In 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 locumotive 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.
In the course of doing this, 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 grounds.
At 7:00 a.m., the next day, General Lee had appeared in the 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 Arsenal yard.
"Your Guards were here first: you are welcome to take those people out," he said.
Colonel 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. General 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, General Lee's dark eyes seemed fixed on some distant object.
Colonel 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.
General Lee 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.
Forty 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.
Immediately, 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.
When 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!"
Outside, shouts of "lynch em!" "Get the scaffold up!" rose from the mob of people that had stormed behind the Marines into the Arsenal yard.
JEB 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.
Several 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.
When 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 wounds."
General Lee 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 to
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 servant,
R.E. LEE, Lt. Colonel, Commanding
By the 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.
Wise 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.
John 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. 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.
Governor 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.
Senator Mason said angrily: "How do you justify attacking this place?"
"Upon the golden rule," Brown replied, "I think it right to interfere with your slaves so far as to free them from your laws."
A clamoring din broke out from the people packed in the room, men shoving and cursing, trying to get past the Marines.
John 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 enough."
Mason 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 room.
Six 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. A chill 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 a yellow leaf, but his mind was serene in the thought that his name would become in the North a battle cry for freedom.
Several 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 Brown's doom.
A 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.
Calling 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."
John 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.
Finally, 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.
Under 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.
Late 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.
As 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.
General Lee turned to leave the platform, and Mrs. Brown stepped to the edge of the porch after him as he mounted up.
"Can 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 slavery.
As Mrs. 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.