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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
John Brown and the Raid Upon Harper's Ferry
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The first blood shed in the war between freedom and slavery was that spilled upon the soil of Kansas. In this conflict one of the most active and earnest of the Free State party was the afterwards famous John Brown, a man whose hatred of slavery reached the height of fanaticism. Four of his sons had settled in Kansas, near the site of the village of Osawatomie, in 1854. Finding themselves greatly harassed by the invading Missourians, they wrote to their father for arms. Instead of sending them, he brought them, and quickly placed himself at the head of an armed opposition to the invaders.

On August 30, 1856, the village of Osawatomie was attacked by a large body of well-armed Missourians. It was defended by about thirty Free State men. John Brown led this little party, and posted them in an advantageous position on the banks of the Osage River. In the fight that ensued the invaders suffered severely, while the defenders lost but five or six, one of Brown's sons being killed. His party was driven out, and the village burned. Six weeks after, another encounter took place, near Lawrence, in which Brown succeeded in repelling a greatly outnumbering force of assailants.

He afterwards returned to the East, where he held conferences with the leading abolitionists, to some of whom he made known a purpose to invade Virginia, with the design of arousing the slaves to an effort to obtain their freedom. A committee was appointed to procure the means for this enterprise. Shortly after Brown held a secret convention of white and black abolitionists at Chatham, Canada, which adopted a "Provisional Constitution" embodying regulations for the proposed invasion. In a meeting of the committee, on May 24, 1858, it was agreed to raise funds and to supply Brown with rifles. As nothing could be done at that time, he returned to Kansas, for the purpose of aiding the Free State settlers. Here, learning that a family of slaves, just beyond the Missouri border, were about to be sold and sent to Texas, he invaded that State with twenty men, and liberated these and some others. During this raid a Missourian, who had resisted the invaders, was killed. This event roused a strong feeling of indignation, the more moderate Free State men disavowed all sympathy with the act, and Brown soon found Kansas too hot to hold him. He left the Territory in January, 1859, accompanied by four white men and three negroes, with some women and children. He was sharply pursued by thirty pro-slavery men from Lecompton. Brown took possession of two log huts, and faced his adversaries, who were soon joined by twelve additional men from Atchison. On these forty-two Brown and his seven companions made a sudden sally, when the assailants turned and fled without firing a shot,-probably aware of the fact that reinforcements were hastening to Brown's aid. Four only of them stood their ground. These were made prisoners, and forced to deliver their horses to Brown's negroes. At this they swore so profusely that the stern old Puritan ordered them to kneel and pray, his presented pistol overcoming their scruples against this exercise. They swore no more, though he held them prisoners for five days, compelling them, by the same potent argument, to kneel and pray night and morning.

On reaching the East again he received from the secret committee about two thousand dollars. The whole amount raised for the expedition was about four thousand dollars in money and nearly twice that value in arms, most of it given with full knowledge of the purpose intended. Being now prepared for the execution of his desperate scheme, Brown repaired to Harper's Ferry, near which he rented, under the name of Smith, three unoccupied houses on a farm. Here he was gradually joined by the companions whom he had enlisted for the enterprise. Most of these kept out of sight during the day, while arms and munitions were brought from Chambersburg in well-secured boxes. The time originally fixed for the assault on Harper's Ferry was the night of October 24, 1859, but it was made on the 17th, for reasons satisfactory to the leader. The arsenal at this place held a large store of government arms, on which account, and probably from its natural strength, it was selected as a good central point for the rallying of the slaves who Brown must have felt assured would immediately join him. An account of the circumstances which followed we select from the historical work of a prominent advocate of anti-slavery, the "American Conflict" of Horace Greeley.]

On Saturday, the 15th, a council was held, and a plan of operations discussed. On Sunday evening another council was held, and the programme of the chief unanimously approved. He closed it with these words: "And now, gentlemen, let me press this one thing upon your minds. You all know how dear life is to you, and how dear your lives are to your friends; and, in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of any one if you can possibly avoid it; but, if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it." ..

The forces with which Brown made his attack consisted of seventeen white and five colored men, though it is said that others who escaped assisted outside, by cutting the telegraph-wires and tearing up the railroad-track. The entrance of this petty army into Harper's Ferry on Sunday evening, October 16th, seems to have been effected without creating alarm. They first rapidly extinguished the lights of the town, then took possession of the Armory buildings, which were only guarded by three watchmen, whom, without meeting resistance or exciting alarm, they seized and locked up in the guard-house. It is probable that they were aided, or, at least, guided, by friendly negroes belonging in the village. At half-past ten the watchman at the Potomac bridge was seized and secured. At midnight his successor, arriving, was hailed by Brown's sentinels, but ran, one shot being fired at him from the bridge. He gave the alarm, but still nothing stirred. At a quarter-past one the western train arrived, and its conductor found the bridge guarded by armed men. He and others attempted to walk across, but were turned back by presented rifles. One man, a negro, was shot in the back, and died next morning. The passengers took refuge in the hotel, and remained there several hours, the conductor properly refusing to pass the train over, though permitted, at three o'clock, to do so.

A little after midnight the house of Colonel Washington was visited by six of Brown's men, under Captain Stevens, who captured the colonel, seized his arms, horses, etc., and liberated his slaves. On their return Stevens and his party visited the house of Mr. Alstadt and his son, whom they captured, and freed their slaves. These, with each male citizen as he appeared in the street, were confined in the Armory until they numbered between forty and fifty. Brown informed his prisoners that they could be liberated on condition of writing to their friends to send a negro apiece as ransom. At daylight the train proceeded, Brown walking over the bridge with the conductor. Whenever any one asked the object of their captors, the uniform answer was, "To free the slaves;" and when one of the workmen, seeing an armed guard at the Arsenal gate, asked by what authority they had taken possession of the public property, he was answered, "By the authority of God Almighty!"

The passenger-train that sped eastward from Harper's Ferry, by Brown's permission, in the early morning of Monday, October 17th, left that place completely in the military possession of the insurrectionists. They held, without dispute, the Arsenal, with its offices, workshops, and grounds. Their sentinels stood on guard at the bridges and principal corners, and were seen walking up and down the streets. Every workman who ignorantly approached, the Armory, as day dawned, was seized and imprisoned, with all other white males who seemed capable of making any trouble. By eight o'clock the number of prisoners had been swelled to sixty-odd, and the work was still proceeding.

But it was no longer entirely one-sided. The white Virginians, who had arms, and who remained unmolested in their houses, prepared to use them. Soon after day- break, as Brown's guards were bringing two citizens to a halt, they were fired on by a man named Turner, and, directly afterwards, by a grocer named Boerly, who was instantly killed by the return fire. Several Virginians soon obtained possession of a room overlooking the Armory gates, and fired thence at the sentinels who guarded them, one of whom fell dead, and another -- Brown's son Watson -- was mortally wounded. Still, throughout the forenoon, the liberators remained masters of the town.

[Whatever the expectations of the invaders, they had already failed. The negroes whom they must have looked for to flock to their standard did not come. To remain in that position was suicidal. No hope was left but in flight. Yet Brown held his ground. Meanwhile, the country was rising.]

Half an hour after noon a militia force, one hundred strong, arrived from Charlestown, the county seat, and were rapidly disposed so as to command every available exit from the place. In taking the Shenandoah bridge they killed on of the insurgents, and captured William Thompson unwounded. The rifle-works were next attacked, and speedily carried, being defended by five insurgents only. These attempted to cross the river, and four of them succeeded in reaching a rock in the middle of it, whence they fought with two hundred Virginians, who lined the banks, until two of them were dead and a third mortally wounded, when the fourth surrendered.

[The fight continued during the day, men being killed on both sides. The Virginia militia was being hourly reinforced, and Brown, finding himself strongly beleaguered, retreated to the engine-house, where he repulsed his assailants, who lost two killed and six wounded.]

Still militia continued to pour in, the telegraph and rail-road having been completely repaired, so that the government at Washington, Governor Wise at Richmond, and the authorities at Baltimore were in immediate communication with Harper's Ferry, and hurrying forward troops from all quarters to overwhelm the remaining handful of insurgents, whom terror and rumor had multiplied to twenty times their actual number. At five P. M. Captain Simms arrived, with militia from Maryland, and completed the investment of the Armory buildings, whence eighteen prisoners had already been liberated upon the retreat of Brown to the engine-house. Colonel Baylor commanded in chief. The firing ceased at nightfall. Brown offered to liberate his prisoners upon condition that his men should be permitted to cross the bridge in safety, which was refused. Night found Brown's forces reduced to three unwounded whites besides himself, with perhaps half a dozen negroes from the vicinity. Eight of the insurgents were already dead; another lay dying beside the survivors; two were captives mortally wounded, and one other unhurt. Around the few survivors were fifteen hundred armed, infuriated foes. Half a dozen of the party, who had been sent out at early morning by Brown to capture slave-holders and liberate slaves, were absent, and unable, even if willing, to join their chief. They fled during the night to Maryland and Pennsylvania; but most of them were ultimately captured. During that night Colonel [Robert E.] Lee, with ninety United States marines and two pieces of artillery, arrived, and took possession of the Armory ground, very close to the engine-house.

Brown, of course, remained awake and alert through the night, discomfited and beyond earthly hope, but perfectly cool and calm. Said Governor Wise, in a speech at Richmond soon after, "Colonel Washington said that Brown was the coolest man he ever saw in defying death and danger. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand, held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm, and to sell their lives as dearly as possible." ..

At seven in the morning, after a parley which resulted in nothing, the marines advanced to the assault, broke in the door of the engine-house by using a ladder as a battering-ram, and rushed into the building. One of the defenders was shot, and two marines wounded; but the odds were too great; in an instant all resistance was over. Brown was struck in the face with a sabre and knocked down, after which the blow was several times repeated, while a soldier ran a bayonet twice into the old man's body. All the insurgents, it is said, would have been killed on the spot, had the Virginians been able to distinguish them with certainty from their prisoners. ..

On Wednesday evening, October 19th, the four surviving prisoners were conveyed to the jail at Charlestown under an escort of marines. Brown and Stevens, badly wounded, were taken in a wagon; Green and Coppoc, unhurt, walked between files of soldiers, followed by hundreds, who at first cried, "Lynch them!" but were very properly shamed into silence by Governor Wise.

[The legal proceedings which followed, and the conviction and sentence to death of Brown and his companions, have been complained of as unduly hastened and unfairly conducted, yet with little warrant. They were what might have been expected anywhere under similar circumstances of excitement.]

Brown's conduct throughout commanded the admiration of his bitterest enemies. When his papers were brought into court to be identified, he said, "I will identify any of my handwriting, and save all trouble. I am ready to face the music." When a defence of insanity was suggested rather than interposed, he repelled it with indignation. [When brought into court to be sentenced, he said,] "In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted,--the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clear thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection... Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave-country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done." ..

The 2d of December was the day appointed for his execution. Nearly three thousand militia were early on the ground. Fears of a forcible rescue or of a servile insurrection prevented a large attendance of citizens. Cannon were so planted as to sweep every approach to the jail and to blow the prisoner into shreds upon the first intimation of tumult. Virginia held her breath until she heard that the old man was dead. ..

He [Brown] walked out of the jail at eleven o'clock,--an eye-witness said, "with a radiant countenance, and the step of a conqueror." His face was even joyous, and it has been remarked that probably his was the lightest heart in Charlestown that day. A black woman, with a little child in her arms, stood by the door. He stopped a moment, and, stooping, kissed the child affectionately. Another black woman, with a child, as he passed along, exclaimed, "God bless you, old man! I wish I could help you; but I can't." He looked at her with a tear in his eye. He mounted the wagon beside his jailer, Captain Avis, who had been one of the bravest of his captors, who had treated him very kindly, and to whom he was profoundly grateful. The wagon was instantly surrounded by six companies of militia. Being asked, on the way, if he felt any fear, he replied, "It has been a characteristic of me from infancy not to suffer from physical fear. I have suffered a thousand times more from bashfulness than from fear." The day was clear and bright, and he remarked, as he rode, that the country seemed very beautiful. Arrived at the gallows, he said, "I see no citizens here; where are they?" "None but the troops are allowed to be present," was the reply. "That ought not to be," said he: "citizens should be allowed to be present as well as others." He bade adieu to some acquaintances at the foot of the gallows, and was first to mount the scaffold. His step was still firm, and his bearing calm, yet hopeful. The hour having come, he said to Captain Avis, "I have no words to thank you for all your kindness to me." His elbows and ankles being pinioned, the white cap drawn over his eyes, the hangman's rope adjusted around his neck, he stood waiting for death. "Captain Brown," said the sheriff, "you are not standing on the drop. Will you come forward?" "I can't see," was his firm answer; "you must lead me." The sheriff led him forward to the centre of the drop. "Shall I give you a handkerchief, and let you drop it as a signal?" "No; I am ready at any time; but do not keep me needlessly waiting." In defiance of this reasonable request, he was kept standing thus several minutes, while a military parade and display of readiness to repel an imaginary foe were enacted. The time seemed an hour to the impatient spectators; even the soldiers began to murmur, "Shame!" At last the order was given, the rope cut with a hatchet, and the trap fell, but so short a distance that the victim continued to struggle and to suffer for a considerable time. Being at length duly pronounced dead, he was cut down after thirty-eight minutes' suspension. His body was conveyed to Harper's Ferry, and delivered to his widow, by whom it was conveyed to her far Northern home, among the mountains he so loved, and where he was so beloved.

Horace Greeley

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