John Brown on the way to his execution (Library of Congress)
Almost any geographic site can prove to be a crossroads, historically speaking, where major protagonists meet in ways that are long remembered. It's more unusual to find a spot in which paths cross before the significant events have taken place. But the sleepy countryside around Harper's Ferry proved to be that place in the autumn of 1859.
John Brown's raid on the federal armory brought them there. The raid was the beginning of a clumsy attempt to free slaves in a region of western Virginia where few slaves lived, and it raised tensions to a fever pitch in the months before civil war divided the United States. The Currier & Ives lithograph above, created during the war, romanticized a somber scene. It was based on an erroneous newspaper report that, on the way to the gallows after being convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, Brown encountered an enslaved African American mother and her child, and that Brown tenderly kissed the youngster. That never happened. Nor was it likely that behind Brown inside the jail, Virginia's state flag waved with its motto prominently emblazoned: Sic semper tyrannis--thus always to tyrants.
But six weeks earlier, as local militia surrounded Brown and his men where they were holed up in the arsenal firehouse, an army colonel was called to command the marines sent to capture Brown. The colonel normally served in the army in Texas, but he had returned home to Virginia on a brief leave and was placed on the special mission by President James Buchanan. This was Robert E. Lee, the officer who would soon take command of the Northern Army of Virginia during the Civil War. With him was a friend, cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, known as Jeb to his friends. Stuart too would soon become famous, his cavalry serving as Lee's eyes and ears during much of the war. When Brown refused to surrender that morning in 1859, Stuart gave the order for the marines to attack.
Lee was in town six weeks later when Brown was led from the jail to a horse-drawn wagon, which would convey him to the place of execution. The wagon contained Brown's mahogany coffin in a crate, upon which Brown sat as he rode to the gallows. Several companies of Virginia militia escorted the procession.
In a cornfield outside of town 82 cadets from Virginia Military Institute stood before the scaffold, dressed in tall, plumed hats, gray trousers and red shirts, with white cross-straps across their chests. Next to them stood VMI's howitzer detachment, commanded by an instructor from the academy who taught the subjects of natural and experimental philosophy. Also, of course, artillery. Although Thomas Jackson was unpopular enough to have received the nickname "Tom Fool" from his pupils, once the war broke out, his refusal to retreat at the first Battle of Bull Run earned him a new moniker, "Stonewall." Jackson too would become a Lee stalwart.
Lee watched the execution from a distance, up on Bolivar Heights about a mile away. Afterward, he accompanied the coffin to the rail station, where he turned the body over to Brown's widow. At her request, the undertaker pried the coffin open with a crowbar and she removed a gold ring from her husband's fourth finger before Lee rode off.
To add to this interesting mix, consider a photo long believed to show a group of Confederate soldiers during the war. I first encountered it when it was used in an edition of my middle grades American history text, but it has been widely published and is still available at the Library of Congress.
Recent research, however, by Angela Smythe, has convincingly argued that the photo does not show Confederate soldiers, but was taken in 1859 at Brown's execution, of a group of "Richmond Grays," one of the Virginia militias. And Smythe identifies the man at left toward the rear (just behind the soldier at center) as the actor John Wilkes Booth, who had joined the Richmond Grays.
For Booth too was at the execution, drawn to it by John Brown's outsized character. He had come to Harper's Ferry the day before and asked the sheriff if he could visit the prisoner personally, a request the sheriff granted. (Brown had been allowed—or perhaps we should say, saddled with—more than a few visitors, eager to see him or shake his hand.) "Poor old Brown," Booth recalled later. "He was a brave old man." At the execution Booth stood only about thirty feet from the gallows, and watched as the abolitionist mounted the scaffold and then scanned the crowd and the hills beyond, perhaps pondering whether any surprise party might attempt to free him. Though Booth was firmly proslavery, he felt "a throb of anguish as he beheld the old eyes straining their anxious sight for the multitude he vainly had thought would rise to rescue him," recalled the soldier next to him. Then the feet of the condemned man were tied together and a linen hood placed over his head. "Be quick," Brown urged, though some minutes passed before the sheriff took a hatchet and severed the rope holding the trap door. Watching the kicking legs and shuddering arms, Booth "got very pale in the face," recalled his companion; said "he felt very faint" and "would give anything for a good drink of whiskey."
Robert E. Lee...J.E.B. Stuart...Stonewall Jackson...and John Wilkes Booth, the man who would shoot Lincoln. All gathered at this strange crossroads. They were joined by one additional spectral presence. In 1860 poet Walt Whitman wrote "Year of Meteors (1859-60)," in which he described Brown's execution:
Was Walt Whitman really there? His biographer, David Reynolds, says no. "Whitman, as usual, was taking poetic liberty: he was not 'at hand' at the hanging of Brown." But he looked upon this crossroads as he did the unsettling meteor shower that appeared a year later over Manhattan, "dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads." Of these blazing stars, he said, "I sing—with gleams of them would I gleam and patch these chants / Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings!"
With violence, John Brown set the spark for war. With violence, John Booth ended it, crying out Sic semper tyrannis as he fled. Lee, Stuart and Jackson carried forward the rebellion in the years between. And all crossed paths in the year before—the year of forebodings—at Harper's Ferry.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors