JOHN BROWN at HARPER'S FERRY
Whether one considers John Brown a madman or a saint, a martyr or a criminal, he made his mark on American history. Here is an excerpt on Brown from James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, (2nd ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992) page 119:
Meanwhile news of the affair spread quickly. Local citizens and nearby militia companies mobilized on October 17. They captured the bridges across the Potomac and Shenandoah, cutting off Brown's escape, and drove the raiders out of the armory, the arsenal, and the rifle works. Three local men (including a free black) and several of Brown's men, including two of his sons, were killed or mortally wounded in the fighting. Seven raiders escaped (two were later captured) and the rest were driven into the stout fire-engine house, where Brown and the remaining four unwounded invaders made their last stand. During the night of October 17-18 a detachment of U.S. marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart surrounded the engine house. Next morning, Brown having refused to surrender, the marines stormed and carried the building with the loss of one man. They killed two more raiders and wounded Brown.
Thirty-six hours after it began, John Brown's war to liberate the slaves was over. Seventeen men had been killed, including ten raiders. Brown and his six captured confederates would eventually be hanged. Not a single slave had voluntarily joined the insurrection. Brown had left behind in the Maryland farmhouse a suitcase full of correspondence with the Secret Six and other Northern sympathizers. When this was captured and publicized, the Secret Six (except Higginson, who defiantly stood his ground) went into hiding or fled to Canada. Some of them later testified before a congressional committee, but none was indicted as an accessory.
In one sense the Harpers Ferry raid was a tragic, wretched failure. But in a larger sense, perhaps, if Brown's goal was to provoke a violent confrontation and liberate the slaves, he succeeded beyond his dreams. There is some evidence that Brown realized this—that he anticipated a martyrdom that would translate him from madman to saint in the eyes of many Northerners while it provoked fear and rage in the South that would hasten the final showdown. During his swift trial by the state of Virginia for murder, treason, and insurrection, Brown discouraged all schemes to cheat the hangman's rope by forcible rescue or pleas of insanity. "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose," he told family and friends.* During the month between Brown's sentencing on November 2 and his execution December 2, his demeanor won the admiration of millions in the North. He faced death with dignity. Of him it could truly be said that nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it. The peroration of his speech to the court upon his sentencing became an instant classic."
*See also Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
"John Brown's Body" became a song of Union soldiers marching south.
From: U.S. Senate, Report on the Invasion at Harper's Ferry, 1859
As to the attack itself at Harper's Ferry, the committee find that Brown first appeared in that neighborhood early in July, 1859. He came there under the assumed name of Isaac Smith, attended by two of his sons and a son-in-law. He gave out in the neighborhood that he was a farmer from New York, who desired to rent or purchase land in that vicinity, with a view to agricultural pursuits, and soon afterwards rented a small farm on the Maryland side of the river, and some four or five miles from Harper's Ferry, having on it convenient houses, and began farming operations in a very small way. He had little or no intercourse with the people of the country; and when questioned through the curiosity of his neighbors, stated further that he was accustomed to mining operations, and expected to find deposits of metal in the adjacent mountains. He lived in an obscure manner, and attracted but little attention, and certainly no suspicion whatever as to his ulterior objects. Whilst there, he kept some two or three of his party, under assumed names, at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, who there received, and from time to time forwarded to him, the arms of different kinds of which he was subsequently found in possession. Cook, one of his men spoken of above, it appears, had resided at Harper's Ferry and its neighborhood for some twelve months before Brown appeared, pursuing various occupations. He left the Ferry a few days before the attack was made, and joined Brown at his country place. The whole number assembled with Brown at the time of the invasion were twenty-one men, making with himself in all twenty-two.
On Sunday night, the ]6th of October, 1859, between 11 and 12 o'clock at night, Brown, attended by probably eighteen of his company, crossed the bridge connecting the village of Harper's Ferry with the Maryland shore, and, on reaching the Virginia side, proceeded immediately to take possession of the buildings of the armory and arsenal of the United States. These men were armed, each, with a Sharp's rifled carbine, and with revolving pistols. The inhabitants of the village asleep, the presence of this party was not known until they appeared and demanded admittance at the gate leading to the public works, which was locked. The watchman in charge states that on his refusal to admit them, the gate was opened by violence and the party entered, made him prisoner, and established themselves immediately in a strong brick building used as an engine-house, with a room for the watchmen adjoining it. They brought with them a wagon, ,with one horse, containing arms and some prepared torches.
The invasion thus silently commenced, was as silently conducted, none of the inhabitants having been aroused. Armed parties were then stationed at corners of the streets. Their next movement was to take possession, by detached parties of three or four, of the arsenal of the United States, where the public arms were chiefly deposited, a building not far from the enginehouse; and by another party, of the workshops and other buildings of the armory, about half a mile off, on the Shenandoah river, called "Hall's rifle works." These dispositions made, an armed party was sent into the adjoining country, with a view to the seizure of two or three of the principal inhabitants, with such of their slaves as might be found, and to bring them to Harper's Ferry (in the language of Brown) as "hostages"; Cook, who had become well acquainted with the country around Harper's Ferry, acting as their guide. ...
When daylight came, as the inhabitants left their houses, consisting chiefly of workmen and others employed in the public works, on their way to their usual occupations, and unconscious of what had occurred during the night, they were seized in the streets by Brown's men and carried as prisoners to the engine-house, until, with those previously there, they amounted to some thirty or forty in number. Pikes were put in the hands of such of the slaves as they bad taken, and they were kept under the eyes of their captors, as sentinels, near the buildings they occupied. But their movements being conducted at night, it was not until the morning was well advanced that the presence and character of the party was generally known in the village.
The nearest towns to Harper's Ferry were Charlestown, distant some ten miles, and Martinsburg, about 20. As soon as information could reach those points, the citizens assembled, hurriedly enrolled themselves into military bands, and with such arms as they could find, proceeded to the Ferry. Before their arrival, however, it would seem that some four or five of the marauders, who were stationed at "Hall’s rifle works," were driven out by the citizens of the village, and either killed or captured. In the course of the day, an attack was made on the engine and watch-house by those of the armed citizens of the adjoining country who had thus hurriedly arrived, and the prisoners in the watch-house, adjoining the engine-house, were liberated. The attacking parties were fired on by the marauders in the engine-house, and some were severely wounded. It should have been stated that during the night Brown selected ten of those whom he considered the principal men of his prisoners, and carried them into the engine-house, where they were detained. The rest thus left in the watch-house were those who were liberated during the attack spoken of. The engine-house is a strong building, and was occupied by Brown, with seven or eight of his men. ...
To conclude this narrative, it appears that as soon as intelligence could be conveyed to Washington of the state of things at Harper's Ferry, the marines on duty at the navy-yard were ordered to the scene of action, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, of the army. ...
Colonel Lee, it will be seen, found it necessary to carry the house by storm, the party within refusing to surrender except on terms properly held inadmissible. In this affair one marine was killed, and another slightly wounded.
Such, it is believed, are succinctly the facts attending this great outrage; and the committee find in response to so much of the resolutions of the Senate, that the armory and other public works of the United States were in the possession and under the control of his hostile party more than thirty hours; that besides the resistance offered by them to the military force of Virginia, they resisted by force the lawful authority of the United States sent there to dispossess them, killing one, and wounding another of the troops of the United States, and as shown that, before they were thus overpowered, they killed in the streets three of the citizens of Virginia who were alone and not even in military array, beside the negro who was killed by them on their first arrival....
In answer to the inquiry contained in the third resolution of the series, "Whether such invasion and seizure was made under color of any organization, intended to subvert the government of any of the States of the Union, what was the character and extent of such organization, and whether any citizens of the United States, not present, were implicated therein, or accessory thereto, by contributions of money, arms, munitions, or otherwise," the committee report: ...
... It clearly appeared that the scheme of Brown was [to] take with him comparatively but few men, but those had been carefully trained by military instruction previously, and were to act as officers. For his military force be relied, very clearly, on inciting insurrection amongst the slaves, who he supposed would flock to him as soon as it became known that he had entered the State and had been able to retain his position-an expectation to no extent realized, though it was owing alone to the loyalty and well-affected disposition of the slaves that he did not succeed in inciting a servile war, with its necessary attendants of rapine and murder of all sexes, ages, and conditions. It is very certain from the proofs before the committee, that not one of the captured slaves, although arms were placed in their bands, attempted to use them; but on the contrary, as soon as their safety would admit, in the absence of their captors, their arms were thrown away and they hastened back to their homes.
It is shown that Brown brought with him for this expedition arms sufficient to have placed an effective weapon in the hands of not less than 1,500 men; besides which, had he succeeded in obtaining the aid he looked to from the slaves, he had entirely under his control all the arms of the United States deposited in the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. After his capture, beside the arms he brought in the wagon to the Ferry, there were found on the Maryland side, where he had left them, 200 Sharp's rifled carbines, and 200 revolver pistols, packed in the boxes of the manufacturers, with 900 or 1,000 pikes, carefully and strongly made, the blade of steel being securely riveted to a handle about five feet in length; many thousand percussion caps in boxes, and ample stores of fixed ammunition, besides a large supply of powder in kegs, and a cbest that contained hospital and other military stores, beside a quantity of extra clothing for troops.
For an answer to the inquiry, how far "any citizens of the United States, not present, were implicated therein or accessory thereto by contributions of money, arms, munitions, or otherwise," the committee deem it best to refer to the evidence which accompanies this report. It does not appear that such contributions were made with actual knowledge of the use for which they were designed by Brown, although it does appear that money was freely contributed by those styling themselves friends of this man Brown, and friends alike of what they styled "the cause of freedom," (of which they claimed him to be an especial apostle,) without inquiry as to the way in which the money would be used by him to advance such pretended cause....
. . . With such elements at work, unchecked by law and not rebuked but encouraged by public opinion, with money freely contributed and placed in irresponsible hands, it may easily be seen how this expedition to excite servile war in one of the States of the Union was got up, and it may equally be seen bow like expeditions may certainly be anticipated in future whenever desperadoes offer themselves to carry them into execution. ... It may not become the committee to suggest a duty in those States to provide by proper legislation against machinations by their citizens or within their borders destructive of the peace of their confederate republics; but it does become them fully to expose the consequences resulting from the present license there existing, because the peace and integrity of the Union is necessarily involved in its continuance.
From John Brown, Last Speech in Court, November 2, 1859
I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say.
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 clean 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.
I have another objection: and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case),—had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class,—and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to 'remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.' I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done-as I have always freely admitted I have done-in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. 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! . . .
Letter of John Brown
My Dear Friend E.B. of R.I. May the Lord reward you a thousandfold for the kind feeling you express toward me; but more especially for your fidelity to the 'poor that cry, and those that have no help.' For this I am a prisoner in bonds. It is solely my own fault, in a military point of view, that we met with our disaster. I mean that I mingled with our prisoners and so far sympathized with them and their families that I neglected my duty in other respects. But God's will, not mine, be done.
You know that Christ once armed Peter. So also in my case I think he put a sword into my hand, and there continued so long as he saw best, and then kindly took it from me. I mean when I first went to Kansas. I wish you could know with what cheerfulness I am now wielding the 'sword of the Spirit' on the right hand and on the left. I bless God that it proves 'mighty to the pulling down of strongholds.' I always loved my Quaker friends, and I commend to their kind regard my poor bereaved widowed wife and my daughters-in-law, whose husbands fell at my side ... I do not feel conscious of guilt in taking up arms; and had it been in behalf of the rich and powerful, the intelligent, the great (as men count greatness), or those who form enactments to suit themselves and corrupt others, or some of their friends, that I interfered, suffered, sacrificed, and fell, it would have been doing very well. But enough of this. These light afflictions, which endure but a moment, shall but work for me 'a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.' ... Farewell. God will surely attend to his own cause in the best possible way and time, and he will not forget the work of his own hands.
Your friend, JOHN BROWN.
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