The Story Of Heyward Shepherd, The Harpers Ferry’s Faithful Slave



Heyward Shepherd was an African-American who was killed by John Brown’s raiders on October 17, 1859, at Harpers Ferry.

Shepherd worked as a porter at the local train station and owned property in nearby Winchester, Virginia. Heyward Shepherd, a free black man, was murdered by Brown and his men. Shepherd’s home was in Winchester, Virginia, about thirty miles away in Frederick County, where he owned property and lived with his wife and children.

Shepherd spent most of his time away from home in Harpers Ferry, where he worked as a porter at the local train station. Shepherd attended the railroad office when the station agent was absent, in addition to handling baggage. Shepherd was widely respected by those who knew him, according to all accounts. Shepherd was described as “always remarkably civil” and “very trustworthy” by one prominent county resident. Another man described Shepherd as a “courteous, attentive, honest, and industrious” a man who was “respected by all.

Shepherd was at the train station when John Brown approached Harpers Ferry on the evening of October 16. The precise details of how and why Shepherd’s life intersected with those of the raiders vary according to accounts. They all agreed, however, that shortly after the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) express train arrived from Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), Shepherd walked to the Potomac River railroad bridge and was confronted by two of Brown’s men. He ignored their order to stop and turned to flee, but the armed raiders opened fire, striking Shepherd in the back just below the heart.

Despite his injuries, Shepherd returned to the railroad office, where he remained “in great agony” for nearly half a day before succumbing to his injuries early on October 17. Newspapers covered the shooting of Shepherd after the raid. According to one report, John Brown had a purpose but refused to join the raiders, implying that his refusal to obey their orders demonstrated his opposition to their goals. Years later, a former Harpers Ferry resident suggested Shepherd may have initially assisted the raiders but later changed his mind when the danger and likelihood of failure became clear.

Shepherd’s deathbed explanation that he went to the bridge to look for a missing railroad watchman suggests that he was shot by men he did not recognize and for whom he had no idea what they were up to.

In October 1859, Militia groups and white citizens accompanied Shepherd’s body through Winchester to its final resting place. They did so because they believed a black man had knowingly refused to join Brown’s anti-slavery campaign. The local newspaper in Shepherd’s hometown highlighted Shepherd’s race in its coverage of the funeral, specifically reminding readers that Brown’s first victim was a black man.

Following his death as a free black man killed by abolitionists during the raid, he became a symbol for those who believed John Brown’s mission was flawed because he was shot while on the job. He also represented blacks’ devotion to the South.

When Frederick Douglass delivered an oration on Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1881, the editors of the Virginia Free Press declared that “the first victim of the old murderer was an inoffensive, industrious, and respected colored man, brutally shot down without provocation or excuse.” When blacks voted for the Republican party “almost to a man” in 1884, William Gallaher, now the sole editor of the Virginia Free Press, declared that he would not let blacks forget the first victim of Brown’s raid.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans decided to erect a Shepherd memorial in 1920. Opponents were concerned about the monument’s intent, which was then known as the Faithful Slave Memorial, and delayed its placement at Harpers Ferry for a decade. On October 10, 1931, the Heyward Shepherd Memorial was dedicated near the site of Shepherd’s fatal wounding.


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