John Brown’s Miscalculation

The Engine HouseNot knowing the extent of the danger on the trestle, Phelps and the engineer determined the best course of action was to sit tight.  They tried to keep the passenger calm. Dozens of people, some of the passengers and hotel guests congregated in the lobby.  Standing by a window Throckmartin saw one of the armed sentries walking across the town square towards the armory.  He aimed the borrowed revolver and fired five shots.  He missed his target, but the gunfire sent the jittery passengers and hotel guests into a near panic.  Everybody began asking the same question – ‘what is going on; who are these men?’

A messenger from the hotel roused a local physician, Dr. Louis Starry. The doctor arrived too late to save Shepard. As he stared down at the black man’s corpse one thought occupied his mind – ‘what was going on; who were these armed men?’ Phelps, Higgins, Throckmartin, hotel guests, the passengers from the train, everybody had a theory. Some thought the men were disgruntled armory workers, others said they were laid off laborers from the nearby government dam project or maybe robbers after the $15,000 which was supposedly held in the armory paymaster’s safe.

Starry decided to find out for himself. He left the hotel and for the next few hours furtively made his way around town. He encountered one of Brown’s sentries who outlined the purpose of the raid. Shortly after dawn a farm wagon rolled out of the armory and headed out of town over the B&O trestle. Starry correctly guessed that it was the first of many, which would transport armory weapons to Maryland. At 6:30 a.m. forge workers began to arrive at the armory gate to being their shift. Brown quickly rounded them up at gunpoint.

With the intent to demonstrate he meant no harm unless provoked Brown sent a message requesting breakfast for the hostages to the Wager Hotel. “You will furnish forty-five men with a good breakfast”, he said. He also requested a parlay with the train conductor Phelps. The conductor agreed to the meeting. Covered by his men, Brown boldly walked across the street to the hotel and in plain view to all told Phelps, “You no doubt wonder that a man my age should be here with a band of armed men, but if you knew my past history you would not wonder so much.” After informing Phelps about his intention to lead a slave insurrection with weapons taken from the armory he surprised by Phelps by telling him that he would allow the train to leave the village and continue on its journey to Baltimore. Three hours after it arrived, the train continued on its way across the B&O trestle into Maryland. At 7:05 a.m. Phelps sent a telegram from Monocacy, Maryland – “Express train bound east, under my charge was stopped this morning at Harpers Ferry by armed abolitionists. They say they have come to free the slaves and intend to do it all hazards.”

Brown knew that at the first opportunity Phelps would send a telegram to alert Federal troops, to what was happening in Harpers Ferry. But he had to assume that risk. Brown’s dilemma was this – he needed the news of his raid to spread so that freedom loving slaves from nearby plantations would flock to Harpers Ferry. But at the same time, he was aware that an alarm would bring militias from nearby towns. He was hoping that the slaves would arrive first. His exit plan depended on having a force that could overwhelm local resistance. He was less concerned about federal troops. He believed they would take several days to mobilize and his growing army would have disappeared into the surrounding wilderness by then.

At 7:00 a.m. Starry sent a messenger to the Lutheran Church on Camp Hill overlooking the armory. Within minutes an alarm bell reverberated through the town. At about the same time, Thomas Boerly, an Irish tavern owner, and grocer was opening his store. A neighbor ran into his store and told him that the armory had been captured and many townsfolk were being held hostage. Boerly grabbed his shotgun and started down Shenandoah Street towards the center of town. He spotted a sentry at the arsenal gate and fired. Dangerfield Newby returned fire with the much more accurate Sharps rifle. Bleeding profusely Boerly staggered into a nearby jewelers store. He received the last rites of the church and died.

News of Boerly’s death spread quickly but in a town housing over 100,000 weapons the only ones available to the citizens were there private squirrel guns and pistols. Recognizing the need for support Starry hopped on his horse and rode for Charles Town five miles away. From the beginning, Brown had hoped to avoid bloodshed. He knew that the neither the armory workers nor the Harper Ferry villagers were slave owners. Of the approximately 100 Africans who resided in Harpers Ferry fewer than 50 were slaves. Indeed his plan required that they escape from Harper’s Ferry as soon as possible. The last thing Brown wanted was a shoot-out with townspeople, but the news of Boerly’s murder had spread quickly. Within an hour a cache of arms that had been removed from the armory a few weeks earlier was in the hands of the townspeople.

Sporadic gunfire echoed throughout Harpers Ferry throughout morning as the villagers engaged Brown’s men in desultory skirmishes. John Henry Kagi, Brown’s principal lieutenant sent a message to Brown from his sentry post on the Shenandoah Bridge. He requested permission to withdraw.  Brown refused. He was convinced that hundreds of slaves eager to embrace his cause would soon come streaming into the village. It was a fatal error in judgment for Kagi and nine other raiders. Alerted by Starry, the Jefferson Guards from Charles Town and the Sherpardstown militia marched on Harpers Ferry. The Jefferson Guards approached the town from the west and immediately attacked Kagi, Lewis Leary and Oliver Brown at the rifle factory. The three attempted to escape by jumping into the Shenandoah River. They were killed in a hail of bullets. In the center of town, a contingent of Jefferson Guards outflanked Watson Brown, Stewart Taylor and Dangerfield Newby at the B&O bridge. The raiders fled for the safety of the engine house.

One of the locals loaded a six-inch spike into his musket and fired at Newby. It pierced the ex-slaves throat nearly decapitating him. An angry mob beat his body with sticks, cut off his ears and left his body lying in the gutter for the hogs. Newby had joined Brown’s raiders to free his wife and children.  In his pocket, he carried a letter from his wife. “Oh dear Dangerfield, com this fall without fail monny or no monny” she pleaded. “I want to see you so much that is the one bright hope I have before me.” A few months later she was sold to a new master in Louisiana. In a St. Louis bank account Newby was saving money to buy his wife and children. The $741.00 he had saved to free his wife and children was distributed among his relatives in Ohio.

By noon Brown’s situation had rapidly deteriorated. He was cut-off from his men at the rifle works and the arsenal. Both bridges were in the hands of the militia and the hillside above the armory offered snipers a clear shot at anyone who attempted to leave the engine house. Now was the time, Brown decided, to use his hostages to gain some leverage. He sent William Thompson along with a hostage out of the engine house. Thompson carried a white flag of truce. Ignoring the flag several men grabbed Thompson and dragged him off to the Wager Hotel. Brown tried again. This time he sent out his son Watson Brown and another raider Aaron Stevens with the armory superintendent Kitzmiller. Shots rang out. Stevens dropped to the street, where he lay dying. Mortally wounded Watson dragged himself back to the engine house. William Leeman who was guarding the arsenal decided to make his escape. He waded into the Potomac River where he was greeted by a hail of bullets. A townsman G.A. Shoppert pursued and cornered him on a large rock in the middle of the river. Shoppert pulled his pistol and shot Leeman in the head at point-blank range. Townspeople riddled his body with bullets Leeman’s body for the rest of the day.

Brown had two objectives – the first was to secure the weapons he needed to arm his insurrection. His second objective was to rally the support of abolitionists and slaves. In order to achieve his second objective, Brown needed Phelps to spread the alarm, which he did with his telegrams from Monocacy. By that afternoon newspapers throughout the region were hawking exaggerated accounts of bedlam at Harpers Ferry. The Associated Press disseminated dispatches to newspapers announcing that a stampede of Negroes in Harpers Ferry had taken over the village. In fact, the opposite was true. Rather than inspiring a flood of rebellious slaves the alarm mobilized not only local militias but Federal troops as well.  Brown’s seriously miscalculated the speed of an armed response to his raid. It would be his undoing.

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