Monday, September 7, 2009

The Last Days of John Brown: Black Soldiers

This is the second installment of a series of posts marking the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s anti-slavery raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory, his subsequent execution and the return of his body to North Elba in December of 1859. I’ll be writing each week to retrace the steps of Brown and his followers. You can read all the posts in the series here.

The first week of September 1859 at the Kennedy farm where John Brown (wearing a short beard as a disguise and using the name Isaac Smith) and his growing band were gathering was a time of indecision and internal conflict. From Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Brown’s previous hideout, arms and supplies were being brought by wagon. Those at the Kennedy farm had known that they were to attack Virginia, but when Brown told them the target would be a federal armory, several balked.

Charles Plummer Tidd, who was to serve as a Captain in Brown’s army, was particularly distraught at learning the target would be the Harpers Ferry’s Armory. Tidd so disagreed with the plan that he left the farmhouse for a week to cool off. Brown’s sons Owen, Oliver, and Watson also opposed the armory plan. Oliver, who had been scouting Harpers Ferry during August, believed the armory could not be held because of the looming cliffs on either side. Several of the other men agreed that the mission was suicide. When John Brown offered to resign his leadership position, the dispute ended. “Old Osawatomie Brown” was too well-esteemed, and the cause too just, for his followers to let their distention derail the plans to raid Virgina and free as many slaves as they could.

Besides, Brown had heard these arguments before, notably from Fredrick Douglass the nation’s most prominent African American, who had traveled from his home in Rochester in August to meet with Brown and forward him some money he had collected. The men met at a Chambersburg stone quarry and Brown asked his longtime friend and supporter to join the raid. Douglass believed Harpers Ferry was “a trap of steel” and refused to join the attack, but a man traveling with him, Shields Green, told Douglass when it was time to go “I believe I’ll go with the old man.” Douglass arranged a trip to Canada to avoid being implicated in the raid.

Green was willing to stand beside the old white man who would give his life to end slavery, and for good reason – while Douglas had been freed in the mid-1840s by supporters who purchased his liberty, Green was still a wanted escaped slave from Charleston, South Carolina. Fredrick Douglass later said of Green: “Shields Green was not one to shrink from hardships or dangers. He was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.” Shields was the only man to join the raiding party whose parents were both born in Africa.

Brown had hoped to recruit many more black men, slave and free. He had even hoped to send Fredrick Douglas to plantations around Harpers Ferry and recruit slaves on the spot. Many African Americans supported in whatever way they could, including Harriet Tubman who unsuccessfully recruited for Brown in Canada, but in the end only four other black men joined the planned raid:

Dangerfield Newby was born a slave in 1815, in Fauquier County, Virginia, but his Scottish father freed the children he had with his slaves. Newby was six feet two inches tall and approaching 45 at the time of the raid. During the raid Newby carried with him a letter from his wife which read in part:

Dear Husband: I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me somebody else will. The servants are very disagreeable; they do all they can to set my mistress against me. Dear Husband,. . . the last two years have been like a troubled dream to me. It is said Master is in want of money. If so, I know not what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hopes of the future are blasted, for there has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you, for if I thought I should never see you, this earth would have no charms for me. Do all you can for me, which I have no doubt you will. I want to see you so much.

Lewis Sheridan Leary, about 25 years old, left his wife and a six-month-old child at Oberlin, Ohio to join Brown at Chambersburg (he traveled with John A. Copeland). Leary was descended from an Irishman, Jeremiah O’Leary, who fought with Nathaniel Greene during the American Revolution. His mother was part African, part Croatan Indian (believed by some to be the descendants of the lost colony of Roanoke and local native people). Leary’s wife Mary had no idea about Leary’s plans when he left her and their six-month-old child to join Brown’s raiders.

John Anthony Copeland Jr. was a free black man who was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1834 (making him about 25 years old). He moved with his parents to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1842 and was a student at Oberlin College. He was the nephew of Lewis Sheridan Leary and was one of the 37 men who effected the Oberlin rescue of the fugitive slave John Price in violation of the the federal Fugitive Slave Law and for which he served time in a Cleveland prison. After the raid he wrote to his parents to “remember that it was a ‘Holy Cause,’ one in which men who in every point of view better than I am have suffered and died, remember that if I must die I die in trying to liberate a few of my poor and oppress people from my condition of servitude.”

Osborn Perry Anderson was an African-American born free in 1830 in Pennsylvania. He was thirty years old at the time of the raid and a printer by trade. He met John Brown in Canada in 1858 and was well-respected frequently serving as recording secretary at meetings. He was the only African American in the original raiding party to survive the raid.

John Warren

John Warren

John Warren founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and oversees the day-to-day operations of the site in addition to editing The New York History Blog.

He has worked in media for 25 years as a print journalist, a documentary television producer, and now in new media. He's on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and is the author of two books of regional history.

John's weekly Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report airs across the Adirondack North Country Region on the North Country Public Radio network.

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