- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Even in the midst of the most tragic events, there are often circumstances, calculated to excite the risibles. It happened, most fortunately, that none of the hostages held by Brown in the engine house, were injured.
Among the first who came forth was Col. Lewis Washington, who stepped daintily out, carefully drawing on a pair of kid gloves. Considering the dreadful situation in which he had been placed for twenty four hours, it was a rare exhibition of coolness. Doubtless he had in mind the ancient maxim—“Noblesse oblige.”
Very near him was Mr. Ball, the master mechanic, an enormously fat man who seemed scarce able to restrain himself from dancing in the excess of his joy. Others rushed tumultuously out, and were soon in the arms of wives and daughters who were anxiously waiting outside.
One of Brown’s sons, mortally wounded, was brought out and laid in the yard. He was not dead, but evidently in the death agony. It was afterward asserted, by northern sympathisers, that his unconscious body was brutally outraged; but though I saw it for several minutes, surrounded by an excited crowd, I witnessed nothing of that kind. He died in a very short time.
The uninjured prisoners were confined in one of the shops of the Armory. Brown himself, and Stevens, his wounded lieutenant, who had been brought from the hotel, were placed in an adjoining building.
I cannot now undertake to say whether it was Tuesday afternoon or the next day, but either on the one or the other, my brother and myself were admitted to the apartment where Brown and Stevens were confined. We were present at a most notable interview. Beside ourselves, there were present, Hon. Henry A. Wise, governor of Virginia; Col. Robt. E. Lee; Lieut. J. E. B. Stuart; Hon. J. M. Mason, senator from Virginia; Hon. C. L. Valandigham, member of Congress from Ohio; an editor or reporter of the “Baltimore Sun,” an artist from one of the New York illustrated papers; and several others.
In the long interview which followed, a strong effort was made to induce Brown, to give all the details of his undertaking. So far as he and those who were actually in arms with him were concerned, he seemed to have nothing to conceal. He boldly avowed that his purpose was to liberate the slaves, that he believed his cause was righteous, and sufficient to cover or justify, all violations of human codes, opposed to his views; that the men who were with him fully concurred in his opinions, and were ready to face, with him, the responsibility for their acts. But when he was pressed to disclose the names of those persons in the North, who had sympathized with, aided, or encouraged his undertaking, he was as silent as the Egyptian Sphinx. I have never seen such an impersonation of stern resolution and constancy. Once or twice when his comrade Stevens was more communicative than he thought he ought to be, he turned painfully towards him, and rebuked him in terms, which effectually reduced him to silence. Redpath in his biography of Brown has reported this interview, and according to my recollection his report is substantially correct. One little circumstance occurring in the interview, impressed me specially. Some one asked Brown what wages he paid his men. One of the bystanders (Lieut. Stuart I am quite sure), said quickly—“The wages of sin is death.” Brown turned to him with considerable dignity and said; “Young man had you been my prisoner and wounded, I would not have insulted you.” I may not give his exact words, but I am sure the discrepancy, if any, is slight. Although both Stevens and his chief were subjected to a long examination, not one word was elicited from either, incriminating any person except those engaged in their insensate enterprize.
While this interview was in progress, I had the fullest opportunity to observe this extraordinary old man. A sterner or more determined countenance I never saw. To deny him the possession of courage would be absurd. He had demonstrated that quality a hundred times. But that is the most common of human virtues. The large majority of men possess it, or else qualities supplying its place, and so closely resembling it, that it would require the most searching analysis, to distinguish them.
That he was sincere, was equally manifest. No man would so freely hazard his own life, and the lives of his sons and friends, unless he was firmly convinced of the justice of his cause. But when this has been said in behalf of John Brown, all, that can be, has been said. He was a fanatic of the most dangerous type. A man liable to mistake a passion, for an inspiration; an ordinary dream, for a vision specially sent from heaven.
It is a curious circumstance, that a man like Brown, of Puritan ancestry, bred to regard a Roman Catholic , as a person doomed to eternal perdition, should adopt as a cardinal point of his faith, the most odious and dangerous of Jesuitical maxims, that “the end justifies the means.” Yet it is certain that he did so. He regarded slavery as the great crime of modern times. To abolish it he would stop at nothing. To liberate one slave, he would not have hesitated to hazard the lives of his own family and friends, or to sacrifice the lives of a whole Southern community.