John Brown Bell in Marlborough is Tied to Some of the Nation’s Darkest Days

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By Brett Peruzzi, Contributing Writer

The John Brown Bell at the Union Common on Main Street in downtown Marlborough

Marlborough – While Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell may be better known, the John Brown Bell in Marlborough has a compelling history of its own, given its association with the abolitionist movement and the Civil War.

In 1859, abolitionist John Brown and his followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to inspire a revolt of enslaved persons. But the revolt failed and Brown and others were tried and executed for treason in an act that was later seen as a major prelude to the Civil War.

In the early days of the Civil War, in September, 1862, a company of Union troops from Marlborough was sent to Harpers Ferry to guard against Confederate troops crossing the Potomac River and advancing towards Washington, D.C., less than 70 miles away. The Union soldiers were also ordered to salvage anything of value from the arsenal. Since some of the men had been members of the fire company in Marlborough, they decided to seize the bell in the arsenal’s fire house, the very building John Brown had been captured in, whose bell he supposedly had wanted to use to alert local enslaved people that his revolt was underway and inspire them to join his cause. The Marlborough soldiers hoped to bring the bell home to their fire house, but the war intervened when they were sent into battle, and the bell remained hidden near Harpers Ferry for decades.

Thirty years after its seizure, some of the surviving soldiers from Marlborough visited Washington for a national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the fraternal organization of Union veterans. They traveled to the Harpers Ferry area and located the bell and arranged to have it transported to Marlborough, where it adorned the exterior of the G.A.R.’s building on Main Street for many decades, tolling for the funeral of every Civil War veteran in the city. The last veteran it rang for was Stillman Wood, who died in 1937, a full 72 years after the war had ended.

“The Marlborough soldiers who took the bell thought of it as a symbol of freedom,” said Paul Brodeur, a member of the Marlborough Historical Society who has researched and lectured on the bell’s history. “Of the 16 men who took the bell, seven died during the war, and one shortly thereafter.”

One aspect of the John Brown bell that is not widely known is its role in enslaved people from Harpers Ferry relocating to Marlborough during and soon after the war. Several of them left Harpers Ferry with the Union regiment that the Marlborough soldiers belonged to, as “camp followers” who worked as laborers and hired servants for U.S. forces.

“While Marlborough had little to do with the subject of John Brown or his raid on Harpers Ferry, it had everything to do with the object of the raid, which was to bring the slaves from Harpers Ferry to the safety of the north,” Brodeur proclaimed. “In Marlborough, they found housing, employment, education, and a place in the community.”

The John Brown Bell at its former home on the G.A.R. building in Marlborough

“In the late 1960s, the G.A.R. building was considered beyond repair and it was torn down,” Brodeur explained. “A group of citizens arranged to build the present tower on Union Common in 1968.”

In 1978 there was a tenth anniversary celebration of the bell’s relocation. One of the bell ringers at the ceremony was the granddaughter of 1st Lt. David L. Brown, one of the Union soldiers who was responsible for the bell coming to Marlborough. More recently, the bell was rung on October 16, 2009, the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.

“The bell that sits at the Union Common is a national treasure with national symbolism,” said Brodeur.

Photos/courtesy Marlborough Historical Society