"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Remembering Aaron Dwight Stevens: John Brown's Brave Young Lieutenant

Strong men with strong passions have been known to change the way things are to the way they think they should be. This story is about one of those men who lived locally in nearby Lisbon [Connecticut].

Aaron Dwight Stevens was born there in 1831 and lived on what is now Route 169, spending his youthful years on his father's farm. He had friends, but mostly worked the farm where he grew tall and strong. By the time he reached his early 20s, the issue of abolition was becoming a controversial one in New England and he got caught up with those anti-slavery feelings. At this time, only one out of every nine African-Americans in this country were free.

He had heard in the Kansas Territory there were others who felt the way he did and were doing something about it. He left Lisbon and joined forces with men who were against those promoting slavery there called "Border Ruffians." By 1859, young Aaron had earned a reputation as a courageous force in battling the rebels.

Denouncing slavery

This reputation had caught the attention of a fiery proponent of the anti-slavery movement, John Brown. A Torrington native born in 1800, Brown had attended the Morris Academy in Litchfield and had publicly denounced slavery.

In 1840, after being forced into bankruptcy, he was jailed in Akron, Ohio, for resisting arrest. Four of his children from his second wife died in an epidemic in 1843 and eventually he became a resident of North Elba, N.Y. It was in 1855 when he moved to the Kansas Territory and rushed to the defense of Lawrence, Kan., which had been threatened by pro-slavery forces. After fighting in Lawrence, Brown, now joined by Lisbon's Aaron Stevens, attacked a band of pro-slavery men near Osawatomie and slayed them. Brown then traveled New England, raising money and building strong associations with prominent abolitionists. In Ontario, Canada, Brown finalized his "constitution" for a provisional government in a slave-free nation and these projections lead directly to the historic and dramatic Harpers Ferry raid in Virginia (now West Virginia).

Brown and his allies, including Stevens as his second in command, convened in an abandoned farm house near Harpers Ferry. Brown made his plans to free Virginia's slave population. But first, they had to seize the arsenal at the ferry. Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and 21 other men, some black and some white, started their raid by cutting communication wires. Then they overpowered the sentries and engaged in a fierce, bloody battle finally owning the arsenal. However, Brown was wounded in a battle and taken prisoner by state and federal soldiers. A trial followed -- he was found guilty and sentenced to hang at a public hanging, which was common in those days. His hanging took place Dec. 2, 1859, at Charles Town, Va., where a thousand troops were present, as well as hundreds of spectators. Among the observers was an actor and assassin-to-be, John Wilkes Booth.

And Aaron Dwight Stevens? What had happened to him? One version of his exploits depicts him surrendering due to insurmountable odds carrying a white flag of truce. However, a saloon keeper, misinterpreting the action, intercepted Stevens' intent and fired at him, hitting him seven times, seriously wounding him. In spite of his injuries, he recovered, stood trial and a grand jury found him guilty of treason and conspiring with slaves. A sentence to be hanged March 16, 1860, also at Charles Town, just as his driven leader had, was the consequence.

Eyewitnesses at the hanging were later quoted as saying, "He was lionhearted, handsome, courageous, cheerful, a perfect specimen of man, towering over the deputies who led to his execution."

Had he lived, Stevens would have participated with those other Lisbon boys he knew in fighting for the north in the war between the states.

Historically and culturally, the songs and stories handed down speak of both Stevens and Brown and of their daring adventures.

Source: Richard Curland, "Historically speaking: Lisbon native joined fight for abolition of slavery." The Norwich Bulletin [Norwich, Conn.], on line, posted June 27, 2007.


throwback said...

absurd. stevens left home to get away from his pregnant girlfriends father, joining the nortorious cushing regiment and particpating in the occupation of mexico. he served in the first dragoons, and was a military prisoner at ft. leavenworth. in 1856 he escaped and joined john browns free kansas forces.

that was the first indication of any interest in abolition.

while i admire the sentiments of the harpers ferry raid, it was a military disaster, and since stevens was supposedly the military mastermind, he is at least partly to blame. his highest rank in the army was bugler (he claims to have been a sgt.). he was a weakling and a bully, tho serving a good cause.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

Thanks throwback. Stevens has not been a study of mine, so your comments raise interest in a closer investigation. That he may have been a late convert to abolition does not necessarily minimize his ultimate contribution, does it? I would not blame Stevens for the outcome at HF either; Brown was the one who delayed by his own admission and his poor judgment and humanitarian sympathies for his captives was the great undoing of the HF campaign. Since Brown would not take anyone's counsel, I think you're being a bit hard on Stevens in that regard. He may have been a weakling, but one account says he ran up the steps of the gallows, showing courage and conviction. So at least he finished life on a high note.

throwback said...

right all around.

brown certainly deserved and accepted the blame for the disaster, but...

stevens was a hero of mine until i took a closer look.

his conversion seems to be directly related to his HAVING military experience (tho it wasnt much)and the overwhelming number of fellow new englanders in the free kansas ranks who welcomed him after his escape. i suspect stevens inflated his credentials to impress the free staters.

he is reported to have had a wonderful baritone voice and be quite a singer. ms. singer thought he was the cats meow.

its just that i hoped stevens was better than he turned out to be.

it IS better that john brown was a prophet than that he was a military genius. stevens dying well was something, but fighting well would have served a purpose too.

then you get into how much of all the charles town jail and gallows stuff is spin... seems like, stevens was quite ordinary, but got an excellent press in his last months of life as part of the abolition movement. and he must have read the reports too!

btw: his conviction for mutiny was completely unjustified. he actually was trying to end a drunken brawl in taos as his company was heading to the field. the fight was between several drunks dragoons, one of who was his commanding officer. stevens was sober and never did anything except defend himself when attacked. the attacking officer, bvt major blake, was dismissed, but later reinstated. stevens got sentenced to hang, but pierce commuted the sentence to 3 years (seems like pierce knew something).

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

Thanks again throwback. I appreciate your insights. Yes, I have not attended to the press coverage specifically focused on Stevens, and it would be interesting to do a study of the newspapers following Brown's execution to see what was reported about him and the other raiders who followed him to the gallows. One thing for sure, people who think that this study has been exhausted don't know what they're talking about. There's still so much to study about Brown, his men, and his times. Given Stevens' spiritualism and Brown's evangelicalism, I would love to have heard some of their exchanges at the Kennedy farm and later when they shared a jail cell. Thanks for checking on my blog.

Dorene from Ohio said...

Here is blog post about John Brown, Jr., who lived at Put In Bay, in Lake Erie for many years: