THE SECOND HARPERS FERRY RAID:
THE FATE OF JOHN BROWN’S MEN
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.
“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
5 November 1899)
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:
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...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 crawl...as 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...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...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...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...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,...blue 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...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)
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  (Avenal, NJ: Gramercy Books, 1993), p. 262; W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown  (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.