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History on the Road: Crossroads of a Movement in a Field

Located in Charles Town, WV, there is a side yard located within an iron fence. Upon the plot of grass are scattered medium-sized trees, each surrounded by various plants and foilage, all of which appears ordinary and normal.

To the south stands a large, 2 1/2 story brick house - still today occupied by private residents - that draws your attention.

Built in 1891, the Victorian architecture brings attention to the house for its historical significance, especially given its age. Yet, despite the prominence of the 131-year-old house, it is the yard the house overlooks that draws visitors.

On December 2, 1859, 1500 militia members, called there by Virginia governor Henry Wise, were there to make sure justice was carried out. For, an execution was to be held.

Among those standing guard were philosophy professor Thomas A. Jackson, who led cadets from Virginia Military Institute to the field in Charles Town. Jackson would later be known as Stonewall, due to his heroics at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Behind Jackson was Edmund Ruffin, who had borrowed a uniform in order to get a closer look at the proceedings. Ruffin would go on to be among those firing the first shots at Ft. Sumter.

Another man in uniform had joined the Richmond Grays specifically to watch the hanging. "I looked at the traitor and terrorizer with unlimited, undeniable contempt," said John Wilkes Booth, later to be the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

Outside of those standing guard, no members of the public were allowed to attend the proceedings.

Life came to a halt in Charles Town, at the hour the hanging occured. Not just in this town, but in others across the Union. In the North, church bells tolled in mourning at the hour the order was carried out. In the South, celebrations were held.

Writers such as Henry David Thoreau hailed the executed as an "angel of light". Frederick Douglass said of the event, "The time for compromises was gone, the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union, and the clash of arms was at hand.”

In this field, now a fenced-in yard, John Brown became a martyr for the abolitionist movement, and the country had reached another crossroads on the road to the eventual Civil War, that would begin 16 months later.

But, about the house, that overlooks the yard in which the hanging took place. It is the Gibson-Todd House, built by John Thomas Gibson, who, as a colonel, led the first armed response against Brown and his co-conspirators at Harper's Ferry, VA (now West Virginia)

When the Jefferson County jail that housed Brown was torn down, Gibson asked for some of the stones from which he built a monument to the event in that occured in his side yard.

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