Digital History>eXplorations>John Brown: Hero or Terrorist?> The Raid>John Daingerfield's Account of the Raid

John E.P. Daingerfield’s Account of the Raid

Source: Sanborn, John Brown, 556-560.

I walked towards my office, then just within the armory enclosure, and not more than a hundred yards from my house. As I proceeded, I saw a man come out of an alley, then another and another, all coming towards me. I inquired what all this meant; they said, "Nothing, only they had taken possession of the Government works." I told them they talked like crazy men. They answered, "Not so crazy as you think, as you will soon see. Up to this time I had not seen any arms. Presently, however, the men threw back the short cloaks they wore, and disclosed Sharp's rifles, pistols, and knives. Seeing these, and fearing something serious was going on, I told the men I believed I would return home. They at once cocked their guns, and told me I was a prisoner. This surprised me, but I could do nothing, being unarmed. I talked with them some little time longer, and again essayed to go home; but one of the men stepped before me, presented his gun, and told me if I moved I would be shot down. I then asked what they intended to do with me. They said I was in no personal danger; they only wanted to carry me to their captain, John Smith. I asked them where Captain Smith was. They answered at the guard house, inside of the armory enclosure. I told them I would go there; that was the point for which I first started. (My office was there, and I felt uneasy lest the vault had been broken open.)

Upon reaching the gate, I saw what indeed looked like war, negroes armed with pikes, and sentinels with muskets all around. I was turned over to "Captain Smith," who called me by name, and asked if I knew Colonel Washington and others, mentioning familiar names. I said I did; and he then said, "Sir, you will find them there," motioning me towards the engine room. We were not kept closely confined, but were allowed to converse with him. I asked him what his object was. He replied, "To free the negroes of Virginia. ~He added that he was prepared to do it, and by twelve o'clock would have fifteen hundred men with him, ready armed. Up to this time the citizens had hardly begun to move about, and knew nothing of the raid. When they learned what was going on, some came out with old shotguns, and were themselves shot by concealed men. All the stores, as well as the arsenal, were in the hands of Brown's men, and it was impossible to get either arms or ammunition, there being hardly any private weapons. At last, however, a few arms were obtained, and a body of citizens crossed the river and advanced from the Maryland side. They made a vigorous attack, and in a few minutes caused all the invaders who were not killed to retreat to Brown inside of the armory gate. Then he entered the engine house, carrying his prisoners along, or rather part of them, for he made selections. After getting into the engine house, he made this speech: "Gentlemen, perhaps you wonder why I have selected you from the others. It is because I believe you to be more influential; and I have only to say now, that you will have to share precisely the same fate that your friends extend to my men." He began at once to bar the doors and windows, and to cut portholes through the brick wall.

Then commenced a terrible firing from without, at every point from which the windows could be seen, and in a few minutes every window was shattered, and hundreds of balls came through the doors. These shots were answered from within whenever the attacking party could be seen. This was kept up most of the day, and, strange to say, not a prisoner was hurt, though thousands of balls were imbedded in the walls, and holes shot in the doors almost large enough for a man to creep through. At night the firing ceased, for we were in total darkness, and nothing could be seen in the enginehouse. During the day and night I talked much with Brown. I found him as brave as a man could be, and sensible upon all subjects except slavery. He believed it was his duty to free the slaves, even if in doing so he lost his own life. During a sharp fight one of Brown's sons was killed. He fell; then trying to raise himself, he said, "It is all over with me," and died instantly. Brown did not leave his post at the porthole; but when the fighting was over he walked to his son's body, straightened out his limbs, took off his trappings, and then, turning to me, said, "This is the third son I have lost in this cause." Another son had been shot in the morning, and was then dying, having been brought in from the street. Often during the affair in the engine house, when his men would want to fire upon some one who might be seen passing, Brown would stop them, saying, "Don't shoot; that man is unarmed." The firing was kept up by our men all day and until late at night, and during that time several of his men were killed, but none of the prisoners were hurt, though in great danger. During the day and night many propositions, pro and con, were made, looking to Brown's surrender and the release of the prisoners, but without result.

When Colonel Lee came with the Government troops in the night, he at once sent a flag of truce by his aid, J. E. B. Stuart, to notify Brown of his arrival, and in the name of the United States to demand his surrender, advising him to throw himself on the clemency of the Government. Brown declined to accept Colonel Lee's terms, and determined to await the attack. When Stuart was admitted and a light brought, he exclaimed, "Why, aren't you old Osawatomie Brown of Kansas, whom I once had there as my prisoner?" "Yes," was the answer, "but you did not keep me." This was the first intimation we had of Brown's real name. When Colonel Lee advised Brown to trust to the clemency of the Government, Brown responded that he knew what that meant, a rope for his men and himself; adding, "I prefer to die just here." Stuart told him he would return at early morning for his final reply, and left him: When he had gone, Brown at once proceeded to barricade the doors, windows, etc., endeavoring to make the place as strong as possible. All this time no one of Brown's men showed the slightest fear, but calmly awaited the attack, selecting the best situations to fire from, and arranging their guns and pistols so that a fresh one could be taken up as soon as one was discharged. During the night I had a long talk with Brown, and told him that he and his men were committing treason against the State and the United States. Two of his men, hearing the conversation, said to their leader, "Are we committing treason against our country by being here?" Brown answered, "Certainly." Both said, "If that is so, we don't want to fight any more; we thought we came to liberate the slaves, and did not know that was committing treason." Both of these men were afterwards killed in the attack on the engine house. When Lieutenant Stuart came in the morning for the final reply to the demand to surrender, I got up and went to Brown's side to hear his answer. Stuart asked, "Are you ready to surrender, and trust to the mercy of the Government?" Brown answered, "No, I prefer to die here." His manner did not betray the least alarm. Stuart stepped aside and made a signal for the attack, which was instantly begun with sledge hammers to break down the door. Finding it would not yield, the soldiers seized a long ladder for a battering ram, and commenced beating the door with that, the party within firing incessantly. I had assisted in the barricading, fixing the fastenings so that I could remove them on the first effort to get in. But I was not at the door when the battering began, and could not get to the fastenings till the ladder was used. I then quickly removed the fastenings; and, after two or three strokes of the ladder, the engine rolled partially back, making a small aperture, through which Lieutenant Green of the marines forced his way, jumped on top of the engine, and stood a second, amidst a shower of balls, looking for John Brown. When he saw Brown he sprang about twelve feet at him, giving an under thrust of his sword, striking Brown about midway the body, and raising him completely from the ground. Brown fell forward, with his head between his knees, while Green struck him several times over the head, and, as I then supposed, split his skull at every stroke. I was not two feet from Brown at that time. Of course I got out of the building as soon as possible, and did not know till some time later that Brown was not killed. It seems that Green's sword, in making the thrust, struck Brown's belt and did not penetrate the body. The sword was bent double. The reason that Brown was not killed when struck on the head was, that Green was holding his sword in the middle, striking with the hilt, and making only scalp wounds.

When Governor Wise came and was examining Brown, I heard the questions and answers, and no lawyer could have used more careful reserve, while at the same time he showed no disrespect. Governor Wise was astonished at the answers he received from Brown. After some controversy between the United States and the State of Virginia, as to which had jurisdiction over the prisoners, Brown was carried to the Charlestown jail, and after a fair trial was hanged. Of course I was a witness at the trial; and I must say that I have never seen any man display more courage and fortitude than John Brown showed under the trying circumstances in which he was placed. I could not go to see him hanged. He had made me a prisoner, but had spared my life and that of other gentlemen in his power; and when his sons were shot down beside him, almost any other man similarly placed would at least have exacted life for life.



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