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.
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.