Wednesday, December 02, 2009

December 2, 1859: John Brown Is Executed

On Friday, December 2, 1859, the "fiendish career" (as Mahala Doyle put it) of John Brown came to an end.  Brown began the day by reading his Bible, writing a few quick notes and letters, and adding a codicil to his will, which he had drafted the day before.  He handed one of the notes to a guard...
Charlestown, Va, 2nd, December, 1859

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

While in the jail and at the gallows, Brown refused the ministrations of all Virginia clergymen because of their pro-slavery convictions.  He told one that he "would not insult God by bowing down in prayer with anyone who had the blood of the slave on his skirts" and told another, "I will thank you to leave me alone; your prayers would be an abomination to my God."

At 11 a.m., Brown was led from his cell.  He said a quick goodbye to some of his fellow raiders who were in the other cells, urging them to "stand up like men" and accusing a couple of making false statements.  He was escorted through a crowd of 2000, mostly V.M.I. cadets, among them Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and John Wilkes Booth, who had borrowed a militia uniform to gain admittance.  Brown embraced the role of the martyr -- he had written to his wife, "I have been whipped as the saying is, but am sure I can recover all the lost capital occasioned by that disaster; by only hanging a few moments by the neck; and I feel quite determined to make the utmost possible out of a defeat."  At the gallows, there was a delay of about ten minutes while the soldiers struggled to find their assigned spots.  Brown was hung at 11:15 and pronounced dead at 11:50.  He was placed in a black walnut coffin with the noose still around his neck.

John Brown hanging scaffold grounds...515 S. S...
A plaque marks the site of his hanging at 515 S. Samuel St. in Charles Town, West Virginia.

In the North, church bells toiled, guns fired salutes, ministers preached sermons of commemoration and thousands prayed.  Southern whites were enraged by the Yankees who were canonizing the murderer who had tried to stir up a slave revolt.

Brown didn't want to be buried in Virginia because he didn't want to be buried in a coffin made by slaves, so after his execution his wife shipped his body north.  In New York City, a Brooklyn undertaker prepared the body for burial.  Then his body was shipped further north, to the Adirondack Mountains, to the family farm in North Elba.  He was buried in the front yard of his home on December 8.  The remains of his followers who fought and died at Harpers Ferry, including two of his sons, were moved to this small graveyard in 1899.  The farm is now the John Brown Farm (NY) State Historic Site.

On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine the extent of the conspiracy.  After hearing testimony from 32 witness, the committee found no evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was the result of Republican doctrines.

From Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson...
John Brown's ghost stalked the South as the election year of 1860 opened.  Several historians have compared the region's mood to the "Great Fear" that seized the French countryside in the summer of 1789 when peasants believed that the "King's brigands are coming" to slaughter them.  Keyed up to the highest pitch of tension, many slaveholders and yeomen alike were ready for war to defend hearth and home against those Black Republican brigands.  Thousands joined military companies; state legislatures appropriated funds for the purchase of arms.  Every barn or cotton gin that burned down sparked new rumors of slave insurrections and abolitionist invaders.  Every Yankee in the South became persona non grata.  Some of them received a coat of tar and feathers and a ride out of town on a rail.  A few were lynched.  The citizens of Boggy Swamp, North Carolina, ran two northern tutors out of the district.  "Nothing definite is known of their abolitionist or insurrectionary sentiments," commented a local newspaper, "but being from the North, and, therefore, necessarily imbued with doctrines hostile to our institutions, their presence in this section has been obnoxious."  The northern-born president of an Alabama college had to flee for his life.  In Kentucky a mob drove thirty-nine people associated with an antislavery church and school at Berea out of the state.  Thirty-two representatives in the South of New York and Boston firms arrived in Washington reporting "indignation so great against Northerners that they were compelled to return and abandon their business."  In this climate of fear and hostility, Democrats prepared for their national convention at Charleston in April 1860.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Thoreau Mental Floss

In my latest post about John Brown I linked to and quoted from Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown."  A little later I was scanning through the mental_floss blog when I ran across "3 Bizarre Cases of Death by Shaving."  Death by shaving?  Wow!  The first guy contracted anthrax from the badger brush the barber used.  The second guy was nicked by a barber and ended up dying of severe edema.  The third guy was John Thoreau...
John Thoreau was the brother of famous American writer and Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau. In the winter of 1841, while taking part in his daily shave, John Thoreau cut himself with his razor. A few days later he came down with lockjaw and died in Henry David’s arms. His brother’s death devastated Thoreau. He didn’t talk to his family or write in his journal for weeks.

Thoreau’s good friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggested that he go spend some time out in the woods alone near a pond called Walden. Thoreau took this sage advice, and one of America’s greatest essays was born. All thanks to shaving.

As Paul Harvey might say, "...and now you know...the rest of the story."

Monday, November 02, 2009

November 2, 1859: John Brown Is Found Guilty

On Wednesday, November 2, 1859, John Brown was found guilty of treason, multiple first-degree murders, and inciting an insurrection among Virginia slaves. The charges stemmed from the raid on Harpers Ferry in October. The trial took eight days, and although the raid took place on Federal property, Brown was tried by the State of Virginia at Charles Town.

If John Brown had died at Harpers Ferry, the whole episode might have been just a curious footnote in the pages of history.  The real effect of the raid came as Brown wrote letters and gave interviews while awaiting trial.  Though not known for eloquence before, he rose to the occasion, and galvanized public opinion North and South, probably hastening the beginning of the Civil War. At one end of the spectrum of opinion was Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown"
It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. At any rate, I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired, and I have not done so. A man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman's billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharp's rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharp's rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.

The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it. No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his fellow-man so well, and treated him so tenderly. He lived for him. He took up his life and he laid it down for him. What sort of violence is that which is encouraged, not by soldiers, but by peaceable citizens, not so much by laymen as by ministers of the Gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by Quaker women?

...Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung? Is it indispensable to any Northern man? Is there no resource but to cast this man also to the Minotaur? If you do not wish it, say so distinctly. While these things are being done, beauty stands veiled and music is a screeching lie. Think of him- of his rare qualities!- such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand; no mock hero, nor the representative of any party. A man such as the sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land. To whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant; sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity; and the only use to which you can put him is to hang him at the end of a rope! You who pretend to care for Christ crucified, consider what you are about to do to him who offered himself to be the saviour of four millions of men.
At the other end was such as the Richmond Whig editors who wrote...
Though it convert the whole Northern people, without an exception, into furious, armed abolition invaders, yet old Brown will be hung! That is the stern and irreversible decree, not only of the authorities of Virginia, but of the PEOPLE of Virginia, without a dissenting voice. And, therefore, Virginia, and the people of Virginia, will treat with the contempt they deserve, all the craven appeals of Northern men in behalf of old Brown's pardon. The miserable old traitor and murderer belongs to the gallows, and the gallows will have its own
...and Mahala Doyle, whose husband and two sons were killed by Brown's men at Pottawatomie, Kansas...
Altho' vengeance is not mine, I confess that I do feel gratified to hear that you were stopped in your fiendish career at Harper's Ferry, with the loss of your two sons, you can now appreciate my distress in Kansas, when you then and there entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys, and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing. You can't say you done it to free slaves. We had none and never expected to own one...My son John Doyle whose life I beged of you is now grown up and is very desirous to be at Charlestown on the day of your execution.
In Battle Cry of Freedom, historian James McPherson writes about how the reaction in the South was colored by "a paradox that lay near the heart of slavery."  Southern whites insisted that slavery was a benevolent institution -- that slaves were well treated and cheerful in their bondage -- but they always lived in fear of a slave insurrection.  For weeks after the raid wild rumors of uprisings swept across the South.  By the time Brown was executed, Southerners were able to breathe sighs of relief.  "The South's professed belief in the slaves' tranquility was right after all!  It was only Yankee fanatics who wanted to stir up trouble."

The jury was out only 45 minutes.  After his conviction, Brown made a statement to the court...
"I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection. I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done! Let me say one word further. I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances. it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind. Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated. Now I have done."
Brown was sentenced to hang one month later on December 2, 1859.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October 16-18, 1859: John Brown's Raid

This post marks a new direction to this blog.  With the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War fast approaching, I'm embarking on a series of  posts that look back 150 years to what was happening then, a day-to-day accounting of the Civil War.  Posting will be light until...well, until 2011, when it actually is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, but there were a few different episodes of interest between 1859 and 1861 that I'll touch upon, starting with John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry...

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of followers seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Brown's plan was not to seize the arms and escape, but to hole up and arm the army of slaves that he expected would soon join him.

The abolitionist movement had been nonviolent, but John Brown was not.  He had been in the midst of the fight in Bleeding Kansas, killing five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Massacre and fighting in the battles of Palmyra and Osawatomie.  Although Brown and his band of 38 men were routed in the latter battle, Brown achieve national recognition for his tactics and his bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.  He became a hero to the abolitionist movement, and when the fighting in the state subsided, he traveled to New England to raise money from influential supporters.  A group of fellow radicals, the Secret Six -- Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, George Luther Stearns, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Gerrit Smith -- gave him much financial support, often with no questions asked.

Brown arrived at Harpers Ferry in July of 1859.  Using the alias Isaac Smith, he rented a nearby farmhouse and awaited recruits.  Only a few showed up.  They hid out in the attic until they finally decided that no one else was coming.

After sundown on October 16, Brown moved on Harpers Ferry.  The original plan called for a brigade of 4500 men, but Brown had just 21, including three free blacks, one freed slave and a fugitive slave.  Brown left three men behind as a rear guard.  He had 200 Beecher's Bibles and almost a thousand pikes, and when he captured the armory he would have over 100,000 muskets and rifles for his slave uprising.

At first, the raid went well.  They cut the telegraph wires and captured the armory which was guarded by just a single watchman.  A party rode to the nearby Beall-Air estate and the Allstadt House, where they took several hostages, including Colonel Lewis Washington, a great grandnephew of George Washington.  The first casualty of the raid was an African-American baggage handler, Hayward Sullivan, who was shot and killed as he ran to warn the passengers of an approaching Baltimore & Ohio train.  The train continued on toward Washington, raising the alarm as it went.

In August 1859, John Brown met with Frederick Douglass.  "Come with me, Douglass, I want you for a special purpose.  When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them."  But Douglass was convinced that Brown's was a suicide mission, that an attack against the federal government "would array the whole country against us." Plus, there was the matter of Harpers Ferry.  The arsenal was situated on a peninsula formed where the Shenandoah River met the Potomac, and surrounded by high ground.  It was perfectly indefensible and would change hands many times during the Civil War.  Brown was caught in a trap.

Early on the morning of October 17, armory workers discovered Brown's raiders and retreated to the hills to join with a growing crowd of townspeople, who were sniping at Brown's men.  Militia companies from Virginia and Maryland converged on the town.  One company charged across the bridge, cutting off Brown's only escape route.  Brown retreated with the surviving raiders and hostages to the fire-engine house.  He sent out his son Watson and another raider with a white flag, but they were shot down.  Four Harpers Ferry residents, including the mayor, were killed that afternoon.  In all, eight of Brown's raiders, including three of his sons, were killed.  The angry mob used some of the dead bodies for target practice.  Seven raiders escaped, but two were later captured.

President James Buchanan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines to Harpers Ferry.  They were commanded by two cavalry officers, Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart.  They arrived during the evening hours.  One of Lee's first acts was to close the local saloons in an attempt to control the unruly mob.

Soon after daybreak on October 18, Colonel Robert E. Lee sent Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart forward to the Harpers Ferry engine-house (forever after known as "John Brown's Fort") under a flag of truce.  Lee's written demand to John Brown and the remaining raiders was immediate surrender.  John Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here."

Stuart gave a signal and a storming party of twelve marines, three with sledge hammers, began to try to break in the doors of the engine-house, but Brown had barricaded the doors with the fire engine and fastened them with ropes.  Lee sent in reserves.  A heavy ladder was used as a battering ram.  Finally, a small section of the door was knocked in.  The first marine through the opening was shot dead, but the rest of the storming party quickly subdued the remaining raiders.  Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times in the head.  He then attempted to run him through with his sword, but it struck Brown's belt buckle and bent.  Within just a couple of minutes, the whole affair was over.  The raiders were captured and the hostages were freed.  The raid was over about 32 hours after it began.

Virginia Governor Henry Wise arrived at Harpers Ferry in the afternoon, accompanied by a group of reporters.  Brown was an instant celebrity and laid on the stone floor for hours answering all their questions.
I wish to say that you had better -- all you people of the South -- prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily -- I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled -- this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.
In the meantime, troops searched the Kennedy farm where the raiders had been hiding out since July.  They found a large carpetbag crammed full of letters from Brown's supporters, including the Secret Six.  It seemed as if the whole of the North were in on the attack.

Wild rumors circulated throughout the South of armed blacks and bands of abolitionists.  Lynch mobs howled for Brown's blood.  Although he had attacked a federal installation, he was was turned over to the State of Virginia.  At Charleston, on October 20, he was indicted on charges of treason, murder, and fomenting insurrection.