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Civil War dispute still rings in Charleston

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- The American Civil War was fought on battlefields across the country 150 years ago, but one skirmish is still being fought and the battlefield could end up being a courtroom.

Howard Swint, 53, of Charleston, has been struggling to secure the return of the famed John Brown Bell to the Mountain State. The bell was taken from Harpers Ferry in June 1861 by a Massachusetts regiment of volunteers and has resided in the eastern Massachusetts town of Marlborough since 1892.

Swint, a real estate broker and self-proclaimed history buff, began his mission in 2004, he said.

Since he has been unable to get any response from the Massachusetts town or the John A. Rawlins Building Association, the group that owns the bell, he will soon file a motion for declaratory judgment with the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia asking that the bell be returned to Harpers Ferry.  

"As much as I regret threatening a legal path, this seems like it's the only way to get their attention," Swint said.

Swint said he recently proposed a compromise under which the bell would be shared between Marlborough and Harpers Ferry.

So far, he said, the offer has been ignored. He said he has no official response from the bell owners or the city.  

"I'm surprised by the response," Swint said. "I would have thought they would have been more forthcoming."  

The historic bell now sits in a tower in the town's Union Common.

Swint believes that the building association is a shell organization set up by the American Legion post in Marlborough to keep the bell in the town.

A person who answered the phone in the Marlborough American Legion post refused to comment on anything to do with the bell and quickly hung up on a reporter. A secretary for the Marlborough mayor's office said Mayor Nancy Stevens would not comment on the issue.

However, Gary Brown, chairman of the Marlborough Historic Commission, does not support returning the bell to Harpers Ferry. He said that the issue rears its head every few years and that he is becoming tired of speaking about the issue.

"It belongs to the American Legion post," he said.

Gary Brown, who has been on the historic commission for over 20 years, said he cannot recall anyone who has ever filed suit to have the bell returned. He also said that he does not believe Swint's suit, when filed, would have any merit.

"He has no ownership of that bell," Gary Brown said. "To me, it's just someone wasting the people's money."

The bell used to sit in the firehouse at Harpers Ferry when John Brown, a violent abolitionist, attacked the federal armory in 1859 in an attempt to steal munitions to arm southern slaves.

John Brown was ultimately captured and hanged, but not before he held out in the firehouse in Harpers Ferry where the bell used to hang.

Company I with the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers was stationed in Harpers Ferry in 1861. Members of the regiment took the bell from the firehouse and entrusted it to Elizabeth Ensminger in Williamsport, Md., said Joan Abshire, a member of the Marlborough Historical Society and an author of a book about the bell.

Ensminger buried the bell in her yard for about seven years before digging it up and hanging it in her backyard, Abshire said.

"She would ring it every time the Democrats won the election," Abshire said.

But, in 1892, survivors from the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers returned to Williamsport to retrieve the bell and bring it home. The veterans gave Ensminger $150 for the bell and other items that she had kept for the regiment since they were stationed in the area over 30 years before, Abshire said.

It was originally hung in front of the Grand Army of the Republic building in Marlborough. The bell was rung when members of the organization died, she said.   

But now, Swint thinks the bell is a national treasure that should be returned to Harpers Ferry where visitors can see it. Gary Brown disagrees, saying that the volunteers with the Massachusetts regiment saved the bell.

"The South melted down all of their bells, even church bells, to make munitions during the war," he said. "If the bell wasn't liberated it wouldn't exist now."

Abshire has lived in Marlborough all of her life. The 75-year-old said opinions on who should keep the bell differ around town.

And although she used to believe that the bell should remain in Marlborough, she has since had a change of heart.

"When I did my research I found out about how much the bell meant to these guys (13th Massachusetts)," she said. "So I thought that we should keep it here to honor their memory."

"But now I think it's a national treasure and it should be returned to Harpers Ferry," she said. "That way more people can see it."

The town's newspaper, the Marlborough Enterprise, has been publishing Swint's columns about why the bell should be returned. The local historical society also has invited him to speak at a public forum in Marlborough on the matter.

A date for the forum has not been set, Swint said.    

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.


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