October 1859, while Lee was at Arlington on leave of absence from Texas, he had
traveled, under orders from the government, on a Baltimore & Ohio locomotive
to a hamlet in Western Maryland known as Sandy Hook. Arriving at Sandy Hook in
the company of a United States marshall named David Oult and JEB Stuart, a
young cavalryman and friend of the family, Lee found waiting for him
Lieutentant Israel Green and a contingent of Marines. Lt. Green reported that
John Brown, with fifteen white men and several Negroes, had come into Harper's
Ferry and forced his way into the United States Arsenal. Brown had taken
hostages from the town and surrounding countryside and had killed several
persons, including Hayward Brown, a free black man employed as a baggageman
with the B & O Railroad..
John Brown in Kansas 1856
course of Brown entering the Ferry, there was gun fire which awakened the
townspeople and a general alarm was soon given by ringing the church bells. By
early morning, eight companies of Virginia and Maryland militia had John Brown
and several of his men trapped inside a fire-engine house on the Arsenal
grounds. By this time, most of John Brown's men were already dead, having been
shot down as they tried to get away. Now, Brown, with the hostages and several
of his men, was holed up inside the firehouse on the United States Arsenal
Harper’s Ferry seen from hill top looking into “the
a.m., the next day, Lee had appeared in the Arsenal yard, wearing an oilskin
overcoat. He approached a group of Maryland and Virginia state militia officers
who were standing near the Arsenal gates. Shaking hands all around, he thanked
them for their efforts. Then he turned to Colonel Baylor who commanded the
Jefferson Guards from Charlestown and nodded toward the firehouse in the
Guards were here first: you are welcome to take those people out," he
Baylor looked at Lee and said nothing for a moment. He raised his hands to his
hips and glanced around at the other officers, taken by surprise. Lee stood
quietly waiting, his face slightly turned away from Baylor, as if he expected
to hear Baylor answer in the affirmative immediately. Under the arch of his
eyebrows, Lee's dark eyes seemed fixed on some distant object.
Baylor declined. "My men are volunteers. They know how to blast away, but
I can't expect them to charge that firehouse from across this yard with the
Marines here," he said.
said nothing. His face registered no emotion. He looked directly at each of the
other men in the group but no one spoke. Then, he moved several paces away from
the group as if they had been dismissed, and stopped next to one of the pillars
that supported the fence encircling the Arsenal grounds.
yards to the west, JEB Stuart stood with Lt. Green, waiting for a sign. When he
saw Lee point toward the firehouse, Stuart raised a white flag and walked
across the Arsenal yard and stopped in front of the firehouse doors. He could
see that the doors were cracked open several inches and that John Brown was
standing behind them. Stuart stuck a paper through the crack. As Brown was
reading it, Stuart stepped quickly back from the door to the corner of the
firehouse and waved his arms.
Lt. Green, with a squad of Marines, ran forward with a heavy ladder and
battered it against the doors and pushed inside. The Marines came rushing in,
wielding their muskets in front of them. One of Brown's gang, a man named Jerry
Anderson, took aim at the first Marine coming in behind Green and discharged
his pistol into the Marine's face, killing him. The next Marines inside the
room, lunged at Anderson, pinning him against the side of the pump wagon with
their bayonets. Seeing another of Brown's men underneath the wagon they stabbed
him to death, too.
Lt. Green burst through the break in the door he was in a fury, and finding
John Brown kneeling on the floor next to the dead body of his son, Watson,
Green raked at Brown's face and body with his sword. Under the onslaught of
Green's blows, Brown fell backward into the dirt. Straddling him, Lt. Green
brought his sword down with all his strength upon Brown's head as Brown
shouted, "We surrender! We surrender!"
shouts of "lynch em!" "Get the scaffold up!" rose from the
mob of people that had stormed behind the Marines into the Arsenal yard.
Stuart now came into the firehouse and stood looking down at John Brown, who
was slumped in a pool of blood on the ground. Squinting up at Stuart through
puffy discolored eyelids, blood streaming from the cuts and gashes made by
Greene's sword, John Brown asked for a doctor to look at his wounds but Stuart
hotly refused. "If you came to make war, why didn't you bring a surgeon
with you," the brash young calvaryman said.
hours passed before General Lee came to the spot where Brown was lying on the
ground. Seeing Brown was conscious and moving his limbs, Lee called for a
doctor and an examination was made of Brown's wounds.
the examination was complete, Lee took the doctor aside and the two men held a
whispered conversation. Watching this, John Brown called out, "I do not
believe you mean to butcher me after I have surrendered, but I need help for my
looked coldly at Brown and turned away, walking across the Arsenal yard to the
telegraph office in the company of U.S. Marshal Oult. Inside, he sent a message
Secretary of War, John Floyd.
Harper's Ferry Arsenal
October 18, 1859
Sir: Upon a deliberate examination of the wounds of Brown, they are
believed not to be mortal. He has three wounds, but they are not considered by
the surgeon as bad as first reported. Please direct me what to do with him and
the other white prisoners.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient
LEE, Lt. Colonel, Commanding
time the telegraph operator came to General Lee with Floyd's response it was
early afternoon and the daily passenger train from Baltimore was pulling into
the Harper's Ferry station. After reading the message, Lee folded the paper and
put it in his overcoat pocket. Then he waited to see who got off the train.
First off the cars was Governor Henry A. Wise and Senator James Mason of
Virginia. Following them were newspapermen from every major city on the Eastern
seaboard. Wise and Mason recognized Lee and hurried across the platform toward
him, surrounded by the newspapermen.
spoke to Lee but his voice was drowned in the babble of questions thrown at Lee
by the reporters. Lee ignored the questions. He introduced Oult to Wise and
Mason; then, gesturing to them to follow him, he walked away from the people
crowding around and left the platform. With Wise and Mason flanking him, he set
off across the square filled with militia and civilians and walked to the paymaster's
office where Brown had been taken. When he entered the office with Wise and
Mason, he found a crowd of spectators filling the space around Stuart and
Green, who, with several Marines, were guarding John Brown. Brown was
conscious, but groaning from his wounds. Blood still oozed from the gashes Lt.
Green's sword had cut in his head and neck, and he was holding his hand over a
deep wound in his side. Behind General Lee, the newspapermen pushed into the
room, jostling with the militia and townspeople for standing room. Someone
opened the windows and the people pressing at the office door, rushed to them.
Brown flattened his hands against the floor and tentatively pushed to shift his
body into a more comfortable position against the ribs of the chair back he was leaning against.
Looking up at General Lee Brown saw in his cold demeanor, everything that was
hateful about the masters of slaves. General Lee didn't know it but John Brown
could claim a pedigree as good as his; two of Brown's grandfathers had fought
in the Revolutionary War and their lineage traced to the Mayflower.
Wise and Senator Mason stepped close to Brown's side as Lee introduced them.
Pens flashed in the hands of the newspapermen as they made ready to take down
in shorthand what was said between the Virginia politicians and Osawatomie
Brown. Wise confronted Brown with his carpet bag that had been found at a
Maryland farmhouse. The bag contained much correspondence from Frederick
Douglas, Harriet Tubman and other blacks connected with the abolitionists;
there were several letters between Brown and a well-known black Republican,
Joshua Giddings, an Ohio Congressman; many letters were found which passed
between Brown and the New Englanders, Gerrit Smith, Samuel Howe and others. The
letters showed that forces existed in the North which were intent on triggering
a servile war in the South.
Mason said angrily: "How do you justify attacking this place?"
the golden rule," Brown replied, "I think it right to interfere with
your slaves so far as to free them from your laws."
clamoring din broke out from the people packed in the room, men shoving and
cursing, trying to get past the Marines.
Brown feebly raised his hand. "You had better. . . ." He paused;
struggling to raise up his head, his gaze became fixed on General Lee.
"You people had better prepare yourselves for the settlement of that
question. . . this negro question, I mean. You think you have gotten rid of me
easily enough I know, I am almost disposed now; but this question is still to
be settled, the end of this is not yet. More John Browns will come soon
and Wise stared down at the pale figure of Brown. They wanted to continue the
interrogation, but they could see that Brown's wounds were still flowing blood
and that he was losing consciousness, and they said nothing. The newspapermen
from the New York Times and Baltimore Sun had pushed up and wedged themselves
between the politicians while Brown was speaking, and were frantically
scribbling down on pads of paper what they had heard him say. Realizing that
Brown's condition might encourage the newspapermen to paint a sympathetic
picture of his plight, Governor Wise brusquely ordered the crowd to leave the
weeks later, on a cold, blue sky December day, John Brown was taken from the
Charlestown County jail to a corn-stubbled brown field outside of town and
hanged. The county sheriff, John Avis, escorted the prisoner down the steps of
the jail to a waiting undertaker's wagon harnessed to two white horses. John
Brown was dressed in black except for red slippers on his feet. His hands were
bound behind his back. At the sheriff's nudging, he stepped nimbly onto a
curbstone and climbed into the wagon bed. A large box made of poplar wood was
on the floor of the wagon bed. Inside the box was a black walnut coffin. When
Brown sat down on the box, the undertaker shook the reins and the wagon lurched
forward with the horses leaning into their harness.
breeze swept Brown's gray-black hair back from his forehead, framing an
expression in his eyes and mouth of calm readiness. He looked straight ahead,
past the wagon driver and the white horses to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The
black spines of bare trees stood out against a background of brown leaves
blanketing the slopes of the mountains. The limpid waters of the wide
Shenandoah flowed along their base. The moment exhilarated him. he knew his
life was about to fall away like like the fall leaves, but his mind was serene in the
thought that his name would become in the North a battle cry for freedom.
companies of Virginia militia, each dressed in distinct uniforms of different
combinations of colors, marched in front of the wagon. Files of soldiers paced
alongside the wagon, keeping away the crowds of people that lined the road.
Somewhere in their line of march, drumsticks clicked a grim cadence. Mounted
troops followed behind, with pennants and all the old flags of Virginia
rippling in the breeze. Like a grand procession of some ancient sect going to
make a sacrifice, the long glittering column of Virginia soldiers, with the
civilians keeping pace along the borders of the road, entered the field of John
gallows was fixed on the platform of a scaffold set in the middle of the field.
Eighty-two cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, holding muskets, stood at
parade rest around its base. They were dressed in red shirts and grey trousers.
White belts crisscrossed their chests. Each wore a tall, plumed flat-topped hat
with a small brim. A manned battery of light field artillery was set in front
of them. The pieces were elevated to cover the scaffold platform. The officer
in charge of the cadets sat motionless behind them on a sleek dapple gray mare.
He had watery blue eyes set in an oval face framed by close shaved side
whiskers, with a long thin nose and a high forehead topped with thin black
hair. He was Stonewall Jackson.
the cadets to attention, Stonewall walked his horse slowly out in front of them
and halted. The companies of Virginia militia peeled off the road and formed a
cordon, blocking the civilian mob from entering the field. The undertaker's
wagon came on through the cordon and looped around the cadets to come to a stop
at the scaffold. The troopers followed the wagon into the field and then swung
away to form a line between the cadets and the militiamen. When the wagon came
to a stop at the scaffold, the tailgate was lowered and John Brown leaped off
the wagon and unhesitatingly ascended the flight of stairs to the scaffold platform.
Sheriff Avis and his deputies took hold of Brown's arms and guided him onto the
trap door which was held in place by a rope tied to a post. The deputies tied
Brown's ankles and placed a hood over his head. The preliminaries done, his
coffin removed from the wagon and placed on the ground below the scaffold, the
sheriff stepped next to Brown and asked if he wanted a warning when the trap
will open. "No," John Brown said, "just be quick about it."
Brown stood firm on the spot the sheriff assigned him and waited for the trap
door to open and plunge his body into the mouth of death. Far back in the crowd
behind the cordon around the scaffold, the reporter from the New York Times
counted the minutes as they passed on his watch. The Virginia authorities kept
John Brown waiting an eternity—nine full minutes. Stonewall Jackson and his
cadets, the mounted troopers, the militiamen and the crowd all silently watched
the man standing on the trap with the rope around his neck. They saw no
flinching, no quivering or tottering. The sheriff, standing next to Brown with
an axe in his hands, heard no whimpering. Stonewall, from his position behind
the line of cadets, gazed admiringly at the man standing patiently at the edge
of death. Jackson and Brown were very much alike; if the times had been
different they might have become fast friends. Both read the same bible and
believed they conformed their lives to the rules of the same God. Both were
ambitious men with their souls on fire, thirsting for a glorious death.
the sheriff swung the axe down on the post and broke the rope. The greased trap
sprung open and the hushed crowd watched Brown's body fall. The last sound John
Brown heard was a thud as his fall was stopped short of the earth by the rope.
There was no movement among the troops and no shouting came from the crowd of
spectators when the body plunged through the hole in the scaffold floor.
Everyone stood silently in their place and watched the body twist slowly on the
rope, a little left it would go and then it would pause in its arc and slowly
turn to the right. High up in the crystal blue sky an eagle, its wings
outspread, made broad sweeping circles above the field.
the white sun, General Lee sat on horseback alone on the ridge of Bolivar Heights.
He was a mile away from the people in the field: dressed in the uniform of a
lieutenant colonel of the United States Cavalry, he held the reins of his horse
lightly in his left hand and the horse stood solidly still under his weight.
The gathering of the Virginia militia and the cadets and the troops off in the
brown field in the distance, in their brilliant array of uniforms and their
military drill made, for him,a grand
scene; but the lank, limp body of John Brown hanging on the twisting rope made
it somber and mean.
that night, Mrs. Brown, dressed in widow's garb, was waiting on the B & O
Railroad platform at Harper's Ferry, when the undertaker's wagon came rattling
over the ridge of Bolivar Heights and down Shenandoah Street. General Lee rode
in front, escorting the wagon alone into the town. Mary Brown was married to
John Brown for 25 years and had borne him 10 children. She watched in silence
as the wagon rolled to a stop alongside the railroad depot. When the wagon came
abreast of Mrs. Brown, General Lee stepped down from his horse and climbed the
platform steps, motioning to the undertaker to proceed with the unloading. When
he reached her, he removed his gray Stetson and, bowing slightly, spoke to her
in a quiet manner, as a person might speak to an acquaintance he knows who has
lost a loved one.
General Lee and Mrs. Brown spoke, the undertaker removed the box from the wagon
and, with the assistance of the railroad baggageman, placed it on a baggage
cart. Mrs. Brown asked that the coffin be opened and General Lee walked with
her to the cart. The undertaker used a crowbar to raise and remove the box lid
and then opened the coffin for Mrs. Brown to identify the body. She stepped
forward and looked into the coffin while General Lee and the undertaker stood
silently by. She reached into the coffin and took hold of her dead husband's
left hand and attempted to lift it to his chest but when the elbow refused to
bend she slowly let it go. She removed a simple gold band from the ring finger,
clutched it in her fist and stepped back from the casket, nodding to the
undertaker to seal it closed.
Lee turned to leave the platform, and Mrs. Brown stepped to the edge of the
porch after him as he mounted up.
you tell me please, sir, who ordered you to give my husband up to the Virginia
people when he was surrendered to you on the Arsenal grounds?" She knew it
had been Brown's plan to be taken in custody by the United States Government
and use his trial in Federal Court as a public platform to rail against
Brown said this, General Lee settled in the saddle, gathering the reins in his
hand, and faced her. In the shadowy light under the depot shed, noting the
paleness of her face and her watery eyes, he spoke to her, "Ma'am, I
placed Mr. Brown in the custody of the United States Marshall, as my orders
required. Thereafter the civil authorities directed the sheriff of the county
to take custody." Then, tipping his hat to her, he leaned back slightly in
the saddle and turned his horse away.
Mrs. Brown called out to him in a vehement voice, "But why would the national government give him up to Virginia?"
Lee reined in and half turned his horse, looking down at her. They looked at each other saying nothing. Then he shook his head and said in a low voice, "Your husband murdered the baggageman outside the gates."
Mrs. Brown stepped forward, her face flushing, her fists clenched. "But that man was no citizen of Virginia."
"No," General Lee said as he began moving away, "but he was a man."
John Brown was a terrorist, no different than the muslin
fanatics that killed 3,400 Americans on 9/11. He murdered people in Kansas and
he murdered people at Harper’s Ferry. His belief in a “cause” provides him with
no legal excuse.
early summer of 1859, Brown and his gang rented the Kennedy farm on the
outskirts of the Dunkard community of Staples Manor, a short distance from
Harper’s Ferry. By mid-summer he had gathered there about 20 men, some black,
some white. All of them would soon be killed.
Kennedy Farm House
August 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass in a stone quarry outside
Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Brown told Douglass that he planned to seize the
U.S. Arsenal at the Ferry. He expected Douglas to join him. Douglass, not
stupid and not fanatical, said “No.” Douglass understood that the raid on
Harper’s Ferry was an attack on the national government and was doomed to
failure and he left Chambersburg in a rush, to get as far away from the scene