John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry
Digital History ID 1065
Who was John Brown? A fanatic, some say. A homicidal madman. A terrorist. A traitor. A hero, say others. A martyr, a color-blind egalitarian, a model of courage and self-sacrifice, a singular example of sanity in a nation awash with racism.
Was he the very model of a committed activist for social justice, or was he the forebear of Timothy McVeigh and the militant anti-abortionists?
What do we know about John Brown? He worshipped an angry, vengeful God. The biblical passage that best summed up his religious ideas is "…without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin" (Hebrews 9:22).
He was among the least racist of abolitionists. He helped abolitionist Gerritt Smith establish a community for African Americans in the Adirondack Mountains.
In business, he suffered repeated failures. He experienced many of the vicissitudes of America's emerging market economy, working as a surveyor, tanner, farmer, shepherd, cattle merchant, horse trader, land speculator, and wool broker. He experienced at least fifteen business failures, and was the target of at least twenty-one lawsuits – losing ten – and in at least one instance, he misappropriated funds.
As a father, he kept a ledger of the punishments he inflicted on his children:
John. Jr. For disobeying mother 8 lashes For unfaithfulness at work 3 lashes For telling a lie 8 lashes
When and why did John Brown turn his wrath against slavery? About a decade before his raid on Harpers Ferry, when he was in his late 40s, he began to consider leading an insurrection against slavery.
What were the factors that transformed Brown, already in his fifties, into an uncompromising agitator for slavery's abolition? A series of personal misfortunes, frustrations, and tragedies that culminated in the early 1850s. In the early 1840s, Brown was declared bankrupt, evicted from his farm, and lost four children to dysentery in a single month. Later in the '40s and the early '50s, his troubles continued. Brown was separated from his family for prolonged periods of time, he lost another child (the result of scalding), several sons abandoned their religious faith, and bitter litigation swirled around his business ventures.
Meanwhile, political events produced a mounting sense of frustration. The annexation of Texas, the Mexican war, and enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law convinced Brown and many other abolitionists that a vicious Slave Power had seized control of the federal government. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the last straw.
What happened in Kansas? Brown joined six of his sons in Osawatomie, a small settlement in eastern Kansas near Pottawatomie Creek, in the summer of 1855. He was named captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles company of the free-stater Liberty Guards. In May 1856, he and his men rushed to the pro-free-state capital in Lawrence to help fend off an attack by pro-slavery men, only to find the town in ruins. A day later, Brown received word that a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman had beaten Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts unconscious in retaliation against a speech that had insulted his uncle.
"Something must be done," Brown announced, "to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights." He and four of his sons, and three other men, dragged five unarmed men and boys from their homes along Kansas's Pottawatomie Creek, and hacked and dismembered their bodies as if they were cattle being butchered in a stockyard. As a result, a war of revenge swept across Kansas territory. Dozen died in the guerrilla warfare.
The Road to Harpers Ferry
The Kansas Nebraska Act transformed the political landscape. The Whig party collapsed. Anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs formed anti-Nebraska parties. In 1856, the new Republican party ran John C. Fremont for the presidency on a platform that denounced slavery as a relic of barbarism. Fremont carried eleven of the sixteen free states.
But Brown regarded politics as nothing more than “talk—talk—talk.” The Dred Scott decision increased the feeling of desperation among radical abolitionists.
Brown’s raiding party consisted of twenty-one soldiers, only five of whom were black. Brown tried to recruit Frederick Douglass, who called the plan suicidal. Harpers Ferry was “a perfect steel-trap.”
The raid itself was a fiasco. Brown sent no warnings to the slaves. He had no escape route out of Harpers Ferry. Ten members of Brown’s party died in the raid (including two of Brown's sons), four townsmen (including the black baggage-handler at the railroad station, mistaken for a watchman), and one marine. Seven of Brown's men escaped, but two were later captured. One of the slaves that John Brown’s men brought to Harpers Ferry was killed when Marines took the firehouse where Brown’s men were gathered.
In his closing speech before being sentenced to hang, Brown eloquently appealed to the laws of God, and expressed contentment that, in a just cause, he would "mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country." On the morning of his execution, December 2, he wrote out with a steady hand his final prophecy, that "the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done."
At first, Brown was widely denounced in the North as a murderer, criminal, and madman, leading conservative unionists to feel confident that his actions would unite the nation against extremists, South and North. Even William Lloyd Garrison initially called Brown “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.”
But during the forty-five days between his capture and execution, he was transformed, in the eyes of thousands of Northerners, from a brutal terrorist into a prophet and avenging angel. The deification of Brown as a heroic martyr outraged many white Southerners, who felt that Brown expressed the North's secret will: to foment race war in the South.
Brown himself played a crucial role in reshaping his public image. His calm demeanor and fierce commitment to the antislavery cause persuaded many that he was a Christ-like martyr, not a murderer or traitor.
He was helped by abolitionists (who believed that his execution would do more for the antislavery cause than his acquittal or rescue), editorialists, eulogists, and speechmakers, as well as members of the clergy like the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and poets and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even Abraham Lincoln, who condemned Brown for committing "violence, bloodshed, and treason," also applauded the old man's motives and lauded his "great courage" and "rare unselfishness."
Meanwhile, Southern fire-eaters insisted that Brown's raid was rooted in the Republican Party's rhetoric about a "higher law" and an "irrepressible conflict." This argument was so successful that the Republican Party wrote off the South during the 1860 election. There were seven reported lynching in the South.
For fear of alienating moderate voters, the Republican party decided, in the wake of the raid, to nominate Abraham Lincoln rather than William Seward, who was perceived as more radical.
Was Brown mentally ill?
In a bid to spare their client from the gallows, Brown's attorneys gathered nineteen affidavits testifying to insanity in Brown's immediate family. The real-life Brown was considered enigmatic by many who knew him personally. He could be stubborn, selfish, cold, arbitrary, intolerant, and vindictive. Yet he could also be loving, compassionate, and tender-hearted. There is also no doubt that he exhibited certain signs of mental abnormality, including sudden mood swings, an inflated notion of his military skills, and, above all, an obsessive fury over the institution of slavery. Of course, at a time when many Americans accepted slavery as an inevitable part of the social order, a degree of mental abnormality may have been necessary to recognize slavery's evil.
Did John Brown spark the Civil War? It was Lincoln’s election, not Brown’s raid, that triggered secession. Still, it was John Brown's prophetic truth was that slavery could not be purged from America except with blood. In a 1949 essay, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. rejected the notion that Civil War was a "repressible conflict" caused by fanatics and blundering politicians. Writing in the wake of World War II, he argued that there are times when a society works itself "into a logjam; and that logjam must be burst by violence."
By the mid-1850s, it was apparent that moral suasion and political institutions had failed to place slavery on the road to extinction. The nation had reached an increasingly violent impasse. Antislavery crowds sought to prevent slave catchers from transporting fugitives back to the South. "Bleeding Kansas" had revealed that popular sovereignty offered an illusory solution to the problem of slavery in the Western territories. The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision eliminated possible compromise solutions to the westward expansion of slavery. Ultimately, slavery could only be ended by force of arms.
In the summer of 1859, a party of strangers made their appearance at Sandy Hook, a small village of Washington county, Maryland, in the immediate vicinity of Harper's Ferry. With them was an old man of venerable appearance and austere demeanor who called himself Isaac Smith. They represented themselves as being prospecting for minerals, and they took frequent and long rambles, with this ostensible purpose, over the various peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since the first settlement of Harper's Ferry, it has been believed that, in the earth beneath the wild crags of the Maryland and Loudoun Heights, mines of different metals and of fabulous value are hidden, awaiting the eye of science and the hand of industry to discover and develop them. Many of the Citizens of the place, from time to time, have supposed that they had found them and no small excitement has been aroused on this account by sanguine explorers. Specimens of different kinds of valuable ore or what was supposed to be such, were sent to Boston and subjected to chemical analysis and very favorable reports were returned by the most eminent chemists and geologists of the Athens of America. No wonder was felt, therefore, at the appearance of the party, and their expedition over the tortuous and difficult paths of the mountains excited no suspicion. At first, they boarded at the house of Mr. Ormond Butler, where their conduct was unexceptionable. They paid in gold for whatever they purchased and, as their manners were courteous to all, they were, on the whole, very much liked by Mr. Butler's family and his guests. After a week's stay at Sandy Hook, they removed to what is known as "the Kennedy Farm" about five miles from Harper's Ferry, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, where they established their headquarters. While at this place, Smith and his party, of whom three were his sons, made themselves very agreeable to their neighbors and they were as popular there as they had been at Sandy Hook. The father was regarded as a man of stern morality, devoted to church exercises, and the sons, with the others of the party, as good-natured, amiable, young men. Thus things continued 'till the night of Sunday, October 16th, 1859. On that night about 10 o'clock, Mr. William Williams, one of the watchmen on the railroad bridge, was surprised to find himself taken prisoner by an armed party, consisting of about twenty men, who suddenly made their appearance from the Maryland side of the river. Most of the party then proceeded to the armory enclosure, taking with them their prisoner, and leaving two men to guard the bridge. They next captured Daniel Whelan, one of the watchmen at the armory, who was posted at the front gate, and they took possession of that establishment. The party then separated into two bodies - one remaining in the armory and the other proceeding to the rifle factory, half a mile up the Shenandoah, where they captured Mr. Samuel Williams - father of William Williams before mentioned - an old and highly respected man, who was in charge of that place as night watchman. He, too, was conducted to the armory where the other prisoners were confined, and a detachment of the strangers was left to supply his place. About 12 o'clock - midnight - Mr. Patrick Higgins, of Sandy Hook, arrived on the bridge, for the purpose of relieving Mr. William Williams. They were both in the employment of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad company as watchmen, and each used to serve twelve hours of the twenty-four on duty. Higgins found all in darkness on the bridge and, suspecting that something had gone wrong with Williams, he called loudly for him. To his astonishment he was ordered to halt and two men presented guns at his breast, at the same time telling him that he was their prisoner. One of them undertook to conduct him to the armory, but, on their arriving at a point near the Virginia end of the bridge, the hot-blooded Celt struck his captor a stunning blow with his fist, and, before the stranger could recover from its effects, Higgins had succeeded in escaping to Fouke's hotel, where he eluded pursuit. Several shots were fired after him without effect, and he attributes his safety to the fact that his pursuers, while in the act of firing, stumbled in the darkness over some cross pieces in the bridge, and had their aim disconcerted. About this time a party of the invaders went to the houses of Messrs. Lewis Washington and John Alstadt, living a few miles from Harper's Ferry, and took them and some of their slaves prisoners, conducting them to the general rendezvous for themselves and their captives - the armory enclosure. From the house of the former they took some relies of the great Washington and the Revolution, which the proprietor, of course, very highly prized. Among them was a sword, said to be the same that was sent to the "Father of his Country" by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia - a present, as a legend inscribed on it said, "from the oldest General of the time to the best." All through the night, great excitement existed among such of the citizens as became cognizant of these facts. There happened to be, at the time, protracted meetings at nearly all of the Methodist churches in the town and neighborhood, and the members, returning home late, were taken prisoners in detail, until the armory enclosure contained a great many captives, who were unable to communicate to their friends an account of their situation.
About one o'clock a.m., Monday, the east bound express train, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, arrived in charge of Conductor Phelps. The train was detained by order of the leader of the band, and the telegraph wires were cut. The object of these orders was, of course, to prevent news of the invasion from being spread. The train was allowed to proceed, however, after a considerable delay. While the train was at Harper's Ferry, great alarm naturally existed among the passengers who could not understand these movements. Several shots were exchanged between the attacking force and a Mr. Throckmorton, clerk at Fouke's hotel, and some other parties unknown, but no person was injured. Some time in the course of the night, Heywood Shepherd, a colored porter at the railroad office, walked to the bridge, impelled, no doubt, by curiosity to understand the enigma. He was ordered to halt by the guards at the bridge and being seized with a panic and running back, he was shot through the body. He succeeded in reaching the railroad office, where he died next day at 3 o'clock, in great agony.
A little before daylight, some early risers were surprised to find themselves taken prisoners, as soon as they appeared on the streets. Among them was James Darrell, aged about sixty-five years, the bellringer at the armory, whose duties, of course, compelled him to be the first of the hands at his post. It being yet dark, he carried a lantern. When near the gate, he was halted by an armed negro, one of the invading party, and, Darrell, not dreaming of what was transpiring and mistaking his challenger for one of Mr. Fouke's slaves on a "drunk," struck the negro with his lantern and consigned his "black soul" to a climate of much higher temperature than that of Virginia. The negro presented a Sharp's rifle at Darrell and, no doubt, the situation of bellringer at Harper's Ferry armory would have been very soon vacant had not a white man of the stranger party who appeared to relish very highly the joke of the mistake, caught the gun and prevented the negro from carrying out his intention. Another white man of the party, however, came up and struck Darrell on the side with the butt of his gun, injuring him severely. Darrell was then dragged before "the captain" who, pitying his age and his bodily sufferings, dismissed him on a sort of parole. Mr. Walter Kemp, an aged, infirm man, bartender at Fouke's hotel, was taken prisoner about this time and consigned to Limbo with the others.
It was, now, daylight and the armorers proceeded singly or in parties of two or three from their various homes to work at the shops. They were gobbled up in detail and marched to prison, lost in astonishment at the strange doings and many, perhaps, doubting if they were not yet asleep and dreaming. Several of the officers of the armory were captured, but the superintendent not being in the town at the time, the invaders missed what, no doubt, would have been to them a rich prize. About this time, Mr. George W, Cutshaw, an old and estimable citizen of the place, proceeded from his house on High street, towards the Potomac bridge, in company with a lady who was on her way to Washington City and whom Mr. Cutshaw was escorting across the river, to the place where the canal packet boat on which she intended to travel, was tied up. He passed along unmolested until he disposed of his charge, but, on his return, he encountered on the bridge several armed apparitions - one of them, an old man of commanding presence, appearing to be the leader. Mr. Cutshaw, who was "a man of infinite jest," used to relate in the humorous manner peculiar to himself, how he, on first seeing them, took up the thought that a great robbery had been committed somewhere and that the tall, stern figure before him was some famous detective, employed to discover and arrest the perpetrators, while the minor personages were his assistants. He was halted, but, being in a hurry for his breakfast, he was moving on, when he received another and peremptory challenge. At last he said impatiently, "let me go on! What do I know about your robberies?" These were unfortunate words for Cutshaw, as they gave the chief to understand that his party were suspected of an intention to plunder - an imputation which the old warrior very highly resented. Mr. Cutshaw was, therefore, immediately marched off to the armory and placed among the other prisoners, where "the Captain" kept a close eye on him until his attention was engrossed by the subsequent skirmish.
A little before 7 o'clock a.m., Mr. Alexander Kelly approached the corner of High and Shenandoah streets, armed with a shotgun, for the purpose of discharging it at the invaders. No sooner did he turn the corner than two shots were fired at him and a bullet was sent through his hat. Immediately afterwards, Mr. Thomas Boerly approached the same corner with the same purpose. He was a man of Herculean strength and great personal courage. He discharged his gun at some of the enemy who were standing at the arsenal gate, when a shot was fired at him by one of the party who was crouching behind the arsenal fence. The bullet penetrated his groin, inflicting a ghastly wound, of which he died in a few hours.
The writer of these annals met with an adventure on this occasion which, though it partook largely of romance to which he is much addicted, was anything but agreeable. Sharing in the general curiosity to know what it was all about, he imprudently walked down High street to Shenandoah street. At the arsenal gate he encountered four armed men - two white and two black. Not being conscious of guilt he thought he had no reason to fear anybody. The four guards saluted him civilly and one of the white men asked him if he owned any slaves. On his answering in the negative, the strangers told him that there was a movement on foot that would benefit him and all persons who did not own such property. The writer passed on strongly impressed with the thought that, sure enough, there was something in the wind. He then looked in at the prisoners, among whom was Mr. Thomas Gallaher, to whom he spoke. The invaders had ceased some time before from making prisoners, as they thought they now had as many as they could well manage. This accounts for the writer's escape from arrest when he first exposed himself to capture. The leader of the party approached the writer on his speaking to Gallaher, and ordered him off the street, telling him, that it was against military law to talk with prisoners. Not conceiving that this stranger had a right to order him off so unceremoniously and not being at the best of times of a very patient temper, the historian refused to comply, when a pistol was presented at his breast by the captain, which obliged him to duck a little and take shelter behind a brick pillar in the wall that enclosed the armory grounds. The commander then called out to the same men whom the writer had encountered at the arsenal gate, on the opposite side of the street, and who were not thirty yards off when the encounter with the chief took place. He ordered them to shoot or to arrest the historian and they at once prepared to obey the order. Not relishing either alternative of death or imprisonment, the writer dodged up the alleyway that ran along the sidewall of the armory yard, and, in order to disconcert their aim, he took a zigzag course which probably would not have been enough to save him from four bullets shot after him in a narrow alley by experienced marksmen, had not aid come from an unexpected source. And, now, for the romance. A colored woman, who was crouching in a doorway in the alley, rushed out between him and the guns, and, extending her arms, begged of the men not to shoot. They did not shoot and the present generation has not lost and posterity will not be deprived of this history, a calamity which, without the intervention of a miracle, their shooting would have entailed. Ever since, the writer has claimed great credit to himself for presence of mind in thinking of the "zigzag," under these trying circumstances, but his friends maliciously insinuate that absence of body did more to save him than presence of mind. He takes consolation, however, by comparing himself to the great John Smith, the first white explorer of Virginia, who was once in an equally bad fix and was saved by the timely intervention of another dusky maiden. The heroine who, in the present case, conferred so great a blessing on posterity, was Hannah, a slave belonging to Mrs. Margaret Carroll, of Harper's Ferry, and her name will be embalmed in history, like that of Pocahontas, and it will be more gratefully remembered that that of the Indian maiden, by future readers of this veracious story, who will consider themselves - partly at least - indebted to her for an unparalleled intellectual treat.
It was now breakfast time and "the captain" sent an order to Fouke's hotel for refreshments for his men. The state of his exchequer is not known, but he did not pay for the meals in any usual species of currency. He released Walter, familiarly called "Watty" Kemp, the bartender at Fouke's and he announced this as the equivalent he was willing to pay. It is to be feared that the landlord did not duly appreciate the advantages he gained by this profitable bargain, and it may be that "Uncle Watty" himself did not feel much flattered at the estimate put on him in the terms of the ransom and his being valued at the price of twenty breakfasts. Be this as it may, the bargain was struck and the meals furnished. The leader of the raiders invited his prisoners to partake of the provisions as far as they would go 'round, but only a few accepted the hospitable offer for fear of the food's being drugged.
Up to this time no person in the town, except the prisoners, could tell who the strange party were. To the captives, as was ascertained afterwards, the strangers confessed their purpose of liberating the slaves of Virginia, and freedom was offered to any one in durance who would furnish a negro man as a recruit for the "army of the Lord." However, as there was little or no communication allowed between the prisoners and their friends outside, the people, generally, were yet ignorant of the names and purposes of the invaders and, as may be believed, Madam Rumor had plenty of employment for her hundred tongues. Soon, however, they were recognized by some one as the explorers for minerals and then suspicion at once rested on a young man named John E. Cook, who had sojourned at Harper's Ferry for some years, in the various capacities of schoolmaster, book agent and lock-keeper on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal and who had married into a reputable family at the place. He had been seen associating with the Smith party and, as he had been often heard to boast of his exploits in "the Kansas war," on the Free Soil side, it was instinctively guessed that he and the Smiths were connected in some project for freeing the slaves and this opinion was confirmed by the fact of there being Negroes in the party. Shortly after, a new light broke on the people and it was ascertained, in some way, that "the captain" was no other than the redoubtable John Brown, of Kansas fame, who had earned the title of "Ossawattomie Brown" from his exploits in the portion of Kansas along the banks of Ossawattomie river. The information came from one of the prisoners - Mr. Mills who was allowed to communicate with his family.
At the regular hour for commencing work in the morning, Mr. Daniel J. Young, master machinist at the rifle factory, approached the gate to these shops, expecting to find Mr. Samuel Williams at his post, as watchman, and little anticipating to find the place in possession of an enemy. He was met at the gate by a fierce looking fully armed, who refused him admittance, claiming that he and his companions - four or five of whom appeared at the watch house door, on hearing the conversation - had got possession by authority from the Great Jehovah. Mr. Young, being naturally astonished at hearing this, asked what the object of the strangers was and learned that they had come to give freedom to the slaves of Virginia; that the friends of liberty had tried all constitutional and peaceable means to accomplish this end and had failed signally, but that, now the great evil of slavery must be eradicated at any risk and that there were resources enough ready for the accomplishment of this purpose. Mr. Young said in reply: "If you derive your authority from the Almighty I must yield as I get my right to enter only from an earthly power - the government of the United States. I warn you, however, that, before this day's sun shall have set, you and your companions will be corpses." Mr. Young then went back to stop the mechanics and laborers who were on their way to go to work and warn them of their danger. It appeared to be no part of the policy of the strangers to keep prisoners at the rifle works, as no attempt was made to arrest Mr. Young. This gentleman, it may be remarked, became conspicuous afterwards for his adhesion to the cause of the Union. During the war, he was in charge of the ordnance at Harper's Ferry, with the rank of captain. Soon after the close of hostilities he received a commission in the regular army with the same rank, and, after having served the government for a long time, at various points, he was retired some years ago, and took up his residence at Troy, New York, where he died in 1893.
About 9 o'clock, a.m., the people had recovered from their amazement and sought for arms wherever they thought they could find any. It was no easy matter to find effective weapons, as the arsenal and nearly all the storehouses were in possession of the enemy. It was remembered, however that, some time before, a lot of guns had been removed from the place where they were usually stored, in order to protect them from the river which, at the time, had overflowed its banks and encroached on the armory grounds and buildings. The arms were put away in a building situated far above high water mark and the strangers knew not of their existence. Enough was procured from this lot to equip a few small companies of citizens and a desultory skirmish commenced around the armory buildings and the adjacent streets which continued all day. A company under Captain Henry Medler crossed the Shenandoah on the bridge and took post on the Loudoun side of the river, opposite the rifle works. Another company under Captain Hezekiah Roderick, took position on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, northwest of the armory, and a third body, under Captain William H. Moore, crossed the Potomac about a mile above Harper's Ferry and marched down on the Maryland side to take possession of the railroad bridge. Thus Brown's party were hemmed in and all the citizens who were not enrolled in any of these companies engaged the invaders wherever they could meet them. The rifle factory was attacked and the strangers there posted were soon driven into the Shenandoah where they were met by the fire of Captain Medler's men who had crossed the river on the bridge, and, between the two fires, they all perished, except one - a negro named Copeland, who was taken prisoner. It is said that one of the citizens named James Holt, waded into the river after one of the enemy who had reached a rock in the stream, knocked him down with his fist and disarmed him. Whether it was Copeland or one of those who were afterwards killed that was thus knocked down the writer is not informed, but that Holt performed this feat is undoubted.
At the armory proper, however, where Brown commanded in person, a more determined resistance was made. Brown had told several of his prisoners in the course of the morning that he expected large re-enforcements and when, about noon, the company of citizens under Captain Moore, that had crossed into Maryland, was seen marching down the river road great excitement prevailed, it being supposed by the prisoners and such of the other citizens as were not aware of Captain Moore's movements and, perhaps, by Brown's party, that these were, sure enough, allies of the invaders. Soon, however, it was ascertained who they were and Brown now seeing that the fortune of the day was against him sent two of his prisoners, Archibald M. Kitzmiller and Rezin Cross, under guard of two of his men, to negotiate in his name with Captain Moore for permission to vacate the place with his surviving men without molestation. The two ambassadors proceeded with their guards towards the bridge, but when they came near the "Gault House" several shots were fired from that building by which both of the guards were wounded severely and put hors de combat. One of them contrived to make his way back to the armory, but the other was unable to move without assistance and Messrs. Kitzmiller and Cross helped him into Fouke's hotel, where his wounds were dressed. It will be believed that neither of the envoys was foolish enough, like Regulus of old, to return to captivity. Brown, finding that his doves did not come back with the olive branch and now despairing of success, called in from the streets the survivors of his party and, picking out nine of the most prominent of his prisoners as hostages, he retreated into a small brick building near the armory gate, called "the engine house," taking with him the nine citizens. This little building was afterwards famous under the name of "John Brown's Fort," and, from the time of the invasion until the spring of 1892, it was an object of great curiosity to strangers visiting the place. It was sold at the time last mentioned to a company of speculators for exhibition at the World's Fair in Chicago, and with it much of the glory of Harper's Ferry departed forever.
About the year 1895, it was repurchased and reshipped to Harper's Ferry by the late Miss Kate Fields, and it is now to be seen about two miles from its original site on the farm of Mr. Alexander Murphy. Of course, the bricks are not relaid in their original order and the death of Miss Fields makes its restoration to anything like its old self very improbable. About the time when Brown immured himself, a company of Berkeley county militia arrived from Martinsburg who, with some citizens of Harper's Ferry and the surrounding country made a rush on the armory and released the great mass of the prisoners outside of the engine house, not, however, without suffering some loss from a galling fire kept up by the enemy from "the fort." Brown's men had pierce e walls for musketry and through the holes kept a brisk fusilade by which they wounded many of the Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry people and some Charlestown men who, too, had come to take part in the fray. The sufferers were Messrs. Murphy, Richardson, Hammond, Dorsey, Hooper and Wollett, of Martinsburg; Mr. Young, of Charlestown, and Mr. Edward McCabe, of Harper's Ferry. Mr. Dorsey was wounded very dangerously and several of the others were injured severely. All got well again, however, except one, whose hand was disabled permanently,
Before Brown's retreat to the fort, two of his men approached the corner of High and Shenandoah streets, where Mr. Boerley had been shot in the morning. It was then about 2 o'clock p.m. and Mr. George Turner a very respected gentleman of Jefferson county who had come to town on private business was standing at the door of Captain Moore's house on High street about seventy five yards from the corner above mentioned. He had armed himself with a musket and was in the act of resting it on a board fence near the door to take aim at one of those men. when a bullet from a Sharp's rifle struck him in the shoulder - the only part of him that was exposed. The ball after taking an eccentric course entered his neck and killed him almost instantly.
A physician who examined his body described the wound as having been of the strangest kind the bullet having taken a course entirely at variance with the laws supposed to prevail with such projectiles. It was thought by many that the shot was not aimed at Mr. Turner and that the man who fired it was not aware of that gentleman's being near. There were two citizens named MeClenan and Stedman in the middle of the street opposite to Captain Moore's house. They had guns in their bands and at one of them it is supposed was aimed the shot that proved fatal to Mr. Turner.
After this shooting the two strangers immediately retreated and a ludicrous occurrence took place if indeed, any event of that ill-omened day can be supposed to be calculated to excite merriment. Mr. John McClenan above mentioned - shot after them and his bullet striking the cartridge box of one of them, as he was approaching the armory gate, an explosion of his ammunition took place and he entered the gate amid a display of fireworks of a novel description. Apparently, he did not relish the honors paid him and, with accelerated pace, he took refuge with his company in the engine house.
The strangers continued to fire from their fortress and they now killed another very valuable citizen Fountain Beckham, for many years agent of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad company at Harper's Ferry, and long a magistrate of Jefferson county. Being a man of nervous temperament he was naturally much excited by the occurrences of the day. Moreover, Heywood Shepherd, the negro shot on the railroad bridge on the previous night, had been his faithful servant and he was much grieved and very indignant at his death. Against the remonstrances of several friends he determined to take a close look at the enemy. He crept along the railroad, under shelter of a watering station, which then stood there and peeped 'round the corner of the building at the engine house opposite, when a bullet from one of Brown's men penetrated his heart and he died instantly. A man named Thompson, said to be Brown's son-in-law, had been taken prisoner a short time before by the citizens and confined in Fouke's hotel under a guard. At first it was the intention of the people to hand him over to the regular authorities for trial, but the killing of Mr. Beckham so exasperated them that the current of their feelings was changed. They rushed into the hotel, seized Thompson and were dragging him out of the house to put him to death, when Miss Christina Fouke, a sister of the proprietor, with true feminine instinct, ran into the crowd and besought the infuriated multitude to spare the prisoner's life. This noble act has elicited the warmest commendations from every party and it may be considered the one redeeming incident in the gloomy history of that unfortunate day. Miss Fouke's entreaties were unheeded, however, and Thompson was hurried to the railroad bridge, where he was riddled with bullets. He tried to escape by letting himself drop through the bridge into the river. He had been left for dead, but he had vitality enough remaining to accomplish this feat. He was discovered and another shower of bullets was discharged at him. He was either killed by the shots or drowned and, for a day or two, his body could be seen lying at the bottom of the river, with his ghastly face still showing what a fearful death agony he had experienced.
Another of the invaders, named Lehman, attempted to escape from the upper end of the armory grounds by swimming or wading the Potomac. He had been seen shortly before conducting one of the armory watchmen, named Edward Murphy, towards the engine house. He kept his prisoner between himself and an armed party of citizens who were stationed on a hill near the government works. More than a dozen guns were raised to shoot him by the excited crowd and, no doubt, he and Murphy would have been killed had not Mr. Zedoc Butt, an old citizen, induced the party not to fire, in consideration of the danger to the innocent watchman. Immediately afterwards, Lehman disappeared for a while, but soon he was seen endeavoring to escape as above mentioned. A volley was fired after him and he must have been wounded, as he lay down and threw up both his arms, as if surrendering. A temporary resident of Harper's Ferry waded through the river to a rock on which Lehman lay, apparently disabled, and deliberately shot him through the head, killing him instantly. His body, too, lay for a considerable time where he fell, and it could be seen plainly from the high ground west of the armory. The slayer now asserts that Lehman first drew his pistol to shoot at him.
A little before night Brown asked if any of his captives would volunteer to go out among the citizens and induce them to cease firing on the fort, as they were endangering the lives of their friends - the prisoners. He promised on his part that, if there was no more firing on his men, there should be none by them on the besiegers. Mr. Israel Russel undertook the dangerous duty - the risk arose from the excited state of the people who would be likely to fire on anything seen stirring around the prison house - and the citizens were persuaded to stop firing in consideration of the danger incurred of injuring the prisoners. Like Messrs. Kitzmiller and Cross, Mr. Russel, it will be readily supposed, did not return to captivity. It is certain that the people of the place would have disposed of Brown and his party in a very short time, had they not been prevented all along from pushing the siege vigorously, by a regard for the lives of their fellow townsmen, who were prisoners. As it was, they had killed, wounded or dispersed more than three-fourths the raiders and, consequently, the sneers that were afterwards thrown out against their bravery, were entirely uncalled for and were by parties who, in the subsequent war, did not exhibit much of the reckless courage which they expected from peaceful citizens, taken by surprise and totally at a loss for information as to the numbers and resources of their enemies.
It was now dark and the wildest excitement existed in the town, especially among the friends of the killed, wounded and prisoners of the citizens' party. It had rained some little all day and the atmosphere was raw and cold. Now, a cloudy and moonless sky hung like a pall over the scene of war and, on the whole, a more dismal night cannot be imagined. Guards were stationed 'round the engine house to prevent Brown's escape and, as forces were constantly arriving from Winchester, Fred
Source: Joseph Barry, The Strange Story of Harper's Ferry (Martinsburg, West Virginia, Thompson Brothers, 1903 ).
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