It would have been as easy to drive a shadow into the centre of a block of granite as to force a pro-slavery falsehood into his brain or heart.

James Redpath

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

John Brown in "The Civil War”: Historical Error Now Enhanced in High-Definition

In September 1990, over forty million people reportedly viewed “The Civil War,” a documentary series on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) produced by Ken Burns.  The series proved enthralling, with its brilliant use of original images blended with moving music and cinematography, actors providing voice-overs of leading historical figures in the story (most notably Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln), as well as scholarly commentary.  Burns was already known for his notable documentary on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (1981), but the impact of his Civil War series was unprecedented.  

Since its release, “The Civil War“ has won numerous awards and has become a paradigm for documentary filmmakers, and Burns himself has been lauded as one of the most important filmmakers of this generation.   Even Apple named the “Ken Burns” screen saver after the technique that was made famous by his celebrated Civil War series.

To commemorate the impact of the series, PBS produced “Ken Burns and the Civil War," a twenty-fifth anniversary documentary that was aired last month, and likewise broadcasted the entire documentary this month in a newly restored, high-definition version.   One PBS affiliate observes that the series has been widely praised, even across the political spectrum, from the New York Times, which called it a “masterpiece,” to conservative George F. Will, who declared that no better use of TV has ever been made than “The Civil War.”  

"More Americans Get Their History from Ken Burns Than Any Other Source"

As noted on the PBS website, historian Stephen Ambrose once observed, "more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source."  Although this speaks highly of Burns' impact, many historians and biographers may question whether this is good for the study of history, particularly when problematic representations may end up being widely disseminated in television documentaries.  In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)Neil Postman once noted that the rational argument that is so essential to print typography is lost in the medium of television.  To what extent this applies to television documentaries is not clear, but it rightly might be asked, for instance, if Burns has properly instructed the nation as to the real meaning and significance of the Civil War, or if he has presented an impressive but selective series of images and voices without the critical appraisal and rational discourse that historians bring to their work.
Illustration by the late Harry J. Dierken

Certainly the inadequacy of Burns’ history lesson is apparent in the first part of “The Civil War,” where the abolitionist John Brown is presented as something of a misanthrope who became important to history by accident.  In “1861 The Cause,” Burns uses his multimedia and dramatic approach to present a moving story on the screen, but in doing so embeds Brown in a problematic reading that solemnizes a great deal of error in the name of history.  In contrast to the more studied treatment that Brown has received from historians since the beginning of the 21st century, Burns frames the abolitionist in a hackneyed, erroneous narrative that conveniently also presents the voice of Abraham Lincoln as the moral compass of the story.

"1861 The Cause": A Hackneyed, Erroneous Treatment of Brown

Lincoln is romantically described as
"the rough man from Illinois" . . .
From the onset, even the descriptive language employed by Burns signifies the misrepresentation and bias of this segment.  President Lincoln thus is “the rough man from Illinois,” a romantic phrase alluding to his legendary origin on the prairie, although Lincoln actually was a learned and savvy politician with real political connections despite his humble beginnings.  In contrast, John Brown is first described as “a strange, gaunt man,” terms that have no basis in any contemporary description, even by those rendered by his Virginia captors.  Indeed, the only thing that white people found strange about him was his intense devotion to black equality—a view not held by Lincoln.  

. . . but Brown is
first described as
"an inept businessman"
Likewise, Burns’ narrative continues by describing Brown as “an inept businessman that had failed twenty times in six states and defaulted on his debts.”  To this gross misrepresentation, Burns adds the discordant remark: “Yet he believed himself God’s agent on earth.”  As a biographer of Brown, I have found the frequent reference to his business failings to be an empty charge often used by critics in order to detract from his character as an antislavery figure. While Brown certainly experienced financial difficulties in the 1830s and early 1840s, an informed account of his early career does not so much reveal an inept businessman as much as an unfortunate entrepreneur caught in the economic crises of that era. 

Brown as Businessman: Not Exciting, But A Better Assessment

The time of Brown’s financial difficulties was a period of tribulation for many others too.  In the antebellum era there was no national bank and none of the supports and resources that are available to the business community today. If there were such a thing as the limited liability corporation in Brown’s day, his personal story would have been much less agonizing.  Furthermore, in the 1820s and early 1830s, Brown actually was fairly successful as a frontier businessman in northwestern Pennsylvania.  When he returned to his home state of Ohio to engage in land speculation in the later 1830s, he fell prey—like many others—to the economic downturns that afflicted states in the west, and became overly dependent on credit.  The lawsuits, debts, and financial difficulties that plagued him into the 1840s involved properties and real estate speculation that ultimately brought him to bankruptcy in 1842.

What Burns overlooks in his cynical reading is that by the later 1840s, Brown had made an impressive comeback, having distinguished himself as one of the nation’s leading experts in fine sheep and wool—so much so that his name, activities, and correspondence can be found in a number of agricultural journals of the day.  His only other business difficulty came as a result of affiliating himself with the wealthy but incompetent Ohioan, Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron.  With Perkins’ support, Brown oversaw the expansion and success of the Perkins flocks in Ohio.  In 1846, the partners embarked upon a wool commission operation in Massachusetts that was intended to better the condition of woolgrowers, then under the heel of powerful manufacturers in New England.

To be sure, "the firm of Perkins & Brown" lasted only three years, but it did not fail because Brown was an “inept businessman.” Rather, the demise of the wool commission operation resulted from two more significant causes: the woolgrowers primarily represented (from Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western Virginia) were not yet unified or disciplined sufficiently to organize against the powerful manufacturers; in contrast, the manufacturers were well aligned and had sufficient resources to hold off from buying Perkins & Brown wools.  

Based on reading the firm's correspondence, Boyd Stutler believed there was even evidence that the commission's operation in Springfield was infiltrated and undermined by an agent of the manufacturers.  When Brown made a last, desperate effort to find a market overseas with English and Belgian firms, he found that these European manufacturers were just as uncooperative, preferring to fall back on their own colonial products rather than pay for Perkins & Brown's North American wools.

By 1849, the partners were thus forced to close, but it was primarily a loss to Perkins, not Brown, who had primarily brought expertise and labor to the venture.  Historians have never focused on the fact that Perkins was far more the "inept businessman" by all accounts.  Following the closing of the firm, Perkins went on to lose his shirt in a bad railroad deal and had to be bailed out by his brothers.  Brown did not quite break even from the venture, but he actually sustained a sterling reputation among businessmen despite these difficulties, and remained the agricultural manager of the Perkins farm and flocks for several years, until he finally relocated his family back to the Adirondacks in the mid-1850s.  
Burns followed the least informed historical narrative, preferring rhetoric rather than research when it came to the controversial abolitionist
The actual story of John Brown's early life not only contradicts the "inept businessman" notion, but it also shows that these misrepresentations found their way far too easily into “The Civil War.”  As far as the best research and biography are concerned, Burns followed the least informed historical narrative, preferring rhetoric rather than research when it came to the controversial abolitionist.   

"God's Agent on Earth"

Brown at prayer, from John S. Curry's
illustration for the 1948 edition of
John Brown's Body
Not surprisingly, Burns’ narrative then alleges that despite being a complete business failure, “yet [Brown] believed himself God’s agent on earth.”  Taken without context and appreciation of Brown’s typical evangelical belief in divine providence, Burns thus conveys the notion that the abolitionist was a delusional religious fanatic—yet another fraudulent notion that has plagued his story despite the facts.  To the contrary, Brown never claimed he was God’s “agent” in the manner of religious enthusiasts like Joan of Arc.  A traditional Protestant, Brown simply believed in divine providence, and that men and women may be raised up for various roles in service to God’s kingdom.  That he believed himself called and equipped to live and die for black freedom was far more similar to his many evangelical counterparts, who likewise believed themselves called to be pastors or missionaries in foreign lands.  Brown nowhere said he was the only one called by God to oppose slavery, only that he believed himself an instrument of God. To present John Brown’s religious self-conception otherwise is to deal in caricatures of religious fanaticism that have no basis in his biography.

Brown and the So-called Pottawatomie Massacre 

Perhaps inevitably, the Burns narrative also recounts the 1856 Pottawatomie killings in Kansas, in which the abolitionist and his sons “hacked five proslavery men to death with broadswords, all in the name of defeating Satan and his legions.”  It is almost impossible to discuss John Brown without the Pottawatomie incident, although invariably those who press these killings on the narrative tend to overlook the political realities and necessities that forced his hand. Like so many 20th century narrators, Burns misrepresents the incident by suggesting that the five men killed were targeted by the Browns simply because they were proslavery.  This is quite incorrect, since the five men actually were collaborating with invading proslavery terrorists, and were plotting against the Browns because of their antislavery and pro-black convictions.
[Burns suggests] to viewers that Brown had some kind of delusional determination to wipe out the devil
Furthermore, proslavery thugs had already murdered five free state men before the Pottawatomie killings, and the Kansas territory had been invaded by hordes of proslavery terrorists without the intervention of the proslavery government in Washington.  The Browns were cornered and had no reason to think they would be spared, especially since proslavery invaders had just attacked the free state town of Lawrence.  Brown had neither the recourse to seek protection from the government, nor the hope that free state allies would rise up in self-defense.  Determined to protect his family, he obtained the names of the local proslavery men involved in the conspiracy.  After investigating the matter for himself, Brown concluded that a handful of the most determined proslavery guides and supporters would have to die in order to avert a proslavery assault.  Although the illegal proslavery onslaught was renewed that summer, the Browns' preemptive strike at Pottawatomie in May 1856 successfully derailed the impending invasion, undoubtedly sparing the lives of Brown and his sons. None of these facts are considered in the Burns’ series, and instead it is suggested to viewers that Brown had some kind of delusional determination to wipe out the devil.

Misrepresenting the Harper's Ferry Raid

As to Brown's Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859, “The Civil War” narrative is hardly better, since it continues the problematic notion that despite Brown’s expectations “the slaves did not rise up.”  The alleged unresponsiveness of enslaved people in Virginia is one of the most stubborn errors to plague the conventional account of the raid, largely based upon the claims of slaveholders as conveyed through proslavery newspapers like the New York Herald.  To the contrary, the evidence shows that Brown and his men received a healthy response from a good many local slaves.  Indeed, one of his surviving black raiders, Osborne Anderson, actually wrote afterward that there was a good bit of rejoicing and enthusiasm among enslaved people regarding Brown’s invasion.  Although Brown delayed to the point of that he could not withdraw into the nearby Appalachians, many local blacks were so inspired by his effort that they persisted in running away in significant numbers.
Ed Bearss: No John Brown scholar, but he
got the last word on Brown's significance

Overall, “The Civil War” grossly misrepresents and distorts the record of John Brown, including the erroneous conclusion of military historian Ed Bearrs, who dismisses the abolitionist as a “failure in everything in life.”  One might agree with Bearrs that Brown was “the single most important factor . . . in bringing on the Civil War.”  But for Ken Burns to include such a cynical and limited conclusion suggests bias, not sound historical analysis.  

Indeed, "The Civil War" not only presents a sloppy, unreliable reading of Brown, but it also makes selective use of Abraham Lincoln’s words, presenting him as the true abolitionist and antislavery hero of the story—even though it is a matter of history that Lincoln consistently subordinated black rights to white priorities in law, politics, and personal prejudice.
"The Civil War" not only presents a sloppy, unreliable reading of John Brown, but also makes selective use of Abraham Lincoln’s words, presenting him as the true abolitionist and antislavery hero of the story--even though it is a matter of history that Lincoln consistently subordinated black rights to white priorities. . . .

"A Horse Thief and a Murderer"

When Burns was writing the screenplay for “The Civil War,” he contacted Larry Lawrence, the founder of the John Brown Society in New York City.  The filmmaker had heard that Lawrence had previously been in conversation with Leo Hurwitz, the veteran documentary filmmaker known for his work on the Spanish Civil War, the labor movement, and post-World War II racism.  As Lawrence recalls, Burns actually was far more interested in what he could find out about Hurwitz than gain a greater understanding of John Brown. This was interesting to Lawrence, who found that Burns was decidedly hostile toward the abolitionist—quite in contrast to Hurwitz, who died in 1981 while working on a favorable John Brown documentary.  According to Lawrence, Burns was quite convinced that Brown was little more than a horse thief and a murderer.  While input from Lawrence apparently tempered the filmmaker's prejudice, his presentation of Brown—now enhanced in high definition for a new generation of viewers—remains a serious problem for the many who will continue to "get their history" from television documentaries.-LD

Sunday, September 13, 2015


by H. Scott Wolfe

“State of New York, County of Essex 
Orin Grant Libby, State University, Madison, Wisconsin being duly sworn deposes that he did this fifth day of August, 1899 deliver, sealed, a packet containing the remains of...the party of John Brown, killed at Harpers Ferry on or about October 16, A. Fortune & Co., North Elba, N.Y., undertakers of said town.” (31)

Dr. Ezra Spencer McClellan, physician and Chief Officer of the Saranac Lake Board of Health, was present for the formal delivery of the exhumed remains. Libby immediately conveyed his wish to the Doctor that the human remnants be examined, and a true enumeration of the skeletal material be obtained. McClellan was amenable to the request and, with Libby observing, the contents of the trunk were analyzed that same day.

The men carefully removed the disinterred matter, separating the extraneous elements -- the buttons, a fragment of red shirt, the heavy wool of the winding sheets. Dr. McClellan then conducted a scientific scrutiny of the long bones. He concluded that the remains of eight men were present. Libby scribbled the findings upon a small note pad: “5 sets of femurs from Eastern Grave...From Western Grave were taken two & one half sets...I am afraid on(e) femur remains in the grave.”
 "Libby's Femur Notes"
(Libby Coll., U of N. Dakota)   

The investigators then turned to an attempt to discern the individual identities of the exhumed raiders. Dr. McClellan utilized Libby as a human scale, pressing the femurs to the Professor’s leg in order to properly estimate the relative heights of the occupants of the graves. Libby, in his notes, speculated upon the contents of the Western burial box: “They are Leeman’s remains & one leg of Kagi’s. The other was probably shot to pieces and has not been saved. The other man was small & has not been identified, but Dr. McClellan identified him as about 6 ft. in height, 3 in. shorter than Leeman.”

The examination completed, Libby quickly sketched the “peculiar stitch still plainly visible in the cloth” separated from the skeletal matter. The remains were then resealed, and Featherstonhaugh was promptly informed of the results of the body count. The Doctor responded to Libby, who he still “regretfully” had not identified to the newspapers: “You deserve all the credit for this affair. If there are remains of 8 bodies the 8th is Kagi’s -- No, I am not certain that he was carried away. Tradition, published accounts and living witnesses tell me he was...(I) have not seen one adverse criticism but have had many complimentary things said.” (32)

The Town of North Elba, through popular subscription, presented a handsome, silver-handled casket to receive the remains for the formal reburial. A silver plate, affixed to its surface, carried the names of the men within. Until funeral arrangements were concluded, this casket, draped with an American flag, lay in the Town Hall. There was supreme irony here. For in Article 46 of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution, after vowing no intention to overthrow the existing State and National governments, he wrote: “And our flag shall be the same that our Fathers fought under in the Revolution.” Those once deemed traitors, now slept beneath that banner. (33)

Dr. Featherstonhaugh had chosen Miss Katherine Elizabeth McClellan -- photographic artist, authoress and daughter of the Saranac Lake physician -- as Chairman of the “Committee of Arrangements” for the reinterment. Following the exhumations, he had written her: “Yesterday I raised all the remains, and they have started on their way to you in charge of Mr. Libby...(He) seems to be rather peculiar and erratic, but enthusiastic over this matter. He will want the bones sneaked into the ground and nothing said about it, but I want some decent ceremonies to attend the burial that will make the matter memorable and historic.”

“This astounding proposition,” wrote Miss McClellan, “involving secrecy and risk...appealed to my imagination.” It was her firm desire that the burial rites be truly national in their character. The potential guest list demonstrated this fact, invitations being extended to such luminaries as President McKinley, Vice President Hobart and New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Secretary of State Elihu Root personally provided his consent to utilize a military detachment from the nearby Federal barracks at Plattsburgh. Said Miss McClellan: “I determined that no obstacle should deter me from giving these heroes the grand military funeral which would be a fitting climax for their sacrifice.” A date of August 28th was set for the ceremonies. (34)

"The Mature Dr. Libby"  
(Libby Coll. U of N. Dakota
One who would not be present for the rites was Orin Grant Libby. The young scholar, his stirring task now completed, departed Lake Placid on August 7th, after spending his final night at the farm of John Brown. This “enthusiastic pedestrian” hiked nearly twenty miles through the scenic Adirondacks, before boarding a train for Albany and the continuation of his research tour. It had been a unique adventure, to be long remembered throughout a conspicuous academic career as “North Dakota’s most distinguished history scholar.” (35)


As word of the pending funeral arrangements spread, efforts were begun to allow two additional soldiers of the Provisional Army to join their fallen comrades. In Eagleswood Grove, on a commercial property in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, lay the mortal remains of two of the raiders hanged in March of 1860:

Aaron Stevens  
(Library of Congress)
AARON STEVENS...The cashiered dragoon. The Fort Leavenworth escapee and rugged partisan who, as “Colonel Charles Whipple,” led a fierce guerrilla band amidst the anarchy of Kansas Territory. “We are in the right, and will resist the universe,” he warned those who would oppose him. Desperately wounded at Harpers Ferry, he survived only to face trial and execution. “It is hard to look back on those that are gone,” he penned from his Charlestown cell, “but, thank God, they died for liberty, and ere the 17th of March I expect to meet them in the spirit land.” (36)
Albert Hazlett  
(Library of Congress)

and ALBERT HAZLETT...The unpolished gem. He “did not impress you specially as striving to climb the golden stairs,” a comrade remembered. Eluding the militia death trap, he was captured in his native Pennsylvania and extradited for trial. “Do not grieve about the past, but take all things for the best,” he wrote on the eve of his execution. “I think, as you do, that my fate is hard and very unjust. But I shall try to meet it like a man.” To his death, he solemnly insisted he was William H. Harrison --- an innocent man.

Following the hangings, the bodies of Stevens and Hazlett had been shipped to New Jersey -- their point of entry altered because of rumors that an angry mob waited to toss their coffins overboard. Their funeral ceremonies were conducted by members of the “Raritan Bay Union,” a communistic society of staunch abolitionist tendencies. Amidst a tolling of bells, the remains were transported to the Socialist Cemetery -- Stevens placed in a hearse, Hazlett upon a “common farm wagon.” The men “were buried in Virginia coffins, in separate shallow graves, in the midst of a small grove...The company threw evergreens upon the coffins as they filed past.” (38)

Now, during the summer of 1899, these burial sites were threatened. A Perth Amboy tile manufactory coveted the clay the cemetery contained. Some speculated that the remains would be shipped to Kansas for reburial. But, with ceremonies imminent in New York, a new plan was adopted, spearheaded by Brown biographer Richard J. Hinton and E.P. Stevens, nephew of the deceased “Colonel Whipple.” Permission to excavate was obtained, and a physician engaged to measure and identify those buried within. A crew of six men was soon put to work.

The coffins were located at a depth of four feet and, in order to preserve the skeletal remains, several men entered the grave to carefully scrape away the soil. Intact shoes came suddenly into view, and a witness described what followed: “The principal bones of both bodies were found, although the femur of one of Stevens’ legs was broken off...Stevens’ skull was about gone, but Hazlett’s was minus only the face portion. The lower jaw bone of the latter was perfect and every tooth as sound as a dollar.” The clothing was in a decent state of preservation, “the left lapel of (Hazlett’s) black cloth coat was brought up, wet and soggy, but otherwise in good condition.” The workers observed numerous buttons and the gum rubber coat in which the remains of Stevens had been wrapped. Small pieces of this coat, still remarkably elastic, were cut off as souvenirs by those present...”

A large pine box, packed with sawdust and partitioned to separate the two men, was filled with the surviving bones, bits of cloth and leather and the earth taken from the respective body cavities. The box was sealed and immediately prepared for shipment, its label bearing the address:

The John Brown Homestead, North Elba, Essex Co., N.Y.
Care Katherine E. McClellan
   Chairman, Committee (Reinterment) of Arrangements (39)

The dream of Thomas Featherstonhaugh had been realized. Ten members of the Provisional Army of the United States were to be buried alongside their Commander-in-Chief. “I think I have done a good work,” said the Doctor, “and, so far from feeling ashamed of it, I am rather proud of my part in giving these poor bones decent burial. So you may quote me as the chief conspirator and as the one responsible for the grave robbing.” Wrote the daughter of John Brown: “The whole thing from beginning to end is like a romance.” (40)

Your presence is requested at the reinterment services of John Brown’s followers, whose remains have recently been removed from Harpers Ferry, to be placed beside their leader.  The ceremonies will take place on Wednesday, August 30th, at 2 o’clock, P.M. at the John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York...Conveyances will meet all trains. (41)
August 30th, 1899. It was the forty-third anniversary of the Battle of Osawatomie, that Kansas skirmish so crucial to the history, and mythology, of John Brown. The burial date had been deferred for two days, in anticipation of the arrival of Stevens and Hazlett. As midday approached, the box from New Jersey had yet to appear -- so the ceremonies began with only the original eight raiders within the silver-handled casket.

Funeral Pallbearers (Recollections of Seventy
by Franklin Sanborn)
The funeral procession, with military escort and preceded by the Saranac Lake Cornet Band, departed the Opera House Block, Lake Placid, at 1:30 P.M. The political notables were absent, but more than one thousand persons, in carriages and afoot, accompanied the hearse to the rustic final home of the Liberator. The heat and dust were oppressive, as they gathered in the shadow of the massive natural boulder which dominates the gravesite.

There was singing, the participants joining in Onward Christian Soldiers, My Country ‘Tis of Thee and, of course, John Brown’s Body.

There was oratory. Episcopal Bishop Henry Potter introduced editor and diplomat Whitelaw Reid, who spoke of the bravery of John Brown’s men. Kansas veteran and propagandist Richard J. Hinton eulogized Brown himself, and then linked “these humble names and memories with those of all who have struggled for the race and its uplifting.”
Funeral Dignitaries, E.P. Stevens, nephew 
of the raider, at right  (Library of Congress)
And there were visions of another ceremony, on a cold December day forty years before, when Joshua Young presided over the funeral of the martyred John Brown. His act of selfless charity had been met with social ostracism and banishment from his Vermont parish. Now, on this steamy August day, a snowy-bearded Reverend Young delivered the principal sermon in honor of the men of Harpers Ferry. He was to recall: “The day was excessively hot, and the great crowd exposed to the burning rays of the hot sun was restless, and speaking was hard. There was not a breath of air from the great mountains, and the flag on the liberty pole drooped as if it were oppressed by the memories which the day revived.”

Joshua Young delivers the Benediction
(Library of Congress)  
The Epps family, "colored," had also lifted their voices at the burial of John Brown. Now, four decades hence, they did the same. As they movingly sang In the Sweet By and By, this family represented the final vestige of the North Elba black colony which had so long ago lured the Browns to the Adirondacks.

Following the Reverend Young’s benediction, thirty-two members of the 26th United States Infantry, Lieutenants Connell and Ball commanding, fired three volleys over the open grave of the soldiers of the Provisional Army of the United States. And then, Taps, that haunting melody composed during the terrible conflict these men had done so much to hasten. (42)

Later that evening, the box containing the remains of Stevens and Hazlett arrived at the burial site. The grave had been left unfilled, and the casket was reopened to receive its final occupants. And the men of the Provisional Army began their final bivouac.
Military Salute (the late Edwin Cotter, Jr.)

Lyman Epps (John Brown Farm,
Lake Placid, N.Y.
Lake Placid, N.Y.   August 4th, 1938 
Dear Mr. Libby...I have never left this county. I decided to remain here all my life in order that I might be near the grave of John Brown, one of the truest friends our race has ever known. My one wish is that I could remain the caretaker of his grave, but they think I am too old now. I go to his grave as often as I possible can. I shall be glad to hear from you soon, and enclosed you will find my picture. 
Sincerely,  Lyman Epps (43)

H. SCOTT WOLFE A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, H. Scott Wolfe is a 1971 graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in botany. He conducted graduate work at both Montana and the University of Oregon. He conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service as a plant taxonomist, assisted in the preparation of several works on algal taxonomy, and conducted independent research on snow and ice algae in the western United States and Canada. In 1975, Wolfe returned to the Midwest—settling in Galena, illinois, the home of his maternal ancestors, and a Union General named Grant A Civil War enthusiast since childhood, Wolfe has utilized this historic environment to devote himself to researching the antebellum era. His specialty soon became the militant abolitionist John Brown—and the members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States. For over two decades he has been assembling biographical materials dealing with over twenty-five of Brown’s “soldiers’—interviewing their descendants, visiting their birthplaces, locating their clandestine hideouts, and unraveling the scenes of their final tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Presently the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District—and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel), Wolfe is actively involved in both writing and speaking upon both Civil War and African-American historical topics. Wolfe and his wife Nancy, an author and expert on vintage clothing, carry on a continuing war for storage space.

Notes for Part 3

31. Deposition, sworn August 5, 1899, by Orin G. Libby, before George L. Challis, Notary Public, Essex County, New York, Libby Collection.

 32. Handwritten notes and sketches of Orin G. Libby, August 5, 1899, and Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, August 11, 1899, Libby Collection.

33. Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States, photocopy of original printed version once in the possession of Colonel John Thomas Gibson of Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), Author’s Collection.

34. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Katherine McClellan, July 30, 1899, Adirondack Collection; Katherine E. McClellan, “John Brown’s Body Lies Amouldering in the Adirondacks,” typescript, pp. 10-11, Katherine McClellan Collection, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.

35. George F. Shafer, “Dr. Orin Grant Libby,” North Dakota History, Volume 12, No. 3, July 1945, p. 107.

36. Quoted from Hinton, John Brown and His Men, pp. 497-498.

37. George B, Gill, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 515; W.H. Harrison (Albert Hazlett) to Anne Brown, ibid., pp. 526-527.

38. Virginia Free Press, April 5, 1860, excerpts reprinted in Clarence B. Stephenson, “Impact of the Slavery Issue on Indiana County, Pennsylvania,” no date, p. 131.

39. Perth Amboy (NJ) Chronicle, August 28, 1899.

40. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Katherine McClellan, July 30, 1899, Adirondack Collection; Ruth Brown Thompson to Thomas Featherstonhaugh, October 6, 1896, Libby Collection.

41. Invitation to reburial ceremonies addressed to Professor O. G. Libby, dated August 25, 1899, and signed by Katherine E. McClellan, Libby Collection.

42. Ruth Brown Thompson to Thomas Featherstonhaugh, October 19, 1899, Stutler Collection; see also various newspaper reports: Plattsburgh (NY) Press Republican, September 2, 1899, New York World, August 31, 1899, New York Times, August 31, 1899, Charles Town (W.Va.) Spirit of Jefferson, September 5, 1899.

43. Lyman Epps to Orin G. Libby, August 4, 1938, Libby Collection.


*Adirondack:Saranac Lake Free Library, Saranac Lake, New York 
*Hinton, Richard Josiah: Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas 
*Libby, Orin Grant: Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks 
*McClellan, Katherine E.: Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts 
*McKim, J. Miller: Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York 
*Stutler, Boyd B.: West Virginia Department of Culture and History, Charleston, West Virginia


Barry, Joseph. The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, With Legends of the Surrounding           County. Martinsburg, West Virginia, 1903. 

Benet, Stephen Vincent. John Brown’s Body. New York, 1954. 

Brandt, Nat. The Town That Started the Civil War. Syracuse, 1990. 

Calendar of Virginia State Papers. Volume XI, Richmond, 1893. 

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His              Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History. Avenal, NJ, 1993. 

DuBois, W,E.B. John Brown. New York, 1962. 

Featherstonhaugh, Thomas J. “The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown.” New                    England Magazine XXIV, April 1901. 

_____ “John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry.” Publications of the          Southern History Association III, 1899. 

Hinton, Richard Josiah. John Brown and His Men: With Some Account of the Roads They            Traveled to Reach Harper’s Ferry. New York, 1894. 

Love, Rose Leary. “The Five Brave Negroes With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.” The Negro         History Bulletin. April 1964. 

Ruchames, Louis (ed.). A John Brown Reader. London and New York, 1959. 

Sanborn, Franklin B. Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of            Virginia. Boston, 1891. 

Shafer, George F. “Dr. Orin Grant Libby.” North Dakota History XII, July 1945. 

Stephenson, Clarence D. “Impact of the Slavery Issue on Indiana County, Pennsylvania.”              n.d. 

Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston and New                York, 1910. 

Webb, Richard D. (ed.) The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown. London, 1861.


Baltimore Sun 
Charles Town (W.Va.) Spirit of Jefferson 
Frederick (Md.) Herald 
New York Independent 
New York Times 
New York Tribune 
New York World 
Perth Amboy (N.J.) Chronicle 
Plattsburgh (N. Y.) Press Republican 
University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal 
Washington Post

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


by H. Scott Wolfe

This whole matter is more a question of sentiment than one of science.”  Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, August 1, 1899

The vocation of Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was that of civil servant -- an employee of the Federal Pension Office. But his consuming passion was the intellectual pursuit of John Brown and his men. Over the years, the Doctor had assembled a premier private collection of relics and memorabilia relating to the abolitionist martyr. As a diligent scholar, he had mastered the confused and conflicting literature -- the honesty and the hyperbole -- and fully intended to compose the definitive account of the Harpers Ferry invasion.

But while the aura of John Brown burned brightly, the members of his Provisional Army, like their secluded resting place beside the Shenandoah, had flickered from the public consciousness. An idea had crystallized in the mind of Thomas Featherstonhaugh. He dreamed of finding a long neglected grave -- and providing those anonymous victims of war, a final peace.


After making local inquiries, Featherstonhaugh and fellow Brown-enthusiast L.A. Brandebury found themselves at the humble abode of James Foreman. The elderly, white-mustachioed Foreman had resided on that craggy mountainside his entire life. And yes, he informed the dapper pair from Washington, he had witnessed the mass burial of John Brown’s men. Grabbing a set of shovels, and with his strapping son Lewis in tow, the old man led the party to the spongy bank of the Shenandoah. “Two sunken places in the ground” marked the spot, and the Foremans were soon at their sweaty work. It was September 16th, 1895.

At a depth of three feet, the rotted lid of a box was exposed. Wrote Featherstonhaugh: “We finally uncovered the whole top of the box and I raised the cover, to which the whole backbone of a man was adherent. This incident shows how closely the bodies had been packed in the box. The box was some six feet in length, four feet wide and three feet in depth...and was remarkably well preserved....This coffin contained the remains of four of the invaders. Portions of the clothing were still to be distinguished...There were great masses of woolen tissue surrounding each one of the dead men. These blankets or shawls were worn by the men as overcoats when they started out on the raid...One of the skulls that I picked out from the ooze was all in pieces as if it had been shattered...After becoming fully satisfied that we had the remains of the raiders before us, we replaced the cover of the box.” (20)
Brandebury and the Foremans pose at the grave
(Stutler Collection, Charleston, WV)

The refilled grave (Stutler Collection,
Charleston, WV
The second burial box was unmolested. The Foremans and Brandebury posed stiffly for the Doctor’s camera, before the grave was refilled and marked with crude headstones plucked from the river’s edge.  

The victims of Harpers Ferry had been found. One objective remained -- a goal echoed in the words of Ruth Brown Thompson, eldest daughter of the Commander. “Dr. Featherstonhaugh . . . If those long neglected and almost forgotten bodies which have so long slept in Virginia soil could be placed beside their loving leader, would it not be the crowning act of devotion to them? I do hope and pray it may be done.” (21)


They met by chance, that summer of 1899. Orin G. Libby was visiting acquaintances in the national capital, when he was informed of Dr. Featherstonhaugh’s purpose to compile a history of the Harpers Ferry raid. His curiosity aroused, the touring professor sought out the learned Doctor. And during their succeeding conversations, he discovered unanticipated designs for another, more stirring, adventure.

Recalled Libby: “While in Washington I ran across a man who is making a study of the raid and who had discovered the burying place of the 7 or 8 men shot at Harpers Ferry. One of the graves he opened...years ago, and always planned to take all the remains up to North Elba and bury them properly near John Brown’s grave. I persuaded him to let me have a share in the matter.” (22)

Featherstonhaugh admired the energy and intelligence of the youthful scholar -- and was pleasantly surprised to learn of Libby’s familial relationship to Charles Plummer Tidd, a member of Brown’s Provisional Army. With full confidence in his visitor, the Doctor revealed his scheme to exhume the remnants of the fallen raiders from that lone forsaken grave, and to convey them to the distant Adirondacks for final rest beside their martyred Commander. Following a spirited discussion, Professor Orin Grant Libby was formally invited to assist.

The watchword for this ambitious effort was to be secrecy, for only a select few were to be made aware of Dr. Featherstonhaugh’s intentions. Should any of the particulars of the plan appear in the public press, the eventual success of the operation would be jeopardized. Undue publicity would attract unwelcome curiosity seekers and relic hunters. And even though the era of intense fraternal strife had receded into the past, it was feared that these actions would rekindle latent sectional animosities -- both in the local populace and in the nation at large. Finally, Featherstonhaugh was apprehensive that, without prior notification, State health authorities might attempt to hinder the transportation of the remains. “I want to keep the matter quiet until I get the bodies off,” wrote the Doctor, “and then the public can have the news, which will make quite a stir.” (23)

It was for the conveyance of those bodies that Orin Libby had been selected. The visiting professor was perfectly suited for the plot, for he possessed the invaluable commodity of anonymity. His public links to John Brown scholarship, or to the prior activities of Dr. Featherstonhaugh, were non-existent. He would therefore not arouse suspicion as he personally conducted the exhumed material northward.
Featherstonhaugh had already obtained encouragement from members of the Brown family, along with permission to utilize their burial plot at North Elba. He was also certain of gaining the consent of the owners of the Harpers Ferry pulp mill, upon whose property the gravesite was situated. When successfully completed, the scheme was to appear as an act of public altruism -- not private vandalism.

All seemed ready. But before arrangements were finalized, Libby was obligated to continue his academic tour. The men parted with a firm agreement to maintain communication. An excited Orin Libby, his personal research now secondary, eagerly awaited definitive instructions for what he would later call an “act of delayed historic justice” -- the “second raid of Harpers Ferry.” (24)

Final word reached Libby in Baltimore. Wrote Featherstonhaugh: “I think the best plan is to go up there boldly and accomplish our work...I now propose to go from here on Friday night and we will do our work early on Saturday morning and you can get off by some early train. I think two hours work will accomplish what we wish...Go to the Summit House, about half a mile from the depot, which will be our headquarters...If you should not be able to arrive until after we are at work, cross the Shenandoah bridge and keep up stream right by the rivers brink and you will run upon us...Let this arrangement be definite, unless you hear to the contrary from me.” The Doctor enclosed a crudely penciled map of Harpers Ferry, noting the river bridges, the gravesite and the Summit House rendezvous point. He also included a list of the slain raiders, for delivery to those at North Elba in charge of receiving the remains. (25)
Featherstonhaugh's map (Libby Collection,
Univ. of North Dakota
On the evening of Friday, July 28th, 1899, Orin Grant Libby stepped from a coach at the Harpers Ferry railroad station. Porters lifted a large trunk from the baggage car -- a trunk that would soon bear the members of the Provisional Army of the United States.


The Saturday sun had yet to appear, when an impatient Orin Libby crossed the Shenandoah bridge. He wandered aimlessly two miles upstream, before returning to Harpers Ferry for breakfast. There he met Featherstonhaugh, this time accompanied by Captain E.P. Hall. The Doctor had tarried to enlist three local men to perform the excavation. Shortly thereafter, the entire party arrived at the riverside grave.

The two burial boxes were soon exposed. They lay end to end, in an East/West orientation. Featherstonhaugh later described the scene: “The...great boxes...from being constantly wet, were remarkably preserved. Most of the smaller bones had crumbled away, but the long bones...were recovered...There were portions of coats and vests with the buttons still in position upon them, and from one of the vest pockets dropped two short lead pencils, all sharpened for use.”

Observed Libby: “There was little remaining intact of the bodies, but not a little of the clothing was still recognizable. The rusted brass buttons (and) buckles...told the story plainly. On account of the peculiar coat worn by John Brown’s son, Oliver, we were able to identify his resting the easternmost of the two graves. From the account of those who saw the burial, they were thrown in carelessly...And the arrangement of the bones when they were disinterred confirms this report fully.” (26)

The work was completed by midday. One of the laborers conducted the exhumed bones and fragments of clothing to Camp Hill, above Harpers Ferry, delivering them to a summer cottage near the Summit House. And it was there that the remains, secured with cotton and excelsior, were packed into Libby’s trunk.

Word of the exhumations sped quickly through the town. A relieved Thomas Featherstonhaugh, from his secure haven on the hilltop, could easily view the gravesite across the Shenandoah. He wrote: “In the late afternoon at Harpers Ferry we could see from Lightner’s porch the whole neighborhood at the site of the two graves. The river bank fairly swarmed with people...I do not know of anything of small moment that seems to have caused so much sensation as this thing.” (27) But Orin Grant Libby, with his precious cargo, was safely on a northbound train.
Railroad station at Harpers Ferry (National Park Service)

The secret proved difficult to keep. From Harrisburg, a gloating Libby wrote Eva Cory: “Much has happened since I left Baltimore. You could never guess & I mean to tell  you but you must keep very still about it...Just outside in the hall is a trunk containing the remains of the Harpers Ferry victims killed at the famous raid 40 years ago...I fancy the newspaper men will be wild over it when they hear how we dodged them.”

In order to fully impress his lady, he purposely embellished the perils of the adventure: “If it had been known in advance a lot of the old Charleston fire eaters who hate Brown and the north would have been on hand with their Winchesters and driven us off. It is a wild land there still and not a few Washington people were prevented from being present by fear of hearing the bullets whistle.” And finally, fearing that he may have betrayed his commitment to secrecy, Libby warned: “You are the first one outside of the secret circle to know of it!...Now please don’t tell on me till you see by the papers that it is safe.” (28)

While still in Harrisburg, Libby closely examined the disinterred material and carefully repacked the trunk. He also initiated an attempt to ascertain the actual number of persons exhumed from the double grave. Local tradition and previously published reports -- some by Dr. Featherstonhaugh himself -- had claimed that the corpse of John Kagi had also been conveyed to the dissectors of Winchester.
So were seven -- or eight -- men to be reburied at North Elba? Because the skulls and smaller bones had undergone extensive decomposition, the only means of properly determining the sum of individuals was through analysis of the long bones. In short, Libby needed someone to count femurs. He dispatched a note to a New York insurance agent, seeking advice on an anatomical expert who might perform the task. And he informed Featherstonhaugh of his intention to continue his journey by way of that city. Then he was off to New Jersey. (29)

Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was a worried man. His role in the exhumations had quickly become public knowledge. Swarms of persistent newspapermen harried him incessantly. Orin Libby remained anonymous, but his apparent leisurely progress invited discovery by a press pursuing the scent of a dramatic story. A Featherstonhaugh letter overtook him in Trenton: “Of course you know by this time that the whole civilized world knows of the removal of the bodies from Harpers Ferry. The papers are full of it...Your name has not been mentioned in any account that I have seen. Reporters are after me all day and I have no recourse except to say that the bones have gone to N. Elba.”
A Featherstonhaugh postscript
(Libby Collection, Univ. of North Dakota)
The Doctor implored Libby to expedite his journey: “Don’t you see that...delay will spoil the whole matter?...I have heard nothing but hearty endorsement of our work from every quarter, and I do not want it spoiled by needless procrastination.” He also doubted the necessity of researching the remains while enroute northward. “This whole matter is more a question of sentiment than one of science,” Featherstonhaugh exclaimed, while urging Libby to critically count the femurs only after he reached his ultimate destination. And it was with extreme vexation that the Doctor learned of the New York plan: “The health authorities of New York will make it very uncomfortable for you if they get track of your movements. I advise you very earnestly to keep away from N.Y...(and) on every account deprecate delay.”

The urgency of Featherstonhaugh’s letter was recognized by Libby. New York City was bypassed in favor of Albany. From that place he wrote Eva Cory: “I got a letter from Dr. Featherstonhaugh . . . saying that the papers were full of our new Harpers Ferry raid and that I was expected to go on at once. I am here waiting for the train which will land me in Lake Placid...An episode of this kind is a rare one in my life and I intend to make full use of it.” (30)
Signature of Orin Grant Libby 
(Libby Collection, Univ. of North Dakota)

To Be Continued
H. SCOTT WOLFE A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, H. Scott Wolfe is a 1971 graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in botany. He conducted graduate work at both Montana and the University of Oregon. He conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service as a plant taxonomist, assisted in the preparation of several works on algal taxonomy, and conducted independent research on snow and ice algae in the western United States and Canada. In 1975, Wolfe returned to the Midwest—settling in Galena, illinois, the home of his maternal ancestors, and a Union General named Grant A Civil War enthusiast since childhood, Wolfe has utilized this historic environment to devote himself to researching the antebellum era. His specialty soon became the militant abolitionist John Brown—and the members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States. For over two decades he has been assembling biographical materials dealing with over twenty-five of Brown’s “soldiers’—interviewing their descendants, visiting their birthplaces, locating their clandestine hideouts, and unraveling the scenes of their final tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Presently the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District—and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel), Wolfe is actively involved in both writing and speaking upon both Civil War and African-American historical topics. Wolfe and his wife Nancy, an author and expert on vintage clothing, carry on a continuing war for storage space.

Notes for Part 2

20. Featherstonhaugh, “John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry,” Publications of the Southern History Association, Volume III, Washington, D.C., (1899), pp. 300-301. 

21. Ruth Brown Thompson to Thomas Featherstonhaugh, October 6, 1896, Libby Collection. 

22. Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

23. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Katherine McClellan, July 19, 1899, Adirondack Collection, Saranac Lake Free Library, Saranac Lake, New York. 

24. “Second Raid,” University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal, November 13, 1899. 

25. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, July 25, 1899 and July 26, 1899, Libby Collection. 

26. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, “The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown,” New England Magazine, Volume XXIV, April 1901, p. 133; Orin G. Libby to the Editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, August 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

27. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin 0. Libby, August 1, 1899, Libby Collection. 

28. Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

29. William Dutcher to Orin G. Libby, August 1, 1899, Libby Collection. 

30. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, August 1, 1899, and Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, August 3, 1899, Libby Collection. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Part 1

by H. Scott Wolfe
Readers of this blog will be delighted to learn that my friendly associate and co-contributor, H. Scott Wolfe, has graciously contributed his important essay on John Brown's raiders to this blog, where it is widely published for the first time.  Recognizing Mr. Wolfe's years of travel, research, and investigation in matters great and small regarding Brown and his men, having this essay made accessible to our readers is quite a privilege.  Thank you Scott for sharing this treasure with us.--LD

Born of a challenge from Edwin Cotter, Jr., the late Superintendent of John Brown’s Farm and Gravesite in Lake Placid, New York, The Second Harpers Ferry Raid began as an attempt to determine the exact number of Brown’s soldiers, members of his “Provisional Army of the United States,” reinterred next to their leader in August of 1899. As is common with the conflicting literature of John Brown, contemporary and secondary sources varied in regard to how many of the victims of Harpers Ferry rested beside their Commander-in- Chief. But as this study progressed, the quest for mere numbers expanded to become a truly intriguing story. A story of how these anonymous victims of war achieved a final peace.

 The Second Harpers Ferry Raid introduces the ten casualties of Brown’s Provisional Army, and then relates the tale of their violent deaths...their hurried burial...their discovery, over three decades hence...their clandestine exhumation...and, finally, their reinterment amidst solemn ceremonies. It tells the story of an amateur John Brown enthusiast who had a dream...a traveling professor whose research was unexpectedly interrupted by a “harum-scarum expedition...and a female artist and authoress who made the arrangements for “a fitting climax for their sacrifice.”  Gleaned almost entirely from unpublished manuscript sources, The Second Harpers Ferry Raid provides a fascinating addition to the literature of abolitionist John Brown.


“I am inclined to think you will not be likely to succeed well about getting away the bodies of your family; but should that be so, do not let that grieve you. It can make but little difference what is done with them.”   (John Brown, November 26, 1859)

It was the summer of 1899, and young Dr. Orin G. Libby, instructor of history at the University of Wisconsin, had eagerly anticipated his Eastern tour. He relished the opportunity to visit the old colonial towns of the Middle Atlantic and New England states, to experience the “perpetual delight” of their venerable libraries and to enjoy the recreation of, what he called, their “perfect bicycle pavements.”

Orin Grant Libby 
(Milwaukee Sentinel
5 November 1899)
But then he had met the gentleman from Washington, and his enthusiasm was suddenly focused in a new, entirely unexpected, direction. From Baltimore, with a decided mixture of masculine bravado and Tom Sawyerish intrigue, Libby wrote his future wife Eva Cory: “I expect to engage in a harum-scarum expedition which I don’t even dare tell you about till it is all done. You’ll probably read of it in the newspapers. I fancy even the country papers will have enough to tell you, even if my letter fails, what it is all about.” (1) Professor Orin Grant Libby was about to embark upon the Second Harpers Ferry Raid.

On the chill, misty night of October 16th, 1859, the Provisional Army of the United States solemnly trudged down a murky Maryland road. Their tiny column of eighteen men, white and black, was accompanied by a rude farm wagon, upon which rode their Commander-in-Chief, the militant abolitionist John Brown. The Old Testament warrior was again prepared to smite his personal ogre...slavery.

The destination of this armed band was Harpers Ferry, Virginia, that bustling oasis of industry perched astride the rock wedge at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The town, with its Federal armory, arsenal and rifle factory, sat poised at a natural entrance to the surrounding mountains. And those mountains, the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, were like sylvan swords, thrust deep into the vitals of Brown’s despised Slave Kingdom.

The Harpers Ferry Armory,
scene of the raid   (Library of Congress)
“These mountains,” said the Commander-in-Chief, “are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the negro race.” Here, from Harpers Ferry, stretched a rugged corridor from slavery to liberty...The Great Black Way...The Subterranean Passway...”and along that path were fastnesses and hiding places easily capable of becoming permanent fortified refuges for organized bands of determined armed men.” (2)

The Provisional Army would strike quickly. A brazen attack upon the government installations would electrify the nation. The soldiers would gather arms, rally the local slave population and then withdraw to the impenetrable recesses of the hills. “I know these mountains well,” said John Brown, “and could take a body of men into them and keep them there, despite of all the efforts of Virginia to dislodge them.” The Harpers Ferry raid would be “not a foray from the mountains,” but rather, “a foray to the mountains.” (3)

From their fortified enclaves, Brown’s Army would launch additional incursions...rolling down the mountain chains and their adjacent valleys...inducing more slaves to swell their ranks or, for the reluctant or infirm, providing safe passage northward to free-state Pennsylvania. The Commander called it “Rail Road business on a somewhat extended scale.” No insurrection, no “general slaughter of the slavemasters,” was proposed. Potential anarchy and confusion were to be averted through the stable influence of a formal Constitution, penned by Brown himself. “It was my object to place the slaves in a condition to defend their liberties, if they would, without any bloodshed,” he said. But Old Osawatomie “did contemplate the creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of the South.” (4)

But after initial success, the lightning strike at Harpers Ferry degenerated to a plodding, hideous conclusion. A seemingly confused Commander became passive, frozen into a bewildering inactivity. The stampede of oppressed blacks failed to materialize, for they were either unaware, or unsure, of the Liberator’s intentions. And the white militia organizations, from the surrounding communities, were promptly marshaled to confront the invaders...those specters of the worst Southern nightmare.
By the morning of October 18th, Brown, with his surviving men and their hostages, had retreated to the tiny, brick armory fire engine house. A small detachment of United States Marines stormed the building. And the grandiose scheme of slave liberation expired in two minutes of smoke and blood.
One week hence, the wounded Brown would be borne to a Charlestown courtroom to face charges of murder, treason and inciting slaves to rebel. And within two months, convicted, he would hang...his mortal remains would begin the slow journey for burial at his spartan Adirondack farm...and his ardent partisans would launch his martyrdom.


Of the members of the Provisional Army of the United States, that paramilitary column of eighteen, two would escape. Six would share the fate of their Commander on a Virginia scaffold. And ten lay dead in the streets and rivers of Harpers Ferry...the victims of bullet, bayonet and Southern rage. These ten men were the human wreckage bred of passions that would soon sever the cords of Union. Some of noble ideals. Some of base ambitions. Some of blind obedience. These were the casualties of Harpers Ferry:

John Kagi
JOHN KAGI...The gifted zealot. Alias Maurice Maitland, alias John Henrie. Brown’s Secretary of War and second-in-command. His frantic calls for withdrawal were ignored by a Commander intent upon rationalizing his actions before a pitiful audience of armory workmen. “In a very few days we shall commence,” he wrote on the eve of the raid, “things could not be more cheerful and more certain of success than they are. We have worked hard and suffered much, but the hardest is down now, and a glorious success is in sight...Be cheerful. Don’t imagine dangers. All will be well.” Shot in the head and instantly killed, while fleeing into the Shenandoah River. (5)

William Leeman
WILLIAM LEEMAN...The callow shoemaker from Maine. Swagger and bluster barely concealed the boy within. “I don’t want you to worrie yourself about me,” he wrote his anxious mother, “I shall be in danger, but it is natural to me. I shall not get killed. I am in a good cause, and I am not afraid.” Pursued and viciously shot in the Potomac, his faceless corpse was propped in the rocks to test the marksmanship of undisciplined militia. Said a reporter: “His black hair may just be seen floating upon the surface of the water and waving with every ripple.” (6)

Steward Taylor
STEWARD TAYLOR...The mystical wagonmaker. The Canadien-born spiritualist who, sequestered with his comrades, confidently predicted his own death. He “was full of...cranky notions and ideas on all manner of subjects,” said the Commander’s daughter. Earlier, out of touch with the movement, he feared being left behind. “I felt as though I was deprived of my chief object in life,” he wrote, “I believe that fate has decreed me for this undertaking...It is my chief desire to add fuel to the fire.” Mortally wounded in the engine house. In his agony, he begged to be shot. “If you must die, die like a man,” said John Brown. (7)

DANGERFIELD NEWBY...The manumitted slave. Son of a Scotch master. Quiet and devoted, he took up arms to free his family from the toil of a Virginia plantation. His wife begged him to purchase her and the baby that had just “commenced to soon as possible, for if you do not get me somebody else will.” Her plaintive words echoed in his mind: “Oh Dear Dangerfield, come this fall without fail, money or no money I want to see you so much; that is the one bright hope I have before me.” Hogs nuzzled him in a filthy gutter, his throat severed, his ears sliced off as grisly souvenirs. (8)

Watson Brown
WATSON BROWN...The loyal son of the leader. A loving and compassionate soldier in a war suddenly turned brutal. “Dear Belle,” he wrote his child-wife, “I would gladly come home and stay with you always but for the cause which brought me here -- a desire to do something for others, and not live wholly for my own happiness...I sometimes feel as if I could not make this sacrifice, but what would I not want others to do were I in their place?” Sent to parley, he was gut-shot under a white flag and managed to crawl to the engine house fortress to linger through the next day. A haughty captor asked the sufferer: “What brought you here?” The terse reply: “Duty, sir.” (9)
Jeremiah Anderson

JEREMIAH ANDERSON...The savvy Kansas veteran. “As earnest a member of the party as Brown had with him,” was this trusted aide. “There are few who dare to answer the call, and dare to answer it in a manner that will make this land of Liberty and Equality shake to the center,” he penned from the Maryland base. “We go in to win at all hazards. So if you should hear of a failure it will be after a desperate struggle.” Pinned to the wall of the engine house during the Marine bayonet assault. Dragged out, “vomiting gore,” he was kicked and spat upon by the enraged citizenry. Drawled one local farmer: “Well, it takes you a hell of a long time to die.” (10)

William Thompson
WILLIAM THOMPSON...The good-natured wit. Brown’s Adirondack neighbor and kinsman. He “would have made a successful comic actor,” said the daughter of the Commander, for “he was very lively and full of funny stories and jokes.” Early captured, a mob dragged him to the Potomac bridge, shot him repeatedly and tossed him to the rocks below. The body “could be seen lying at the bottom of the river, with his ghastly face still showing what a fearful death agony he had experienced.” With such “villainous Abolitionists,” said one of the killers, “(I) felt justified in shooting any that I could find. I felt it my duty, and I have no regrets.” (11)
Dauphin Thompson

DAUPHIN THOMPSON...The quiet innocent. The “pippin-cheeked country boy,” young brother of William. He “was much more like a girl than a warrior,” it was recalled, “with his light yellow, curly hair, eyes, and face as smooth as a baby’s.” Always “affectionate and childlike with his friends,” he seemed more suited to a Sunday School than a servile war. “I suppose the folk think we are a set of fools,” he wrote from ‘Parts Unknown,’ “but they will find out we know what we are about.” Skewered by a Marine bayonet, while cowering beneath a fire engine in the final fortress. (12)

Lewis Leary
LEWIS LEARY...The educated saddler. An unindicted conspirator in the Oberlin rescue, he was a free man of color who had been named for a slaveholder of conscience. Abruptly leaving home and family, sachel of harness-making tools in hand, he sought far more serious work. “Tell no man where I have gone,” he once said, “you’ll see me again, but I’ll be marching at the top of the drum...Men must suffer for a good cause.” Caught in the crossfire in the Shenandoah, he suffered a cruel and agonizing death on the dusty floor of a Harpers Ferry cooper’s shop. His final message in the cause of freedom: “I am ready to die.” (13)

Oliver Brown
and OLIVER BROWN...The youngest son. Bright and studious, his mother thought him the most promising. “I think there is no good reason why any of us should be discouraged,” he wrote his cherishing family, “for if we have done but one good act, life is not a failure...Keep a stiff lip, a sound pluck, and believe that all will come out right in the end.” Mortally wounded near the engine house. “Oliver lived but a very few moments after he was shot,” said a survivor. “He spoke no word, but yielded calmly to his fate.” (14)

These ten lifeless soldiers of the Provisional Army were “subjected to every indignity that a wild and madly excited people could heap upon them.” A horrified reporter could only rationalize: “It may be thought that there was cruelty and barbarity in this; but the public mind had been frenzied by the outrages of these men, who, being outlaws, were regarded as food for carrion birds, and not as human creatures.”

However, once a semblance of order had been restored to Harpers Ferry, the bodies of the slain were gathered and the dilemma of their disposal was addressed. The “unsettled state of the country” and the “excitement of the people” mandated prompt interment. But the residents of Harpers Ferry would not condone the pollution of their own cemetery with the remains of these harbingers of servile insurrection. (15)

Opportunistic medical students were the first to take advantage of the confused situation, seizing the remains of Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson and carrying them to their college in Winchester...for use as dissection specimens. The callous treatment of Anderson was described by a citizen: “In order to take him away handily they procured a barrel and tried to pack him into it. Head foremost, they rammed him in, but they could not bend his legs so as to get them into the barrel with the rest of the body. In their endeavor to accomplish this feat, they strained so hard that the man’s bones or sinews fairly cracked.” (16)

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
5 November 1859
Two men, paid five dollars from the public purse, were hired to dispose of the remaining corpses. Carelessly tossed into the box of a common wagon, this gruesome freight -- witnesses recalled the welter of sprawling limbs -- rumbled over the Shenandoah bridge to the opposite bank. A burial site was selected on the margin of the river, one-half mile above the town. And there, without ceremony, the slain soldiers of the Provisional Army of the United States were committed to a shallow, common grave. But Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia, was soon to interrupt their slumber.

In November, prior to the Liberator’s execution, Mrs. John Brown had penned a touching letter to the Governor, appealing for the “mortal remains of my husband and sons.” In his response, Wise enclosed a copy of an order to Major General William Taliaferro to “deliver to your order the mortal remains...(and) to guard you sacredly in your solemn mission.” Unknown to Mrs. Brown, Watson was in the hands of the ghoulish medicos of Winchester. However, young Oliver did lie in the grave beside the Shenandoah.

Acting upon the Governor’s orders, a party of men under Alfred Barbour, Superintendent of the United States Armory, gathered at the site of the mass burial. They found “two large mounds of earth, freshly thrown up.” Digging a mere foot beneath the surface, they reached “a body which had been buried with the face down, and was then in so advanced a state of decomposition as apparently to render identification impossible.” Additional bodies were unearthed and scrutinized, but it was not until December 8th -- nearly a week after Mrs. Brown had departed with the remains of her husband -- that Barbour reported to her agent: “Upon examination, the body of one of Mrs. Brown’s sons was recognized among the disinterred invaders. The bodies of them all have been again buried properly on the right bank of the Shenandoah in the County of Jefferson, Virginia.” (17)

This time the men were placed in two large “store boxes,” and Francis Yates, Overseer of the Poor for Jefferson County, presented a bill for $55 -- along with a plea that because “these men were killed on the property of the United States, whilst they had forcible possession of said property...we submit that the Government, and not the Overseers...should pay the expenses of interment.” (18)  But the dead of Harpers Ferry were again at rest. Undisturbed by the tread of rival Civil War armies, and the succeeding spring freshets of the Shenandoah, the gravesite was for decades ignored, if not forgotten.

One victim reappeared in 1882, when the body of Watson Brown, one of those dispatched to the medical school, surfaced in the Martinsville, Indiana office of Jarvis Johnson, M.D. Once a surgeon of the 27th Indiana Regiment, Dr. Johnson had absconded with the prepared specimen during a Federal occupation of Winchester in 1862. John Brown, Junior was summoned, and what he witnessed was described to his family:
Carroll County (IL) Weekly Mirror, 4 June 1862
“I found it in a long narrow box...As soon as I could choke down my feelings I began a careful survey. The muscles of the mouth had been stretched unnaturally, probably to expose the teeth as much as possible. Two or three of the upper front teeth are broken...(and) several joints of the fingers and toes are missing. It is said they were cut off and carried away as relics by the Confederates...The body has suffered a good deal of waste from the ravages of insects...The hole corresponding to the wound as reported at the time...can be plainly seen.” (19)
His duty finally served, Watson Brown was promptly shipped to be buried alongside his father in faraway North Elba, New York. And in 1895, those interred on the lonely bank of the Shenandoah would also reappear. For a gentleman from Washington had arrived in Harpers Ferry.

--H. Scott Wolfe

BIOGRAPHICAL H. SCOTT WOLFE A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, H. Scott Wolfe is a 1971 graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in botany. He conducted graduate work at both Montana and the University of Oregon. He conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service as a plant taxonomist, assisted in the preparation of several works on algal taxonomy, and conducted independent research on snow and ice algae in the western United States and Canada. In 1975, Wolfe returned to the Midwest—settling in Galena, illinois, the home of his maternal ancestors, and a Union General named Grant A Civil War enthusiast since childhood, Wolfe has utilized this historic environment to devote himself to researching the antebellum era. His specialty soon became the militant abolitionist John Brown—and the members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States. For over two decades he has been assembling biographical materials dealing with over twenty-five of Brown’s “soldiers’—interviewing their descendants, visiting their birthplaces, locating their clandestine hideouts, and unraveling the scenes of their final tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Presently the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District—and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel), Wolfe is actively involved in both writing and speaking upon both Civil War and African-American historical topics. Wolfe and his wife Nancy, an author and expert on vintage clothing, carry on a continuing war for storage space.

To Be Continued

Notes for Part 1

1. John Brown to Mary A. Brown, November 26, 1859, in Louis Ruchames (ed.), A John Brown Reader (NY: Abelard Schuman, 1959), p. 152; Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 23, 1899, Orin Grant Libby Collection, Elwyn B. Robinson Dept. of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks (hereafter cited as the Libby Collection). 

2. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History [1881] (Avenal, NJ: Gramercy Books, 1993), p. 262; W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown [1909] (New York: International Publishers, 1962), p. 274. 

3. Douglass, Life and Times, p. 262; Du Bois, John Brown, p. 276. 

4. John Brown to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 12, 1858, in Ruchames, John Brown Reader, pp. 110-111; John Brown to Andrew Hunter, November 22, 1859, ibid., p. 144; Douglass, Life and Times, pp. 261-262. 

5. John Kagi to his family in Otoe, Nebraska, September 24, 1859, portions quoted in Richard Hinton, John Brown and His Men: With Some Account of the Roads They Traveled to Reach Harper’s Ferry (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1894), p. 465. 

6. William H. Leeman to His Mother (Sarah A. Leeman), October 2, 1859, Richard Josiah Hinton Collection, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka; Baltimore Sun, October 19, 1859. 

7. Account of John Brown’s men and life at the Kennedy Farm written by Annie Brown Adams for Richard J. Hinton, undated, Hinton Collection; Steward Taylor to Iowa Friend, —, 1859, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 533; Steward Taylor to Friend, July 3, 1859, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Volume XI (Richmond, Va., 1893), p. 301; statement of John Thomas Allstadt, April 15, 1909, quoted in Osward Garrison Villard, John Brawn: A Biography Forty Years After (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910), p. 448. 

8. Harriett Newby to Dangerfield Newby: April 11, 1859, April 22, 1859, and August 16, 1859, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Volume XI, pp. 310-311. 

9. Watson Brown to Belle Thompson Brown, September 8, 1859, quoted in Franklin B.Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891), pp. 542-543; Watson Brown to Belle Thompson Brown, September 16, 1859, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 578; C.W. Tayleure to John Brown, Jr., June 15, 1879, in Sanborn, Life and Letters, pp. 611-612. 

10. Statement of George B. Gill, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 546; Jeremiah Anderson to his brother, September 28(?), 1859, ibid., p. 547; Joseph Barry, The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, With Legends of the Surrounding Country, Thompson Bros. (Martinsburg, W. Va., 1903), p.80. 

11. Account of John Brown’s men written by Annie Brown Adams, Hinton Collection; Barry, Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, p. 60; testimony of Harry Hunter, quoted in Villard, John Brown, p. 442. 

12. Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1954), p. 29; Account of John Brown’s men written by Annie Brown Adams, Hinton Collection; Dauphin Thompson to Brother and Sister, September 4, 1859, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 277. 

13. Rose Leary Love, “The Five Brave Negroes With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry,” The Negro History Bulletin (April 1964), p. 167; Nat Brandt, The Town Thai Started The Civil War (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), p. 242; Villard, John Brown, p.486. 

14. Oliver Smith (Brown) to Mother, Brother and Sisters, September 9, 1859, in Sanborn, Life and Letters, p. 547; Edwin Coppoc to Mrs. Mary A. Brown, in New York Tribune, December 12, 1859. 

15. Frederick (Md.) Herald quoted in Richard D. Webb, The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown (London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1861), pp. 156-157; Thomas J. Featherstonhaugh, “Heroes of Harper’s Ferry,” ca. 1895 article published in the Washington Post, in the Boyd Stutler Collection, West Virginia Department of Culture and History, Charleston, West Virginia. 

16. Barry, Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, p. 81. 

17. Mary A. Brown to Governor Henry A. Wise, November 21, 1859, and Governor Henry A. Wise to Mary A. Brown, n.d., quoted in Villard, John Brown, p. 549; New York Independent, December 8, 1859; Alfred Barbour to J. Miller McKim, December 8, 1859, J.M. McKim Collection, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York. 

18. Francis Yates to Alexander R. Boteler, March 21, 1860, Stutler Collection.

19. John Brown, Jr. to Wife and All, September 10, 1882, quoted in Thomas J. Featherstonhaugh, “John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry,” Publications of the Southern History Association, Volume Ill, Washington, D.C., (1899), pp. 296-297.