Of the resources I’ve discovered, I’d recommend the book “John Brown, 1800-1859” by Oswald Garrison Villard, Houghton Mifflin, 1910; as the best objective detailed and accurate source for the Harper’s Ferry Raid.
When John W. Garrett, President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, got news of the raid the morning of the 17th he wired President Buchanan to send troops. President Buchanan dispatched the militia of Frederick, Md., at once, then summoned Lieutenant-Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd US Cavalry to Washington, from his home at Arlington. The only troops in Washington were 90 US Marines at the Navy Yard, commanded by Lieutenant Israel Green. Buchanan ordered them to the Ferry. Buchanan informed Garrett of the deployments, but Garrett doubted the President had sent enough men to suppress the raiders reported to number 700 insurgents. At 1:30 the President and the Secretary of War, met with brevet Colonel Lee and ordered him to proceed to the Ferry to command all troops. James Ewell Brown Stuart, or ‘Jeb’ Stuart, of the 1st US Cavalry was assigned as Col. Lee’s aide. The two men left Washington by special train in the afternoon and rolled toward Harper’s Ferry.
Captain Thomas Sinn
At dusk the marines were still en route, but three companies of Frederick Militia had arrived, commanded by Colonel Robert Baylor. More militia arrived in the night; a company from Winchester, Va. and 5 companies from Baltimore that bivouacked at Sandy Hook a mile from the Ferry. In the early evening Captain Thomas Sinn of the Frederick Militia went to the engine house to talk with Brown, who was still using the alias ‘Captain Smith.’ Brown retreated to the building the afternoon of the 17th during his battle with local militia. His small band of followers and captives were exhausted. Brown repeated his demands for safe passage across the river.
He complained to Captain Sinn his men had been shot down like dogs in the street while carrying flags of truce. Sinn indignantly replied that men who take up arms in such a way must expect to be shot down like dogs. Brown replied that “he knew what he had to undergo before he came there, he had weighed the responsibility and should not shrink from it.” Brown said his terms deserved consideration for he had treated his captives well, refrained from massacring citizens when he had the power to do so, and that his men did not shoot any unarmed citizens. Captain Sinn informed Brown that Mayor Beckham was unarmed when killed. For this, Brown expressed deep regret. Brown mentioned the mortal wounds of his two sons. His talk impressed Capt. Sinn who went to the Wager House and sent surgeon Dr. Taylor to the engine house to tend to young Watson Brown’s wounds. The Dr. told John Brown he would return in the morning to follow up with the patient.
Captain. Sinn noted his disgust with the citizens about town, many hopelessly drunk, shouting threats and firing guns into the air. He found several men taunting the severely wounded prisoner Aaron Stevens, leveling guns in his face and threatening to shoot him dead. But there was a mysterious power of will about Stevens who bravely lay motionless and stared down his tormentors. Capt. Sinn drove the mob from the room shouting “if this man could stand on his feet with a pistol in his hand, you would all jump out of the window.”
Escape of Anderson & Hazlett
Two of the raiders made a miraculous escape from Harper’s Ferry. Osborne Anderson and Albert Hazlett had been posted by Brown at the Federal Arsenal building on the Ferry Lot. During the afternoon they must have quietly hid out somewhere in the building. Anderson claimed they escaped on Tuesday but that would have been impossible. It is generally believed they snuck out of the building at nightfall when all eyes were on the engine house. From there Anderson wrote, they made their way along the Shenandoah River until they could climb the hill above the town. They laid low for another 3 hours. Then they returned to town and found a boat along the Potomac River and crossed into Maryland. The escape was an incredible accomplishment considering the number of troops and excitement in town. They did make their way back to the Kennedy Farm from where they might track down their friends.
Night-time at the Engine House
There was no light over at the engine house, all was intensely dark. The cold air chilled the inhabitants; some sprawled on the floor with painful wounds, others leaned against cold walls anxiously waiting the grey dawn. Writer Oswald Garrison Villard described the scene, “Near his brother Watson lay quietly breathing his life away. Stuart Taylor shot like Oliver in the doorway of the engine house lay dead near by. There were left alive and unwounded but 5 men, J.G. Anderson, Dauphin Thompson and Shields Green, Edwin Coppoc, and John Brown.”
Over in a corner, Oliver Brown was moaning in intense pain, begging his father to shoot him and end the suffering. After repeated requests Brown coldly replied “Oh you will get over it, and if you must die, die like a man”
So Oliver suffered in silence. His father called to him after a time. No answer. “I guess he is dead,” said Brown.
Prisoner John E. P. Dangerfield spoke with Brown in the night, telling him he had committed treason against the country in the name of his cause. Two of Brown’s men overheard this and asked their Captain if this was true. “Certainly,” Brown replied. Somehow this surprised the two raiders and they both exclaimed “If that is so, we don’t want to fight any more. We thought we came to liberate the slaves and did not know that that was committing treason.” But it didn’t matter now, they were both killed in the morning. The tired raiders had not slept for over 60 hours. From time to time John Brown broke the silence of the night and called out, “Men are you awake!”
The Marines Arrive
Col. Lee’s train met up with Lt. Green’s Marines at Sandy Hook, Md. at 11 p.m. They immediately marched to the town a mile away. Lee closed all the saloons. The marines supervised the militia guarding the engine house. At 2 A.M. Lee conveyed his plan of attack to Stuart. Terms of surrender would be tendered to the raiders at dawn. Expecting them to be refused, a signal would launch a team of handpicked men to storm the engine house and break open the doors. Bayonets were to be used in the attack to protect the prisoners. The storming party was cautioned to carefully distinguish the raiders from the hostages.
Taking the Engine House
At dawn, in front of 2,000 spectators, Col. Lee, dressed in civilian clothes, stood on a slight elevation 40 feet away and commanded the proceedings. Lt. Jeb Stuart approached the engine house and summoned Brown. The door opened four inches. Brown leaned into the crack clutching a cocked carbine in his hands. Stuart immediately recognized ‘Capt. Smith’ as Osawatomie Brown of Kansas. Stuart presented Col. Lee’s terms:
“Headquarters, Harper’s Ferry,
October 18, 1859
October 18, 1859
Colonel Lee, United States army, commanding the troops sent by the President of the United States to suppress the insurrection at this place, demands the surrender of the persons in the armory buildings.
If they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept safely to await the orders of the President. Colonel Lee represents to them, in all frankness, that it is impossible for them to escape, that the armory is surrounded on all sides by troops; and that if he is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.
Colonel Commanding United States Troops.”
Colonel Commanding United States Troops.”
The parlay was a long one. Brown repeatedly argued his case in different ways, but in the end all the same; safe passage for his armed men and their hostages across the river. Stuart refused. The hostages pleaded with Stuart to bring forth Col. Lee. Stuart refused, anxiously anticipating the moment to signal Green to attack. He assured the citizens and Brown that Col. Lee would never accede to any terms but those offered.
Then Stuart stepped to one side and waved his hat. Twelve marines led by Lt. Green and Major W. W. Russell charged the engine house. Three men smashed at the heavy doors with sledge hammers.
Inside Brown remained cool and calm. “He felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other,” said Col. Washington. “Sell your lives dearly,” he instructed his men.
“This is Osawatomie,” said Col. Washington, calmly pointing to Brown.
To paraphrase author Oswald Garrison Villard:
“Green sprang at Brown lunging at him with his light sword and brought him to his knees. The sword bent double in stinging Brown’s belt or a bone; taking the bent weapon in both hands, Green showered blows upon Brown’s head, which laid him flat and brought the blood.” Witnesses thought Brown’s skull was split.
Private Luke Quin followed Lt. Green through the hole in the door. A shot fired and brought him down. The man behind Luke was shot in the face. The rest jumped over their fallen comrades in no mood for mercy. Lt. Green said, “They came rushing in like tigers… They bayoneted one man skulking under the engine and pinned another against the rear wall. … I ordered the men to spill no more blood. The other insurgents were at once taken under arrest and the contest ended. The whole fight lasted not over three minutes.”
An accident of chance saved Brown’s life. When Lt. Green rushed from his quarters to leave for the Ferry the previous day, he had strapped on his light dress sword by mistake. His regulation sword would have killed Brown. “The flimsiness of his blade permitted his enemy to live to thrill half a nation by his spoken and written word,” so wrote Villard.
Brown was carried to the armory paymaster’s office where his wounds were tended and found not to be as serious as they appeared. The bodies of those killed in the fort were lined up outside the armory. Jerry Anderson who had been pinned against the wall didn’t die immediately. He vomited blood and writhed in pain on the brick outside the engine house. His face and body were kicked by angry spectators. A farmer walked past him, disappeared a while then returned. The farmer said “It takes you a hell of a long time to die.” Then he spit a wad of tobacco into Anderson’s face. Another raider’s body was stuffed into a too small barrel and taken away by some men to a medical school in Winchester.
Watson Brown was made comfortable but was beyond medical help. He lingered 20 hours before dying. Aaron Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, and Shields Green were prisoners and would stand trial with their leader.
The Ones That Got Away
Of the seven raiders who escaped Harper’s Ferry, Albert Hazlett was captured. He and Osborne Anderson traveled together directly north from the Kennedy Farm on main roads until Hazlett claimed the blisters on his feet were slowing them down. He urged Anderson to go ahead. Anderson made his way to safety. Hazlett was captured at Newville, PA, Oct. 22nd and sent to Charlestown, Va. to stand trial with the others. John E. Cook, Charles, Tidd, and the 3 men who remained at the Kennedy Farm during the raid, had proceeded on a north westerly course through the mountains hoping to reach Western, PA. Cooke had been successful in obtaining food for the party at a farmhouse, but when he boldly tried a second time in Chambersburg, PA, he was recognized and captured for the $1,000 reward money on his head. His captors came to like Cook, and regretted their actions, but it was too late. He also was sent to Charlestown to stand trial. Five escaped.
Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia arrived at the Ferry after the Engine House was captured. He met with Brown and upon his return to Richmond said of him:
“And they are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman. He is a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw cut and thrust and bleeding and in bonds. He is a man of clear head, of courage, fortitude and simple ingeniousness. He is cool, collected indomitable, and it is but just to him to say that he was humane to his prisoners as attested to me by Colonel Washington and Mr. Mills, and he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of truth. He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, truthful and intelligent. His men, too, who survive, except the free negroes with him, are like him.”
At his trial, Brown’s eloquent speech and calm demeanor captured a nation. Before he was executed he prophesied: “All of you people of the south, prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily, I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this negro question I mean. The end of that is not yet.”
The day of his execution he handed his jailor a prophetic note:
“I John Brown am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with blood. I had, as I now think; vainly flattered myself that without verry much bloodshed it might be done.”
The raid foreshadowed the Civil War. Two years later, in September, 1861, 16 men of Company I, 13th Massachusetts Volunteers, would appropriate the bell of the Engine House to send home as a souvenir of their visit to Harper's Ferry and the famous landmark, 'John Brown's Fort.'