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flaggeVolume 28, No. 7 – July 2015

Volume 28, No. 7
Editor: Stephen L. Seftenberg

July 8, 2015 Meeting

Eliot Kleinberg, noted columnist for The Palm Beach Post, will recount Florida’s role in the Civil War wit special emphasis on what he calls its "ignominious end in Florida." From his past talks to the Round Table, we can expect an interesting and educational evening.

June 10, 2015 Meeting
John Brown – Hero or Monster?

Janell Bloodworth, standing on a crate so we could see her over the podium, first gave us many insights into the life and character of John Brown. She cited six differing views of John Brown: (1) he was a horse thief; (2) he was an insane, fanatical maniac; (3) he was an intense Calvinist; (4) he was the greatest abolitionist hero in history; (5) his good was very good and his bad was very bad; and, finally, (6) Gerrit Smith ((March 6, 1797 - December 28, 1874), who was a widely known philanthropist and social reformer who ran for President in 1848, who a financial supporter of John Brown, and who was implicated in the raid on Harper's Ferry, said, ". . . the man in all is world I think most truly a Christian, . . . [is] John Brown."

Early Years

John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, to Owen and Ruth Brown, in Torrington, Connecticut. Owen, a tanner, shoemaker and surveyor, and Ruth were strict Calvinists and severe disciplinarians with their children. There was lots of Bible reading and prayer. All his life, John remembered his father commanding him to "fear God and keep His commandments." John was also taught to be kind to Negroes and to oppose slavery as a sin against God. In 1805, Owen and family moved to Hudson, Ohio, near Akron. John’s mother died when he was 8 and Owen married Sally Root. In his early teens, John became a contentious skeptic about religion but soon reverted to Calvinism. He memorized the Bible, quoted it frequently and at age 16 moved to Litchfield, Connecticut to be a minister. Short of funds, and suffering from eye inflammation, he moved back to Hudson and worked in his father tannery. By the time he was 20, seeing himself as a superb businessman, he opened his own tannery. He was arrogant to his employees. A younger brother said, "He gave orders like a king against whom there is no rising up!" As a young adult, John was of average height (5 feet 9 inches), and had steel grey eyes with a "glare." He was austere, tense, stiff and so firmly fixed in his ways he would not bend for anybody. He had no hobbies and disdained card playing and dancing as "useless forms of entertainment." John did, however, became a congenital liar to avoid criticism, punishment and other problems. He later viewed this as "a bad and foolish habit" but would continue to lie all his life.

In 1820, John hired Mrs. Lusk as his housekeeper who brought her 19-year old daughter, Dianthe, to live with her. He married Dianthe, who bore him three sons, John, Jason and Owen. She had emotional problems. In 1825, John moved his family to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, bought a farm, opened a tannery that employed 15 men, raised horses and traded cattle and leather. In 1831, one son died and John fell sick.

Middle Years

John BrownIn 1832, Dianthe and a newborn son died. John business went downhill and he was continuously in debt. However, he soon married Mary Ann Day, his new housekeeper’s 16-year old sister. By 1835, John and his family were back in Hudson, Ohio. With the nation in a speculative inflationary land boom, he invested heavily. The Panic of 1837 crushed him. Creditors foreclosed right and left. In 1838 he moved to Franklin Mills, Ohio, where he took part in the Congregational Church’s revival, one aspect of which was to admit blacks to church by the back door. He conducted two unsuccessful cattle drives to Pennsylvania. Between 1835 and 1840, five more sons were born. In 1842 John filed for bankruptcy. In 1843, four children died of dysentery. In 1844, he and a business partner lost $40,000 in an investment in exporting wool o Europe. In 1846 he and his partner in the sheep and wool business moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, a hot-bed of abolitionism. In 1847, he met Frederick Douglas, who was pitching a plan to help slaves to run away from Southern plantations. In 1848 John moved his family to North Elba, New York, where they settled on land owned by Gerrit Smith. John’s new task was to help free black farmers in the area. In 1850, John founded the “League of Gileadites,” to foil the “drivers” attempting to recapture runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. No runaways were recaptured in Springfield thereafter.

Bottom line: Brown was a man of great talent and judgment in farming and sheep raising; however, he was not a good business administrator. Although he hated slavery and attended anti-slavery meetings, he was not a “joiner” and did not join abolitionist or anti-slavery groups, with one exception: the picture to the left shows him with the flag of Subterranean Pass Way, a militant counterpart to the Underground Railway. By 1854, John Brown was virtually penniless with a record of 15 failed businesses in four states and nine dead children. However, a new stage of his mercurial career was about to begin.

Bleeding Kansas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 energized anti-slavery feeling in the North. Five of John’s sons moved to Kansas in 1855 without John, who moved to Kansas in 1856. The “Sack” of Lawrence, Kansas on May 22, 1856 by a proslavery sheriff’s posse in which several “free staters” were killed drove John “crazy” and he called for volunteers to retaliate. Two days later, at 11 P. M., Saturday, May 24, John, his four sons, Owen, Oliver, Frederick and Salmon, and three fellow “free staters” knocked on the cabin door of James Doyle, a member of the proslavery Law & Order Party. When Doyle opened his door, John burst in, declaring that the Northern Army had come and demanding that Doyle and his sons surrender. Mrs. Doyle, her little girl and three Doyle sons then appeared. John ordered Doyle and his sons outside. Weeping, Mrs. Doyle begged John to spare her 14-year old son, which he did. About 100 yards down the road, Salmon and Owen Brown fell on the Doyles with broadswords and in a few minutes all were dead. Drury Doyle had both arms cut away. John, after watching this, walked over to James Doyle and shot him in the head. Next, the group went to Allen Wilkinson’s cabin. Mrs. Wilkinson was sick with the measles and pleaded with them to spare her husband, who asked to get some one to stay with his wife. Mrs. Wilkinson said Muralnone of her neighbors were home. John said, “It matters not,” and forced Allen outside where his throat was slit and his skull and side were slashed open. By the time the group got to James Harris’ cabin, it was Sunday. Despite it being the “Lord’s Day,” William Sherman, who was staying in that cabin, was taken down to Pottawatomie Creek and slashed to death, cutting off his left hand. Owen, devastated, told his brothers, Jason and John, Jr., “There shall be no more such work as that.” Jason asked his father, “Did you have a hand in the killing?” “I did not do it,” which, strictly speaking, was true: John had not personally killed anybody. James Doyle was already dead when John shot him. However, John went on to say, “I approved of it. We were justified under the circumstances.” Mrs. Doyle in 1859 said of John Brown, “He said, if a man stood between him and what he considered ‘right,’ he would take his life as coolly as he would eat his breakfast.” John took part in other raids (in one in Missouri he freed 11 slaves and took them North) but was already working on a new scheme.

Fomenting Slave Insurrection

John, using false names, traveled back to New England, where he embarked on a speaking tour, ostensibly raising $30,000 to be used in defending the free state of Kansas. John never mentioned his role in the Pottawatomie and other raids. He was able to rouse the moral support of Gov. Salmon Chase of Ohio, Amos Lawrence, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Cong. Joshua Giddings (Whig, Ohio) and Allan Pinkerton. A group called “The Secret Six” (Franklin Sanborn, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, George Luther Sterns, Rev. Theodore Parker (a Unitarian minister) and Gerrit Smith) also supported him financially. After the Dred Scott decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in March 1857, President Buchanan admitted Kansas as a slave state and John turned his thoughts to a new scheme – slave revolt. John believed that slaves all over the South were seething with hatred for their white masters and that a location could be found within the slave states from which raids on slave plantations could be carried out and slaves provided with arms with which to fight for their freedom. He decided to raise a force of 80 to 100 men to “make a dash against [the Federal armory at] Harpers Ferry.” He would carry off as many arms as possible into the mountains after destroying the rest of the arms, expecting news of the raid would incite slaves from Virginia and Maryland to run away and join him. His group could hold any Federal troops sent after him at bay. In the meantime, his “New England partisans” would call a Northern Convention to overthrow the proslavery Buchanan administration. Foreign intervention was not impossible.

John was so certain of success that he drew up a Provisional Constitution that would create a new state in the mountains. His constitution had several unique provisions. (1) All government officials would serve without pay; (2) The government would “respect” marriage and families; (3) The government would insist on personal cleanliness; and (4) Article 46 ingenuously stated that the Provisional Constitution should not be construed as an attempt to dissolve the United States or overthrow any state government (!).

John’s “army” fell well short of the planned 80 to 100, consisting of 21 men (16 white and 5 black). All but two were under the age of 30 and the oldest (not counting John, who was 59) was 48. The group was very diverse, including Stewart Taylor, a spiritualist, three Brown sons (Watson, Oliver and Owen), Charles Plummer, a “handsome young man who liked girls,” two North Elba neighbors, three free staters from Kansas (Jeremiah Anderson, Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens); two Quaker brothers, Barclay and Edwin Coppoc; a school teacher, John Henry Kagi, a Yale law student, John Cook; a 19-year old who smoked and drank a lot; William Lehman; one mentally retarded or emotionally unbalanced man, Francis Jackson Merriam; one free black man, Osborne P. Anderson; a black Oberlin College student, John Anthony Copeland; one black friend of Frederick Douglas, Shields Green; one mulatto with his wife and child, Lewis Leery; and a free mulatto, Dangerfield Newby, who joined up to free his slave wife and 9 children. Except for the three free staters, none of the group had any military training or experience. On June 11, 1859, John visited his family in North Elba for the last time. To his dismay, his sons Jason, Salmon and Henry declined to go with him.

During the summer of 1859, the group prepared for the foray. John Cook, the Yale law student, took a job on a canal near Harpers Ferry and, after work, studied the layout of the armory. He also ingratiated himself with the townsfolk, especially young Mary Kennedy. On July 3, 1859, John, two of his sons and Jeremiah Anderson arrived at the Kennedy House, seven miles away on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and soon were joined by the rest. When John disclosed his “grand plan” many were stunned – they had signed up to go into the South to free slaves, not attack a Federal arsenal and start a slave insurrection. Over their objections – for example they should not fear the Federal troops, “an inefficient lot”– John soon brought them around. August 19-21, John met with Frederick Douglas and disclosed his plan. Douglas scoffed, saying, “Virginia will blow you and your hostages sky high.” Nevertheless, Douglas’ friend, Shields Green, agrees to go with John. In late September, 950 pikes, 200 revolvers and 198 “Beecher’s Bibles (Sharps repeating rifles) paid for by Northern supporters, arrived. On September 30, John sent his daughter and daughter-in-law back to North Elba. John’s planning was skimpy – he made little effort to gain information about slaves in the area– actually there were few of them. He sent no agents out to recruit them. He assumed that once they heard about the raid they would simply leave their plantations and come. He had no escape plan, saying “God would guard and shield him.” He also left viral documents in a carpetbag in the Kennedy House. On October 16, John assembled his group and held a final worship service. No one questioned or objected to his plan. At 8 P. M., 18 men and John started marching toward the armory, accompanied by a wagon with the pikes and other tools. It was a chill, overcast night with a light drizzle. There was no moon. Three men were left behind to guard the Kennedy House.

Engine houseAt first the raid went well. The telegraph lines were cut and the night watchman on the Potomac Bridge was captured. John simply brought the wagon into the armory yard. A few people still out on the street were captured and taken into the engine house. John and a few men captured the rifle works and took another prisoner. John now possessed all military targets and millions of dollars worth of arms and munitions. Between midnight and 4 A. M., Col. Lewis Washington, George Washington’s great grandnephew, along with George Washington’s sword, 10 liberated slaves and three more hostages, were taken without a shot. The slaves were issued pikes (John did not think they knew how to handle the guns) and assigned to guard the hostages. At 1:25 A. M., the train from Wheeling was stopped and the crew taken hostage.

By dawn, townspeople were in the streets yelling, “Slave insurrection” and militia companies began to form. Things really started to go wrong when an eastbound B&O approached the town. The train's baggage master tried to warn the passengers. Brown's men yelled for him to halt and then opened fire. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, became the first casualty of John Brown's war against slavery. Ironically, Shepherd was a free black man. Two of the hostages' slaves also died in the raid. For some reason, after the shooting of Shepherd, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way. The conductor sent a telegram to his boss at 7:05 A.M., and by noon Washington knew about the attack. The Jefferson Guards caught and killed Dangerfield Newby and mutilated his body.

John was stunned by the prompt mobilization by the militias and knew he was trapped. He sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later he was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day. Other militia groups arrived, many of whom were drunk.

By 11 A. M., October 18, the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee of the United States Army. John sends a note out: he will release the hostages unharmed if he and his men are allowed to escape into Maryland. The militias wanted to storm the engine house but were rebuffed by Lee. A young Army lieutenant, J. E. B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledge hammers and a makeshift battering ram to break down the engine room door. Lt. Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives. Afterwards, Col. Washington stated that “Brown was the coolest and firmest man I ever saw,” and Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise said of John, “He’s the gamest man I ever saw.”

Altogether Brown's “war” lasted 36 hours, during which his group killed four people and wounded nine. Ten of John's men (including his sons Watson and Oliver) were killed. Five of his men (including his son Owen) escaped and seven (including John) were captured. Among the raiders killed were John Henry Kagi; Lewis Sheridan Leary and Dangerfield Newby; those hanged besides John included John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and Shields Green.

Imprisonment, Trial, and Execution

John BrownAlthough the attack had taken place on Federal property, Gov. Wise ordered that Brown and his men should be tried in Charles Town, seven miles west of Harpers Ferry (perhaps to avert Northern political pressure on the Federal government, or an unlikely pardon by pro-slavery President Buchanan). The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced the still-wounded Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with (1) murdering four whites and a black, (2) conspiring with slaves to rebel, and (3) treason against Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to Brown. Hiram Griswold, of Cleveland, Ohio, closed for the defense, arguing that (1) Brown had not personally killed anyone, (2) the failure of the raid indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves and (3) Brown could not be found guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty and of which he was not a resident.

On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross." Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the leadership of Major Thomas J. Jackson (who would earn the nickname "Stonewall" less than two years later) were called into service as a security detail in the event Brown's supporters attempted a rescue.

On the morning of December 2, Brown wrote, "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." He read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 A. M., he was escorted from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers to a small field a few blocks away where the gallows were. John, bitterly, said,” I had no idea Gov. Wise considered my execution so important.” Among the soldiers in the crowd was the actor, John Wilkes Booth, who had borrowed a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution. Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since he had consistently rejected the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most Northerners, including journalists, were run out of town. It is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. He elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 A. M. and pronounced dead at 11:50 A. M. His body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck and was put on a train to take it to his family homestead in New York for burial. In the North, large memorial meetings took place, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown. John Brown is buried on the John Brown Farm in North Elba, New York, on the outskirts of Lake Placid. Also buried near Brown are his sons Oliver and Watson Brown.

John Brown Could Have Been Stopped

In May 1858, Hugh Forbes, an experienced soldier who had been hired to train John’s “army” but had not been paid, sent a letter to William H. Seward warning that Brown was “a very bad man, a reckless man, an unreliable man, a vicious man who must be restrained.” Forbes also exposed Brown’s plot to Sen. Henry Wilson and others in Washington. His warnings were ignored. John Cook spilled the plan to a lady friend in Cleveland. In August 1858, John Kagi told a newspaper correspondent about Brown’s “Great Plan to liberate slaves.” No article was ever published. In June 1859, Brown wrote to friends in New York and Ohio about his plan to invade Virginia. At least 80 people knew something was afoot but did nothing. In August 1859, two Quakers from Springdale, Ohio, to protect Brown’s life from his own rashness, wrote an anonymous letter to Sec. of the Army John Floyd that “Old John Brown late of Kansas” was organizing a secret association to incite a slave uprising in the South by attacking an armory in Maryland. Floyd actually read the letter but did not connect “Old John Brown” with the John Brown for whose arrest President Buchanan once offered a $250 reward. Moreover, Floyd knew there was no armory in Maryland, so decided it was a crank letter and filed it away and forgot about it.

Abraham Lincoln had the last and truest word: “He agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong yet that could not excuse violence, bloodshed and treason.”

After answering questions, Janell received a round of applause for a well-researched and delivered talk.


Last changed:  06/26/15

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