HIS ATTEMPT TO RAISE A SLAVE INSURRECTION
On the 17th of October, 1859, this country was bewildered and astounded, while the fifteen Slave States were convulsed with fear, rage, and hate, by telegraphic dispatches from Baltimore and Washington, announcing the outbreak, at Harper's Ferry, of a conspiracy of Abolitionists and negroes, having for its object the devastation and ruin of the South, and the massacre of her white inhabitants. A report that President Buchanan had been proclaimed Emperor and Autocrat of the North American continent, and had quietly arrested and imprisoned all the members of Congress and judges of the Supreme Court, by way of strengthening his usurpation, would not have seemed more essentially incredible, nor have aroused a more intense excitement.
Probably the more prevalent sensation at first excited by this intelligence was that of blank incredulity. Harper's Ferry being the seat of a national armory, at which a large number of mechanics and artizans were usually employed by the Government, it was supposed by many that some collision respecting wages or hours of labor had occurred between the officers and the workmen, which had provoked a popular tumult, and perhaps a stoppage of the trains passing through that village on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; and that this, magnified by rumor and alarm, had afforded a basis for these monstrous exaggerations. Yet, as time wore on, further advices, with particulars and circumstances, left no room to doubt the substantial truth of the original report. An attempt had actually been made to excite a slave insurrection in northern Virginia, and the one man in America to whom such an enterprise would not seem utter insanity and suicide was at the head of it.
Harper's Ferry was then a village of some five thousand inhabitants, lying on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and on either side of its principal tributary, the Shenandoah, which here enters it from the South. Its site is a mere nest or cup among high, steep mountains; the passage of the united rivers through the Blue Ridge at this point having been pronounced by Jefferson a spectacle which one might well cross the Atlantic to witness and enjoy. Here the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crosses the Potomac; and the rich valley of the Shenandoah is traversed, for a considerable distance hence, by the Winchester and Harper's Ferry Railroad. Washington is 57 miles distant by turnpike; Baltimore, 80 miles by railroad. Modest as the village then was, space had been with difficulty found for its habitations, some of which were perched upon ground four hundred feet above the surface of the streams. One of its very few streets was entirely occupied by the workshops and offices of the national armory, and had an iron railing across its entrance. In the old arsenal building there were usually stored from 100,000 to 200,000 stand of arms. The knowledge of this had doubtless determined the point at which the first blow of the liberators was to be struck.
The forces with which Brown made his attack consisted of seventeen white and five colored men, tho 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 17th, 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, tho 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 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 would 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 daybreak, as Brown's guards were bringing two citizens to a halt, they were fired on by a man named Turner, and directly afterward 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 anotherBrown's son Watsonwas mortally wounded. Still, throughout the forenoon, the liberators remained masters of the town. There were shots fired from one side or the other at intervals, but no more casualties reported. The prisoners were by turns permitted to visit their families under guard, to give assurance that they still lived and were kindly treated. Had Brown chosen to fly to the mountains with his few followers, he might still have done so, tho with a much slenderer chance of impunity than if he had, according to his original plan, decamped at midnight with such arms and ammunition as he could bear away. Why he lingered, to brave inevitable destruction, is not certain; but it may fairly be presumed that he had private assurances that the negroes of the surrounding country would rise at the first tidings of his movement, and come flocking to his standard; and he chose to court the desperate chances of remaining where arms and ammunition for all could abundantly be had. True, he afterward said that he had arms enough already, either on or about his premises; but, if so, why seize Harper's Ferry at all?
At all events, if his doom was already sealed, his delay at least hastened it. 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 one of the insurgents, and captured William Thompson, a neighbor of Brown at Elba, 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 200 Virginians, who lined either bank, until two of them were dead, and a third mortally wounded, when the fourth surrendered. Kagi, Brown's secretary of war, was one of the killed. William H. Leeman, one of Brown's captains, being pursued by scores, plunged into the river, a Virginian wading after him. Leeman turned round, threw up his empty hands, and cried, "Don't shoot!" The Virginian fired his pistol directly in the youth's face he was but twenty-twoand shattered his head into fragments.
By this time all the houses around the armory buildings were held by the Virginians. Captain Turner, who had fired the first shot in the morning, was killed by the sentinel at the arsenal gate as he was raising his rifle to fire. Here Dangerfield Newby, a Virginia slave, and Jim, one of Colonel Washington's negroes, with a free negro, who had lived on Washington's estate, were shot dead; and Oliver Brown, another of the old man's sons, being hit by a ball, came inside of the gate as his brother Watson had done, lay quietly down without a word, and in a few moments was dead. Mr. Beckham, mayor of the town, who came within range of the insurgents' rifles as they were exchanging volleys with the Virginians, was likewise killed.
At the suggestion of Mr. Kitzmiller, one of Brown's prisoners, Aaron D. Stevens, one of his most trusted followers from Kansas, was sent out with a flag of truce to call a parley, but was instantly shot down by the Virginians, receiving six balls in his person. Thompson, their prisoner, was attacked by scores of them in the parlor where he was confined, but saved for the moment by a young lady throwing herself between him and their presented rifles, because, as she afterward explained, she "did not want the carpet spoiled." He was dragged out to the bridge, there shot in cold blood, and his body riddled with balls at the base of the pier, whither he had fallen forty feet from the bridge.
By this time more militia had arrived from every quarter, and a party from Martinsburgh, led by a railroad conductor, attacked the armory buildings in the rear, while a detachment of the same force assailed them in front. Brown, seeing that his enemies were in overwhelming force, 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 railroad 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 5 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 beside 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 1,500 armed, infuriated foes. Half a dozen of the party, who had been sent out at early morning by Brown to capture slaveholders and liberate slaves, were absent, and unable, even if willing, to rejoin their chief. They fled during the night to Maryland and Pennsylvania; but most of them were ultimately captured. During that night, Colonel Lee, with 90 United States marines and two pieces of artillery, arrived, and took possession of the armory guard, 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."
Conversing with Colonel Washington during that solemn night, he said he had not prest his sons to join him in this expedition, but did not regret their lossthey had died in a good cause.
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 rusht 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 saber 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 was said, would have been killed on the spot had the Virginians been able to distinguish them with certainty from their prisoners.
1 Mr. Greeley, then editor of the New York Tribune, of which he was the founder, wrote this account soon after the close of the Civil War. It was printed originally as a chapter in his two-volume work entitled "The American Conflict," which, in its day, was a famous book.