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Chapter 9: fallen among thieves.

Up to the close of Monday evening, John Brown had successfully maintained his position against the united forces of Virginia and Maryland. With his three surviving followers he was now prepared to oppose the Nation ; and, knowing no fear but the failure to do his duty, he prepared to resist her forces also.

Hemmed in by an overwhelming force, with the knowledge that, when the morrow's sun should rise, he must fall before its physical superiority, he never once faltered in his resolution, or exhibited the slightest sign of fear. During the live-long night, said one of the hostages, the voice of Brown was heard continually repeating, “Are you awake, men? Are you ready?” And Colonel Washington said that he — Brown — was the coolest man he ever saw in defying death and danger. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand, and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm, and to sell their [261] lives as dearly as possible.1 The old man, we are told, spoke freely with Colonel Washington, and referred to his sons. He said he had lost one in Kansas, and two here. He had not pressed them to join him in the expedition, but did not regret their loss-- they had died in a good cause.

At seven o'clock the preparations for an assault began. Watson Brown lay writhing in agony on the ground, unable to assist in the defence; but his undaunted comrades stood fearless and ready to defend their lives, and resist the hireling bands of the oppressor.

The correspondent of a Baltimore paper thus describes the closing scenes:

Shortly after seven o'clock, Lieutenant E. B. Stuart, of the 1st Cavalry, who was acting as aid for Colonel Lee, advanced to parley with the besieged, Samuel Strider, Esq., an old and respectable citizen, bearing a flag of truce. They were received at the door by Captain Brown. Lieutenant Stuart demanded an unconditional surrender, only promising them protection from immediate violence, and a trial by law. Captain Brown refused all terms but those previously demanded, which were substantially, “That they should be permitted to march out with their men and arms, taking their prisoners with them; that they should proceed unpursued to the second toll-gate, when they would free their prisoners; the soldiers would then be permitted to pursue them, and they would fight if they could not escape.” Of course, this was refused, and Lieutenant Stuart pressed upon Brown his desperate position, and urged a surrender. The expostulation, though beyond earshot, was evidently very earnest. At this moment the interest of the scene was most intense. The volunteers were ranged all around the building, cutting off escape in every direction. The marines, divided in two squads, were ready for a dash at the door.

Finally, Lieutenant Stuart, having failed to arrange terms with the determined Captain Brown, walked slowly from the door.

Immediately the signal for attack was given, and the marines, headed by Major Russell and Lieutenant Green, advanced in two lines on each side of the door. Two powerful fellows sprung between the lines, and with heavy sledge hammers attempted to batter down the door. The door swung and swayed, but appeared to be secured with a rope, the spring of which deadened the effect of the blows. Failing thus, they took hold of a ladder, some forty feet long, and, advancing at a run, brought it with tremendous effect against the door. At the second blow it gave way, one leaf falling inward in a slanting [262] position. The marines immediately advanced to the breach, Major Russell and Lieutenant Green leading. A marine in front fell. The firing from the interior was rapid and sharp. They fired with deliberate aim, and for a moment the resistance was serious, and desperate enough to excite the spectators to something like a pitch of frenzy. The next moment the marines poured in, the firing ceased, and the work was done. In the assault a private of the marines received a ball in the stomach, and was believed to be fatally wounded. Another received a slight flesh wound.

One of the Liberators fell dead-- Jerry Anderson — and only three shots were fired; Brown, Coppoc, and Green each discharging their rifles at the marines on their first assault.

Before the entrance of the troops, the Liberators ceased firing; and, therefore, by all the rules of honorable warfare, should now have been sacredly protected from violence. Offering no resistance, every civilized people would have taken them prisoners of war. But not so the assailants in Virginia.

Before the fight began, John Brown, according to the testimony of Colonel Washington, urged his hostages to seek places of safety — to keep themselves out of harm's way; while the crowd in the streets, judging the Liberators by their own standard of humanity, supposed that they were killing them in cold blood. How did the descendant of George Washington reciprocate this consideration? Let his friend and eulogist reply:

Colonel Washington, who, through all these trying scenes, had borne himself with an intrepid coolness that excited the admiration of the brigand chief himself, now did important service. The moment the marines entered, he sprang upon one of the engines, told his fellow-prisoners to hold up their hands that they might be recognized as non-combatants, and then rapidly pointed out the outlaws to the vengeance of the soldiers. . . . A soldier, seeing Colonel Washington in an active and prominent position, mistook him for one of the outlaws, levelled his piece, and put his finger on the trigger; but, fortunately remembering the caution in regard to the prisoners, he desisted. Shields Green, alias Emperor, a negro M. C. under the future Provisional Government, sneaked among the slave prisoners, hoping thus to escape notice and detection; but, perceived by Colonel Washington, he was hauled forth to meet his doom.


Lieutenant Green, as soon as he saw John Brown, although he was unarmed, (according to the testimony of a Virginian,) struck him in the face with his sabre, which instantly knocked him down. Not content with this brutality, the Lieutenant repeated the blow several times, and then another soldier ran a bayonet twice into the prostrate body of the old man.2

The scenes that followed this assault are so discreditable to Virginia-nay, to human nature — that I dare not trust myself to describe them; but will content myself with quoting the accounts of two ultra pro-slavery journalists. This is the report of the Baltimore American:

When the insurgents were brought out, some dead and others wounded, they were greeted with execrations, and only the precautions that had been taken saved them from immediate execution. The crowd, nearly every man of which carried a gun, swayed with tumultuous excitement, and cries of “ Shoot them! shoot them!” rang from every side. The appearance of the liberated prisoners, all of whom, through the steadiness of the marines, escaped injury, changed the current of feeling, and prolonged cheers took the place of howls and execrations.

The lawn in front of the engine house, after the assault, presented a dreadful sight. Lying on it were two bodies of men killed on the previous day, and found inside the house; three wounded men, one of them just at the last gasp of life, [Anderson;] and two others groaning in pain. One of the dead was Brown's son Oliver. The wounded father and his son Watson were lying on the grass, the old man presenting a gory spectacle. He had a severe bayonet wound in his side, and his face and hair were clotted with blood.

Porte-Crayon, a Virginia artist and author, and a fiendish historian of the holy Invasion, thus writes of the same infamous scene: [264]

“The citizen captives, released from their long and trying confinement, hurried out to meet their friends with every demonstration of joy; while the bloody carcasses of the dead and dying outlaws were dragged into the lawn amidst the howls and execrations of the people. It was a hideous and ghastly spectacle. Some, stark and stiff, with staring eyes and fallen jaws, were the dead of yesterday; while others, struck with death wounds, writhed and wallowed in their blood. Two only were brought out unhurt,--Coppoc, and Green the negro, --and they only escaped immediate death by accident, the soldiers not at once distinguishing them from the captive citizens and slaves.”

Here is only one account of the conversation of John Brown, as he lay wounded and bloody on the lawn. It is thus narrated:

A short time after Captain Brown was brought out, he revived, and talked earnestly to those about him, defending his course, and avowing that he had done only what was right. He replied to questions substantially as follows:

“Are you Captain Brown, of Kansas?”

“ I am sometimes called so.”

“ Are you Ossawatomie Brown?”

“I tried to do my duty there.”

These two replies are eminently characteristic — so manly and so modest. He never himself assumed the title of Captain, even in Kansas, where titles were as common as proper names. “I tried to do my duty there,” --the sentence was a key to his whole life. Neither honor nor glory moved him; the voice of duty was the only one he heard.

“What was your present object?”

“To free the slaves from bondage.”

“Were any other persons but those with you now connected with the movement?”

“ No.”

“Did you expect aid from the North?”

“No; there was no one connected with the movement but those who came with me.”

“Did you expect to kill people in order to carry your point ”

“ I did not wish to do so, but you force us to it.”

Various questions of this kind were put to Captain Brown, which he answered clearly and freely, with seeming anxiety to vindicate himself.

He urged that he had the town at his mercy; that he could have burned it, and murdered the inhabitants, but did not; he had treated the prisoners with courtesy, and complained that he was hunted down like a beast. He spoke of the killing of his son, which he alleged was done while bearing a flag of truce, and seemed very anxious for the safety of his wounded son. His conversation bore the impression of [265] the conviction that whatever he had done to free slaves was right, and that in the warfare in which he was engaged he was entitled to be treated with all the respect of a prisoner of war.

He seemed fully convinced that he was badly treated, and had a right to complain. Although at first considered dying, an examination of his wounds proved that they were not necessarily fatal. He expressed a desire to live, and to be tried by his country. In his pockets nearly three hundred dollars were found in gold. Several important papers, found in his possession, were taken charge of by Colonel Lee, on behalf of the government. To another, Brown said it was no part of his purpose to seize the public arms. He had army and ammunition enough reshipped from Kansas. He only intended to make the first demonstration at this point, when he expected to receive a rapid increase of the allies from Abolitionists every where settled through Maryland and Virginia, sufficient to take possession of both States, with all of the negroes they could capture. He did not expect to encounter the Federal troops. He had only a general idea as to his course; it was to be a general south-west course through Virginia, varying as circumstances dictated or required. Mr. Washington reports that Brown was remarkably cool during the assault. He fell under two bayonet wounds--one in the groin, and one in the breast-and four sabre cuts on the head. During the fight he was supposed to be dead, or doubtless he would have been shot. He was not touched by a ball. The prisoners also state that Brown was courteous to them, and did not ill-use them, and made no abolition speech to them. Coppoc, one of the prisoners, said he did not want to join the expedition, but added, “Ah, you gentlemen don't know Captain Brown ; when he calls for us we never think of refusing to come.” 3

Captain Brown, after his pockets were rifled, was carried, with his dying, son, to the Guard House, and Stevens was soon brought and laid down beside them on the floor. No beds were provided for the prisoners. Coppoc, the brave Iowa boy, thus described, in a letter to their mother, the death of John Brown's sons, and the accommodations provided .for them by the Virginians:

I was with your sons when they fell. Oliver lived but a very few moments after he was shot. He spoke no word, but yield'd calmly to his fate. Watson was shot at ten o'clock on Monday morning, and died about three o'clock on Wednesday morning. He suffered much. Though mortally wounded at ten o'clock, yet at three o'clock Monday afternoon he fought bravely against the men who charged on us. When the enemy were repulsed, and the excitement of the charge was over, he began to sink rapidly. After we were taken prisoners, he was placed in the Guard House with me. He complained of the hardness of the bench on which he was lying, I begged hard for a bed for him, or even a blanket, but could obtain none for him. I took off my coat, and placed it under him, and held his head in my lap, in which position he died, without a groan or struggle.

1 Speech of Governor Wise, at Richmond. on his return from Harper's Ferry.

2 In the trial of Copeland, the following dialogue occurred:

Mr. Sennott. You say that when Brown was down you struck him in the face with your sabre?

Lieut. Green. Yes, sir.

Mr. Sennott. This was after he was down? Lieut. Green. Yes, sir, he was down.

Mr. Sennott. How many times, Lieut. Green, did you strike Brown in the face after he was down?

Lieut. Green. Why, sir, he was defending himself with his gun.

Mr Hunter. I hope the counsel for the defence will not press such questions as these.

Mr. Sennott. Very well, sir.

3 These statements are unworthy of belief.

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