Late on a summer’s night in 1892, a carriage pulled up and stopped in front of Mrs. Elizabeth Snyder’s residence in Williamsport, Maryland. Six men descended from the coach and crossed the lawn to the front door. The ‘old lady’ was asleep in bed when she heard the knocks at the door. It was 11:30 at night, who could it be at this hour? Williamsport was a small town on the Potomac River, an important stop along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. At times the characters about town could be pretty rough. She may have been a little tentative when she came to the door and asked, “Who’s there?”
“We’re looking for Mrs. Ensminger,” was the reply from the six gentlemen on the landing. “We are her ‘boys’ of 1861, James Gleason, Lysander Parker, William Alley, and others from Company I of the 13th Massachusetts.”
A smile of recognition must have crossed her face as she opened the door to welcome them. It was thirty years since they had last met. “My boys,” she cried, “what brings you here after so long a time?”
The small party of comrades explained they had traveled from Massachusetts to attend the Grand Army of the Republic National Encampment in Washington, D.C. After the event they decided to make an unscheduled visit to the town of Williamsport, fifty miles up river, where during the winter of 1861-62 they had spent four months picketing the Potomac for the Union Army. They planned to look up old friends still living in the town - but not necessarily in the middle of the night. The hotel-keeper at Williamsport was an un-reconstructed Rebel with no tolerance for 6 former Yankee soldiers seeking lodging at his establishment. When they arrived he refused to put them up. Turned away, they decided to search out Mrs. Ensminger’s house. Williamsport was a small town and they soon found their way to the large home on East Church Street.
It was a long time since the war when they had made her acquaintance. Back then, she and her husband owned and managed two or three boats on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Mrs. Ensminger was an excellent cook and the boys engaged her to bake bread for Company ‘I’, while they remained encamped nearby. From October through February the boys of the 13th Mass’ picketed strategic points along the canal, and made friends with the local population.
Surprised and happy to see her boys again, the ‘old lady’ invited them inside her home and agreed to put them all up. Her name was Snyder now, she explained. She had remarried after her first husband’s death.
Early next morning, James Gleason was down in the kitchen talking over old times with her, inquiring about people they had known when they were there. Then James asked, “Whatever happened to the bell Company ‘I’ left with you?”
“I still have the bell, I have kept it for you,” Mrs. Snyder replied. Gleason was incredulous.
In the early part of November, 1861, Captain Moses Palmer, Lieutenant William Alley, Corporal Smith, Alfred G. Howe, James Gleason, and drummer boy ‘Dixie’ Parker with other members of Company ‘I’, delivered the bell to Mrs. Ensminger and her husband for safe-keeping until called for. It was a heavy piece of equipment they had brought with them to Williamsport via canal boat, from their previous post at Harper’s Ferry. They intended to ship it home to Marlboro, Massachusetts for use at the fire department, from which many members of Company ‘I’ had enlisted, but the meager pay of the soldiers was such that they never acquired the appropriate funds to follow through. The bell was too heavy to take with them on the Spring Campaigns, so when the regiment marched away to fight the war on March 1st, 1862, the bell was left behind and soon forgotten.
Elizabeth and James stepped outside, and walked to the northeast corner of the back yard where the bell was mounted on a wood frame. A jolt of excitement rushed over Gleason as he stood in wonder and looked upon the relic. He quickly returned to the house, and called out for the others to hurry downstairs and join him in the back yard. “Come outside and see the bell!” he exclaimed. Moments later, six joyful veterans stood around the bell gazing in astonishment at their rediscovered treasure.
“I had one of my slaves bury it in the yard when Lee’s army passed through in 1862,” Mrs. Snyder explained, “for fear that they would take it.” “It remained undisturbed, for seven years; until I had it dug up and mounted here.”
Like a ghost from the past, the bell called up memories of earlier, innocent days of soldiering for the Union in 1861. They were ‘green’ volunteers when they acquired it in September, 1861, still unaware of the horrors of battle they would face soon enough. The bell also brought forth recollections of comrades now departed.
For her part in preserving the bell Mrs. Snyder was modest. The grateful veterans thanked her, and praised her loyalty to the company in holding it for them for so long.
She was unaware at the time that the bell she had carefully protected for 30 years came from the famous little Engine House at the Federal Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry; the same engine house where Abolitionist John Brown made his last stand during his infamous raid to free the slaves in October, 1859. The building was known as “John Brown’s Fort,” and this was the “John Brown” Bell.
(Next up, John Brown’s Raid.)
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