Monday, October 12, 2009

The Last Days of John Brown: Harpers Ferry, Day One

Friday, October 16th, will be the 150th anniversary of the anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry that ended in the trial and execution of John Brown of North Elba. An “Anniversary Procession” will take place from the Kennedy Farm, where Brown and his compatriots spent there last weeks before the raid, to Harpers Ferry. Tim Rowland, 46er, author of High Peaks: A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene, and a regular reader of Adirondack Almanack who lives about 10 miles from the Kennedy Farm, sent this anecdote about the annual John Brown procession:

Over the past several decades, enthusiasts have dressed up in period clothes, shouldered rifles and — on the anniversary of the raid — marched the several miles from the Kennedy farm to Harpers Ferry. The march, or course, occurred late at night and much of the route follows the Potomac River.

On one of these trips, the band of armed, costumed men is marching silently along the river in a heavy fog when some car headlights approach. As the car nears and then slows down, they see the markings of a Washington County sheriff’s cruiser. The men, absorbed in the moment, do not break ranks.

The deputy drives by slowly, but does not stop. The men are aware, however, that after he’s a couple hundred yards past, he stops and turns around, again slowly approaching the formation.

They expect the blue lights to come on at any moment — instead, the deputy draws even, takes one last gaping look — and floors it, getting away from the specter as fast as his cruiser will take him.

In 1859, John Brown and the men he led from atop a wagon loaded with supplies went undiscovered by the local sheriff, or anyone for that matter, on their march from the Kennedy Farm to Harpers Ferry. John Cook and Charles Tidd went forward to cut the telegraphs wires into the village from the east and west.

As Brown reached the Ferry Bridge, he sent his most experienced men, Aaron Stevens and John Kagi, to the front of the small column and onto the bridge. There they encountered William Williams and held him.

At the other side of the bridge Stewart Taylor and Watson Brown were posted to guard the rear. The others snuck toward the armory building along the Potomac River and seized a second watchman, Daniel Whelan. When Whalen refused to turn over the keys, Aaron Stevens used a crowbar to open the door. Brown announced: “I came here from Kansas, and this is a slave State; I want to free all the Negroes in this State; I have possession of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood.”

Edwin and Hazlett Coppoc crossed the street and seized the unguarded arsenal and William Thompson and Oliver Brown proceeded toward the bridge over the Shenandoah River and occupied it. A few bystanders were captured on the street and held in a building in the yard of the armory.

Brown took several men nearly a mile up the Shenendoah to the Hall rifle works, where they overtook the guard and posted Kagi and Stevens to hold the building (they would be later joined by Lewis Sheridan Leary).

In under two hours from the time they had left the Kennedy Farm, John Brown’s guerrilla band had seized the armory, arsenal, and a rifle works, cut the telegraph lines, and seized the bridges into Harpers Ferry.

Three white men (Stevens, and Cook and Tidd who by then had returned from cutting the telegraph wires) and three black (Leary, Osborne Anderson, and Shields Green, who had left Frederick Douglass’s side to join the raid) were sent into the countryside to encourage the local slaves to revolt. The forced Colonel Lewis Washington (great-grandnephew of George Washington) to turn over to a pistol given the first president by Lafayette, and a sword he was given by Fredrick The Great.

About a dozen slaves were brought to the armory and put in charge of their masters. There is some question as to the extent that they participated in the events of the raid, and many seem to have deserted the revolt. At least one however, Lewis Washington’s coachman Jim, fought “like a tiger” according to Osborne Anderson and would die in the battle against the slavers.

Still, at about midnight on October 16th the raid seemed a success and from the rifle works up the Shenendoah Kagi and Stevens sent messages to Brown: we need to pull out immediately, into the hills, to strike again another day.

It was then the John Brown made his fateful error. For what reason there are differing views, but whether Brown was overconfident, or becoming disheartened by the response of local slaves, or for some other reason lost to history, he stalled.

The entire group, having freed about a dozen slaves, could have then retreated into the hills and launched raid upon raid, growing their citizen army into the bane of the slave power.

Instead Brown chose to hold the armory.

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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