Eyewitness Describes Scenes and Unfamiliar Incidents of This Tragic Adventure and Tells of the Men Who Took Part and Fates They Met
Seventy years have gone by since John Brown, attempting to set free the slaves of Virginia and perhaps cause a slave insurrection throughout the South, seized the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and fired the shots which were soon to re-echo on the battlefields of the Civil War. Brown’s mad adventure was to infuriate and alarm the South and shock moderate opinion in the North, but within two years Union troops were to be marching to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and the relentless old abolitionist was to become a national hero.
Few eye-witnesses of the drama at Harper’s Ferry have survived, but among them is Willard Chambers Gompf, now living in Hartford Conn., who as a boy was present on the fateful October night when Brown’s party of nineteen men crossed the bridge from the Maryland side. Mr. Gompf has supplemented his own vivid memories of what happened by conversations with others who were present and by researches in the newspapers and other records of the time. In the following article he tells the story, introducing many details which are not generally known and giving the freshness of a contemporary event to the grim tragedy which suddenly and unexpectedly focused the attention of the whole nation on the little Virginia town.
By WILLIARD CHAMBERS GOMPF.
Harpers Ferry Federal armory in 1859 was manufacturing from 1,500 to 2,000 guns a month. Our family lived close by. Jefferson Davis, when Secretary of War, sold my father a lot on Camp Hill which I sold in 1920. On July 5, 1859, a party of strange men, Captain John Brown, Own and Watson Brown, and Jerry Anderson, appeared at Sandy Hook, a small village in Maryland just below Harper’s Ferry on the Potomac River. The Browns were known as “Smiths,” as rewards were offered for their capture after the anti-slavery conflict in Kansas. John E. Cook had arrived some months before, and my mother had frequently seen him spying out the land for Brown’s future foray.
Captain Brown boarded with Ormand Butler and paid gold for all purchases. His men were popular.
After a few weeks they removed to the Kennedy farm, owned by Mrs. Boothy Kennedy, about five miles from the ferry on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Captain Brown (Smith) was very religious and consistent. He had brought some 994 pikes, made in Collinsville, and Sharp rifles obtained in Hartford, Conn. George Luther Stearns of Medford. Mass., and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn of Boston furnished the money.
The Night of Oct. 16 1859.
About 10:30 o’clock on Sunday night, Oct. 16, 1859, William Williams, one of the watchmen on the Virginia side of the railroad bridge, was suddenly taken prisoner by an armed party of nineteen men who came from the Maryland side. Three others, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc and F.J. Merriam, remained behind to guard the Kennedy farmhouse and the arms. Most of the party went to the armory enclosure, a high iron fence and brick wall being around the buildings, with an iron get near the end toward the bridge. The gate was broken down with a crowbar and Williams placed inside. Watson Brown and Steward Taylor went to guard the bridge.
Daniel Whelan, an armory watchman at the front gate, was next captured by Kagi- Captain Brown’s adjutant- and Stevens, and the works were taken possession of. The party then divided, Captain Brown, Newby, Dauphin Thompson, Green and Jeremiah Anderson remaining at the armory. Edwin Coppoc and Hazlett seized the arsenal, across the street from the armory, and Oliver Brown and William Thompson occupied the Shenandoah bridge.
About 12 o’clock Patrick Higgins of Sandy Hook arrived on the bridge to relieve Williams. Higgins, finding all dark, called for Williams, when, to his amazement, he was ordered to halt. A gun was at his breast and he was taken across the bridge by Watson Brown, when Williams appeared, struck Watson Brown on the ear and ran to Fouke’s Hotel and escaped, although William Thompson fired a bullet which scraped his head.
A Washington Relic.
About this time Stevens, Cook, Osborn Anderson, Tidd, Leary and Shields Green of Captain Brown’s men went to the houses of Colonel Lewis Washington and John H. Allstadt, four miles south of the Ferry, and took Allstadt’s son and ten slaves to the armory’s engine house. They carried from Washington’s house a sword sent to General Washington by Frederick, King of Prussia, and one of a pair of pistols presented to the General by Lafayette. The sword is now in the capitol at Albany; the pistol was later sent by Owen Brown to T. Hyatt, who returned it to Lewis Washington. Cook and Tidd then crossed the river to the schoolhouse, not far from the bridge, leaving Captain Brown only sixteen men at the Ferry.
The night was one of great excitement. About 1 o’clock the eastbound express was detained, but was allowed to proceed at 3. The passengers were thoroughly frightened, as several shots were exchanged between the attacking party and Mr. Throckmorton, a clerk in Fouke’s Hotel. Captain Brown and one of his men walked across the bridge with Conductor Phelps to assure his that it was safe.
A little before daylight of the 17th, early risers appeared on the streets and were surprised to find themselves taken prisoners as hostages and marched to Brown’s “fort,” the armory engine house. At daylight the armorers went singly and in groups from their houses to work, only to be captured and marched to “John Brown’s Fort,” as it has since been called. My uncle, George Lafayette Augur, was one of them. My father found refuge behind a church, where he remained all day. Several armory officers were taken. George W. Cutshaw escorted a lady who wanted to be put aboard the canal-packet bound for Washington; on his return through the long bridge he was challenged. He cried, “Let me go; what do I know about your robberies?” Brown and his men did not wish to be so designated, and Cutshaw was taken to the fort.
A little before 7 A. M., Alexander Kelly took his gun and went out to shoot the invaders. On turning the corner of High Street a bullet flew through his hat. Thomas Boerly came up and fired at Brown’s men standing by the armory gate. They returned the fire, and he fell with a ghastly wound in his groin, dying in a few hours. (I saw his body at his house on Wednesday).
It was now breakfast time, and Captain Brown sent an order to the hotel for refreshments for his men. He did not pay for the food, but released Walter Kemp, the bartender, and said this was the equivalent of pay. Brown asked his prisoners to share the food. They declined, thinking it might be drugged.
Up to this time no one knew who the armed men were. They averred that their purpose was to liberate the slaves of Virginia, and freedom was offered any captive who would furnish a negro as a recruit for “the army of the Lord.” John E. Cook, a schoolmaster, book peddler and lock-keeper of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, was recognized as one who had kept company with the so-called Smith, and it then began to dawn on the bewildered citizens that the Smith was Osawatomie Brown of Kansas fame. This information came through Mr. Mills, a friend of my mother.
Most of the Harper’s Ferry men worked for the government, and they were not unfriendly to the negro. My grandfather, ex-Mayor William Chambers, had set thirteen slaves free in 1857. Had they known Captain Brown’s purpose, they probably would not have been so anxious to see him penned up in the fort.
At the regular hour for beginning work, Daniel J. Young, master mechanic at the armory rifle factory, approached the shop gate expecting to find Samuel Williams at his post. He was met by a fierce-looking man, fully armed, who refused him admittance, saying that he and his companions had secured possession of the works from the Great Jehovah. Young was not held.
By 9 o’clock the citizens had recovered from their amazement and procured arms. During a flood previous to this raid many rifles had been removed from the arsenal, and Captain Medler secured some of them and took a company across the Shenandoah on the bridge. Captain Roderick placed men on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad northwest of the armory, and a third company, under Captain Moore, crossed the Potomac about a mile above the ferry and marched down on the Maryland side, taking possession of that end of the bridge.
Captain John Brown’s party was now hemmed in. The rifle-factory group was soon driven into the Shenandoah, where Captain Medler’s volunteers opposed them with sharp fire. Adjutant Kagi was killed in the middle of the river, receiving many bullets. His body was removed on the 19th and given to the Winchester medical students. Lewis Leary died in the carpenter show on the island, and his dead body was clubbed by James Holt, who had waded into the river to a rock on which Copeland had taken refuge, and, after snapping his gun at him several times, knocked him into submission with his fist and disarmed him. The bodies of Kagi, Taylor, William Thompson, Leeman and Leary all floated near each other at the bridge pier.
Charles Turk and Philip Keller volunteered to go to Fredrick City, Md., for a military company, but they did not return until after midnight of the 17th. Meantime Colonel Robert E. Lee had arrived with his eighty marines form Washington. Colonel Baylor refused to storm the engine house with Virginia troops, and Colonel Shriver of Frederick City also declined. Lee then attacked with twelve men, holding twelve in reserve.
Surrounding Towns Aroused.
The Jefferson guards came down on the Maryland side and took the bridge. Dr. John D. Starry aroused the surrounding towns, and Captain E. G. Alburtis stormed the “fort” from the north, inside the yard, driving the prisoners into the engine house. There were now present three companies from Frederick, one from Winchester, five from Baltimore, two from Charlestown, two from Shepherdstown, five from Richmond, besides the marines from Washington.
At the armory Captain Brown commanded in person, and he was not easily disposed of. When the company of soldiers marched out of the Potomac bridge, Brown was outside of the “fort” directing his men to aim carefully, and the company was soon forced to retreat. Again they formed, but only to break away. Brown expected reinforcements, and when Captain Moore, who had crossed to Maryland with the Jefferson Guards, was seen marching down the river, Captain Brown thought it was his expected men. He then sent two of his captives, Archibald M. Kitzmiller and Reson Cross, under guard of Stevens and William Thompson to negotiate with Captain Moore for permission to leave the fort with his surviving men.
The four men walked toward the bridge. As they came near the Gault house several shots were fired from the building by my relative, George W. Chambers, the proprietor. Stevens was severely wounded, unable to move. Thompson tried to get back to the armory gate and was captured. Kitzmiller and Cross helped Stevens into Fouke’s hotel. His wounds were being dressed when a man threatened to kill him. Stevens raised himself and said he preferred to die sitting up.
Captain Brown, finding that his negotiators did not return, called in from the street the unharmed men, picked out ten of the most prominent prisoners from the guard room in the rear of the engine house and shut up all of the party with himself in the east room. The prisoners were Jesse W. Graham, Colonel Washington, John H. Allstadt, J. E. P. Daingerfield, A. M. Hall, Benjamin Mills, armory superintendent; John Donohue, Terence Byrne, Isarel Russell and G. D. Shoppert of Frederick City.
Joseph Barry, author of “Harper’s Ferry Annals,” came near the armory and was ordered to halt by two black and two white men, but, not feeling that he was guilty of any crime, he walked on. He was again commanded to stop, and on saying a few words Brown arrested him. He ran around the south brick wall, and four rifles were leveled at him, when Hannah, an old colored woman, placed herself between him and the rifles, thus saving his life.
One time in the fort Edwin Coppoc had his gun aimed to shoot Colonel Robert E. Lee, but Graham persuaded him not to do it, which saved his life to command the rebel army about two years later.
Now the company commanded by Captain Alburtis arrived from Martinsburg, and with some Harper’s Ferry citizens rushed the gate and released a number of the forty or more who were detained back of the wall. Some were wounded by Brown’s party firing from the fort through holes made in the walls. The wounded were Murphy, Richardson, Hammond, Dorsey, Hooper and Woolet. McCabe of the ferry was also shot. None of these died.
Before Brown’s men retreated to the fort, two of them went to the corner of High and Shenandoah Street, where Boerly had been killed in the morning. George Turner was standing at Captain Moore’s door. He had just armed himself with a musket and was in the act of resting it on a board partition to fire at on e of these men when a rifle ball struck him in the shoulder, the only part exposed, entered his neck and he dropped dead. As the men ran back to the engine house a bullet fired by John McClellan hit one of their cartridge boxes and the ammunition exploded as the men entered the gate, the bullets flying in every direction.
Fountain Beckman, Mayor, and for many years agent for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Harper’s Ferry, and a Jefferson County magistrate of long-standing, crept along the railroad and, under shelter of the water station, and around the corner of the building near the engine house, when a bullet stuck his heart. Miss Christine Fouke, sister of the hotel-keeper, assisted by a man, placed the body on a truck and wheeled it out of the way, while Brown stopped the firing.
William Thompson, Captain John Brown’s son-in-law, who had been taken prisoner a short time before, was confined in the hotel. It was the townsmen’s intention to turn him over to the regular authorities for trial, but the death of Beckman so angered them that they rushed into the hotel, seized Thompson and were dragging him out to put him to death. Miss Fouke ran into the crowd and begged the excited men to spare his life. Horace Greeley said it was because she did not want the carpet soiled with blood, but she said she wanted him to have a legal trial, and her relative was very sick and nervous in the hotel. Thompson was hurried to the bridge and riddled with bullets. He fell into the water and clung to a pier, where he was again shot, and his body lay for a day or two, with its ghastly face turned upward. I saw his body Wednesday. Attorney Hunter, who afterward appeared against Brown at the trial, was one of the cruel crowd.
Effort to Stop the Firing.
A little after dark, on the 17th, Captain Brown asked if any of his prisoners would volunteer to go out and attempt to induce the citizens to cease firing. He promised if there were no firing on his men, there would be none from the fort. Russell undertook the dangerous mission, but, like Kitzmiller and Cross, he did not return. Were it not for fear of endangering the citizens (hostages) in the engine house, the people could have taken Brown and his men, as at this time they had overcome more than three-fourths of his party.
In the engine house one of the hostages, Colonel Washington, approached Captain Brown while he was nervously fingering his rifle and asked him “where he learned to play the fiddle.” Just then a bullet whistled over Brown’s head, passed through an axe-handle suspended on the engine and went through Washington’s beard. The captain coolly remarked “that was close.”
The men taken by Brown displayed little or no anger toward him. All their ill-feeling was lost in admiration of his bravery. While one son lay dead near by, Captain John Brown felt the pulse of Watson, who was dying, and fired through the portholes at the same time. Watson died at 3 A. M., Wednesday, with his head resting on Coppoc’s knee.
Leeman attempted to escape from the upper end of the works by swimming and wading the Shenandoah. He kept Murphy, a watchman, between himself and the citizens, who did not wish to kill Murphy. Leeman managed to get on a rock in the river, but was wounded and threw up his arms as if surrendering. A man waded out to him and deliberately blew his entire face off, and another man set his body up for a target. It drifted down to William Thompson’s body, near the bridge pier.
Summons to Surrender.
Rain had fallen all day (Monday), making it cold and disagreeable. The wildest excitement prevailed after dark. Guards were placed around the fort to prevent Brown’s escape. The government at Washington had been notified, and Colonel Lee had arrived with his marines. About 11 P. M. Brown tried to open negotiations for the safe conduct of his party to the Maryland side. He then had only eight men in all – four in the fort unharmed, two wounded- Watson Brown and D. Thompson- and two in the arsenal. Unharmed were Captain Brown, Edwin Coppoc, Green and Anderson. Colonel Shriver and Captain Simms conferred with Captain Brown, but to no purpose.
About 7 o’clock Tuesday morning Colonel Lee sent under flag of truce Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart of the First Cavalry (afterward the famous general in the Confederate Army), to summon Brown to surrender. Lee had little hope of his so doing. The captain stubbornly refused to surrender, saying he would rather die where he was. One thousand armed men were now opposing Brown’s little band.
At 8 o’clock an assault was made by the marines under Lieutenant Green. They first tried to break down the door with a sledgehammer, but failed; they then picked up a ladder, formed a row of men on each side and succeeded in making a breach. Through this Major Russell and Green squeezed, but found the door barricaded with the fire engine and hose. Captain Daingerfield, an armory clerk, unbarred the door. Green mounted the engine, his men rushed in. He leaped for Captain John Brown, striking him a fearful blow on his belt, which doubled up the sword, and he then hit him on the head several times after he was bent over with his head between his knees.
The two cried with loud voices, “We surrender!” But to no purpose. Captain Brown was knocked down, a bayonet pierced his kidney, and Green and Anderson were likewise bayoneted, the later soon dying. Luke Quinn and Rupert of the marines were shot, the former mortally, by Jeremiah Anderson. None of the citizen-prisoners was injured.
Anderson received several bayonet stabs in the breast and stomach after he had shot Quinn; he was pinned to the wall with a bayonet, dragged out of the forst [fort], tobacco spit into his eyes and mouth, and finally died from a hemorrhage. His body was jammed into a barrel and taken to Winchester. Newby was placed in a shallow grave with up extended arms. They thought it a good idea to put Oliver Brown between his arms. His body and Watson Brown’s were afterward taken by the Winchester students; then Watson’s skeleton was carried to Indiana for exhibition and finally recovered to be placed with Oliver by his father’s side in 1882.
After lying on the floor eighteen hours Captain Brown was taken to the superintendent’s office and his five wounds dressed. His hair was still soaked with blood when Governor Wise of Virginia questioned him. Some of the bodies were collected from the streets and rivers on Wednesday and some buried in shallow graves on the southern bank of the Shenandoah, about a mile above Harper’s Ferry, where hogs soon uncovered them. Several bodies were taken by medical students. Later in the month what were left of the bodies were taken to North Elba, N. Y., and placed beside the body of their leader.
John Brown in Prison.
The prisoners were conveyed to the Charleston jail. There Captain Brown’s hands and feet were chained to the floor day and night. Cook had gone with Washington’s wagon and several slaves, but it was soon learned the he was implicated as Own Brown and others had been detailed to operate on the Maryland side, where they seized a schoolhouse, captured L. F. Currie, the teacher, and established a depot for arms convenient to the ferry. Cook had also kept up firing on the 17th, but fell from a tree when a bullet cut off a limb on which he was resting. His firing had bothered my father that day when he went to work. Cook later fled to Pennsylvania with Own Brown, Barclay Coppoc, Merriam, Hazlett and Tidd. Hazlett and Cook were finally hanged, also Edwin Coppoc.
My uncle, Captain E.H. Chambers, former Mayor, organized a company to bring down Brown’s effects from the Kennedy farm. Captain Avis, having served in the Mexican War, was placed in command. The members of his company were Richard Washington, William Copeland, John Stahl Jr., Jacob Bajent, George Coleman Sr., Edward McCabe, Thomas Bird, Messrs. Sweeney and Watson and Captain Chambers. They had also served to capture the arsenal, and killed Newby. They took from the farm and schoolhouse 180 Sharp rifles, 75 revolvers, some swords, 12 artillery sabers, powder, caps, a swivel cannon carrying a pound ball, 950 pikes and many written papers throwing light on the Brown movement; also copies of the form of the provisional government to be established by Captain John Brown as soon as he had gained a foothold in Virginia.
Governor Wise of Virginia took precautions to secure his prisoners and the State against any attempt from the many supposed allies Brown had in the North. The Captain confessed to Wise his whole scheme for freeing the slaves. The Governor said Brown was “honest, truthful, brave and a bundle of nerves.” The interview lasted two hours. Jeb Stuart, Senator Mason, Colonel Faulkner and others took part, and Captain John Brown prophesied the utter destruction of Harper’s Ferry- a prophecy that was fulfilled two or three years later. Governor Wise and soldiers accompanied the prisoners to the Charlestown jail; I saw the train as it left the depot.
Captain Brown was chained to Coppoc when led into the court room. Eighty soldiers with fixed bayonets guarded them. A State law permitted a trial and punishment within ten days for insurrection, and Attorney Hunter was determined to hang the Captain within that time. Attorneys Green and Botts were assigned by the State to defend Brown, and the latter furnished a list of witnesses to be called. George Henry Hoyt and Samuel Sennott were engaged by Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts to take Brown’s case. When the latter’s witnesses were not called, Brown pointed to a paper on the floor near Attorneys Green and Botts, which proved to be the list of persons they had not summoned.
In view of this injustice there was nothing for them to do but to resign. Hoyt took the case and was successful in delaying it over the ten days, when Sennott arrived to assist him. Thus Captain Brown had ample time in jail to write his wonderful letters, that astonished the world and made millions of friends. Hoyt was forced to leave Charlestown to escape tar and feathers. Governor Andrew engaged Chilton of Washington, and paid him $1,000 and Green $300. Brown was brought into court Oct. 25, or nine days after the foray. Unable to sit up, he lay on a cot during the trial. He asked for delay until his wounds could heal. The request was denied.
A correspondent of The New York Herald, disguised, obtained work in the jail to be near the prisoners. He was actually engaged as a driver of the wagon carrying Captain John Brown to the scaffold. A Kansas friend affected drunkenness in a ruse to rescue Brown; he succeeded in getting arrested and jailed, but learned that the Captain would not consent to being removed because he thought the kind jailer, Avis, might be held responsible and killed. Two others refused to escape for the same reason.
Before the hanging, Captain John Brown bade an affectionate farewell to his fellow-captives with the exception of Cook, who had, he thought, deceived him. He gave to each of them a silver quarter, and told them to meet their fate courageously. He would not recognize Hazlett, arrested under the name of Harrison, as he did not wish to implicate him. Brown’s wife arrived shortly before the execution. She took his body to North Elba, near Lake Placid, N. Y., in the Adirondacks.
I have visited his grave. The gravestone was formerly over his grandfather’s grave in Canton, Conn. John Brown had transferred it to North Elba.
The gallows on which Brown was hanged was preserved for many years. I obtained a piece of it from Washington at Charleston. The gallows was afterward sold to a man in Connecticut for about $3,000.
The trial cost Virginia $250,000, and the value of slaves in that State decreased $10,000,000.
In the raid, eleven citizens and soldiers were wounded and six killed. On both sides, sixteen were killed and from eleven to fifteen wounded, including some of the seven who were hanged. On Brown’s side ten were shot, seven hanged and five escaped.