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Chapter 8: sword in hand.

The train that left Harper's Ferry carried a panic to Virginia, Maryland, and Washington with it. The passengers, taking all the paper they could find, wrote accounts of the Insurrection, which they threw from the windows as the train rushed onward.

At daylight the news spread in Harper's Ferry that the town was in the hands of Abolitionists and the slaves. A terrible panic ensued. Report magnified the numbers of the Invaders forty-fold. The public buildings were already in the hands of the Liberators, and at the bridges, and the corners of the principal streets, armed sentinels, wrapped in blankets, were seen stationed, or walking up and down. Every man who appeared in the street was forthwith arrested and imprisoned in the Armory. Captain Brown and his sons Oliver and Watson, Stevens and two others, were stationed inside of the Armory grounds; Kagi, with Leeman, Stewart Taylor, Anderson, (black,) and Copeland, (colored,) held the lower part of the town and the rifle works; Cook, Owen Brown, Tidd, Merriam, and Barclay Coppoc were stationed at the cabins of [250] the Kennedy Farm and the school house; while the remainder were posted as guards at the bridges and at the corners of the streets and the public buildings.

Early in the morning Captain Brown sent an order to the Wager House for breakfast for forty-five men his hostages and company. By eight o'clock the number of Virginians thus held was over sixty persons.

The first firing after daybreak was by a person named Turner, who fired at the guards as they were ordering two citizens to halt. Mr. Boerley, a grocer, fired the second shot. A bullet from a Sharpe's rifle instantly killed him. A number of Virginians then obtained possession of a room overlooking the Armory gates, and fired at a party of the sentinels. One of the Liberators fell dead,and another — Watson Brown -retired mortally wounded.

The panic that these proceedings caused in the town is thus described by a Virginia panegyrist of the people:

As the sun rose upon the scene, the reported outrages and the bodies of the murdered men showed that, from whatever source the movement came, it was of a serious nature. Sentinels, armed with rifles and pistols, were seen guarding all the public buildings, threatening death or firing at all who questioned or interfered with them; and the savage audacity with which they issued their orders gave assurance that the buildings were occupied by large bodies of men. Messages were despatched to all the neighboring towns for military assistance, while panic-stricken citizens seized such arms as they could find, and gathered in small bodies on the outskirts of the town, and at points remote from the works. All was confusion and mystery. Even the sight of several armed negroes among the strangers did not at once excite suspicion that it was an anti-slavery movement, and the report of one of the captured slaves, confirmatory of that fact, was received with doubt and incredulity. Indeed, so averse was the public mind to the acceptance of this belief, that the suggestion was every where received with derision, and every and any other explanation adopted in preference. Some supposed it was a strike among the discontented armorers, or the laborers on a government dam, who had taken this means to obtain redress for real or imaginary grievances. [251] Others argued that it was a band of robbers organized in some of the cities for the purpose of robbing the pay-master's strong box, known to contain some thousands of public money ; that the armed negroes were whites in disguise; that the idea of inciting a servile insurrection was a ruse, put forth to distract the public mind, and enable them to escape with their booty.

During all the forenoon the Liberators had full possession of the town. There was a good deal of desultory firing, but no men were reported killed on either side. The prisoners were permitted frequently to visit their families, under guard, in order to quiet the apprehension of their wives and children. Had John Brown carried out his original plan, he would now have retreated to the mountains. He could have done so unopposed. But two reasons seem to have induced him to delay: first, to prove to the people that the prisoners would suffer no cruelty while in his hands; aid, secondly — although this we infer only-- the hope of being joined by the slaves when the night set in.

The delay was fatal to his plans. For, half an hour after midday, the first detachment of militia, one hundred strong, arrived at Harper's Ferry from Charlestown. Their movements are thus described by their Colonel in command:

I proceeded on. with the few troops we had under arms, on foot to Harper's Ferry, where we arrived about twelve o'clock. I found the citizens in very great excitement. By this time the insurgents occupied all the lower part of the town, had their sentinels posted on all the different streets, and had shot one of our citizens and a negro man who had charge of the depot on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. I here formed two companies of the citizens, and placed them under the command of Captain Lawson Botts and Captain John Avis. Their forces were variously estimated from three hundred to five hundred strong, armed with Sharpe's rifles and revolvers.

I detached the Jefferson Guards, under the command of Captain Rowan, and ordered them to cross the Potomac River in boats, about two miles above Harper's Ferry, and march down on the Maryland side, and take possession of the bridge, and permit no one to pass. This order was strictly executed. The command under Captain Botta [252] was ordered to pass down the hill below Jefferson's Rock and take possession of the Shenandoah Bridge, to leave a strong guard at that point, and to march down to the Gait House, in rear of the Arsenal building, in which we supposed their men were lodged. Captain Avis's command was ordered to take possession of the houses directly in front of the Arsenal. Both of the above commands were promptly executed. By this movement we prevented any escape.

The first attack was made by the Charlestown Guards at the Shenandoah Bridge. William Thompson was taken prisoner, unwounded, having just previously returned from the school house. A companion was killed at the same time.

The rifle works were then attacked, and, as only five persons were stationed inside, the building was soon carried. Kagi and his men attempted to cross the river, and four of them succeeded in reaching the rock in the middle of it. As soon as they stood on the rock they renewed the fight, drawing on them the fire of two hundred Virginians, who shot at them from both sides of the river. Yet not one of these brave Liberators cried for quarter, or ceased to keep up the unequal conflict, until the corpse of Kagi, riddled with balls, floated down the river, followed by one of his faithful black comrades, and Leary lay mortally wounded. Copeland, the unwounded survivor, seeing that the fight was over, yielded himself a prisoner, and, with Leary, who lingered twelve hours in agony, was taken to the town and imprisoned.

About the same time, or just previous to the taking of the rifle works, William II. Leeman, having probably been despatched by Kagi with a message to Captain Brown, was seen, pursued, and attempted to escape by swimming the river. He was the youngest of the party — only twenty-two years of age. A dozen shots [253] were fired at him as he ran ; he partially fell, but rose again, threw away his gun, drew his pistols and tried to shoot, but both of them snapped. He then unsheathed his bowie-knife, cut off his accoutrements, and plunged into the river. George Schoppart, one of the Virginia militia, waded in after him. Leeman turned round, threw up his hands, and said, “Don't shoot!” Unheeding this cry of surrender, the cowardly Virginian fired his pistol in the young man's face, and blew it into bloody fragments. He then cut off the coatskirts of the corpse, and found in the pockets a Captain's commission.1

While the fight at the rifle works was going on, Captain Avis and his company took possession of the houses around the Armory buildings. As they were doing so, Captain Turner, who had opened the fire in the morning, was shot dead while in the act of raising his rifle. He was killed by a sentinel at the Arsenal gate. About the same time, Dangerfield Newby, a man of color, and a native of the neighborhood, who still had a wife and nine children in slavery in the vicinity, fell dead as he was bravely fighting for the freedom of his enslaved little ones and their mother. His courage was warmly eulogized by the Liberators who witnessed it. Jim, one of Washington's negroes, was also slain at this period — as he, also, was valiantly asserting his manhood [254] through the muzzle of a rifle.2 A free negro, his companion, who had lived on Washington's estate, was shot for the same virtue at the same hour.

Shortly after the death of Captain Turner, a stray shot killed Mr. Beckman, the Mayor of the town, who foolishly came within range of the rifles, as the Liberators and Virginians were exchanging volleys. In the course of this fight, Oliver Brown was shot, retreated inside of the gate, “spoke no word, but yielded calmly to his fate,” and died in a few seconds after his entrance.

At the request of Mr. Kitzmiller, one of John Brown's hostages, Stevens went out of the Arsenal with him, in order to enable him, if he could do so, to “accommodate matters” for the benefit of the prisoners. Stevens carried a flag of truce; but yet he was shot down, and seized by the ruffianly militia.

Thompson was then ordered to prepare for death, by a number of young Virginia gentlemen, whose conduct, on this occasion, is a vivid illustration of the effects of slavery on the manners of men.

“In 1608, an Indian girl flung herself before her father's tomahawk, on the bosom of an English gentleman, and the Indian refrained from touching the English traveller, whom his daughter's affection protected. Pochahontas lives to-day, the ideal beauty of Virginia, and her proudest names strive to trace their lineage to the brave Indian girl. That was Pagan Virginia, two centuries and a half ago.” Far different is the Virginia [255] of 1859. These Virginians tried to murder Mr. Thompson in the parlor where he was detained a prisoner of war; and were only prevented from doing so by a young lady throwing herself between their rifles and his body. They then dragged him to the bridge, where they killed him in cold blood. They shot him off the bridge; shot him as he was falling the fearful height of forty feet; and, some appearance of life still remaining, riddled him with balls as he was seen crawling at the base of the pier. Contrast the Virginia savages of the olden time with the Virginia gentlemen of the present day. The contrast does not stop here. Miss Foulke, the modern Pochahontas, when asked why she shielded Mr. Thompson, replied, not that she loathed a murder, but that she “didn't want to have the carpet spoiled!” 3

While these gallant young Virginians were murdering an unarmed prisoner, a party of men from Martinsburg arrived, and, led by a railroad conductor, attacked the Armory buildings in the rear. Another detachment of the same company attacked the buildings in front. Seeing them approach on both sides in overwhelming numbers, Captain Brown retreated to the engine house, after exchanging volleys with the advancing forces. The company that attacked the rear broke open several [256] windows, which enabled eighteen prisoners to escape. An attempt to carry the engine house was repulsed with the loss of two men killed and six wounded. The attacking party was fifty strong.

During the day three trains had been detained outside of the town; reinforcements were constantly arriving from the surrounding counties; the telegraph and railroad tracks were under repair; and the Cabinet at Washington, the Governor of Virginia, and the City of Baltimore, had ordered troops to hasten on to subdue the Liberators.

The last militia force, under Captain Simms, from Maryland, arrived at five o'clock in the afternoon; and with the other companies already there, completely surrounded the Armory buildings. He arrived in time to prevent another cowardly murder; for the Virginia gentlemen, afraid to attack the engine house, and fresh from the murder of Thompson, were exhibiting the nature of their valor by yelling for the blood of the wounded Stevens.

The united forces were placed under the command of Colonel Baylor. An offer made by Captain Brown to liberate the hostages, if his men were permitted to cross the bridge, was refused by him; and by this time, as the night had fallen, the firing ceased on both sides.

The result of the day's fight to the Liberators looked extremely gloomy. In the rivers floated the corpses of Kagi, Leeman, Stewart Taylor, and Win. Thompson. Imprisoned, and near to death, lay Lewis Leary and Stevens. Copeland was a captive. On the street lay the dead bodies of Hazlitt and Newby. In the engine [257] house were the remains of Oliver Brown, and Dauphin Thompson; while Watson, the Captain's son, lay without hope of recovery. The only unwounded survivors of the Liberators in the engine house were Captain Brown, Jerry Anderson, Edwin Coppoc, and Shields Green, the negro. Eight Virginia hostages, and a small number of armed negroes, were with them.

Where were the others, and what had they been doing? John E. Cook, in his Confession, thus stated their position:

When we returned from the capture of Washington, I staid a short time in the engine house to get warm, as I was chilled through. After I got warm, Captain Brown ordered me to go with C. P. Tidd, who was to take William It. Leeman, and I think four slaves with him, in Colonel Washington's large wagon across the river, and to take Terence Burns and his brother and their slaves prisoners. My orders were to hold Burns and brother as prisoners at their own house, while Tidd and the slaves who accompanied him were to go to Captain Brown's house, and to load in the arms and bring them down to the school house, stopping for the Burnses and their guard. William H. Leeman remained with me to guard the prisoners. On return of the wagon, in compliance with orders, we all started for the school house. When we got there, I was to remain, by Captain Brown's orders, with one of the slaves to guard the arms, while C. P. Tidd, with the other negroes, was to go back for the rest of the arms, and Burns was to be sent with William H. Leeman to Captain Brown at the Armory. It was at this time that William Thompson came up from the Ferry and reported that every thing was all right, and then hurried on to overtake William H. Leeman. A short time after the departure of Tidd, I heard a good deal of firing, and became anxious to know the cause; but my orders were strict to remain at the school house and guard the arms, and I obeyed the orders to the letter. About four o'clock in the evening C. P. Tidd came with the second load. I then took one of the negroes with me and started for the Ferry. I met a negro woman a short distance below the school house, who informed me they were fighting hard at the Ferry. I hurried on till I came to the lock kept by George Hardy, about a mile above the bridge, where I saw his wife and Mrs. Elizabeth Read, who told me that our men were hemmed in, and that several of them had been shot. I expressed my intention to try to get to them, when Mrs. Hardy asked me to try to get her husband released from the engine house. I told her I would. Mrs. Reed begged of me not to go down to the Ferry. She said I would be shot. I told her I must make an attempt to save my comrades, and passed on down the road. A short distance below the lock I met two boys whom I knew, and they told me — that our me: were all hemmed in by [258] troops from Charlestown, Martinsburg, Hagerstown, and Shepherdstown. The negro who was with me had been very much frightened at the first report we received, and as the boys told me the troops were coming up the road after us soon, I sent him (the negro) back to inform Tidd, while I hastened down the road. After going down opposite the Ferry, I ascended the mountain in order to get a better view of the position of our opponents.

I saw that our party were completely surrounded, and as I saw a body of men on High Street firing down upon them,--they were about half a mile distant from me,--I thought I would draw their fire upon myself; I therefore raised my rifle and took the best aim I could and fired. It had the desired effect, for the very instant the party returned it. Several shots were exchanged. The last one they fired at me cut a small limb I had hold of just below my hand, and gave me a fall of about fifteen feet, by which I was severely bruised, and my flesh somewhat lacerated. I descended from the mountain and passed down the road to the Crane on the back of the canal, about fifty yards from Mr. W.'s store. I saw several heads behind the door-post looking at me; I took a position behind the Crane, and cocking my rifle, beckoned to some of them to come to me. After some hesitation, one of them approached, and then another, both of whom knew me. I asked them if there were any armed men in the store. They pledged me their word and honor that there were none. I then passed down to the lock house, and went down the steps to the lock, where I saw William McGreg, and questioned him in regard to the troops on the other side. He told me that the bridge was filled by our opponents, and that all of our party were dead but seven--that two of them were shot while trying to escape across the river. He begged me to leave immediately. After questioning him in regard to the position and number of the troops, and from what sources he received his information, I bade him good night, and started up the road at a rapid walk. I stopped at the house of an Irish family at the foot of the hill, and got a cup of coffee and some eatables. I was informed by them that Captain Brown was dead; that he had been shot about four o'clock in the afternoon. At the time I believed this report to be true. I went on up to the school house, and found the shutters and door closed; called to Tidd and the boys, but received no answer; cocked my,rifle, and then opened the door; it was dark at the time. Some of the goods had been placed in the middle of the floor, and, in the dark, looked like men crouching. I uncocked my rifle, and drew my revolver, and then struck a match; saw that there was no one in the school house; went into the bushes back of the school house, and called for the boys; receiving no answer, I went across the road into some pines, and again called, but could find no one. I then started up the road towards Captain Brown's house; I saw a party of men coming down the road; when within about fifty yards, I ordered them to halt; they recognized my voice, and called me. I found them to be Charles P. Tidd, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppic, F. J. Merriam, and a negro who belonged to Washington or Alstadtt. They asked me the news, and I gave the information that I received at the canal lock and on the road. It seemed that they thought it would be sheer madness in them to attempt a rescue of our comrades, and it was finally determined to return to the house of Captain Brown. I found that Tidd, [259] before leaving the school house to go for Brown, Coppic, and Merriam, had stationed the negroes in a good position in the timber back of the school house. On his return, however, they could not be found. We therefore left for Captain Brown's house. Here we got a few articles which would be necessary, and then went over into the timber on the side of the mountain, a few yards beyond the house, where the spears were kept. Here we laid down and went to sleep. About three o'clock in the morning one of our party awakened, and found that the negro had left us. He immediately aroused the rest of the party, and we concluded to go to the top of the mountain before light. Here we remained for a few hours, and then passed over to the other side of the mountain, where we waited till dark, and then crossed the valley to the other range beyond.

The town was filled with militia forces, which guarded every street and approach to the Ferry. There were fifteen hundred men under arms. During the night, Colonel Lee, with ninety United States marines, and two pieces of artillery, arrived in the town, took possession of the Armory guard, in immediate proximity to the engine house.

The scene in the town is thus described by a correspondent of the Frederick Herald, a Maryland pro-slavery paper:

The dead lay on the streets, and in the river, and were subjected to every indignity that a wild and madly excited people could heap upon them.

Curses were freely uttered against them, and kicks and blows inflicted upon them. The huge mulatto that shot Mr. Turner was lying in the gutter in front of the Arsenal, with a terrible wound in his neck, and though dead and gory, vengeance was unsatisfied, and many, as they ran sticks into his wound, or beat him with them, wished that he had a thousand lives, that all of them might be forfeited in expiation and avengement of the foul deed he had committed.

Leeman lay upon a rock in the river, and was made a target for the practice of those who had captured Sharpe's rifles in the fray. Shot after shot was fired at him, and when tired of this sport, a man waded out to where he lay, and set him up, in grotesque attitudes, and finally pushed him off, and he floated down the stream. His body and that of Thompson, which was also in the water, were subsequently brought to shore, and were buried, a; were all of them, except a few which were taken by some of the physicians. It may be thought that there was cruelty and barbarity in this; but the state of the public mind had been frenzied by the outrages of these men; and being outlaws, were regarded as food for carrion birds, and not as human creatures.


Whereas, W. H. Leeman has been nominated a Captain in the Army established under the Provisional Constitution; now, therefore, in pursuance of the authority vested in me by said Constitution, we do hereby appoint and commission the said W. H. Leeman, Captain.

Given at the office of the Secretary of War, the 15th day of October, 1859.

John Brown, Commander-in-Chief. J. H. Kagi, Secretary of War.

2 “He fought like a tiger,” said an eye-witness; and of Newby, another said, “He fought like the very devil.” Negroes can fight.

3 Wendell Phillips, in his great speech recently delivered at New York, in which he so successfully subdued the satraps of Virginia who had assembled to put him down, related another incident of the fight at Harper's Ferry, in which this Miss Foulke was a participatory:

When, in the midst of the battle of Harper's Ferry, the Mayor's body lay within range of the rifles of those northern boys. his friends wanted to bring it off, but none of them would go. At last the porter of the hotel said to a lady, if you will stand between me and the rifles, I will go; and he went. He knew he could trust the gentle sacredness of woman in the eyes of those brain e northern boys. He went and placed the body in a carriage, and, sheltered by her presence, carried it back in safety. That is the difference between Northern blood and Southern.

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