The Trial Of John Brown


In the ranks of a Richmond militia company stood an unknown young private named John Wilkes Booth. Commanding a red-and-gray-clad unit of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute was Major Thomas Jackson, soon to be renamed Stonewall. In a letter to his wife that night he told how the sheriff, after the cruel delay, finally severed the rope that held the tray door and “Brown fell through about five inches, his knees falling on a level with the position occupied by his feet before the rope was cut. With the fall his arms, below the elbows, flew up horizontally, his hands clinched; and his arms gradually fell, but by spasmodic motions. … Soon the wind blew his lifeless body to and fro. … I sent up a petition that he might be saved.” Colonel Preston advanced to the scaffold and thundered: “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!”

Speaking in Kansas the same day, Abraham Lincoln said: “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.” But the voices of moderation were lost in the shouts of extremists south and north. Senator J.M. Mason of Virginia, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, fulminated: “John Brown’s invasion was condemned [in the North] only because it failed.” The Joint Committee of the General Assembly of Virginia declared, “The crimes of John Brown were neither more nor less than practical illustrations of the doctrines of the leaders of the Republican party. …”

A year and a half later, Governor Wise, out of office, inspired a detachment of Virginians to seize the same Harpers Ferry arsenal, an act of reckless violence which did much to help the secessionists carry the day in the Virginia Convention. Lawson Botts, who had defended John Brown so ably, died a Confederate colonel in the Second Battle of Bull Run. His fellow attorney, Thomas Green, served as a private in Botts’ regiment. Prosecutor Andrew Hunter emerged from the war a ruined man, his fine house burned by northern troops. Charles Harding, dissipated as he was, volunteered to serve his native state with a musket on his shoulder and early in the war died of pneumonia after a freezing night on picket duty.

On July 18, 1861, the 12th Massachusetts Regiment marched through the streets of Boston singing an improvised song about John Brown’s body. Men from Ohio sang other versions of it as the nation plunged into four mad years of war. In his poem in praise of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wry Oliver Wendell Holmes unintentionally best assayed John Brown’s role in the holocaust when he wrote:

All through the conflict up and down
Marched Uncle Tom and Old John Brown,
One ghost, one form ideal.
And which was false and which was true,
And which was mightier of the two,
The wisest sybil never knew,
For both alike were real.