- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Shortly before he died, Edward White decided to put down on paper a fascinating story, which he entitled “A Personal Reminiscence of John Brown.” It is a graphic eyewitness account of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), his capture and interrogation. White, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was then nineteen years old. Nearing death almost three decades later, he began writing his report of those momentous events in a flourishing script. But he was ill and the effort was too much, so he dictated instead to his teen-age daughter Margaret. White’s account, which has never before been published, is reprinted here with the kind permission of his grand-daughter, Mrs. Murray Longley Griffiths, of Balboa Island, California. Spelling and punctuation follow the original document.
Not long since, I went from St. Louis to New York, by the Baltimore and Ohio R.R. route. I had been on the way about thirty hours, and late in the afternoon of a dull, gloomy, drizzly day, I was lying back, dozing, on the velvet cushions of a Pullman Car, when the shrill whistle of the engine partially roused me to the fact that we were entering a station. Languidly, raising my head, in that semi conscious state, between sleeping and waking, with which all are familiar; I glanced through the window at my right, when an object presented itself, which instantly roused me to a state of excited wakefulness.
We were just pulling into a station, on an elevated trestle work. On the left ran the Potomac river many feet below; on the right was a long enclosure, filled with dilapidated brick buildings, and immediately in front of me, as I looked from the window, was a small building, fallen into a state of decay, on the front of which, just over the door, were inscribed the words “John Brown’s Fort.”
I realized at once that I was at Harper’s Ferry and that the ruined building before me was the place where that misguided man John Brown had made his last stand. In an instant time was annihilated and there came vividly before my mind a like, dark, gloomy and drizzly day, twenty eight years ago, when I was in the same town of Harper’s Ferry, and when this strange man John Brown was holding this little fort against the incensed people of Virginia.
At the time of what is popularly known as the “John Brown raid” I was a boy of nineteen, but had been engaged for several months in teaching a private school at Harper’s Ferry. I was boarding at the “Wager Hotel,” which stood at the Baltimore and Ohio R.R. depot, and within a few feet of the bridge over the Potomac river. It is well known that Harper’s Ferry is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and that the business portion of the town lies at the foot of the immense hills (even mountains), which rise near the banks of the two rivers. Upon the heights are many residences but the town proper lies below, extending along the Shenandoah to the west and the Potomac to the north. For about a mile to the north the bank of the Potomac is so low that the B.&O. R.R. is elevated upon a trestle work, and for at least three-fourths of a mile leading to the station it is floored, up to the point where it enters upon the bridge. The long enclosure filled with dilapidated buildings, hereinbefore referred to, belonged to the U.S. government, and the ruined buildings were formerly the shops and offices constituting the government armory. The grounds were long and comparatively narrow. There was a roadway through the entire length on either side of which were the work-shops and offices. In front of these on both sides of the road were foot-ways or sidewalks. On the west side of the enclosure was a high brick wall; on the east the R.R. trestle work. The southern extremity was on the principal street of the town (Shenandoah); at which point there was a handsome iron fence on a stone foundation. The entrance was closed by heavy iron gates. Within this enclosure the smooth bore guns or muskets were made.
A young Virginian was visiting his brother when suddenly, in the middle of the night, the town awoke to a scene of terror
The arsenal where the surplus arms were kept was near the Shenandoah and not more than a thousand feet from the armory.
About a mile west and near the bank of the Shenandoah was the building known as the rifle works. At this time my brother a Presbyterian minister was in charge of the church at Harper’s Ferry, and was in the habit of preaching there every other Sunday. He usually arrived on Saturday and was accustomed to stay with one of the members of his congregation until Monday. I was always invited to stay and often did stay with him Saturday and Sunday nights.
One of his regular Sundays at Harper’s Ferry was the fated day October i6th, 1859. He came down on Saturday and was entertained by Mr. Welsh a member of the great milling firm of Welsh, Legg and Herr. He lived about half a mile west of the junction of the rivers and about midway between my hotel and the rifle works. After the evening service on Sunday I accepted Mr. Welsh’s invitation to spend the night with my brother.
I am convinced that there has never been a time in the history of the world when the inhabitants of a community large or small retired to their beds more peacefully, or more free from apprehension of danger, than did those of Harper’s Ferry on that Sunday night. My brother and I sat up, in our room, until a late hour, discussing matters of interest to us, and it seemed to me, I had scarcely fallen into a doze, (though in point of fact I had slept several hours), when our host awakened us. A single glance sufficed to show us that something very unusual had occurred. His countenance wore a troubled look and was pale as death. In answer to our anxious inquiries as to what had happened, he stated that the town was in possession of armed men; that they had captured the armory buildings and arsenal and were supposed to be in great strength, and that a detachment had just passed up the road to occupy the rifle works. The general opinion was, he said, that they were abolitionists.
These were indeed serious tidings. We were hastily engaged in our toilet.
I must confess, that through my mind floated vague visions of horns and hoofs and forked tails, for be it remembered I was very young, had never been north of Mason and Dixon’s line, and from my tenderest years had been led to regard abolitionists as being nearly allied to his Satanic Majesty. After a mere pretense of breakfasting we went out upon the street.
That which struck me then, and which has since seemed to me one of the most solemn and impressive circumstances connected with that strange affair, was the dead calm or hush that seemed to have fallen upon the whole community.
Every where were groups of men, and sometimes of women, engaged in deep and earnest conversation; but they spoke with bated breath, and awe struck countenances. And when they moved they did so with cautious tread, as though they feared to attract attention, or to come suddenly upon some unseen enemy.
Should any reader of this article be inclined to attribute this fact to cowardly fear, let me say, such reader is greatly mistaken. I have personal knowledge that many of those whom, on that day, I saw anxious and awestruck in the streets, proved themselves in the great war which soon followed, the bravest of the brave.
The truth is, the community had been struck as though by lightning. They believed themselves to be in the power of an overwhelming force of those, whom they had regarded as their deadly enemies.
The man who had said to them that this audacious invasion, had been made by nineteen men, would at that hour of the morning have been laughed to scorn.
They believed the many armory buildings to be filled with armed men, and not dreaming that even such a force, would attempt, unsupported , to assail, not only the State of Virginia, but the United States Government itself; they saw vaguely limned upon a dark background, the outline of a countless host of abolitionists, ready to come to the rescue of the invaders.
Can it then be wondered at that the people of this peaceful town were for the time dazed and confounded?
We approached one of the groups and entered into conversation, but had scarcely done so when a man (who proved to be Mr. Throck Morton clerk of my hotel), came up from the east. He had been sent on some errand to that part of the town, and was to return immediately. I, at once, announced my intention of going back with him. This was warmly opposed by my brother and other friends, as they thought I would be incurring unnecessary danger. I was young, as I have said, full of sentiment and romance. I had a number of friends, male and female, at the hotel, and I felt that my leaving them on Sunday night, (though totally unconscious of impending danger), was in some sort a desertion; and that the only reparation in my power was to go back and share their fate. Accordingly my friends took leave of me, as though I was being led to immediate execution, and I went with the clerk.
For a time we walked along the railroad track, and then turned into Shenandoah street. This street ran parallel to the Shenandoah river, from the western limits of the town to a point near the bank of the Potomac.
As we passed down this street, the groups became fewer and fewer, until at last the street seemed entirely deserted. An ominous stillness prevailed. I have not mentioned that all this time the skies were lowering, and drops of rain fell from time to time, while over the great heights on the opposite sides of both Potomac and Shenandoah, hung great banks of mist; giving to all nature a most gloomy and threatening aspect. The eastern terminus of Shenandoah street was immediately in front of the armory gates, and from that point running south, was a short street, not more than four hundred feet long, terminating at certain buildings erected near the banks of the Shenandoah. One of the entrances to the “Wager Hotel” was on this short street, and the distance from its door to the engine house, which was John Brown’s final place of defense, did not exceed one hundred feet.
As we approached the armory we saw several groups, or rather couples of men, hard featured, roughly clad, wrapped in blankets or rubber cloths, beneath which protruded the sinister muzzles of Sharp’s rifles. “There they are” said my companion “keep quiet.” And I kept quiet.
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.
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.
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.
The troops were quartered in the armory buildings, sentinels were duly posted, and with a feeling of perfect security the weary community sunk into repose.
By daylight on Tuesday morning everything was astir. Everybody was moving towards the armory gate; men in the dress of civilians and men in militia uniforms, men with arms in their hands, and men without, white and black,—all pressing toward the same point.
Inside the enclosure all was quiet. Brown was silent in his fort; the Marine sentinels were pacing slowly back and forth; the rest of the troops were in their improvised barracks. All was still and orderly, where but a few hours before had been confusion and noise and wounds and death. The people outside crowded up to the fence enclosing the grounds, and to the gate. Those in the front rank could almost have touched the wall of the engine house. The short street I have referred to as extending from the armory fence to the houses on the bank of the Shenandoah river; was densely packed along its whole length. So was Shenandoah street far beyond the armory premises. The windows in the surrounding houses were crowded. The railroad platform was filled to overflowing. All eyes were directed to one spot. All were awaiting the final act of the drama. It was realized that the affair was now in the hands of the United States Government. Civilians and citizen soldiers who had been pounding away all the day before, were now alike mere spectators.
Many were the rumors and speculations that passed through the crowd. Some thought Brown would now certainly realize the hopelessness of his situation, and would surrender at discretion. They little knew the nature of the man.
The situation was curious. The day before, no man would have willingly exposed any part of his body within gunshot of that little brick building. Now a dense mass of humanity surrounded it on every side, large numbers being but a few feet distant. Had Brown opened fire from his loopholes, every shot would have wrough[t] death. But had he ventured to do so, his remains and those of his comrades, would not have afforded material enough for a coroner’s inquest.
My brother and I, though not in front, were in a position from which we could easily see all that passed in the yard.
Time dragged and people became impatient. At last all was ready and the Marines filed from their barracks. Expectation was now on tiptoe, and perfect silence fell suddenly upon the multitude. The main body of troops was drawn up out of range of the engine house. Two detachments were formed, each consisting of ten or twelve men, commanded respectively by Lieutenants Stuart and Green. They were arrayed in column near the engine house door. Stuart then advanced to the door and demanded the surrender of Brown and his men. Brown replied by renewing his proposition to evacuate, provided he should be allowed to retreat a certain distance, before pursuit was begun. This was of course rejected, and Brown in turn refusing to surrender unconditionally, Stuart stepped aside and gave a signal. At once two stalwart marines from his detachment, armed with what seemed to be a heavy sledge hammer assailed the door with Titanic blows. But it was in vain. The tough mass of wood and iron resisted their efforts and they retired. What was to be done?
Near at hand was lying a long and heavy ladder. Stuart saw it. In an instant the whole of his detachment had seized it. Using it as a sort of modern battering-ram, they rushed upon the door.
While these proceedings were going forward, the detachment of Lieut. Green stood expectant.
No eye witness can ever forget the bearing of that gallant officer. He stood erect in front of his men- motionless as a statue. His head was thrown proudly back; his countenance expressive of high resolution. His men too were steady and determined.
Once—Twice—the impromptu battering ram thundered upon the door. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash and a fragment of the door some two and a half feet wide, and extending from top to bottom, was hurled in upon the defenders.
In less time than I can attempt to tell it, the motionless figure of Lieut. Green sprang into life. He leaped through the breach, followed by his men. Fortunately for him his foot tripped on the tongue of the engine or hose carriage, and he fell. At the moment, Brown himself fired; but the ball, intended for Green, struck the unfortunate Marine who followed, and he lived but few hours. Another Marine was slightly wounded in the face.
In an instant Green was upon his feet, and assailing Brown with his sabre.
It was afterwards claimed by Brown and his friends that Green sabred him after he was down and had surrendered; but the truth is that Brown not only tried to shoot him as he came in, but resisted and tried to kill him to the last. Green had no alternative but to disable him. After all, Brown’s wounds were by no means serious.
When the Marines entered the building, there was nothing appreciable to the excited spectators but noise, confusion and smoke. Not more than five minutes could have elapsed, before the soldiers emerged, bringing their prisoners, and after them, the citizens who had been kept so long in “durance vile.”
Then, and not until then, the breathless silence outside was broken, and from thousands of throats rose a shout, that rent the air.
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.
From the earliest ages, men of this class have existed. Their immediate surroundings, and the conditions of society have been different, but the type has always remained the same. Moore, in the Fire-Worshipers has so graphically described the religious fanatic, in the person of the Mohammedan chief, sent to exterminate the worshipers of the sun, that I cannot refrain from quoting it.
This extract though written of a different age, and a wholly different state of society, portrays the character of John Brown, as it impressed me from what I had heard and then saw of him. His followers were young men, whom he had induced to take part with him in his mad effort.
How far he should be held responsible, for their untimely and inglorious death, I shall not attempt to discuss. He has been long since called to answer before the highest tribunal, for his conduct in the whole affair.
I have now related all I know of the “John Brown Raid” except this. The day after the capture of Brown, or possibly the second day, a party of volunteer soldiery, ascended the mountain on the Maryland side of the river, and found at Brown’s farm house, and at a log school house not far distant, a considerable number of rifles, pistols, hideous looking pikes, and a great variety of other things. These were brought to Harper’s Ferry and were eagerly sought as relics.
Several things came into my possession, but only one remains with me to this day. This is a large leather bag, or haversack, arranged like a mail-bag and secured by a padlock. 1 saw it among Brown’s effects, and it became the property of Maj. W. S. Downer, a clerk in the armory, who gave it to me. It was at the time , identified by many persons as having been used by Brown and his men when they lived in the mountain, as a mail-bag. Its chief value to me, however, consists in the fact, that it is an old and has been a useful friend. During the four years of our disastrous civil war it was constantly with me. In it, I carried my scanty supply of clothing, and over and over again it proved a soft and luxurious pillow.
I take it if Brown could have foreseen the use to which it was subsequently to be put, it would never have come into my possession.
It demonstrates the weakness of human nature, that while immediately after his ill fated attempt, few could be found bold enough to approve, or defend Brown’s course; there are now thousands striving to place his name on the roll of Martyrs.
But let the opinion of posterity be what it will, on the subject of slavery in the Southern States; Brown’s character in history can never be any thing but that of a misguided and most dangerous fanatic.