A new Springfield Armory exhibit examines the controversial Shays’ Rebellion and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry
Aaron Dwight Stephens was born in Connecticut in 1831. As a young man, he ran away to join the army and served in the Mexican War — until he was sent to jail for threatening the life of an officer. Stephens escaped from prison, however, and relocated to the Kansas Territory during the violent pro- versus anti-slavery pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas. There he joined up with abolitionist John Brown. Later, Stephens traveled with Brown and his band to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia) and participated in Brown’s failed attempt to take over the arsenal and end slavery in the United States by distributing weapons to slaves throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
Brown and his men were famously defeated by troops led by soon-to-be Confederate war hero Colonel Robert E. Lee. Despite being shot four times during the raid, Stephens survived the battle — only to be sentenced to death by hanging.
Today, the rifle Stephens used in the attack at Harpers Ferry sits behind a glass case in the Springfield Armory, part of the new exhibit Arsenals Under Attack! Daniels Shays’ Assault on Springfield and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, which runs through March 22, 2015.
“Stephens survived just long enough to get hanged,” Springfield Armory curator Alex MacKenzie tells me as we look at the glass case. Below his rifle, Stephens stares back at us from an old, black-and-white photo.
Arsenals Under Attack! explores the controversy and impact of both raids, not just through objects and images, but also via period quotes responding to each event. The space in the armory occupied by the exhibit is small — a mere 250 or so square feet — but the information contains much to digest and ponder.