- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
We passed several of the parties and not a word was spoken, in fact they seemed scarcely to notice us. As we approached the gate, I perceived a figure standing just within, which, while life lasts, I shall never forget. It was a man somewhat advanced in life, clad like the others, but without blanket or oilcloth.
There he stood, tall, gaunt, gray and grim, with a countenance, though certainly not ferocious, yet terribly stern and menacing. “That is the leader” said Throck Morton. He need not have said it, I realized it at a glance. As we turned into the short street and advanced to the door of the hotel, two of the invaders followed us but did not speak, and we entered and closed the door, unmolested. I felt all the time, however, that the eye of that stern old man was fixed upon us, and, in point of fact, we were the last who, for many hours, entered or went out by that door.
When I reached the office of the hotel, I found the guests, the proprietor and some of the employees huddled together discussing the exciting event in an earnest manner, but with the same subdued and awestruck tones, I had observed on the street. “What does it mean?”—“Who is the leader?” were the all absorbing questions. I knew nothing and simply listened. One gentleman, whom, I well knew, a druggist of the town, ventured the opinion that the leader was “the grey-eyed man of destiny, General Walker, the filibuster.” The question was at once asked “why should he invade Virginia.” “It is not Virginia, but the U.S. Armory he is invading. He wants arms for his filibustering expeditions,” replied the doctor. This explanation was at once voted unsatisfactory. “Did he give any name when he came?” I inquired, taking part in the conversation for the first time. “Yes, he called himself J. Smith,” replied Mr. Fouke the proprietor of the hotel. I then asked for information as to what had occurred in the night, and this is the substance of what I heard. That about midnight of Sunday, Oct. 16th, a body of armed men had crossed the Potomac bridge, that when they were near the Harper’s Ferry side, their passage had been opposed by Heyward, a faithful colored man employed, as porter, by the Baltimore and Ohio R.R., and that he had been shot and mortally wounded, that thereupon the invaders entered the town, overpowered the two guards at the Armory, opened the gates and took possession. That later a party of them headed by their chief stopped the train on the B.&O. road bound for Baltimore, and detained it several hours. About daylight in the morning, it was permitted to pass on its way (a fatal mistake on Brown’s part, for the conductor at the next station telegraphed exaggerated accounts of the affair, thereby arousing the country and eventually bringing down on him the strong arm of the government). I learned further that Brown had sent a party of his men into the country, and that they had returned, bringing with them Col. Lewis Washington and Mr. Alstadt, prominent gentlemen of the county, together with several of their slaves; that soon after daylight they had taken Mr. Mills and Mr. Ball, (Master Armour and Master Mechanic, if 1 remember their positions aright), together with numerous employees and operatives, as they came down to their work. These, with citizens of the county and town made prisoners by Brown, amounted in all to fifty or sixty persons, and they were then held inside the Armory enclosure. This was all the information I could obtain, save the fact that Brown had made a requisition on the hotel-keeper for provisions, and had gotten the larger part of what was in the house.
While I was learning these facts the day was advancing. It must have been nine o’clock, and still the same ominous silence reigned in the town. The stores were closed and the streets about the hotel were deserted by all, except the invaders, who continued to patrol them. About this time there was a loud knocking at the door of the hotel, opening on the street. Two of Brown’s men presented themselves, and announced, as an order from their chief, that all persons then in the hotel must remain, and that if any appeared on the streets, or at the windows, they would be treated as enemies, and shot. This effectually made us prisoners. We could of course have crossed the bridge into Maryland, but the only way we could get into the town, was by going down upon the street within short range of the guns of the invaders. It was about this time, too, that we first learned who the grim old leader really was. How the knowledge came I cannot now recall, but in some way it became understood among us, that he was John Brown of Kansas notoriety. Soon after we heard distant firing, then it grew nearer and louder, and it was not long before we heard shots just around the corner, on Shenandoah street.
At last the torpor was shaken off; the people were aroused; countrymen were arriving with their rifles and fowling pieces. The firing now became rapid and continuous, and it was evident that men were moving from several different directions and were converging toward one point,—the guard and engine house, at the front of the armory grounds.