- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
There is one circumstance connected with this affair, which has puzzled many people. It is, that so long a time was permitted to elapse before any determined resistance was made to Brown’s invasion. At this late day I cannot be certain about the time, but I am satisfied it must have been ten o’clock, at least, before any general attack was made on Brown’s men. But this fact is easily accounted for. Strange as it may seem,—with two large establishments for the manufacture of arms and with an arsenal stored with weapons of every kind, new and old, Harper’s Ferry was an unarmed town. I was told afterwards and I believe it was true, that except those in the Armory and Arsenal there were not six guns of any kind in the place.
No wonder then, that with the government buildings and arms in possession of the invaders, the townspeople were incapable of resistance until their country friends came to the rescue.
When the firing had continued an hour, John Brown’s hopes for the success of his enterprise, (if he ever had any), must have been completely dissipated.
He had lost nearly two thirds of his men. Those whom he had sent to occupy the rifle works had been driven out and killed. Those who guarded the Arsenal and patrolled the streets, had been killed, with the exception of one or two who made their way to him. Stevens, the second in command, had been dangerously wounded in the street near the hotel. With about six men left, and surrounded by an infuriated people, fully armed, since the recovery of the Arsenal, he was indeed in desperate case. At this juncture he selected from among his prisoners, ten whom he believed to be the most prominent and influential, and with them and his few surviving comrades, retired into the engine house .
I will explain here that at the front of the long armory grounds and within a few feet of the gate, stood a small one-story brick building, divided by a brick wall into two compartments. The larger one nearest to the front was used as an engine house. A fire engine, hose carriage and appurtenances were kept in it. The smaller was used by the night watchman of the Armory as a guard room. Into the engine house John Brown retreated and commenced preparations for defense. He had holes made in various parts of the wall through which he could fire on his assailants. The doors of his fort were of heavy wood thickly studded with iron bolts. On two sides of the building, (and unfortunately for him) the most exposed, namely,—the sides presented to Shenandoah street, and the rear of the building, were large semi-circular windows, just under the eaves. There were tall houses just across Shenandoah street, and equally tall ones just across an alley in rear of the engine house. These houses were soon occupied by armed men, and from the upper windows a desultory fire was kept up through the windows of the engine house while daylight lasted. This fire would have been rapid and unceasing, but for fear of injuring our friends, who were held as hostages. In the meantime, the lieutenant, Stevens, who had been shot in the street had been brought into the hotel. He was placed in a comfortable bed, his wounds were dressed, and he was properly cared for. Just after noon several persons, including myself, were in his room, and an attempt was made by some, to elicit information, but he seemed too badly hurt to talk. While this was going on I could not resist the temptation to see what was going forward. I went somewhat incautiously to the window, but had scarcely reached it, when a sharp report rang out from below, and a ball passed through the pane, about two feet above my head. I went , without regard to the order of my going.
By this time the firing had grown monotonous. John Brown was in his fort, with his handful of men, and his hostages. All the rest of his early made prisoners had escaped. Around him was an irate mass of men, firing through door and windows, while he replied at intervals, from the door and his port holes, and sometimes with effect. During this part of the day, from 12 to 3 o’clock, occurred some of the most exciting events of the whole affair.
Two of them came under my immediate observation and made an impression on my memory that cannot be effaced by time. Somewhere within those hours, (I cannot be exact as to time), I went to the room of my friend Mr. Fountain Beckham, which was in a large frame house immediately adjoining the hotel on the north. He was one of the best known citizens of the town, agent of the B.38;O. R.R. , and Mayor of Harper’s Ferry. He was a large, handsome, courtly gentleman, somewhat advanced in age. I found him pacing the floor in a restless and excited frame of mind. He was greatly distressed by the shooting of his faithful attendant, Heyward, the colored man who was Brown’s earliest victim, and he was very much concerned for the safety of the property of his company. He announced his purpose to go out on the street, to see how the fight was progressing. Several who were present warmly protested. We reminded him of Brown’s warning, that he would shoot any person who came from the hotel.