Chapter VIII - John Brown's Raid

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 1 State History
Pages 120-126

The attempt of John Brown to free the slaves; his siezure of the United States armory at Harper's Ferry; his capture, trial and execution, form a page in West Virginia's history in which the whole country, and in a lesser degree the whole civilized world, felt an interest at the time of its occurrence; and that interest will long continue. The siezure of the government property at that place by an ordinary mob would have created a stir; but the incident would have lost its interest in a short time, and at a short distance from the scene of disturbance. But Brown's accomplices were no ordinary mob; and the purpose in view gave his attempt its great importance. In fact, much more importance was attached to the raid than it deserved. Viewed in the light of history, it is plain that Brown could not have freed many slaves, nor could he have caused any wide-spread uprising among them. The military resources of the government, or even of the state of Virginia, were sufficient to stamp out in short order any attempted insurrection at that time. There were not enough people willing and ready to assist the attempt. There were too many willing and ready to put it down. Brown achieved about as much success as he could reasonably expect, and his attempt at emancipating slaves ran its logical course. But the extreme sensitiveness of the slave holders and their fears that abolitionists would incite an uprising, caused Brown's bold dash to be given an importance at the time far beyond what it deserved.

John Brown was a man of great courage; not easily excited; cool and calculating; not bloodthirsty, but willing to take the life of any one who stood between him and the accomplishment of his purpose. He has been very generally regarded as a fanatic, who had followed an idea until he became a monomaniac. It is difficult to prove this view of him to be incorrect; yet, without doubt, his fanaticism was of a superior and unusual kind. The dividing line between fanatics and the highest order of reformers, those who live before their time, who can see the light touching the peaks beyond the valleys and shadows in which other men are walking, is not always clearly marked. It is not for us to say to which class of men Brown belonged; and certainly it is not given us to set him among the blind fanatics. If he must be classified, we run less risk of error if we place him with those whose prophetic vision outstrips their physical strength; with the sentinel on the watch tower of Sier, of whom Isaiah speaks.

What he hoped to accomplish, and died in an attempt to accomplish, was brought about in less than five years from his death. If he failed to free the slaves, they were speedily freed by that sentiment of which he was an extreme representative. It cannot be said that Brown's efforts were the immediate, nor even the remote, cause which emancipated the black race in the United States; but beyond doubt the affair at Harper's Ferry had a powerful influence in two directions, either of which worked toward emancipation. The one influence operated in the North upon those who desired emancipation, stimulating them to renewed efforts; the other influence had its effect among the Southern slave owners, kindling their anger and their fear, and urging them to acts by which they hoped to strengthen their grip upon the institution of slavery, but which led them to war against the government, and their hold on slavery was shaken loose forever. John Brown was born in Connecticut, went to Kansas with his family and took part in the civil war in that state which raged between the slave faction and those opposed to the spread of slavery. Brown affiliated with the latter, and fought in more than one armed encounter. He was one of the boldest leaders, fearless in fight, stubborn in defense, and relentless in pursuit. He hated slavery with an inappeasable hatred. He belonged to the party in the North called abolitionists, whose avowed object was to free the slaves. He was perhaps more radical than the majority of that radical party. They hoped to accomplish their purpose by creating a sentiment in its favor. Brown appears to have been impatient at this slow process. He believed in uniting force and argument, and he soon became the leader of that wing of the ultra abolitionists. On May 8, 1858, a secret meeting was held in Chatham, Canada, which was attended by delegates from different states, and from Canada. The object was to devise means of freeing the slaves. It is not known exactly what the proceeding's of the meeting were, except that a constitution was outlined for the United States, or for such states as might be taken possession of. Brown was commander-in-chief; one of his companions named Kagi was secretary of war. Brown issued several military commissions.

Harper's Ferry was selected as the point for the uprising. It was to be seized and held as a place of rendezvous for slaves from Maryland and Virginia, and when a sufficient number had assembled there they were to march under arms across Maryland into Pennsylvania and there disperse. The negroes were to be armed with tomahawks and spears, they not being sufficiently acquainted with firearms to use them. It was believed that the slaves would eagerly grasp the opportunity to gain their freedom, and that the movement, begun at one point, would spread and grow until slavery was stamped out. Brown no doubt incorrectly estimated the sentiment in the North in favor of emancipation by force of arms. In company with his two sons, Watson and Oliver, Brown rented a farm near Sharps burg, in Maryland, from Dr. Kennedy. This was within a few miles of Harper's Ferry, and was used as a gathering point for Brown's followers, and as a place of concealment for arms. Brown represented that his name was Anderson. He never had more than twenty~two men about the farm. From some source in the east, never certainly ascertained, arms were shipped to Brown, under the name of J. Smith & Son. The boxes were double, so that no one could suspect their contents. In this manner he received two hundred and ninety Sharp's rifles, two hundred Maynard revolvers and one thousand spears and tomahawks. Brown expected from two thousand to five thousand men, exclusive of slaves, to rise at his word and come to his assistance. In this be was mistaken. He knew that twenty-two men could not hold Harper's Ferry, and without doubt he calculated, and expected even to the last hour before capture, that his forces would rally to his assistance. When he found that they had not done so, he concluded that the blow had been struck too soon.

About ten o'clock on the night of October 16, 1859, with seventeen white men and five negroes, Brown proceeded to Harper's Ferry, overpowered the sentry on the bridge, seized the United States arsenal, in which were stored arms sufficient to equip an army took several persons prisoner and confined them in the armory; visited during the night some of the farmers in the vicinity, took them prisoner and declared freedom to their slaves; cut the telegraph wires leading from Harper's Ferry; seized an eastbound train on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, but subsequently let it proceed, after announcing that no other train would be permitted to pass through Harper's Ferry. The people in the town knew nothing of what was taking place until daybreak. At that time a negro porter at the railroad station was shot and killed because he refused to join the insurgents, and an employe at the armory was shot at when he refused to be taken prisoner. A merchant witnessed the shooting, and fired from his store at one of Brown's men. He missed, but was shot dead in return. When workmen belonging to the armory appeared at the hour for beginning their daily labors, they were arrested and confined in one of the government buildings as a prison. The village was now alarmed. The mayor of the town, Fontaine Beckham, and Captain George Turner, formerly of the United States army, appeared on the scene, and were fired upon and killed. The wires having been cut, news of the insurrection was slow in reaching the surrounding country; but during the forenoon telegrams were sent from the nearest offices. The excitement throughout the south was tremendous. The people there believed that a gigantic uprising of the slaves was at hand. The meagre information concerning the exact state of affairs at Harper's Ferry caused it to be greatly overestimated. At Washington the sensation amounted to a shock. General Robert E. Lee was ordered to the scene at once with one hundred marines.

Military companies began to arrive at Harper's Ferry from neighboring towns. The first upon the scene was Colonel Baylor's company from Charlestown. Shortly afterwards two companies arrived from Martinsburg. A desultory fire was kept up during the day, in which several persons were killed. An assault on one of the buildings held by Brown was successfully made by the militia. Four of the insurgents were killed and a fifth was made prisoner. Brown and the remainder of his men took refuge in the engine house at the armory, except four who fled and escaped to Pennsylvania. Two of them were subsequently captured. Two of Brown's men came out to hold a parley and were shot and taken prisoner. One was killed in revenge for the death of Mayor Beckham; the other was subsequently tried, convicted and hanged. About three o'clock in the afternoon of October 17, about twenty railroad men made a dash at the engine house, broke down the door and killed two of Brown's men. But they were repulsed with seven of their number wounded.

Before sunset there were more than one thousand men In Harper's Ferry under arms, having come in from the surrounding country; but no further assault was made on Brown's position that day for fear of killing the men whom he held prisoner in the building with him. That night R. E. Lee arrived from Washington with one hundred marines and two pieces of artillery. Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart was with him. Early Tuesday morning, October 18, Stuart was sent to demand an unconditional surrender, promising only that Brown and his men should be protected from immediate violence, and should have a trial under the laws of the country. Brown refused to accepted these terms, but demanded that he and his men be permitted to march out with their prisoners, cross the Potomac tin pursued. They would then free their prisoners and would escape if they could; if not, they would fight. Of course Stuart did not accept this offer. Preparations were made for an attack. The marines brought up a heavy ladder, and using it as a battering ram, broke open the door of the engine house and rushed in. Brown and his men fought till killed or overpowered. The first man who entered, named Quinn, was killed. Brown was stabbed twice with bayonets and then cut down by a sabre stroke. All his, men but two were killed or wounded. These were taken prisoner. Of the whole band of twenty-two, ten white men and three negroes were killed; three white men were wounded; two had made their escape; all the others were captured.

It was believed that Brown's injuries would prove fatal in a few hours, but he rallied. Within the next few days he was indicted for murder, and for treason against the United States. In his case the customary interval did not elapse between his indictment and his trial. He was captured October 18, and on October 26 his case was called for trial in the county court at Charlestown, in Jefferson county. Brown's attorneys asked for a continuance on the ground that the defendant was physically unable to stand trial. The motion for a continuance was denied, and the trial proceeded. Brown reclined on a cot, being unable to sit. The trial was extremely short, considering the importance of the case. Within less than three days the jury had brought in a verdict of guilty, and Brown was sentenced to be hanged December 16. Executive clemency was sought. Under the law of Virginia at that time the governor was forbidden to grant pardon to any one convicted of treason, except with the consent of the assembly. Governor Henry A. Wise notified the assembly of Brown's application for pardon. That body passed a resolution, December 7, by which it refused to interfere in Brown's behalf, and he died on the scaffold at the appointed time. Six of his companions were executed, four on the same day with their leader, and two in the following March.

The remains of Brown were taken to North Elba, New York, where Wendell Phillips pronounced a eulogy. Perhaps Brown contributed more to the emancipation of slaves by his death than by his life.

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