Slave Resistance at Antietam Iron Works

by Emilie Amt

Slave resistance has a long and honored history in our country. Leaders like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, who planned armed uprisings, are famous figures in black history. Resistance took other forms, too, from verbal confrontation to work slowdowns to sabotage. The historical record shows that all of these forms of resistance happened in Washington County, Maryland. The most dramatic example was a slave uprising—or something like an uprising—at the Antietam Iron Works near Sharpsburg, in about 1836.

Drawing of the ironworks and disabled wagons.

Several dozen enslaved men labored at the iron works, many of them married to free women of color. John Brien, the proprietor, prided himself on what he considered his good treatment of the enslaved workforce. But we get another perspective from the Rev. Thomas Henry, an A.M.E. preacher who ran a mission at the forge. He wrote that the white workers resented the blacks, and only Brien himself held the whites’ hostility in check. Henry seems to have been an eyewitness to the violent clash that took place in or around 1836.


Violence at the Works

On the fateful day, Brien was away from the works, and his white agent was in charge. Left to their own devices, the white workers attempted to tie up and whip the enslaved workers. The black men, facing this aggression, were determined not to let their white co-workers beat them. In the Rev. Henry’s words, “This caused a young [i.e., minor] insurrection…. [A] colored man that they called Stuttering Pete … caught one of the white men and threw him across the mill race. [Pete] then told me that his men could not be taken—and well he might say this, for a more powerful set of men I have never seen.”

The black men’s dramatic resistance led to escalation by the whites. In Henry’s words, “The agent then went up to Sharpsburg to bring down the militia, and when they arrived the boys [i.e., the enslaved workers] had fled to the hills and mountains, and could not be seen.” This retreat by the enslaved workers allowed time for tempers to cool.

 Drawing of the ironworks.

Peaceful Resolution

According to Henry, the black workers “stayed away from the forge and watched for the return of Mr. [Brien], their master, and when he returned he said to me, ‘Thomas, here comes my boys from the mountains and hills, all coming to me like wild cattle.’ He told the agent that no man had authority to strike any of his hands, and if they have done anything that conflicts with the law, [he would] settle that [himself]. He told me that he called his men together and settled with them as he thought best.”

When we compare this episode with other slave uprisings, both the white provocation and the quick resort to the nearby militia are typical. What made this “insurrection” unusual was its peaceful resolution. The Antietam slaves trusted John Brien to protect them from other whites, and the outcome of the event proved them right, this time. The “insurrection” was more in the nature of a labor action. These enslaved men acted spontaneously to protect themselves from a sudden assault by whites. Unlike most slave uprisings, the goal of this one was to preserve the status quo. This fact, along with the return of their powerful white protector, was also the key to its success.


Later Years

Sadly, though, John Brien turned out to be a typical enslaver in the end, and the enslaved workers’ faith in him was misplaced. In 1848, facing bankruptcy, Brien and his creditors decided to sell the iron workers. They resisted this too, asking him for their freedom instead, but Brien was indignant: “… I have always treated them most kindly, [and] this is indeed gross ingratitude… It would be a [serious] loss to me if they leave this place for Pennsylvania.”

Recent Photo of the iron works.

Maybe some of them did get away to Pennsylvania. But a man named Peter was sold; was he the powerful Stuttering Pete who had thrown a coworker across the millstream? Twenty-two other men, eight women, and eighteen children were also sold when the iron works went under. Even when they were on “good” terms with the people they legally owned, enslavers thought of slavery as a business proposition first and foremost, and they thought of enslaved people as valuable property. John Brien, who prided himself on his good treatment of the “boys” at the Antietam iron works, was no exception.


Sources and Additional Reading

  • From Slavery to Salvation: The Autobiography of the Rev. Thomas W. Henry of the A.M.E. Church. Ed. Jean Libby, Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1994.
  • Jean Libby. “African Ironmaking Culture among African American Ironworkers in Western Maryland, 1760-1850.” Unpublished MA Thesis. San Francisco State University, 1991.
  • Michael D. Thompson. The Iron Industry in Western Maryland. Privately published, 1976.
  • Elizabeth Yourtee Anderson. Catoctin Furnace: Portrait of an Iron-Making Village. Ed. Elizabeth Anderson Comer. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.
  • The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society website includes information about workers enslaved at the Catoctin Furnace.


Emilie Amt, D.Phil., is a professor of history at Hood College in Frederick, MD. She blogs about African-American, local, and medieval history at The Amt-iquary Blog at


Open House and Program Schedule 2019

Tolson’s Chapel will be open the first Saturday of every month, April-October,
from 10:00am to 4:00pm for tours and special programs. We will also be open
for tours during local special events.

April 27 – 2:30pm, Zsun-nee Miller-Matema storytelling; 3:00pm, African
American Journey Tour stop (contact for bus tour tickets
($20) and information)

May 4 – 10:00am-4:00pm, Museum Ramble Open House; 2:00pm, storytellers
Fanny Crawford, Stas’ Ziolkowski, and Renee Emanuel

May 25 – 2:00-4:00pm, Sharpsburg Memorial Day Parade Open House

June 1 – 10:00am-4:00pm, open for tours; 2:00pm, Tri-State Drum Circle

July 6 – 10:00am-4:00pm, Founder’s Day Open House; 1:00pm, Ebenezer AME
Church Choir concert of gospel and patriotic songs

August 3 – 10:00am-4:00pm, open for tours

August – 9:00am, WCAMHS meeting host site

September 7 – 10:00am-3:00pm, 4th Annual Rally Day Fundraiser; Pastor Walter
Jackson 1866 First Service reenactment; James Caldwell, pianist/singer; storytellers
Renee Emanuel and Mark Brugh; traditional fried chicken luncheon ($$)

September 14 – 10:00am-4:00pm, Antietam Battle Anniversary Open House

October 5 – 10:00am-4:00pm, open for tours

December 7 – 7:00pm, Christmas by Candlelight with Pastor Marbury, Ebenezer
AME Church of Hagerstown and TBA


First Blog Post!

by Edie Wallace

I believe it was 2002 when I first became aware of Tolson’s Chapel.  It was only six years after the death of Virginia Cook, the last member of the chapel congregation who, sadly, I never knew.  I remember my first visit to the chapel, when we opened the front door and saw the Bible still open on the lectern.  The hymn page numbers from the last service were still listed on the hymn board and hymnals were still laid out on nearly every pew.  It took my breath away and goosebumps formed on my arms as I became aware of the spiritual energy still present in the old log building.  I still get that feeling every time I open the chapel door.

Viewer is facing the chapel, which is painted red.

A view of Tolson’s Chapel in 2001.

I remain eternally thankful to the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Conference for having the foresight to seek out a preservation-minded new owner for the chapel.  And I am equally thankful to the Save Historic Antietam Foundation for taking ownership while the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel (FOTC) navigated the four-year 501(c)(3) formation process.  Fast-forward to 2018, sixteen years since that day we opened the chapel door in 2002.  The FOTC continues to grow and remains strong in our commitment to the preservation and interpretation of the historic building and its people who we have come to know and love.

Former Director Stanton stands at the podium in the chapel.

Former National Park Service Director Bob Stanton speaking at the Chapel’s rededication in 2012.

I want to use this first blog to look back on our many achievements over those sixteen years.  In all, we have received and successfully administered three Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) capital grants and two MHT African American Heritage Preservation Fund capital grants totaling over $130,000 to restore the chapel building and its adjoining cemetery.  We also received grants from the Preservation Maryland Heritage Fund and the Mary K. Bowman Fund (through the Community Foundation of Washington County) to install a beautiful informational wayside exhibit outside the chapel.  Grants from the National Park Service (through the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies) and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau helped us to establish our internet presence with a comprehensive website and a professionally designed four-panel brochure.  Grants from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area supported our 2012 Dignity of Freedom Symposium held at the Antietam National Battlefield and in 2017, helped FOTC to begin development of an educational program at Tolson’s Chapel for visiting school and youth groups.  FOTC was most recently awarded a grant from the Mary K. Bowman Fund for costumes and supplies to move forward with our planned experiential educational program.

In 2017, FOTC was recognized for our efforts to preserve Tolson’s Chapel by the Washington County Commissioners with the John Frye Historic Preservation Award.  We were additionally honored by Preservation Maryland with the 2017 Stewardship Award.  When it rains, it pours!

A View of Tolson's Chapel in 2017, after ther restoration.

A view of Tolson’s Chapel in 2017, after the restoration.

We are sincerely grateful for the support we have received from the National Park Service, manifested in various forms – from former NPS Director Robert Stanton as keynote speaker at the Tolson’s Chapel Re-Dedication in 2012, to Superintendent Tyrone Brandyburg (Harpers Ferry National Historical Park) at our 2017 Rally Day event.  Perhaps most importantly, were it not for Dr. Dean Herrin’s intrepid research and the contributions of his interns at the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies, Tolson’s Chapel might still be a forgotten shack on the back street of Sharpsburg!  Antietam National Battlefield staff, under the guidance of Superintendents John Howard and Susan Trail, have been steady supporters of the FOTC mission, sharing their time and equipment and sending visitors our way to tell “the rest of the story” following the battles of the Civil War.  In fact, the post-emancipation/Reconstruction story at Tolson’s Chapel is so important that in 2017 National Capital Region staff earmarked funds to pursue a National Historic Landmark designation for Tolson’s Chapel (still in process).

These past sixteen years have been exciting, exhausting, enlightening, and educational for me and for the FOTC board.  And while they might deny it, I know this to be true – without the steady support and participation of the FOTC board members, none of the many things we have done could have come to fruition.  Most important to us are the many friends we have made along the way.  Without our friends and donors we could not continue our mission.  Thank you all for sharing our vision and supporting our mission over these past sixteen years!  And here’s to many, many more!

Please look to this blog for periodic articles from invited contributors covering a variety of relevant subjects!

3rd Annual Rally Day Fundraiser

Contains an image of Rally Day that was published in the newspaper as well as the detailed program.

Join us for a day of music, fun, food, and a great opportunity to support the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel’s mission to preserve and interpret historic Tolson’s Chapel! This year we will feature Shana Oshiro, Executive Director of HALO, Inc. (African American women barbershop quartet) to introduce to us their “Race and #RealTalk” program (we’ll be bringing the whole group back in the 2019 season!), and Pastor Walter Jackson from the Wainwright Baptist Church in Charles Town, WVA to sing traditional common-meter hymns, Fanny Crawford will share her storytelling talents, and the Tri-State Drum Circle is returning to help us find our rhythm. We’ll have silent auction items (look for item posts in this event beginning September 1 for early bidding!) and raffles through the day, and the traditional fried chicken, pie, and ice cream Rally Day lunch fare will be available for purchase.




4th Annual Gala Fundraiser Dinner!

Please join us for our 4th Annual Gala Fundraiser Dinner, scheduled for Saturday, April 8, 2017, from 6:00-9:00pm, honoring the People of Tolson’s Chapel.  Come see our new display of historic photographs featuring historic members of the Tolson’s Chapel congregation!

The event will be held again this year at the Academy Theater Banquet Hall, 58 East Washington Street in Hagerstown, where a delicious buffet dinner will be provided by Applause Catering.  Entertainment by the always enjoyable jazz sounds of Bob Sykes on piano, joined this year by Lou Hines on bass and the return of Wanda Stewart’s soothing vocals.  Our own Renee Emanuel (FOTC board member) will regale us with some of her remarkable storytelling to cap the evening off!  Cash Raffles and Silent Auction items will help the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel raise funds for our annual budget and special programs.

Tickets are $65.00 per person ($55 if you are an FOTC member!), available via PayPal (find the link to the registration page on our home page) or by check to FOTC, P.O. Box 162, Sharpsburg, MD 21782.

Please be a Friend of Tolson’s Chapel and join us for an evening of good food, good friends, and great entertainment!

Closing out the Celebratory Year

Tolson’s Chapel Sesquicentennial Year of Special Events Coming to a Close with a Final Community Event, Christmas by Candlelight, December 10, 2016 at 7:00pm.

For More Information:

Sharpsburg, Md. – The Friends of Tolson’s Chapel (FOTC) celebrated the chapel’s


Dr. Hari Jones – photo courtesy Ron Lytle

Sesquicentennial year with a series of events held at the chapel through the spring/summer/fall season.  On October 1, 2016 FOTC hosted their penultimate event with a day-long Rally Day celebration.  With 65 people in attendance the event began with Renee Emanuel leading the audience in several joyful hymns.  Dr. Dean Herrin, Chief Historian, NPS National Capital Region, shared his thoughts on the significance of Tolson’s Chapel as a Freedmen’s Bureau school.  Dr. Hari Jones, independent historian and inspirational speaker, followed with a rousing talk entitled “Emancipate, Enfranchise, Educate:  The Role of the Church in Achieving this Social Trinity.” The son of a preacher, Dr. Jones filled the room with his booming voice and inspired all in attendance!  Following a traditional Rally Day lunch of Fried Chicken and sides (by Bonnies at the Red Byrd), pie (by Burkholder’s Bakery), and ice cream (courtesy Nutter’s), the Tri-State Drum Circle brought the group together with African rhythms.  The day came to a close with the beautiful gospel harmonies of The Spears Sisters.  It was a day no one in attendance will forget!

FOTC will finish out this celebratory year with a final community event, Christmas by Candlelight, a non-denominational service featuring several area ministers and plenty of traditional Christmas music.  This event will take place at Tolson’s Chapel on Saturday, December 10, 2016 at 7:00pm.  The chapel is currently without electricity or heat so the service will be lit by plenty of battery-powered candles and we encourage folks to dress warm!  Please join us in celebrating this joyful season in a traditional setting at Tolson’s Chapel.

Tolson’s Chapel is located at 111 E. High St. in Sharpsburg, Maryland.  For more information please contact Edie Wallace via email at


150th Anniversary Rally Day Event

rally-day-flierPlease join us for the 150th Anniversary Rally Day Event, scheduled Saturday, October 1, 2016

We are welcoming back Dr. Hari Jones as our keynote speaker, sharing his thoughts entitled: “Emancipate, Enfranchise, Educate: The Role of the Church in this Social Trinity”

Come share in traditional Rally Day fare, music, activities, tours, and even a USCT encampment!