Brown” Courthouse


3_Charles Washington loved his town

4_Jefferson County was born in 1801

Charles Washington loved his town – Charlestown. He promised his neighbors: “Make me a new county and I’ll give you a site for a courthouse.” So Charles died in 1799 and Jefferson County was born in 1801; and a small, commodious courthouse went up on the northeast corner of the public square of Charlestown. A bigger, ”born-again” courthouse went up in 1836. Mssrs. Lackland,


5_courthouse went up in 1836

Douglass, and Kennedy helped to buy a $200 parcel just to the north owned by Andrew Hunter, a lawyer. This symbol of town pride reigned as the B&O railroad brought business to the region from Baltimore and Ohio – until the trial in 1859 of John


6_John Brown for high treason

7_right up until his death

Brown for high treason for his raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry. A nation tearing, but not quite divided was riveted on the downstairs courtroom where wounded, but unbending Brown spoke his cause – right up to his death.


8_records whisked away to safety


The county’s written memory – deeds, wills, marriages, records – all were whisked away to safety in Lexington, Virginia by County Clerk Thomas A. Moore as the war began.


10_swept over the county shooting galloping

11_raiding pigpens

Blueocoats and graycoats all swept over the county, shooting, galloping, ducking, raiding pigpens, hayfields, kitchen pantries, as the local, enslaved blacks either caught a ride out following the bluecoats or stayed even closer to the farms and homes they’d help to maintain and build.



1863: The Courthouse almost lost


13_On October 18 1863

On October 18, 1863, Confederate General John Imboden surrounded the town with his some 2,000 men and eight pieces of artillery


14_Confederate Gen John Imboden

Imboden shelled the courthouse when its occupiers, some 375 volunteers in the Union’s 9th Maryland infantry regiment, refused to surrender.


The proud courthouse would fall with the South into ruin. On October 18th, 1863, Confederate General John Imboden surprised a Union garrison, commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin Simpson in Charlestown.


15_ Union Col. Benjamin Simpson

(Simpson testified later:)

“I went out and saw a man approaching on horseback with a flag of truce in his hand. ‘Halt! What do you want?’ – ‘General Imboden demands the unconditional surrender of the town.’ ‘If he wants it tell him to come and take it.’ In about five minutes, the gentleman came back. ‘General Imboden requests that you remove all the women and children from the houses in the vicinity of the courthouse and jail, as he intends to shell the town.’ ‘This shall be done, but it will take about an hour. You must think we are foolish.’


16_a shell struck

17_a third shotA shell struck one corner of it and glancing from against the log pailisade exploded. Every shot they fired struck the courthouse. A third shot entered it and exploding in the palisade of the upper story wounded the adjutant (who later died) and one private. There were from ten to twenty shells struck and exploded in the courthouse and around it.


18_Simpson reported 250 men

Simpson reported 250 – or about half – of his men were “wounded, killed, or missing.”


19_August 21st-22nd 1864

August 21st-22nd, 1864: Federals are routed back again through Charlestown


Sunday, August 21st, 1864: (James E. Taylor), an artist with General Sheridan’s Army, dined at Sarah Bell’s Sappington Hotel, near the courthouse and after checking his stabled horses, he noticed the Union infantry marching past. “We passed to the courthouse to view the 6th and 8th Corps after their arduous work in holding Early in check on the Smithfield Pike. It would


20_require an inspired pen

require an inspired pen to truly picture the intensified emotion and gloomy silence that pervaded the ranks of the muskateers as they moved by the old temple of justice in the growing night – all in marked contrast to their elastic steps on a bright


21_inspired the song John Browns Body

morning a few days earlier, when – with waving banner, martial music and voices that inspired the song – “John Brown’s Body is a harbinger of victory.”


Monday, August 22nd, 1864, Sappington Hotel:

“We could hear the clatter of horses tearing like mad down the Pike and whistling minies splashing against the courthouse wall. Shells began exploding about, the enemy having gotten a battery in position on the west end of town. We whirled wildly away and down a side street in preference to joining the stampeding bluecoats on the bullet-swept street.


22_General Andersons infantry

General Anderson’s infantry and General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry were driving General Wilson and Alfred N. Duffie’s cavalry divisions from the town and established a line beyond it.


23_The courthouse and the county were a ruin

The courthouse and the county were a ruin in 1865.


23a_blacks either struggled with their new freedom

When the war ended and soldiers on both sides limped or wandered home and, blacks either struggled with their new freedom in an unsympathetic, impoverished South or started anew in the North, the courthouse in Charlestown stood a defiled ruin of shattered lifeways, a broken bridge to the past.


24_Northern writer John Trowbridge

Northern writer John Trowbridge arrived in Charlestown in the fall of 1865 and visited the site of the courthouse:


24a_abandoned rats toads

A short walk up into the centre of the town took us to the scene of John Brown’s trial. It was a consolation to see that the jail had been laid in ashes, and that the court-house, where the mockery of justice was performed, was a ruin abandoned to rats and toads. Four mossy white brick pillars, still standing, supported a riddled roof, through which God’s blue sky and gracious sunshine smiled. The main portion of the building had been literally torn to pieces. In the floorless hall of justice, rank weeds were growing. Names of Union soldiers were scrawled along the wall. No torch had been applied to the wood-work, but the work of destruction had been performed by the hands of hilarious soldier-boys ripping up floors and pulling down laths and joists to the tune of ‘John Brown’ – the swelling melody of the song and the accompaniment of crashing partitions, reminding the citizens who thought to have destroyed the old hero, that his soul was marching on.


25_Shepherdstowns brand new courthouse

Useless as a keeper of the sacred records, the County Courthouse was officially moved to Shepherdstown’s brand-new courthouse, built from the generous coin of Rezin Davis Shepherd.


26_Charlestowns old courthouse stood naked

Image courtesy Lloyd Osterdorf Estate

Charlestown’s old courthouse “stood naked, disgraced,” reflecting the Town’s broken spirit. The courthouse and jail had been picked over for four years by Union soldiers and souvenir-hunters, leaving just the bare walls of the stone courthouse.


An 1869 visitor from Chicago walked down Charlestown’s streets: “The ruined courthouse and jail have been despoiled by soldiers to make quarters and tens of thousands of men have marched through Charlestown singing ‘John Brown’s Body lies mouldering in the grave, his soul is marching on.’ The courthouse maintains its walls and outlines; and the four brick and plastered Doric columns are still standing. But the roof is reduced to a few beams. The whole interior is torn out. and the edifice now only has one floor, a cellar, and, to speak truthfully, the cesspool of all the vagrants of the village. To look into the interior is to feel revolted, yet to say: ‘This place is accursed.’”


27_But pride and hope spring eternal

But pride and hope spring eternal, even from a cesspool. Charlestown’s town pride was lit by a scheme of Shepherdstown leaders to buy up and forever prevent the old courthouse from rising again from the ashes. (With) that move blocked, Charlestown’s artisans and leaders scraped together a plan to rebuild their courthouse at half of what they believed was the price for the Shepherdstown structure, trying to keep the budget for their courthouse at less than $20,000. And they succeeded, coming in at $18,500.


28_State Legislature siding with returning the county seat

29_a handsome, deep toned bell

Then in August, 1871, with the State Legislature siding with returning the county seat to Charlestown, Charlestown worked and plastered and sawed, hammered and poured and painted – until on December 21st, 1872, Mr. Woodman of the Howard Watch & Clock Company of Boston eased the beautiful clock onto the courthouse cupola, aided by a handsome, deep-toned bell, courtesy of the Troy Manufacturing Company.


30_courtesy Troy Manufacturing Company

31_Our church going friends

“Our church-going friends,” wrote Mr. (John S.) Gallaher, the editor of The Virginia Free Press, “will have an opportunity of noting the time for preparing for church on time by the clear, distinct tones of the clock.”


Fed up with the droves of tourists wanting to see the John Brown courtroom, the new building was designed so that it had offices on the first floor in its place.


32_one of three circuit stops

Moreover, for almost the next four decades, the elegant courtroom upstairs was used as only one of three circuit stops for the state Supreme Court of Appeals.


A visitor in September, 1894, wrote: Charles Town, WV (Named now made into two words-JS) contrasts most favorably with Harper’s Ferry, being as neat and thrifty as the other is shabby. Of course, you drive at once to the courthouse which is, partly, the building in which John Brown was tried. The walls cover the same space, and the pillars in front are in the same position, although higher; and walking through the lower hall to the rear, you can pass over the very space John Brown’s mattress lay. But all the lower floor is now devoted to offices and the courtroom is up one flight.


33_smoking a corncob pipe

Standing in the doorway was a pleasant-looking gentleman, apparently forty-five years of age, smoking a corn-cob pipe and, in it, the fragrant, natural-leaf.


34_The 20th Century

The 20th Century


As time went on, business went on. The courthouse grew bigger, adding an annex in 1910. A young “Bud” Morgan remembered Charles Town in the nineteen-teens. (He wrote): A great sight each summer day was the row of Confederate veterans, sitting on the east end of the courthouse wall. About twelve to fifteen of them gathered there every day – some in tattered uniforms, some missing an arm or a leg, but all happy and cheerful, joking and kidding with all who passed by.


35_most highly honored and respected men

36_my grandfather William A Morgan

They were the most highly honored and respected men in the County. I was a favorite with them because some had served in the 1st Virginia cavalry, of which my grand-father, William A. Morgan, was colonel.


37_Miners Leader Bill Blizzard

38_women demurely vied

At another celebrated treason trial in this building – that of miner-leader, Bill Blizzard in 1922 – the town’s women demurely vied with news reporters for the prized 150 seats in the courtroom.


39_Juries still give verdicts there

Juries still give verdicts there. The gavel still drops, and lives of all kinds are thus changed forever at the Jefferson County Courthouse.


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Taken on October 31, 2012