Friday, October 16, 2009

John Brown's Raid, Part I

The John Brown Bell forever linked the history of the 13th Mass Volunteers with abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. October 16th 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the raid and I wanted to post a detailed narrative of the event. While preparing the post I found myself ensnared in a tangle of discrepancies. The story has been re-told many times, but in each version details differed; identities are confused, the order of events is jumbled, and the puzzle must be re-assembled with each re-telling. Initially I relied on two Books, “Six Years of Hell: Harper’s Ferry During the Civil War,” by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press, 1996; and “John Brown Abolitionist” by David S. Reynolds, Knopf; 2005. When I came across differences in these two accounts I was forced to look deeper, and I found some of the original sources they quote. I found many of them but not all, so I am still indebted to both these authors for my version, and want to give them full credit.

John Brown had long wanted to invade the South to free the slaves. In August, 1857 when Kansas seemed to be well on its way to becoming a free state, Brown turned his attention to planning the raid in earnest. In July of 1859 he rented the Kennedy Farmhouse near Sandy Hook, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and gathered together his weapons, supplies and small army of followers. Around the town he assumed the identity of ‘Isaac Smith,’ prospector of minerals. The party took long rambles over the mountains in the vicinity. One of Brown’s followers from Kansas days, John E. Cook, had settled in Harper’s Ferry a couple of years prior to the raid to familiarize himself with the town and surrounding area. Cook married into a respectable local family and held many jobs, including schoolmaster and Lock Keeper on the C & O canal. He was also supposed to be gauging support from the slave population for the coming insurrection. He often boasted to citizens of his participation in events in “Bloody Kansas” when Free-Staters battled pro-slavery Border Ruffians for control of the state. Cooke was an avid gun enthusiast and befriended Col. Lewis Washington, a prominent citizen of the town, who shared the same passion. He was also a loose talker and had told friends at the Ferry there would soon be a ‘disturbance’ or ‘active uneasiness’ among the darkies.*

Brown’s objective was to capture the thousands of rifles at the Federal Armory and Arsenal in the town, take hostages, gather together a band of freed slaves and head into the mountains of Virginia with the captured weapons where they would insight a general slave insurrection in the heart of the south. It was hoped slaves would flee to the mountains to join the rebellion, and the weapons used only in self defense. Cooke had reported the local slaves were willing when the time came to join the rebellion. Brown’s philosophy was, “give a slave a pike and you make him a man. Deprive him of the means of resistance and you keep him down.” To facilitate this he had 950 pikes manufactured in New England and delivered to the Kennedy Farm. He believed the slaves longed to revolt and were just waiting for a chance to rise against their masters. It didn’t happen.

The Raid

At 8 p.m. on the chilly, drizzly night of October 16, John Brown set out from the Kennedy Farm for the town of Harper’s Ferry six miles away. Three men remained behind to guard arms and supplies left at the farm house until they could be moved to the school-house two miles from the Ferry on the Maryland side of the Potomac, selected as a rendezvous point for those who flocked to the army of the liberators.

Brown lead the band in a wagon filled with pikes, torches and tools while his men followed behind, in pairs, several paces apart. . When the party approached the town about 10 p.m. two men John Cooke and Charles Tidd fell out to cut the telegraph lines east and west. At the Potomac Bridge into town the men capped their rifles and mounted bayonets. The bridge was maintained by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It had a wagon path and a railroad tracks. Brown’s two most experienced men, ‘Captains’ Aaron Stevens and John Henri Kagi ran ahead and took watchman Bill Williams prisoner. Surprised, Williams thought they were joking. He recognized John Cooke and the man known as Isaac Smith, when they approached over the wagon road. The Sharps carbines leveled at his breast proved they were serious and that he was their prisoner. Oliver Brown and Will Thompson remained on the bridge to guard passage in and out of the town. The rest of the party crossed the bridge onto the Ferry Lot. They moved past the Potomac Restaurant and Wager House, a hotel and railroad station, and preceded to the Armory grounds. The gate was locked. The guard Daniel Whelan stepped out to investigate. Brown ordered him to open the gate.

“I couldn’t if I was stuck,” replied Whelan. One man began to climb the fence, another man seized Wheelan through the bars and pinned him against the iron gate demanding a key.

“We haven’t got time to bother with a key,” Stevens said. He grabbed a crow bar from Brown’s wagon and twisted the chain lock until it snapped. Wheelan began to shout.

Brown told the watchman to keep quiet. “I have come here from Kansas and this is a slave state. I want to free all the negroes in this State. I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood.”

Two men, Albert Hazlett and Edwin Coppic ran across the Ferry Lot and occupied the Federal Arsenal building. Brown posted guards at the armory, then lead a party of men down Shenandoah street. Watson Brown and Stewart Taylor took their position as guards the bridge over the Shenandoah River. Further down the raiders captured the elderly night watchmen Sam Williams, at Hall’s Rifle Works. Sam Williams was Bill Williams’s father. John Henri Kagi, and Anthony Copeland posted at the rifle works, then Brown and his men, with some prisoners captured on the streets, returned to the Armory. The town was secure. Everything worked smoothly. His men controlled the Federal Armory grounds, the Federal Arsenal, the two bridges into town, and Hall’s Rifle works. Stevens, Cooke, and Osborne Anderson, with five others were then dispatched in the wagon to the home of Colonel Lewis Washington on the Charlestown road. Word of the rebellion was to be spread among any slaves encountered along the five mile route.

Colonel Lewis Washington was Great Grandnephew of George Washington. He would be an important hostage. About midnight the raiders arrived at the family estate and broke into the back entrance of the home with a fence rail. Stevens called out for the Colonel who soon appeared in his night clothes. He was the only member of the family home. At first he thought the intruders to be friends of his. Stevens explained to him ‘that they would take his slaves not his life and that he must go to the ferry as their prisoner.’* Col. Washington kept his composure, coolly observing the party as he changed clothes and prepared to leave. Stevens asked for two particular artifacts, both family heirlooms that had belonged to George Washington. The first was the sword of Fredrick the Great, the other a pistol given to the President by Lafayette. Brown wanted the artifacts handed over to Osborne Anderson, a colored man as a symbolic gesture of the great cause of freedom that was underway. John E. Cooke, who had befriended Col. Washington, told Brown about the artifacts.

Outside the Colonel found his own carriage parked in front of his large farm wagon and a four horse team loaded with his slaves and armed men. The slaves had been told to come and fight for their freedom. The party set out next for the home of Planter John H. Allstadt, two miles from the Ferry on the same road. The wagons rattled down the road and stopped in front of Allstadt's house. Mr. Allstadt looked out and saw Col. Washington in his carriage. In the big wagon were three of his slaves and two men on the seat with guns in their hands. They didn't make any explanation, but made him call out his negroes. He and his six slaves were bundled into the wagon and driven away down the Pike. Allstadt's 18 year old son joined them in order to look after his father.

Brown waited at the armory.

At midnight, Patrick Higgins of Sandy Hook, relief watchman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad arrived at the Potomac Bridge. Finding everything dark he called out for Bill Williams. There was no answer. Higgins picked up a lantern and started down the tracks. About ½ ways over the bridge a voice from the shadows ordered him to halt. He ignored the command and was suddenly seized by the coat and told ‘come along.” Taking a few steps with the mysterious captor Higgins spied several guns and pikes stacked up on the bridge. Frightened, he knocked his attacker in the temple then shoved him aside. Higgins fled toward town.

Oliver Brown** was thrown off balance a moment, then aimed his rifle and fired. Higgins hat flew off as the bullet grazed his skull. He quickened his pace and stumbled into the Wager House. Bleeding, he told the night clerk armed men were on the bridge and Bill Williams was missing. The clerk attributed Higgins ranting to drinking too much bad whisky and told him as much. An argument followed with Higgins repeating his story. The clerk remained steadfast. Later, the aged and infirm bartender of the saloon, Walter “Uncle Watty” Kemp went out to investigate and was gobbled up by the raiders.

Near the Armory gate, John Brown heard the hollow report of the riffle and wondered if anyone else did. He listened and watched intently in the darkness.

*David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, p.303.
*Hinton, John Brown and His Men.
**There is confusion as to the identity of Brown’s two sons, Watson and Oliver. I have favored the accounts that state Oliver was on the Potomac Bridge.

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