The intention of these posts on John Brown's raid was to describe each days event on the anniversary of the actual raid. Unfortunately, after beginning, I found the different accounts of the raid so confusing, and contradictory that it became nearly impossible to give a reliable blow by blow description. I have forged ahead however, using many older sources that quote eye witnesses to the raid. I've tried to reconstruct the events in logical order. Many have tried before me. So the reader is forewarned. I apologize in advance for any discrepancies that come to light.
The Baltimore Express rolled across the railroad bridge and out of Harper’s Ferry around 6 A.M. The early morning light also spurred Dr. John Starry into action. Since Shephard Hayward’s shooting in the night, Dr. Starry was hanging around the Ferry Lot trying to discover the invaders intentions. With the dawn’s light he decided it was time for action. He went to the Gault House and encouraged the men to alert neighbors and gather up arms. He testified later, “I had sent a messenger to Charlestown in the meantime for Capt. Rowan, commander of a volunteer company there. I also sent messengers to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to stop the trains coming east, and not let them approach the Ferry, and also a messenger to Shepherdstown.”
He mounted his horse and rode to Archibald Kitzmiller’s house, acting superintendent of the Armory. After warning Kitzmiller, he rode up to Boliver Heights, the town above the Ferry. Like Paul Revere he rode on through the town rousing citizens from house to house. His next stop was down the hill to Hall’s Rifle works. He observed armed men on the property and boldly spurred his horse closer for a better look. At 25 yards he noticed three armed guards hovering about the grounds. He started back to the Ferry to assemble a citizen militia.
At 7 a.m. the Baltimore Express rolled into Monocacy. Conductor Phelps wasted no time wiring William Prescott Smith, Master of Transportation for the railroad, of the danger at Harper’s Ferry. “About 150 “armed Abolitionists” had taken Harper’s Ferry, killed the porter, and intended to liberate the slaves. They say they have come to free the slaves and intend to do it at all hazards. The leader of those men requested me to say to you that this is the last train that shall pass the bridge either East or West. If it is attempted it will be at the peril of the lives of those having them in charge… It has been suggested you had better notify the Secretary of War at once. The telegraph wires are cut East and West of Harper’s Ferry and this is the first station that I could send a dispatch from.” After sending the message Phelps steamed toward his next stop. Smith’s reply would anger him.
Back in the town, Mr. Alex Kelly came to the corner of High and Shenandoah Streets to take a shot at the raiders. It was a bit before 7 a.m. But, no sooner had he turned the corner that two shots were fired at him, one knocked off his hat. Next up, Thomas Boerly a local grocer came to the corner with the same purpose. Boerly fired at the party standing about the Arsenal Gate. One of the raiders crouching behind the fence fired back tearing a ghastly wound in Boerly’s groin. Boerly collapsed in a pool of blood. He died a few hours later.
Just after Boerly was shot Dr. Starry arrived on Camp Hill and ordered the bells of the Lutheran Church to be rung to assemble a crowd. It was found that a shortage of weapons would delay any action that could be taken by the citizens against the raiders. Brown’s men controlled the arsenal building and the armory. The only weapons found so far were a couple squirrel guns and some shotguns. ‘Keep looking’ must have been the order at hand, as Dr. Starry decided to ride himself to Charlestown 8 miles distant, to hurry the advance of Captain Rowan’s militia to Harper’s Ferry.
The morning hours were the quiet before the storm. The ringing of the Lutheran Church bell and the coming of daylight increased Kagi’s anxiety down at Hall’s Rifle Works. It must have been excruciating to wait endlessly for orders from Brown with the town astir, and no plan of action. Via messengers Kagi urged a retreat across the river. Brown counseled patience and according to Osborne Anderson, (a raider who survived Harper’s Ferry) re-enforcements were sent to Kagi. This report is corroborated by Master Machinist Daniel J. Young who arrived for work at the rifle works and found 4 or 5 armed men at the gate instead of the familiar watchman, Samuel Williams.
A fierce looking man denied Young’s admittance and informed him, “he had got possession of the Rifle Works by authority from the Great Jehovah and that their mission was to free the slaves.”
Young replied, “If you derive your authority from the Almighty I must yield as I get my right to enter only from an earthly power – the government of the United States. I warn you, however, that before this day’s sun shall have set, you and your companions will be corpses.” Machinist Young then turned away from the gate to alert others arriving for work.
At the Arsenal they were taking prisoners. The first to arrive for work was James Darrell, the bell ringer. His position made it necessary that he arrive early. He was arrested at the Armory gate. Others that followed were gobbled up including Armistead Ball, Master Machinist; Benjamin Mills, Master Armorer; and John P. Daingerfield, armory clerk. Acting superintendent Archibald Kitzmiller was also captured.
Joseph Barry, a chronicler of Harpers’ Ferry history relates a humorous personal story. After the raiders had stopped taking prisoners, (having all they could manage) Barry unwisely strolled to the Armory gate out of curiosity. There he was greeted by two guards who inquired if he owned any slaves. Replying in the negative they informed him a great movement was underfoot to benefit all non slave-holders. Barry passed on; then recognized a friend among the captives. While speaking with his friend, the leader of the raiders approached and ordered Barry off the street, “It was against military policy to talk with prisoners.”
The intemperate Barry refused the order when Brown leveled a pistol at his breast. Barry ducked behind a fence pillar. Brown commanded the same two guards not thirty yards off, to shoot or arrest the man. Barry dodged up the alleyway that ran along the sidewall of the armory and zigzagged down the passageway hoping to confuse their aim. Hannah, a slave belonging to Mrs. Margaret Carroll ran from her doorway into the narrow alley between Barry and the raiders, and waving her hands shouted ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” Her brave demonstration may have saved the life of the future historian.
Tidd and Cooke continued transporting arms to the schoolhouse from the Kennedy Farm.
Over at the train station Shephard Hayward writhed in pain from his early morning wounds. He askedPatrick Higgins for water. At the water pump Brown’s man, William Thompson approached from the bridge and asked for a drink. Higgins handed him the bucket. Thompson gestured to his comrades on the bridge saying they were thirsty too. Higgins generously complied with the request and went out to the bridge and met the raiders. Oliver Brown* recognized Higgins and said, “You’re the buck that hit me last night, eh? Well you did an unwise thing; it was only this leg that saved you.” He showed Higgins a nasty gash on his left knee which he rec’d on striking the bridge from Higgins’s blow.
Higgins asked, “What’s all this fuss about, anyhow?”
“Oh, it’s a darkey affair, laughingly replied Thompson pointing to the smiling negro. “I am one and here’ another,” Thompson pointed to his comrade.
“I’m on a darkey affair, too,” said Higgins, “and that’s to get water for a negro whom you have shot.”
Chastised, Oliver replied, “All right, go along. He brought it on himself by refusing to obey orders.”
Meanwhile, Conductor Phelps was furious to read the telegraph message waiting for him at Ellicott Mills about 9 a.m. Smith replied to Phelp’s message, “Your dispatch is evidently exaggerated and written under excitement. Why should our trains be stopped by Abolitionists, and how do you know they are such and that they numbered one hundred or more? What is their object? Let me know at once before we proceed to extremities.”
Phelps wired back, “My dispatch is not exaggerated; I have not made it half as bad as it is. The captain expects a reinforcement of 1500 men to liberate the slaves.”
Smith was still dubious but Railroad President John W. Garret saw the message and took it seriously. Garret notified President James Buchanan. President Buchanan sent a messenger to summon Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd US Cavalry at Arlington. Then the President called at the Navy Yard to ask if Lieutenant Israel Green could muster a company of marines for immediate duty. Green responded with 90 men and two howitzers. When Lee arrived in Washington at 11 o’clock, Buchanan put him in charge of the detachment and ordered them to proceed to Harper’s Ferry. Green’s detachment left by train at 3 p.m. Stuart & Lee missed the train so another was especially ordered to pick them up.
The newspapers got wind of the news and mid morning headlines were blazing “Negro Insurrection at Harper’s Ferry.”
It was an anxious morning for the town’s people. Men searched for arms to repel the strangers. The armory and arsenal were in control of the raiders. Weapons were desperately sought after when around 9 a.m. it was remembered that a lot of guns were removed from the armory to a storehouse on higher ground when the river flooded. This lot of arms was enough to supply many of the citizens. They were duly distributed shortly before the Jefferson Guards began arriving from Charlestown.
Before noon two companies of the Jefferson Guards arrived on foot at Boliver Heights above the town, under command of Colonel John Thomas Gibson. Gibson immediately ordered his more experienced soldiers to cross the Potomac River a mile west of Harpers Ferry and come down the Maryland side of the river and take the Potomac Bridge into town. Later, “The Command under Capt. Botts was ordered to pass down the hill below Jefferson’s Rock, and take possession of the Shenandoah Bridge, to leave a strong guard at that point, and to march down to the Galt House, in the rear of the arsenal building, in which we supposed their men were lodged. Captain Avis command was ordered to take possession of the houses directly in front of the Arsenal. By this movement we prevented any escape.” The Colonel reported his troops arrived about noon.
The fight was about to begin.
*Osborn Anderson wrote in his (exaggerated) account of the raid, that Watson Brown & Stuart Taylor were posted at the Potomac Bridge, and that Oliver Brown & Will Thompson were posted at the Shenandoah Bridge. Will Thompson is definitely placed at the Potomac Bridge. Anderson either mixed up the bridge names or the names of Brown’s two sons. Both sons died in the raid. Higgins account names Oliver, so I will assume Oliver and Thompson were at the Potomac Bridge and Watson and Taylor were at the Shenandoah Bridge.
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