- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
With difficulty we dissuaded him. He then insisted that he would walk up the railroad platform, and look into the armory yard. His friends tried to prevent this, for the danger was equally great. Next to the building, in which he lodged, was a water tank and beyond that nothing but a railing. When a man stepped beyond the tank, he would be immediately in front of the engine house, and not more than a hundred feet distant. Remonstrance was vain. The old gentleman could not be induced to believe, that the invaders would fire upon an unarmed man. Attended part of the way by anxious friends, he walked to the water tank and took one step beyond, thereby exposing his body. Scarcely had he done so, when a shot was fired from the engine house, and the unfortunate man fell forward, upon his face—dead. Within a short time we got his body under shelter, and with tender and reverent hands bore it to his chamber.
Almost immediately after this sad event, an angry and excited body of men, rushed into the hotel bringing one of Brown’s followers, Thompson by name, a prisoner. They took him into the parlor and placed him in a chair; then taking position opposite him were about to shoot him on the spot. Several of us remonstrated and reasoned with them, but to no effect. Their purpose would have been infallibly executed, had not relief come from an unexpected quarter. Miss Christine Fouke the sister of the proprietor, came suddenly into the room, and placing herself in front of the doomed man, told his executioners, that if they killed him they must shoot through her body. Her task was difficult, for the men were wrought to the highest pitch of excitement and passion, and one of them was not only the kinsman but the warmest friend and admirer of the murdered Mayor. They both cajoled and threatened the lady, but she remained firm and for the time prevailed. To my eyes that plain old spinster was at that moment heroic. She had not saved the man’s life however, but only delayed his execution. He was dragged out to the R.R. bridge and there shot by his captors. He fell between the ties into the river below. Then followed the most sickening spectacle ever witnessed. As he sunk a crimson tide dyed the water above him. He rose in a moment and started to swim. Then he became a target for the men above who fired rapidly. More than once he went down and each time the water would be dyed with his blood, and each time he would strike out feebly when he rose. At last he reached a little island or rock about fifty yards from the shore, upon which he dragged himself. He could not have lived long, for a shower of lead was poured upon him. There he remained the rest of the day, a ghastly object.
Returning to the house in which Mr. Beckham lived, I ventured to look into the armory yard from one of the windows, and saw a body of men, (a volunteer company from Martinsburg), dash from behind one of the armory buildings, and advance upon the engine house. They were welcomed by a volley, and several men being wounded, they retired. After this a constant fire was kept up, but nothing further of importance occurred during the day.
Brown had lost eleven or twelve men, including two of his sons, one of whom lay dead and the other mortally wounded in the engine house, while he was himself securely caught in a trap of his own making. He had also inflicted severe loss on our people. It seemed the very irony of fate, that the very first person killed by these “liberators” as they called themselves, should be one of the oppressed race, whom they said they came to set free. Beside this unfortunate negro, a citizen named Beverly, Mr. George Turner, one of the most highly esteemed gentlemen of the county and Mr. Beckham, the mayor had been killed, and quite a number had been wounded.
Late in the afternoon my brother joined me, and we rejoiced greatly that both were safe and unhurt. I left the hotel with him, and an hour after, was armed with a gun of obsolete pattern, and was a soldier in the besieging army.
During the day Brown had several times made overtures, and proposed to evacuate the town, but upon conditions so absurd that they could not be granted.
So, when night closed, Brown was shut up in his fort, with the survivors of his band, and his prisoners, and was surrounded by a host already large, and constantly increasing.
On that Monday night, my brother and I and several others, determined to keep watch and ward at the house of a friend, quite near the engine house. Accordingly after supper we gathered around the fire and sat until a late hour discussing the events of the day. About midnight we heard the whistle of an engine and hastened to the station. Very soon a long train from Baltimore came steaming in. It brought a body of U.S. marines (some ninety in number) commanded by Col. Rob’t E. Lee (afterwards the great Confederate general). With him were Lieut. J. E. B. Stuart (afterwards the Confederate cavalry leader), who had volunteered for the occasion, and Lieut. Israel Green of the Marine Corps, as subordinates. There was also a large number of volunteer soldiers from Maryland and many civilians including, it was said, a noted “Plug Ugly” club from Baltimore. Great relief was felt when the troops appeared, for, while it would have been easy for the armed men then on the ground, to batter down the door of the engine house, and take Brown and his men, yet being undisciplined, their loss would have been great, and above all such movement would have been attended with serious danger to our unhappy friends, who were in Brown’s custody. With regular and disciplined troops these hazards would be lessened.