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Sunday, January 05, 2014

"We Are Going Home and Soon Shall Be": Aaron Stevens Writes to John Brown's Daughter

By January 1860, all of John Brown's Harper's Ferry raiders held prisoner in Virginia had been executed except Aaron D. Stevens and Albert Hazlett, the latter having assumed the name, "William H. Harrison" at the time of his arrest. Historian Oswald Villard says he borrowed the name from abolitionist Richard Hinton (Brown's future biographer), who employed it as his nom de guerre in the battle against slavery.  Villard also gives some account of the hopeless effort to rescue the last surviving raiders in Virginia captivity, noting that Stevens and Hazlett were finally hanged on March 16, 1860.1
Aaron Dwight Stevens
During Stevens' incarceration, some interest was expressed to have handed Stevens over to the federal government for trial.  Brown's raid had been centered upon the federal armory and at first there was reason to believe that the Old Man and his raiders might be taken into the custody of the federal government and tried in a court of the United States.   According to the New York Tribune, President James Buchanan and Robert Ould, District Attorney for the District of Columbia, met on October 18, 1859, after Brown and his men had been taken by U.S. marines at Harper's Ferry.  The report notes the problem arising concerning jurisdiction, since Brown had invaded both the State of Virginia and federal property.  Ould was immediately dispatched to Harper's Ferry, where he met Governor Henry Wise, although he probably had a good idea of what to expect.  Even the Tribune reported: "Governor Wise will, it is said, claim the prisoners now held by the United States troops, to be dealt with according to the laws of Virginia."2
D.C. District Attorney, Robert Ould (left, closest to soldier)
stands with Governor Wise during the initial interrogation
of Brown and Stevens at Harper's Ferry on Oct. 18, 1859
(Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, 29 Oct. 1859)

Ould seems hardly to have put up a fight in the matter, for almost immediately Wise took complete control of matters, and Brown and his men--defeated on the grounds of a federal facility by federal troops, were summarily handed over to Virginia authorities as Ould humbly withdrew to Washington city.  According to another Tribune report, "Wise said to United States District Attorney Ould that he has no objection to the General Government proceeding against the prisoners--that is, what will be left of them by the time the Virginia authorities have done with them."3

Initially, some thought was given to handing over one of the raiders to federal jurisdiction.  According to Steven Lubet, raiders John Cook and Aaron Stevens were considered as possible offerings to the federal government.4  Some, like Alfred Barbour, the superintendent of the Harper's Ferry armory, were eager to see Cook hang on a Virginia noose, and so to let Stevens be handed over to the federal government.   Cook had lived in Virginia for nearly two years, married a local woman, and had won the trust of the entire community.  The revelation that he was one of the Harper's Ferry "insurrectionists" outraged local Virginians.  Barbour warned Governor Wise that the people of Harper's Ferry would “die” before seeing Cook removed from State jurisdiction, since he was “the greatest villain of the party.”5 
Governor Henry A. Wise
(Harper's Weekly, 20 Aug. 1859)

Ultimately, Cook was hanged in Virginia, leaving Aaron Stevens the only possible candidate for federal prosecution.  In December, following the executions of Brown and several of his men, Prosecutor Andrew Hunter was concerned after receiving a telegram from President Buchanan, asking if Stevens had been handed over to federal officers, or if he would be tried under Virginia law.   Hunter stalled, writing to the President that Stevens' case had not yet been determined.  Privately, Hunter informed Wise that he had refused to surrender Stevens to a federal marshal, but wanted the Governor and State Legislature to make a determination.  Wise responded to Hunter, stating that Stevens "definitively" should not be handed over to federal authorities, and expressed the belief that there was some political design to get Stevens' case moved to federal court.  "[Stevens] is the deepest felon in guilt of all," wrote Wise.  "He will not be delivered up with my consent."6  

In retrospect, it is clear that Governor Wise had no real intention of letting Brown and his captured raiders slip from the clutches of Virginia.  While he he may have entertained the possibility of placating President Buchanan and federal interests, Wise was more interested in using the raiders to find other accomplices and associates of Brown who might also be brought to slave master justice in Virginia.  Wise was clearly determined to see Stevens hang, and he was finally tried and executed in 1860.

On January 5, 1860, Stevens received a letter from Anne Brown, the daughter of his fallen leader.  Anne knew the raiders, having stayed with them and her father in their Maryland headquarters prior to the Harper's Ferry raid.  Later in life, Anne would remember Stevens as a "fine looking man" with a "fine soul within."  Besides having a fine voice for singing, she recalled that he was "an earnest good talker," cheerful, fun, and well-liked.  Stevens was, she wrote, "Happy himself in trying to make others happy."  Stevens' detractors have pointed out his insubordination as a soldier in the Mexican War, particularly the fact that he had attacked a superior officer and was sentenced to prison on the charge of mutiny.  Stevens must have told Anne the story from his perspective, telling her that he had struck an officer who was evil and abusive in temperament, and who was doing harm to another soldier.   This is probably true, since Stevens' record otherwise suggests, as Anne put it, he was "high minded, noble, and generous."7  Stevens was likely drawn to Brown's side precisely because they shared a common concern for the underdog, and shared a similar passion to intervene for the oppressed.

On January 5, 1860, Stevens wrote back to Anne:
Charlestown Jail, Va., Jan. 5/60   
My dear Sister Annie              
Your kind letter came to hand today and I will try and write you a few lines in return.  I am glad to see that you are so cheerful.  It is always best not to give up to sorrow and sadness.  I am quite cheerful and happy, never felt better in my life.  It made me feel rather sad to part with my companions, but I think they are in a better land and that is a great comfort to me.             
I was in the same room with your father.  He was very cheerful all the way through and appeared as happy on the morning of his execution as I ever saw him.  Watson was shot a half minute before me, this was Monday about eleven o'clock and he lived until Wednesday morning.  I had a very hard time of it for about four or five weeks, but I am as well as ever except my face is paralyzed [sic] on one side which prevents me from laughing on that Side and my jaw bone was thrown out of place and my teeth do not meet as they did before, which prevents me from chewing anything fine.             
The boys met their fate very cheerful.  I cannot tell when I shall be tried, but I think in two or three weeks.  I am very contented having plenty of reading matter through the kindness of Mrs. Spring and others.  Mr. Harrison is in the same room with me. We may never meet again here, but we will meet in the spirit land. Give my love to Martha and all the friends.             
Goodbye, yours for the good of all.  
A. D. Stevens8
As this letter shows, during Stevens' extended time in Charlestown jail, he had healed remarkably well from the five gunshot wounds he had sustained the previous October.   Writing in response to Anne's letter, Stevens notes that he had had "a very hard time of it" for several weeks following the defeat at Harper's Ferry.  Although he was much better, the wounds he sustained had left his face partially paralyzed and his jaw disjointed.

This letter also provides moving insights into Brown's final hours, which Stevens says were "cheerful" and "happy."  He also gives brief information about her brother Watson, who was mortally wounded at Harper's Ferry as well.  As far as the other raiders--Cook, Green, Coppoc, and Copeland, Stevens says it was sad to part with them, but anticipated seeing them "in a better land"--a reference to the spiritual realm.  Unlike Brown, Stevens was a Spiritualist and believed that he would meet Brown and the rest of his comrades in the "spirit land" following death.   Of course, the Old Man's ideas about the afterlife were evangelical by nature, including a resurrection hope.  Stevens' Spiritualism was more akin to the ancient Gnostics, who saw the spiritual realm as superior to and ultimately preferable as an afterlife existence. 

In the letter, Stevens also mentions fellow prisoner Hazlett ("Mr. Harrison"), who continued to use this pseudonym to no avail for his defense, and "Mrs. Spring."  The latter, Rebecca Buffum Spring, was the daughter of a famous Quaker antislavery figure and the wife of a New York businessman.  Spring had boldly ventured down to Charlestown in early November to minister to John Brown's needs; despite the hostility of local people, she persevered until gaining an audience with Brown and enjoyed two extended visits with him before returning to her estate in Perth Amboy, N.J.   After Brown's hanging, Spring became a kind of mother figure to Brown's incarcerated men, writing to them and encouraging them until their time of death.   (A considerable number of letters from Stevens to Spring are held in a number of archives.)

As his letter shows, finally, Stevens had not yet been tried in Virginia.  

At some point, Stevens (or so it seems) composed the following verse, which was kept along with a note that Brown had given him on the day of his execution.  It fairly well bespeaks the thoughts and beliefs of this noble twenty-eight-year-old antislavery soldier, the last of John Brown's men to die on a Virginia gallows.
We are going Home and soon shall be, 
Where the Sky is clear and all are free 
Where the long dark night of time is past 
And the Morn of Eternity dawns at last 
Where the weary Saint no more shall roam 
But dwell in a happy peaceful home 
Where the brow with sparkling gems is crowned 
And the waves of bliss are flowing around 
Oh! That Beautiful World 
Oh! That Beautiful World 9


     1 Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Doubleday, Doran and; Company, 1929), 572-80.
     2  "The Question of Jurisdiction," New York Tribune, 19 Oct. 1859, p. 5. 
     3 "The Virginia Insurrection," New York Tribune, 20 Oct. 1859, p. 4.
     4 See Steven Lubet, John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), ch. 8.
     5 Alfred M. Barbour to Wise, 7 Nov. 1859, in Henry Alexander Wise Family Papers (#16,888), Library of Congress, Wash. D.C.
     6 Andrew Hunter to Henry Wise, 15 Dec. 1859; Wise to Hunter, 18 Dec. 1859, both in Henry Alexander Wise Family Papers.
     7 Anne Brown Adams to Garibaldi Ross, 15 Dec. 1887, GLC 3007.03, in Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York Historical Society.
     8 Aaron Stevens to Anne Brown (trans.), Clarence Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.
     9 Unsigned poem, probably by Aaron D. Stevens, GLC 7230.02, accompanying note given by John Brown to Stevens [GLC 7230.01], Gilder Lehrman Collection.


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