Perspectives on Brown, 1890

The John Brown Raid, The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), January 1, 1890

Washington, Dec. 26, 1880-Some Unpublished Incidents in Connection with That Movement [Correspondence Tribune.] 

Corporations are said to have no souls. Certainly railroad engineers have no romances. To the railroad engineer who wants to straighten out a curve there is nothing sacred and to prove it goes the fact that the engineers of the Baltimore and Ohio railroads have determined that old John Brown’s Fort must go. 

Everyone who has ever come to Washington on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad remembers the eager anxiety with which he sticks his head out of the window of the railroad coach as he approached Harper’s Ferry. The old dismantled ruins of the National Armory are first seen, and then one can just about make out the old engine house that is famous in history as John Brown’s Fort. The relic hunter has gotten in his work, and for years and years, small boys have done a thriving business in selling bricks from John Brown’s Fort. Enough bricks from John Brown’s Fort have been sold to visitors at Harper’s Ferry to stock up half a dozen brick yards for years to come.The engineers on the B. &. O. railroad have been convinced that the magnificent bridge there must be rebuilt. Unfortunately for the lovers of American history the route of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad passes right over the spot where John Brown’s Fort now stands and as a result the fort must go. 

It has been sold to William S. Brown of Kansas City. Mr. Brown is a victim of the same peculiar fever that animated the mercantile gentlemen who bought Libby Prison and set it up in Chicago as a public sight at so much entrance fee.” Mr. Brown proposes to take down the fort brick by brick and rebuild it somewhere wherever he thinks he can get the most money out of it. He has not yet decided whether he will select Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis or Kansas City. It will be remembered that not long ago some Washington gentleman bought John Brown’s gallows and it is not improbable that these two antiquarians will continue fortunes and exhibit John Brown’s fort and John Brown’s gallows side by side, as the Alpha and Omega of one of the most remarkable episodes in American history.

The destruction of this shabby little old building will recall to many the vivid scenes that alarmed and stirred to its very center the whole country just thirty years ago. Such an event as this has probably never had parallel in the history of any country and even to this day, wonder, admiration, horror and hate are called out into a living existence by the very mention of Ossawatomie Brown. 

Of the insurrection of this brave and over-zealous fanatic there is not a single correct or trustworthy account that can be obtained. The reason is simple enough. The wild excitement into which the quiet sleepy, little town was plunged by the midnight raid of the old Kansan killed all attempt at reasonable or concerted action. The people engaged in the various conflicts that were raging found their efforts confined to such limited areas that they knew nothing of what was transpiring save in their immediate vicinity, and often gave garbled and distorted accounts of such events as came under their notice. All published accounts of the insurrection obtainable at the Congressional Library were consulted in the preparation of this article, but the contradictions and inconsistencies were in many cases so glaring as to make and the compilation of a correct condensed account of the affair impossible. 

There is, however, at present living in this city a gentleman who took an active part in the Insurrection at the “Ferry”and from him an accurate account of the raid was obtained. 

Mr. George W. Decker, now residing on K street in this city, was living at Harper’s Ferry in charge of one of the departments of the Government armory when John Brown entered the village, and in an interview recently, he told the story of the events of the days of terror.

“John Brown,” he said, “entered Harper’s Ferry some time between ten and eleven on the night of the sixteenth of October. Just what hour he came, however, has always been in dispute, but it could not have been much later than eleven as he broke camp in the mountains and started for the Ferry shortly after eight o’clock and the distance of the camp from the Ferry was not over four miles, a distance easily traveled in two hours. 

The party had with them a wagon loaded with Sharp’s rifles and pikes and there were probably about sixty men in the crowd. It is generally understood that there had been some desertions song the men that Brown had with him, as many of them were opposed to attacking Harper’s Ferry in the way intended. They pointed out the absurdity of the whole affair and the lack of adequate defense in case of attack from troops. They called his attention to the defenseless character of Harper’s Ferry. A force of men coming into these mountains would have a body of men in Harper’s Ferry entirely at their mercy and even with an enemy entrenched on Bolivar Heights directly above the town there could be no hope for escape for a party in the town.

Nevertheless Brown determined to enter Harper’s Ferry, capture the arsenal, the rifle works and the magazine and thence starting out on his grand campaign against slavery and the slave owners. 

For some time before this Captain Cook, one of Brown’s Lieutenants, had lived in Harper’s Ferry where he kept Brown constantly posted on every thing that transpired in the little village. He became one of the villager in fact and entered completely into their methods of life. He made love in the village maids in a style that carried most of them by storm. He became very intimate with the men in the place and won their admiration by his splendid performance with the pistol.. He carried a magazine weapon, a wonder in those days, that fired twenty shots and on holidays accompanied by his friends in the armory, he would go up into the mountains surrounding the Ferry and give rare exhibitions of marksmanship. His reputation spread even beyond the town itself. A common feat with him was to fasten a piece of tape to a tree trunk with fifteen or twenty tacks and then without a failure drive the tacks into the tree with shots from his rifle, finally dropping the tape to the ground as the last lack was cut out.

By this and other methods Cook succeeded in becoming fully acquainted with the town, its people and the surrounding country. On several occasions he visited the farm of Colonel Lewis Washington, and his agreeable manner made him a welcome guest of the great grandson of the brother of George Washington. On one of his visits to the Washington place, his host invited Cook into his library to view his precious treasures in the shape of relics of the immortal Washington. Among these was an antique sword presented by Frederick the Great to George Washington and a pair of pistols presented to Washington by his friend and compatriot, Lafayette. As these and other relics were exhibited, Cook leisurely examined them with an air of easy nonchalance, quietly concealing all signs of the delight he felt at having so easily accomplished the wishes of his chief; for Brown knew of these treasures and it was his burning desire to possess them. Cook spent the entire afternoon of his visit in the library of Col. Washington noting the position of every article in the collection. As the evening wore on and passed twilight into night he still sat before the cheerful grate fire that tempered the autumn chill and entertained his host in a way that won the later’s admiration, for Cook’s versatility and conversational powers were of high degree

An insight into the character of Brown, showing the impracticable enthusiasm of the man, is shown by the knowledge of his reasons for wishing to possess Colonel Washington’s swords and pistols. It was his intention to arm the colonel’s most popular slave with the sword of Washington, and when he had conquered Harper’s Ferry to send him on to other conquests wielding the sword of the great American deliverer. 

Consequently when the little band passed across the bridge making prisoner of the watchman, Brown’s first move was to send Cook together with several others to capture Colonel Washington. This was done very quietly, and before midnight Colonel Washington was the guest of Captain Cook, who, however, did not reciprocate the courtesies received in a manner to please the Colonel. He together with Mr. Allstandt, a farmer living in Loudon, were carried to the engine-house in the armory yard and there held captive. The engine-house is a solid brick structure containing an old hand fire engine; the “rough and ready” and hose-reel. This engine was used in extinguishing the fires in the town, the armory itself being protected by numerous water plugs in the yards fed by a high power of such force that a stream from a hose could be sent anywhere in the yard. Captain Brown retired to the engine-house and selected it as his headquarters, recognizing it as the most easily defensible position to be found in the town. He had Colonel Washington and several other of the prisoners brought before him and explained that he had selected them as hostages because he recognized their influential worth. He told them that so long as they were with him they would be in no danger. He calmly told them he had no idea how long he might detain them, but bade them hope for the best. He then retired, leaving them under a guard and went out to complete his arrangements for taking the town completely, as soon as it woke up. When the Washinggton and Allstadt farms were visited the negroes of both places were brought to Brown. There were twelve belonging to Washington in the party, all of whom knew the nature of the undertaking in which Brown was engaged, having been thoroughly posted in numerous conversations with Cook. These negroes were armed with short rifles or carbines in Brown’s possession and were instructed in their use. Then with a full supply of cartridges they were sent out and posted about the town as sentinels.

These preparations were concluded shortly after midnight, and that time a strange condition of affairs existed in Harper’s Ferry, a condition utterly without precedent. A town lay quietly sleeping in virtuous slumber while in their very midst lay a band of invaders ready for murder and carnage when the town should wake. 

About day-break the people of the village began to stir about, and their surprise and consternation can better be imagined than described when, on coming out of their houses, they found themselves confronted by armed negroes, most of whom they recognized as slaves from the surrounding plantations. The arrests were conducted very quietly, most of them being made at the arsenal, where the employees were picked up as they came to their daily work. As the mist rolled away from the mountain tops and the full of daylight appeared, however, matters began to take on a different appearance. Several bands of work-men, starting for the armory, discovered the cloaked and armed figures standing about the streets, and were too sensible to approach that end of the town where they massed. Instead, they began assembling at the upper end of the village. In a few minutes those uncaptured in the town, by some means unknown to themselves it seemed, had received news that a party of abolitionists from the North had descended on the town and had taken prisoners many of their fellow townsmen. Then began a bitter guerrilla warfare unequaled in the annals of history. The people of Harper’s Ferry naturally enough hated the very word abolitionist, and their hatred burned even fiercer at the great wrong they fancied had been put upon them.

They were in a certain sense defenseless. Working in the armory as they did any man in the village might have had a rifle almost for the asking, yet on this bright October day they found that there were not half a dozen rifles in the whole town. There were some old shot guns used for hunting, and a few pistols among the men, but these weapons were of no value against the weapons of the invaders. Fate, however, threw into their hands the means of their salvation. 

Some days before a number of finished rifles had been removed from the arsenal to a small wooden shop in the side of the hill leading up to Bolivar, and which was used as a lumber store-room. This shop was directly back of the armory buildings inside the armory wall. Knowing of these guns a small scouting party started up into Bolivar, cut across the h[e]ights, and carefully made their way down to the house in which the rifles were stored. They reached there only through great danger and succeeded in carrying off enough arms to furnish all the men with weapons. 

Then the warfare began in earnest; a bitter, deadly feud between Virginians and abolitionists. The quiet streets of the town rung out in echo of the sharp crack of rifles and the hideous death yell of murdered men.

The Harper’s Ferry folk were strategic. A number of Brown’s men were in the upper part of town near the arsenal building, and a determined assault soon had them all caged in this building. Then the villagers charged down on them with a fierceness that caused them to leave their shelter and wildly break for the lower part of town, where Brown and his other forces were located.

The arsenal was located where the newly erected pulp mill now stands, and as the men broke from its shelter they were so suddenly and actively assaulted that they were utterly routed. Some continued in towards the town where a few gained safety and others started for the opposite shore of the Shenandoah river. Many of those were there shot down like fleeing dogs. Captain John Kagi, one of Brown’s most trusty officers, was shot down just as he reached a flat rock in the middle of the river. Lewis Beaty, a negro that Brown had brought with him, was also shot dow in the river and brought to Brommerman’s cooper shop where he was given every attention possible by the women of the place. Kagi was left where he fell, as it was impossible to reach him and he was not taken out of the water until two days afterward. Colonel Washington’s carriage driver in a wild endeavor to escape, rushed into the mill-race and actually succeeded in reaching the opposite side of the race. As he clamored up on the bank he was met by a determined looking Virignian who had fired his last shot at the negro as he swam across the race. The two men faced each other for a single second then the negro, impelled by a bare hope for life, sprang forward. There was a dull crash as the heavy rifle-stock broke across his face swung by the powerful arms of his foe and the negro staggered and fell back into the race to become a moment later a target for a well-aimed bullet that took his life. In the lower end of town the fighting was fully as savage. It was one continual skirmish from the moment the villagers armed themselves until the insurgents were finally driven into the engine house. All along the main street at the lower end of the town until quite late in the morning some of the sentinels kept pacing their assigned beats. One burly negro kept moving restlessly about Shenandoah Street undetermined whether to run or stay. Suddenly a shot struck at his feet and bounded off across the street. He immediately caught up his barbine and was about to fire when a gentlemen on the upper balcony of a house across the way who was calmly smoking a cigar apparently oblivious of the trouble about him, raise a long squirrel rifle to his shoulder and drove a small buckshot in just behind the sentinel’s ear. He dropped like a wet dishcloth and immediately afterwards the man was seen to rush across the street and pick up his carbine and ammunition and scurry back to the house. Insurrectionists however were also cutting notches on their rifle stocks. Howard, the porter at the depot, was the first man shot and he was killed for refusing to join the crowd of invaders. Tony Burley a well known citizen in the Ferry was shot as he came to the door to learn the cause of the disturbance. He died almost immediately and lay on his door step for hours, his relatives in the house fearing to again be seen at the door. 

Samuel Turner, a young man living out of town, came into the Ferry on horseback carrying a small hunting rifle. Not knowing of the trouble in the Ferry he started down High street and was shot from his horse at one of the turns in the tortuous thoroughfare.

By noon the insurrectionists were intrenched in their fort with light skirmish guards holding the railroad bridge. The citizens of the Ferry, well satisfied with having caged Brown, had drawn off and were preparing to make a charge on the engine house and bridge when a party of Charlestown troops under command of Col. Robert A. Bayler, who had crossed the river some distance above, were seen approaching the bridge from the Maryland side. They  came up at double time and dashing across the bridge routed the insurgents and drove them back into the engine house without bloodshed. In this engagement Wm. Thompson, one of Brown’s men, was captured.

At this moment Brown’s last hope departed. He was caged up in the engine house without hope of escape and no reinforcements on the outside from whom he might expect aid. The Shepardstown troops arriving shortly afterwards and joining the Charlestown guards and the citizen forces at the bridge rendered the situation utterly hopeless.

The fight from this time on centered at the fort. It had only taken about three hours of real fighting to clear the town of insurrectionists and when they were once in the engine house their capture or destruction was only a question of time. The fighting now became a desultory sort of warfare. Brown’s men had made port holes in the brick wall of the fort by digging out bricks and from these they shot at everything being in sight. The last men were gotten into the fort about noon and they were kept there until the arrival of the Marines next day, when the fort was taken.

About this time an occurrence took place that has no justification, and can only be accounted for by the unnatural condition of affairs. Mr. Fountain Beckham, the mayor of the town, along in the afternoon walked out on the platform of the railroad trestle and looked down toward the engine house. A moment later he was shot down where he stood, by one of Brown’s sons. The murderer did not have a long lease of life. He stepped out a few steps from the engine house, and before he could reach shelter he fell to the ground literally torn to pieces by rifle balls. This did not satisfy the citizens of Harper’s Ferry, who had that strange almost filial love for their mayor that is sometimes found in small communities. Their rage for this reason was boundless and a living sacrifice was at once demanded to satisfy their wrath. Such a sacrifice was found in Thompson, the man taken a few hours before at the bridge. He was dragged out; a score of rifles were emptied into his body and then it was tossed over the railing into the river.

A dull, restless quiet now settled down over the town that was not unbroken until one o'clock that night, when Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived with troops and at once ordered Major J. D. B. Stuart to make a truce with Brown. Nothing could be done, however, as the insurgents refused to make terms of any sort, saying they preferred bullets to halters.