Tuesday, October 27, 2009

John Brown's Raid, Part IV

The purpose of detailing John Brown’s Raid on this blog is to define for readers what happened at Harper’s Ferry and why the bell from the Engine House was such a significant symbol to the men of Company I, 13th Massachusetts who secured it in 1861 and eventually brought it home to Marlborough.

By 10 A.M. the morning of October 17th, armed citizens were taking pot-shots at the raiders in town. At mid-day the first militia companies arrived and drove Brown’s men from the 2 bridges they were holding. Watson Brown and Stuart Taylor abandoned the Shenandoah Bridge near Hall’s Rifle Factory and ran to join Brown’s main force on the Ferry Lot in the lower town. This left Brown’s captain John Henri Kagi with his two men at Halls Rifle works cut off and surrounded. All morning Kagi, and Aaron Stevens, Brown’s two most experienced military captains had urged Brown to retreat across the Potomac. Brown hesitated and no one really knows why. Many credit his hesitation to disappointment over the reactions of the ‘freed’ slaves to his raid. All morning he confidently asserted to Conductor Phelps and his captives, that he expected as many as 1500 men to flock to his rebellion. At mid morning Will Thompson and Will Leeman returned from the rendezvous point in Maryland, and reported none had come so far. When pikes were distributed at the Armory to slaves ‘freed’ by the raiders, the response was tepid. Witnesses reported the slaves were confused and even fearful when Brown asked them if they had ever heard of ‘Ossawatomie Brown.”. Col. Washington’s coachman Jim, however, took whole-heartedly to the rebellion and fought like a tiger. Whatever the reason, Brown’s waffling was fatal. By noon it was too late to retreat from the town; the raiders were surrounded.

The Charlestown militia formed three companies on Boliver Heights above the town and strategically deployed to surround the raiders. The first company, Captain William H. Moore commanding, crossed the Potomac in skiffs a mile west of the town and hurried down the Maryland side of the river to capture the Potomac Bridge; Will Thompson, Oliver Brown, and Dangerfield Newby were driven out. The second company under Capt. Botts came down Boliver Heights and took possession of the Shenandoah Bridge. The raiders guards Watson Brown and Stuart Taylor fled to the Armory Grounds. Bott’s militia then proceeded north to the Galt Saloon, near the Potomac Bridge and the Wager House (train station). The third company of militia commanded by Captain John Avis took positions in the houses and hills along High street across from the Armory Grounds.

Dangerfield Newby is Killed

Raiders Oliver Brown and Will Thompson escaped from the Potomac Bridge amidst a hail of shot. Their comrade Dangerfield Newby was killed leaving the bridge. A sharpshooter’s shot from the direction of High Street struck him in the neck creating an unusually large and ghastly wound. He died instantly. Newby had joined Brown’s raid with the dream of liberating his wife and children; slaves living about 30 miles south of Harpers Ferry.

Rumors spread that the raiders were abolitionists. Angry citizens dragged Newby’s dead body into an alley and horribly mutilated it. A Maryland journalist wrote his ears were cut off and his genitals. The crowd poked sticks into the wounds, kicked the corpse and shoved the body into a gutter where wandering hogs devoured it with gusto.

Meanwhile Brown calmly readied his men to resist the coming charge of the militia crossing the bridge. With the sword of Frederick the Great strapped to his side Brown lined his men in the Street, and walked amongst them giving orders, “Men be cool. Don’t waste your powder and shot, take aim and make every shot count. The troops will look for us to retreat on their first appearance be careful to shoot first.”

Osborne Anderson, the one raider who survived, continued to describe the scene:
“The troops soon came out of the bridge and up the street facing us, we occupying an irregular position. When they got within 60 or 70 yards Brown said ‘Let go upon them!’ We did when several fell. From marching in solid columns they became scattered, left several dead on the field and beat a retreat to bridge.”

Will Thompson is Captured
Following the brief stand off Capt. Moore’s company retreated to the Bridge and the Wager House; Brown’s men rallied near the Armory gate. With his escape route blocked Brown determined to negotiate. He sent out a messenger to request a cease fire and safe passage to Maryland. About 12:30 Raider Will Thompson accompanied by hostage Rezin Cross approached Captain Moore on the Potomac Bridge under a white flag of truce. Cross was to negotiate on behalf of his captors. The militiamen ignored the flag of truce, freed Cross, captured Thompson and confined him to a 2nd story room at the Wager House. Meanwhile Brown’s messenger sent to Kagi at Hall’s Rifle Works was cut off en route. He was going to tell Kagi to hold on for just a little longer. But it was too late for Kagi and his men.

Watson Brown is Mortally Wounded
After a while Brown wondered what had happened to Thompson and Cross. Archibald Kitzmiller, acting Armory Superintendent, and one of Brown’s prisoners offered to investigate. Brown accepted and sent Kitzmiller out to parlay under another flag of truce. Raiders Aaron Stevens and Watson Brown accompanied Kitzmiller. But the citizens were in no mood to negotiate. They hollered for Kitzmiller to step aside and peppered the raiders with bullets. Watson Brown was shot in the bowels. He dragged himself back to the engine house where he eventually bled to death hours later. Stevens dropped seconds later shot twice by Saloon Keeper George W. Chambers; once in the side and once in the breast. The citizens would have served Stevens the same way as Newby where it not for the interventions of one of Brown’s captives. Mr. Brua ran out and pleaded that Stevens life be spared. His efforts saved the badly wounded raider who was carried to the Galt Saloon and given medical attention. Mr. Joseph Brua returned to Brown.

William Leeman is Killed
William Leeman, age 20, Brown’s youngest soldier, had had enough of the raid and wanted to get away. He convinced Brown he could swim the Potomac and get a message to Cooke to hurry along with reinforcements. At about one o’clock he attempted to cross the river just above the Potomac Bridge. He was spotted and a dozen shots were fired at him as he ran toward the river. A witness described his death. “He partially fell, but rose again, then threw away his gun, drew his pistols and tried to shoot, but both of them snapped. He then unsheathed his bowie-knife, cut off his accoutrements, and plunged into the river. George Schoppart, one of the Virginia militia waded in after him.” Frantically seeking safety Leeman reached a rock in the river then turned and threw up his hands to surrender. “Don’t shoot!” Schoppart ignored Leeman’s plea and deliberately shot Leeman in the face. He “blew it into bloody fragments.” Leeman’s body remained on the rock all afternoon and was repeatedly riddled with bullets, serving as target practice for individuals and whole companies of militia.

Shoot Out at the Rifle Factory
About the same time Leeman was killed Kagi’s party at Hall’s Rifle Works met their end. Between 200 and 300 men armed with Sharps Rifles and revolvers, took up strategic positions around the Factory. One party of militia under Captain Henry Medler crossed the Shenandoah Bridge and took up positions facing the Rifle Factory on the Loudon side of the river. Another group posted near the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. Dr. Starry organized and sent forward a party to storm the rifle works under command of a young man named Irwin. At the first fire, Henri Kagi, Lewis Leary and John Copeland scrambled out the back door of the building and ran toward the Winchester & Potomac Railroad. They climbed up onto the railroad bed but were turned back by the militia posted there. They headed for a large flat rock in the stream. Not less than 400 shots were fired upon them. Kagi went down in the river, killed instantly, his body floated away. Lewis Leary was mortally wounded, shot in the breast and the stomach. Copeland made it to the rock and tried to shoot James M. Holt who was following after him. But his gun was wet and wouldn’t fire. Holt tried to shoot Copeland but his gun was also wet. Trapped, Leary surrendered just as Holt clubbed him with a pistol. Copeland was dragged ashore where an angry mob prepared to lynch him. Dr. Starry rode up and positioned his horse between Copeland and the mob to prevent the hanging. The Dr. continued to keep the crowd back until police arrived and escorted Copeland to a safer place. Leary was brought ashore and taken away a prisoner. Leary lingered 12 hours from his painful wounds before dying.

Death of George Turner and Mayor Beckham
As if the wild, hollering, uncontrolled, half drunken militia men hanging out at the Wager House and Galt House saloons needed more encouragement, the death of two prominent citizens roused them into a vengeful fury. Two armed men were standing in the midst of High Street when two raiders suddenly appeared around the corner and fired. A bullet struck George W. Turner in the neck. Turner, a very respected land owner had come to town after getting news of the raid and the capture of his friend Col. Lewis Washington. He was in the act of aiming his rifle from a porch fence when hit. It was thought by many that he was struck by accident because of the irregular path of the bullet. Turner died 45 minutes later. One of the bystanders, Mr. John McClean fired at Brown’s retreating men. His bullet struck the cartridge box of one of them, igniting a fireworks display as the man crossed the armory gate. Another esteemed citizen was killed soon after this.

Harper’s Ferry kindly and popular Mayor, Fontaine Beckham, was a magistrate, B&O railroad agent and best friend to Shephard Hayward, the porter shot on the bridge the previous night. All morning, from his railroad ticket office Beckham warned citizens to stay out of harms way until the danger had passed. In the meantime he looked after Hayward who died at noon. The death grieved him very much. About 3 o’clock, against his friends wishes he decided to see for himself the town’s invaders at the Armory. He crept along the railroad trestle towards a water tower opposite the engine house. To Edwin Coppoc sitting in the doorway of the watch-house, a small room adjoining the fire-engine room, Beckham appeared to be maneuvering for a position to shoot. Brown’s 18 year old prisoner Thomas Allstadt reported, ““Now Mr. Beckham went behind the water tank and began peering around its corner, as it might be to take aim. If he keeps on peeking, I’m going to shoot,” said Coppoc from his seat in the doorway. I stood close by him. Mr. Beckham peeked again and Coppoc fired but missed. “Don’t fire, man, for Gods sake! They’ll shoot in here and kill us all,” shrieked the prisoners from behind . But Coppoc was already firing again. This shot killed Beckham. Undoubtedly he would not have been fired upon but for his equivocal appearance. Coppoc fired no more from the watch-house, in fact no one remained in sight.”

Oliver Brown is Mortally Wounded
No one was visible from the watch-house but in the engine room next door, Oliver Brown spied someone peering over the stone wall of the railroad trestle carefully aiming a rifle. Oliver raised his gun and fired from the half open doorway, but was instantly struck in the abdomen by the sniper’s bullet. He sprawled on the floor with a painful mortal wound that would keep him in agony for 12 hours.

The Mob’s Revenge; Thompson is Executed
Coppoc’s shot killed Mayor Beckham instantly. The enraged half-drunken crowd at the bridge took their revenge on captured raider Will Thompson. Saloon Keeper George Chambers and Beckham’s nephew, Henry Hunter, led an angry mob to the 2nd story room of the Wager House were Thompson was confined. They barged into the room and leveled their guns at Thompson. Miss Christina Fouke, the hotel owner’s sister, threw herself in front of Thompson and begged them not to shoot, “Leave him to the laws, ” she pleaded. Thompson was seized by the throat and dragged from the room. ‘Though you may take my life, 80,000 will rise up to avenge me,” he exclaimed, “and carry out my purpose of giving liberty to the slaves.”

Chambers and Hunter carried Thompson to the railroad trestle, put their pistols to his head and fired. Before his body hit the ground it was riddled with bullets. His corpse was shoved into the river and pelted with more bullets. Like Will Leeman’s body on the rock in the Potomac, Will Thompson’s body in water near the bridge was used as target practice the rest of the day. Historian James Barry reported Thompson’s ghastly corpse could be seen at the bottom of the river for a day or two after the raid.

The crowd stomped to the Galt Saloon to serve prisoner Aaron Stevens the same way. But something unexplainable kept them back. One account says it was Stevens’s powerful, defiant stare. Another version said Stevens’ severe wounds spared him the wrath of the mob.

Mayor Beckham’s untimely death freed 5 slaves. He had purchased slave Isaac Gilbert, his wife and 3 children for the purpose of liberating them. He was amidst the legal process of doing so when killed. His will set them free.

Martinsburg Militia Attack the Engine House

Directly following Beckham’s shooting a swift and bloody attack from the west drove the rest of Brown’s men into the engine house for keeps. Captain E. G. Alburtis advanced his Martinsburg Militia, mostly B&O Railroad employees, from the rear of the armory grounds towards the engine house cutting off Brown’s last escape route. A few men from Harper’s Ferry and Charlestown joined the assault.

Most of Brown’s hostages were confined, unguarded, in the small watch-room which took up 1/3 of the structure. Brown herded eleven select prisoners into the adjoining fire engine room. He told them “Gentlemen perhaps you wonder why I have selected you from the others. It is because I believe you to be more influential; and I have only to say now, that you will have to have precisely the same fate that your friends extend to my men.”

The militia, armed with shot-guns and pistols, charged the raiders at close range. The outnumbered insurgents defiantly fought back with Sharps Rifles. During the fight Capt. Alburtis’s men discovered the prisoners in the unguarded watch-room. Several men ran to the building, smashed open the windows and called forth thirty to forty hostages who fled to safety. Overwhelmed, Browns insurgents were all driven into the adjoining fire engine room. They barred the doors and cut holes in the masonry to fire their rifles. Bullets pelted the side of the building and the doors, glass shattered into the room but the raider’s constant fire proved too deadly for Capt. Alburtis, who fell back with heavy casualties. Eight of his party received dangerous and bloody wounds during the scrape.

Alburtis said, “Had the other companies come up we could have taken the engine house then. Immediately after we drew off, there was a flag of truce sent out to propose terms which were that they sought to be permitted to retire across the river with their arms, and I think proceed as far as some lock on the canal, there to release their prisoners. These terms were not acceded to, and having understood that the US Marines and a number of troops from Baltimore were on their way, nothing further was done except to establish guards all around to prevent the desperadoes from escaping. We had a small piece of cannon, which we proposed to bring to bear on the engine house but were directed not to do so on account of endangering the prisoners.”

The flag of truce may have been carried by Mr. Israel Russel, one of Brown’s captives, who according to Joseph Barry, volunteered to negotiate a late afternoon cease fire between the insurgents and the militia. Mr. Russell did not return to captivity.

Following Alburtis’s attack two companies from Shepherdstown arrived and took positions near the Shenandoah Bridge.

Cooke and Tidd
Back in Maryland at the schoolhouse, John Cooke heard the shooting at the Ferry and became anxious for his friends. At 4 o’clock Charles Tidd returned from the Kennedy Farm with the second wagon load of arms to be unloaded. With Tidd present to guard the schoolhouse Cooke and a black companion hurried towards the town, two miles distant, to investigate. He met some friends at the lock house a mile below the Ferry who told him the raiders were all hemmed in and several had been shot. They warned Cooke he would be shot if he returned there. Cooke left the lock house and hurried down the road where he met 2 boys who repeated the warning. Troops from Charlestown, Martinsburg, Hagerstown and Shepherdstown had surrounded the raiders. This information panicked Cooke’s black companion who returned to the schoolhouse to inform Tidd of the dire situation at the Ferry.

Cooke continued toward Harper’s Ferry, then climbed the hill opposite the town to get a good look at the situation. He peered across the river and saw men on High Street firing down upon Brown’s men at the Armory. To draw their attention, Cooke climbed a tree, carefully aimed his Sharps Rifle and fired. His shot had the desired effect. The men on High Street redirected their fire at Cooke ½ mile across the river. For a few minutes the guns blazed away at each other until a bullet suddenly severed the branch Cooke was leaning on. He fell 15 feet and crashed to the ground. Cut and bruised he limped back to the school house to re-join Tidd and the other 3 raiders that had remained in Maryland. With their friends beyond help these men returned to the Kennedy Farm and planned their escape. The slaves they had liberated soon deserted them.

As the sun set, Colonel Robert W. Baylor arrived at Harper’s Ferry from Frederick, Maryland with 3 regular militia companies, the first uniformed troops on the scene. Col. Baylor assumed command of all the militia.

As night fell the regular militia picketed the engine-house. A citizen, Samuel Strider tied a handkerchief to his umbrella and delivered a summons to John Brown to surrender. Brown’s reply requested safe passage for his men and hostages, with all their arms, their horse and harness, across the river, at which point he would release his prisoners. Col. Baylor denied Brown’s request refusing to allow any hostages to be moved out of town.

At dark the militia waited for the arrival of the Marines steaming towards Harper’s Ferry on a special train sent from Washington. The raiders settled down in the cold dark engine house to await their fate.

October 17th was a bloody day. October 18th would be a bloody morning.

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