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Chapter 7: the blow struck.

It was the original intention of Captain Brown to seize the Arsenal at Harper's Ferry on the night of the 24th of October, and to take the arms there deposited to the neighboring mountains, with a number of the wealthier citizens of the vicinity, as hostages, until they should redeem themselves by liberating an equal number of their slaves. When at Baltimore, for satisfactory reasons, he determined to strike the blow that was to strike the Slave System to its foundations, on the night of the 17th. One of the men who fought at Harper's Ferry gave me as the chief reason for tie precipitate movement, that there was a Judas whom they suspected in their midst. That the reasons were just and important, the prudence that John Brown had always hitherto manifested satisfactorily proves. But this decision, however necessary, was unfortunate; for the men from Canada, Kansas, New England, and the neighboring Free States, who had been told to be prepared for the event on the 24th of October, and were ready to do their duty at Harper's Ferry at that time, were unable to join their Captain at this earlier period. [244]

Many, who started to join the Liberators, halted half way; for the blow had already been struck, and their Captain made a captive. Had there been no precipitation, the mountains of Virginia, to-day, would have been peopled with free blacks, properly officered and ready for field action.1

The negroes, also, in the neighboring counties, who had promised to be ready on the 24th of October, were confused by the precipitate attack; and, before they could act in concert — which they can only do by secret nocturnal meetings — were watched, overpowered, and deprived of every chance to join their heroic liberators.

Having sent off the women who lived at their cabins --Cook's wife and others — the neighbors began to talk about the singularity of the proceeding; and it became necessary, on that account also, to precipitate an attack on Harper's Ferry.

On Saturday, a meeting of the Liberators was held, and the plan of operations discussed. On Sunday evening, a council was again convened, and the programme of the Captain unanimously approved. “In closing,” wrote Cook, John Brown said:

And now, gentlemen, let me press this one thing on your minds. You all know how dear life is to you, and how dear your lives are to your friends; and, in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of any one if you can possibly avoid it; but if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it.


Harper's Ferry.

Fearful and Exciting Intelligence! Negro Insurrection at Harper's Ferry! Extensive Negro Conspiracy in Virginia and Maryland! Seizure of the United States Arsenal by the Insurrectionists! Arms taken and sent into the Interior! The Bridge fortified and defended by Cannon! Trains fired into and Stopped! Several Persons killed! Telegraph Wires cut! Contributions levied on the Citizens! Troops despatched against the insurgents from Washington and Baltimore!

Such were the headings of the first telegraphic reports of John Brown's brave blow at American Slavery.

Before briefly describing the events that they foreshadow, it is necessary to speak of the place where they occurred. The standard Virginia authority of the day thus writes:

Harper's Ferry is situated in Jefferson County, Virginia, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, on a point just opposite the gap through which the united streams pass the Blue Ridge on their way toward the ocean. The Ridge here is about twelve hundred feet in height, showing bare, precipitous cliffs on either side on the river, and exhibiting some of the most beautiful and imposing natural scenery to be found in the country. The town was originally built on two streets stretching along a narrow shelf between the base of the bluff and the rivers, meeting at the point at nearly a right angle, and named respectively Potomac and Shenandoah Streets. To accommodate its increasing population, the town has straggled up the steep bluff, arid, in detached villages and scattered residences, occupies the level ground above — about four hundred feet above the streams.

It has altogether a population of five thousand; is distant from Richmond one hundred and seventy-three miles; from Washington City fifty-seven miles by turnpike road; and from Baltimore eighty miles by rail. Here the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crosses the Potomac by a magnificent covered bridge, nine hundred feet long, and passes along Potomac Street westward, its track lying forty feet above the river. The Winchester and Harper's Ferry Railroad, lying along Shenandoah Street, connects with the Baltimore and Ohio at the bridge. Potomac Street is entirely occupied by the workshops and offices of the National Armory, and its entrance is enclosed by a handsome gate and iron railing. Nearly at the angle of junction are the [246] old Arsenal buildings, where usually from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand stand of arms are stored. The other buildings on the point, and nearer the bridge, are railroad offices, hotels, eating-houses, stores, shops, &c. Shenandoah Street contains stores and dwelling houses for half a mile or more, when we come to Hall's rifle-works, situated on a small island in the Shenandoah River.

Harper's Ferry, by the admission of military men, was admirably chosen as the spot at which to begin a war of liberation. The neighboring mountains, with their inaccessible fastnesses, with every one of which, and every turning of their valleys, John Brown had been familiar for seventeen years, would afford to guerilla forces a protection the most favorable, and a thousand opportunities for a desperate defence or rapid retreats before overwhelming numbers of an enemy.

The first night.

The first movement of the Liberators was to extinguish the lights of the town, and take possession of the Armory buildings. This they did without opposition, or exciting alarm; although they took the three watchmen prisoners, and locked them up in the Guard House. They were aided, it is believed, by friendly negroes. The number of Liberators in the town was twenty-two only, of whom seventeen were whites, and five blacks and mixed bloods. But, outside of the town, there were others, (who afterwards succeeded in escaping,) to whom were assigned the duty, which they. successfully performed, of cutting down the telegraphic wires, and, after the train had passed, of tearing up the railroad track.

At half past 10, the watchman at the Potomac [247] Bridge was arrested and imprisoned. At midnight, his successor, who came down to take his place, was hailed by the sentinels placed there by Captain Brown; but, supposing that they were robbers, he refused to surrender, and ran off: one slot being fired at him from the bridge. He gave the alarm at the hotel near by, but it produced no immediate action. The train eastward-bound arrived at a quarter past one o'clock, and the conductor was made aware of the possession of the bridge by armed men. The officers of the train, accompanied by some passengers, attempted to walk across the bridge, but presently saw the muzzles of four rifles resting on a railing, and prudently turned back. One man, refusing to surrender, was shot in the back and died next morning. It was found that he was a negro porter. At this time there were several shots exchanged between a clerk of the hotel and one or two of the Liberators. The passengers in the train went into the hotel, and remained there, in great alarm, for four or five hours. The conductor, although permission was granted to him, at three o'clock, to pass over with his train, refused to do so till he could see for himself that all was safe.

“ After taking the town,” says Cook, “I was placed under Captain Stevens, who received orders to proceed to the house of Colonel Lewis Washington, and to take him prisoner, and to bring his slaves, horses, and arms; and, as we came back, to take Mr. Alstadtt and his slaves, and to bring them all to Captain Brown at the Armory.”

This party of six arrived at the house of Colonel Washington shortly after midnight, took him prisoner, seized his arms, horses, and carriage, and liberated his ,slaves. “It is remarkable,” said Governor Wise, [248] speaking of this event, “that the only thing of material value which they took, besides his slaves, was the sword of Frederick the Great, which was sent to General Washington. This was taken by Stevens to Brown, and the latter commanded his men with that sword in this fight against the peace and safety of Washington's native State!”

In returning to the Armory, Mr. Alstadtt and his son were taken prisoners, and the slaves on their estate were freed.

“On entering the Armory,” said Washington, “I found some eight or ten persons, who recognized me. We were seated together and conversing, when the old man, whom we found by this time to be Brown, after asking our names, said, ‘It is now too dark to write, but when it is sufficiently light, if you have not paper and pens, I will furnish you, and I require that you shall each write to your friends to send a negro man apiece as a ransom.’ ”

At daylight, every person who appeared in the street was taken prisoner, until they numbered between forty and fifty men. The train was also allowed to proceed, Captain Brown himself walking over the bridge with the conductor. Whenever the Virginians asked the object of their captors, the uniform answer was, “To free the slaves.” One of the workmen, we are told, on seeing an armed guard at the gate, asked by what authority they had taken possession of the public premises. The guard replied, “By the authority of God Almighty.”

1 John Brown had engaged a competent military officer to take charge of the liberated slaves as soon as it became necessary to descend from the mountains, and meet the militia forces in the field.

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