Friday, March 4, 2016

Odd Bedfellows


                                    ODD BEDFELLOWS


John Andre' Self Portrait The Night Before His Execution

            Henry Knox felt a surge of relief as the silhouette of Fort George emerged from a backdrop of tall Adirondack pine. More shadow than substance in the flat winter light, the former British outpost offered a welcome respite from the bitter chill. After a grueling 300 mile trek by horseback from Cambridge, Massachusetts the former book store owner turned artillery officer welcomed the possibility of a solid meal and a warm bed. The first half of his journey was almost complete. In the morning he would sail the final 25 miles up Lake George to Fort Ticonderoga on the southern tip of Lake Champlain. His mission was daunting - secure 59 tons of cannons, howitzers and mortars from the captured British stronghold, and transport the train of artillery across the Hudson River and through the Berkshire Mountains to Cambridge.   
            His commander-in- chief General George Washington desperately needed the artillery to end the long and tedious siege of Boston. Six months after the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill a large British force commanded by General Gage still controlled the Boston peninsula.  Although Washington's force of 10,000 strong occupied the high ground around the city, a lack of artillery nullified their strategic advantage.  Washington feared the imminent arrival of powerful British warships packed with thousands of reinforcements. The unsteady alliance of  thirteen colonies faced an ominous reality. Defeat in the heartland of the nascent American rebellion would tighten the vise grip of British tyranny and deliver a severe blow to patriot dreams of liberty.
            The fate of the city of Boston and perhaps the rebellion as well, rested on the ability of Henry Knox to deliver the artillery to with all possible speed. The black choppy surface of Lake George had not yet been gripped by winter ice. In a week Knox would pray for every stream, lake and river from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston to freeze rock solid. A successful mission depended on snowy trails and frozen waterways to allow him to transport the big guns on ox-drawn sleds. But this was a problem for another day. On the evening of December 4th, 1775 Knox's primary concern was a hot meal and a warm bed.
            As Knox approached the small cabin where he would spend the night, he was greeted by an armed sentry. The guard informed Knox that he would be sharing his sleeping quarters with a British captive, Lieutenant John Andre. The prisoner, a member of the 7th British regiment, had been captured at the American siege of Fort St. Jean by the American invasion force led by General Richard Montgomery.  During the early years of the rebellion relationships between individuals who supported the monarchy and those who supported colonies were fluid and shifting like eddies in a tidal pool.  
     The suave British officer and the gregarious patriot immediately found that they shared a number of interests.  Physically the two men were opposite mirror images.  Slim and handsome Andre' exuded the charm of a man equally comfortable on the dance floor and the battleground.  Formally educated, he was proficient in several languages.  He played the flute, enjoyed the theater, and was a fine artist.  The self-educated Knox was a large man weighing over 250 pounds. On his left hand a silk handkerchief covered the scar from two fingers he lost in a hunting accident. Knox's rotund features belied his toughness and energy. He had fought gallantly at Bunker Hill, and he was on the cusp of a career that would make him one of George Washington's most trusted aides.
            Having not yet been formally commissioned as a colonel by the Continental Congress, Knox wore civilian clothes.  Consequently Andre', who was being transported to Pennsylvania as part of a prisoner swap, did not suspect that the "civilian" he was sharing the cozy cabin with was in fact on a critical military mission.  In an ironic twist of fate five years after their evening together, Major Andre' would don civilian clothes to disguise a military mission. But unlike Knox, Andre's subterfuge would come to a disastrous conclusion.  As the evening wore on, and despite their political differences, the two men found they shared many interests. Late into the night they engaged in affable conversation about literature, music, and art. In the morning they parted, if not as friends, with mutual admiration.
            Over the next five years Andre' rose rapidly in rank to major and adjutant general to British commander in-chief, General Henry Clinton. During the British occupation of Philadelphia the handsome young officer was a constant fixture in the city's social life.  One of his admirer's was Peggy Shippen, the beautiful nineteen year old daughter of one of the city's wealthiest Loyalists.  When the American's regained control of Philadelphia Andre' took residence in British held New York City and Peggy Shippen found a new suitor, the renowned and controversial American officer, Benedict Arnold.  After a whirlwind courtship Shippen and Arnold married.  Soon afterwards Arnold made his fateful decision to switch sides and join the British forces.  But he needed a contact, someone who could be trusted and who was close to the British commander Clinton.  Andre' was that person.  After negotiating financial terms with the British, Arnold schemed with Andre' to turn the plans for the defensive fortifications of West Point over to the British.  On 23 September near Tarrytown, New York local militia captured Andre' and discovered in his boot the West Point documents.  A letter of passage was signed by Benedict Arnold.
      Andre' was dressed as a civilian when he was arrested  A military tribunal sentenced him to death by hanging as a spy.  Sitting on that tribunal was Henry Knox.  On October 2, 1780 Andre' climbed on to a wagon, placed a noose around his neck, and said "I pray you bear witness that I met my fate like a brave man." No one among the witnesses, including Henry Knox, applauded the death of the charming and courageous British major.  Knox continued to serve Washington and the Revolution gallantly as chief artillery officer.  He died in 1806 from an infection three days after swallowing a chicken bone.  




Monday, October 19, 2015

New Beginning

Back Up and In Business


I'm happy to report that "Scoundrels Who Made America Great" will be available at all major online markets by the end of February 2016. Excerpts from these narratives about infamous Americans who made significant contributions to our liberties and freedom are posted on this blog. Take a gander. I think you will find the stories both interesting and informative.  

I will be posting new blogs regularly from this point on.

 Best wishes,

Martin (Mickey) Henley

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

John Brown's Miscalculation

The Engine House


Not 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 to 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 AM 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 the it arrived the train continued on its way across the B & O trestle into Maryland.  At 7:05 AM 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 sent 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 AM 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 towns people, 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 were 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 by . 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.  Towns people 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.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mrs. Gamble's Grave


I am seventy years old.  The preceding sentence is simple and declarative, yet for me it is as unfathomable as time itself.  How did I get to seventy years, and why am I still here while some of my closest childhood friends are gone?  These were my thoughts as I stood over Mrs. Gamble's grave.  Her tombstone is a simple gray granite marker.  Wreathed with grass and leaves, it lies flush with the ground.  It measures three feet by eighteen inches.  The inscription is brief.  In letters worn smooth from a 145 years of weather, it reads "Mrs. Gamble, Died Dec 17th, 1798." Her tombstone is the only visible reminder that she rests in a colonial cemetery.  Over the years the earth has absorbed the tombstones of the others who share Mrs. Gamble's final resting place. Located in the middle of a north-side neighborhood in Syracuse, New York, the cemetery covers a square city block.  It has no name

         In 1955 the cemetery's green fields were interspersed with stately elm and shady chestnut trees. In the days before adults commandeered kids' sports, the cemetery was alive with activity. Four dirt paths divided it into quadrants.  Each path started at a corner of the block, and they intersected at a group of bushes at the center. The paths served as an informal boundary between kids who lived on the north side of the block and those who lived on the south. We called our makeshift playground "the park."  During the spring and summer we climbed trees and played baseball. In the fall we played football, and during winter the small hills on the west side of the park bristled with sleds.

         Summer was the best. Baseball games followed the sun. We started early, suspended play for lunch, and resumed until supper.  (No one ate "dinner," except on Sundays.) We chose sides by picking the two best players as captains. They threw fingers, odds and evens, to determine the first pick and which team would get the final at-bat. Being chosen last to play was a temporary humiliation that quickly dissipated as we embraced the flow of the game. The batting order was determined by the quickest to speak up. "I got first ups," "I got second ups," the chorus continued until the sequence of "ups" concluded with the last batter.  Soon the delightful crack of wooden bats smacking baseballs resonated through the neighborhood. We kids sailed together through the boundless summer joking, teasing, swearing, and playing. They were precious times, and we knew it.

    We devised several ball fields, each with its own set of ground rules and tricky golf-course contours. On one field a ball hit over a path was a home run.  On another fielders tracked a fly ball as it bounced through tree branches. An improbable catch earned a week of bragging rights. Trees, rocks, and stumps served as bases. In my favorite field a chestnut tree was first base, a forlorn baseball mitt usually served as second, and Mrs. Gamble was third.  I liked this field best because it was too small for baseball, so we played softball, and girls played along with us.

        I was twelve when I fell in love with Donna Jean. She had wavy brown hair and azure eyes.  When she ran the bases on Mrs. Gamble's field her long tanned legs flashed in the sunlight. She smelled like lavender. Some called what I felt "puppy love," but there was nothing puppy about the pain I felt when she "went steady" with the kid from the other side of the park.  Doug was handsome and a terrific athlete. He had crew-cut blonde hair, brown eyes, and a sturdy build. A small scar above his right eye gave him a rakish look. He lived a few blocks from the north side of the park with his mother.  They shared  a small apartment above a dry cleaning shop. His was a rough neighborhood that I avoided.

        In the past Doug and I occasionally played ball together, usually on opposite sides, but this summer we became inseparable.  I didn't understand his sudden interest in me, but his status among the other boys and his fun loving personality drew me to him like a moth to a neon sign. We decorated our bikes, with mud-flaps and reflectors and we rode around the neighborhood, preening like bantams roosters. We drank Pepsis and licked popsicles at the corner grocery store while listening to Buddy Holly, Pat Boone and Elvis on his transistor radio. We ate bologna sandwiches with mustard on white bread in my back yard. The coolest kid in the neighborhood was my best friend, which I figured made me the second coolest kid.

        After ball games Doug would head to Donna Jean's house across the street from the park.  Addicted to their companionship I would invariably tag along. As they sat on her front steps whispering and holding hands, I stood on the sidewalk not wanting to stay, but unable to leave. I hid my misery behind wisecracks and my keen ability to identify the newest model cars.  Other times when the three of us played on Mrs. Gamble's field, childish glee replaced pre-adolescent self-pity. There was no isolation, no sense of loss. Each of us joined the others in the pure pleasure of running, catching, and throwing a ball.  If Mrs. Gamble looked down on us, she surely smiled.

         Doug and I attended different schools. When the new school year started Doug disappeared. Donna Jean told me she heard he had a new girlfriend. He didn't tell her he was breaking up; he just stopped coming around. It seemed he decided to break up with us both. I didn't know what to make of it.  On a Saturday afternoon in late September Doug showed up with some kids I didn't recognize. Jimmy and I were playing catch with a football on Mrs. Gamble's field.  For no reason I could discern Doug picked a fight with me. He was a tough kid, and I wanted no part of fighting him.

    The commotion attracted a crowd and someone called the police. An adult in the crowd fingered Doug as the instigator. The police officer put him in the back seat of his cruiser. I peered through the cruiser rear window and saw him crying. From the kitchen window of our house across the street my mother spotted me in the center of the throng. I kept repeating to the officer, "He didn't do anything." I begged him to let Doug go. Suddenly I heard my mother's voice. She was at my side. "What do you think you are doing?" she said to the officer. Her statement was more accusation than question, and she didn't wait for a reply.  "Let that boy go," she demanded. In those days no one, not even a police officer, argued with a mother. She meant business. The officer opened the rear door of the cruiser. Doug jumped out and ran across the park. I never was so proud of my mother as I was at that moment.

    I didn't see Doug again for five years. I was a senior, sitting at a table at our high school hangout, Aunt Josie's restaurant. Marines were not a common sight in our neighborhood in 1961 so the kids at my table took notice when two Marines came in the door.  It was  Doug and his cousin Benny. They looked sharp.  I nodded to them as they passed our table. "Who are they?" someone asked. "Just some guys I used to know," I replied. I watched them slide into a booth on the far side of the dining room.  I felt a sadness that I didn't understand. I shook it off and went about the high school business of eating pizza and drinking beer. That was the last time I saw Doug.

    A few months ago I was telling my daughter about Doug and the days in the park.  Later that evening she called. "I think I found your friend, Dad," she said.  "I'm sorry. I found him in the Syracuse obituaries. He died last year." I looked up the obituary online.  I didn't recognize the story it told. Maybe, I hoped, it was someone else with the same name. But, as I studied the photo, there was no mistaking the handsome, square-jawed face. He was wearing a baseball cap. The kid I knew was there beneath the face of a 70-year-old man.
    These days I travel to Syracuse infrequently, but when I do I visit the cemetery. It is always quiet and empty. Kids don't play there anymore.  I clear off Mrs. Gamble’s tombstone, and I look around recalling the bittersweet days of my youth. The neighborhood has changed. The big red house I lived in on the corner is divided into apartments. The surrounding houses need a coat of paint. The Irish and Italian families who were the neighborhood backbone moved to the suburbs years ago. The cemetery seems smaller, almost shrunken. Blight destroyed the elm trees, but a few stunted chestnut trees still stand.  Only Mrs. Gamble is unchanged.  Her solitary tombstone remains, an obscure memorial to the joy and pathos of my childhood.
     During my last visit I was walking back to my car when I saw an African-American boy, about thirteen years old, shuffling along the sidewalk towards me.  He was wearing heavy boots that seemed at least a size too big. The laces were undone. He was dressed in a drab sweatshirt with the hood pulled down, obscuring his face. He walked by me and crossed the street to the cemetery. In the mind's eye past and present coexist.  On Mrs. Gamble's field the kids were choosing sides- Donald, Pete, Fred, my sister Judy, Jimmy, Donna Jean, and the rest. Doug was standing by Mrs. Gamble tossing a ball in the air. He saw the boy and called,"Hey kid, we need someone to play first base." But the invitation went unheard.  I watched the boy's silhouette shrink into the distance as he walked down the hill to Wolf Street. I glanced one last time at the deserted space in the cemetery. Then I got into my car and drove away.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Harpers Ferry Part II

Harpers Ferry 1859

     The Federal Armory was located on a strip of land a few hundred yards north of the Harper's Ferry train platform and the adjacent Wager House Hotel.  Several buildings comprised the armory where muskets were manufactured and warehoused.  The armory complex of forging shop, warehouse and various finishing shops extended for 600 yards and ran parallel to the Potomac river.   A cast iron fence guarded the south and west perimeter of the armory.  The north and east perimeter bordered the B&O railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks a steep embankment ran down to the Potomac. The main gate faced an open thoroughfare at the intersection of Potomac and Shenandoah streets, adjacent to the Wager Hotel and a saloon. Most of the weapons were stored in the arsenals, four buildings arranged in a square on Shenandoah Street across from the armory. Hall's rifle factory stood a half-mile south on Shenandoah Street.  The Winchester and Potomac railroad tracks ran parallel to Shenandoah Street and converged with the B & O tracks at the train trestle. 

     Daniel Whelan, the night watchman had completed his rounds of the sprawling armory.  His primary responsibility was to make sure the forge fires in the twenty buildings that comprised the armory were properly extinguished.  Sitting at his desk in the firehouse, a small brick building that doubled as a guard house, he heard a commotion at the main gate. He walked outside and saw a group of men and a wagon emerge from the gloom. They called him over to the gate. One of the intruders thrust his arm between the iron grates and grabbed Whelan's coat lapels. "Open the gate!" he ordered. "I was nearly scared to death with so many guns about me", Whelan later reported. Despite his fears Whelan refused. He said he didn't have the key. The standoff lasted only a moment. One of the men grabbed a crowbar from the wagon and went to work on the lock and chain. Within minutes the lock split and the gate opened. The men rushed into the courtyard and John Brown climbed down from the wagon. He ordered Whelan and Williams the night watchman from the train trestle inside the engine house 

    While Brown occupied the armory his raiders fanned out across the village. Watson Brown and Stewart Taylor assumed sentry detail at the B&O trestle; Charles Tidd and John Cook cut the telegraph lines; second in command John Kagi, Lewis Sheridan Leary and his nephew John Anthony Copeland captured the rifle works a half mile down Shenondoah Street; Aaron Stevens, an army deserter, marched the rifle works watchman and some late revelers from the saloon back to the engine house. Albert Hazlett and Edwin Copoc seized the unguarded arsenal, which was the storage facility for most of the weapons. By midnight Brown had control of approximately a 100,000 rifle, muskets and pistols. Triumphantly he announced to Williams and Whelan  "I want to free all the Negroes in this state", he told his prisoners, "if the citizens interfere with me.  I must only burn the town and have blood." (Carton, p. 131).  

     Satisfied that his main targets were secure Brown dispatched six men to three nearby Jefferson County plantations. His orders were to take the plantation owners hostage and bring them to the engine house. First on the list was Colonel Lewis Washington, the areas most distinguished citizen. The 46 year old widower was the great grand nephew of George Washington.  Washington's 670 acre estate, Beallaire, was located five miles west of Harpers Ferry just off the road to Charles Town.

     Lewis Washington was asleep when he heard a banging on his front door. He threw on a robe and rushed downstairs. He was greeted by six armed men. Aaron Stevens the toughest and most experienced of the raiders told Washington to get dressed and order his carriage harnessed.  Thanks to the spying of John Cook who had infiltrated Harpers Ferry society several months previously, Brown knew that Washington possessed a pistol presented to his grant uncle by the Marquis de Lafayette and a sword that was a gift from Frederick the Great.  Brown had told Stevens to take the heirlooms over give them to one of the black raiders Osborne Anderson.  In issuing his orders to Stevens Brown had said, "Anderson being a colored man, and colored men being only things in the South it is proper that the South be taught a lesson on this point." (Carton p. 299).  Stevens returned to the engine house around 4:00 AM with 12 hostages, six "liberated" slaves and two confiscated wagons. By dawn Browns' raiders had captured close to sixty hostages. About a dozen were rifle works employees and the others were villagers who had the misfortune of wandering around the streets. Brown herded the captives into the engine house and adjoining armory buildings. Brown was pleased with how his plan was succeeding, but miscues had begun to pile up.

     Shortly after midnight the crack of rifle fire echoed through the streets of the commercial district. Brown's sentries on the bridge had attempted to apprehend watchman Patrick Higgins when he showed up to relieve William Williams. When two gray shawled men armed with rifles emerged from the dark trestle the fleet footed Patrick Higgins took a swing at one the men and ran for his life.  He dodged two shots and dove through the front window of the Wager Hotel, which was located just past the trestle next to the railroad platform.  "Lock your doors," he bellowed, "there are robbers on the bridge."  

     At 1:25 AM the eastbound express train from Wheeling to Baltimore pulled in to the platform in front of the Wager Hotel. William Throckmorton the hotel clerk rushed out of the hotel to meet the train.  Breathless he hailed Andrew Phelps the conductor.  'There are armed men on the bridge, he said. 'Who are they', Phelps asked. "I don't know but they seem more serious than gypsies or rowdies', Throckmorton replied.  Determined to investigate the conductor grabbed a lantern and ordered four railroad employees to accompany him. Cautiously, with the train slowly following, they followed the tracks. In the darkness the tin roof make the trestle appear more like a tunnel than a bridge. Phelps held the lantern high as they proceeded forward. They were no more than 50 yards inside when a voice bellowed, "Stand and deliver." Three armed men stepped out of the shadows. Phelps and his men stared down the muzzles of Sharps rifles.  One of the men snatched and extinguished the lantern. In the sudden darkness Phelps and his companions turned and bolted for the bridge entrance. The train now chugging in reverse provided some cover. They were not pursued, but when they exited the bridge someone was missing - the baggage master Heyward Shepard.  Suddenly shots rang out and a few moments later Shepard stumbled out of the bridge.  He had been shot in the back. They carried him to the nearby railroad office and gently laid him on a plank between two chairs.  A doctor was called but the wound was mortal. Heyward Shepard a free black employee of the B & O railroad died two hours later, the first casualty of John Brown's raid.

                                                               To Be Continued


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Harpers Ferry Part I

The Raid of Harpers Ferry Part I

The Raid at Harper's Ferry - Part I

    The village of Harpers Ferry is nestled on a spit of land at the juncture of the Potomac and Susquehana Rivers. Early settlers congregated along the banks of the two rivers, but as the population increased to three thousand the town ascended, like an Alpine Village along the shanks of a steep hill. At the pinnacle St Paul's Church stood as a sentinel; its white trimmed steeple visible from miles around. For travelers from the east Harpers Ferry served as a portal to the lush Shenendoah Valley. Flanked by the verdant Blue Ridge mountains the picturesque meeting of land and water inspired Thomas Jefferson to compose a lyrical geological narrative.

    The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps
    one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very
    high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah,
    having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles
    to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of
    a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together
     against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea.
    The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion
     that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains
     were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards,
    that in this place particularly they have been so dammed up
     by the Blue Ridge of mountains as to have formed an ocean
    which filled the whole valley; that, continuing to rise, they have
    at last broken over at this spot and have torn the mountain down
     from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand,
     but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of
    their disruptions and avulsions from their beds by the most
    powerful agents in nature, corroborate the impression.

For Thomas Jefferson Harpers Ferry was one of the loveliest landscapes in Virginia; for John Brown the bucolic village was the site of his last stand.
 On a drizzly, moonless night on Sunday October 16th, 1859 a bedraggled band of nineteen men traipsed silently in pairs down a winding Maryland road. Their destination, 5 miles away, was the B & O train trestle that crossed the Potomac River into Harpers Ferry.  Each was armed with a knife, a pistol and a Sharps rifle.  The gray shawls draped over their heads to keep out the chill gave them a ghostly appearance as they trudged through the mist.  Ahead of them a farm wagon pulled by a single horse led the way. The solitary silhouette of John Brown hunched over the reins.
Alone with his thoughts Brown guided the wagon over the rutted road that descended towards the flickering lights of Harpers Ferry.  The village on the other side of the Potomac had something that Brown and his men desperately needed - guns, lots of them.  The federal armory at Harpers Ferry was second only to the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts in size.  Inside its red bricked walls  the sprawling armory warehoused 100,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Brown intended to attack Harpers Ferry and confiscate the weapons in order to arm a slave insurrection. There is no record of Brown's thoughts during the two hours it took to reach the train trestle, but he had much to contemplate. 

    Two months earlier at secret meeting in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania Brown had outlined his plan to the man he admired most, the black abolitionist - Frederick Douglas.  Douglas listened attentively as Brown explained how under the cover of darkness he and his men would cut the telegraph lines, take control of the B & O train trestle, and overwhelm the single watchman at the armory gate.  While some of his men secured the armory and nearby rifle factory, others would round up unsuspecting workmen, villagers, and plantation owners. Should they encounter resistance the hostages would be used to barter their way out of the town. Once the the weapons were loaded into the wagon they would be transported back across the bridge to Maryland. The raiders would stash the weapons in an isolated schoolhouse for distribution to new recruits both white and black.  When the news spread of the successful raid on the federal facility Brown was certain that slaves in Maryland and Virginia would rush to join their cause.

    There were few men that Douglas respected more than John Brown, but he thought Brown's plan ludicrous. An attack on a federal arsenal would trigger a massive military response and swing public sentiment towards slave owners. Bitterly disappointed, Brown begged the abolitionist to reconsider and support him.  "Remember the trumpets of Jericho?" Brown entreated.  "Harpers Ferry will be mine.  The news of its capture will be the trumpet blast that will rally the slaves to my standard from miles around.  Join me, Frederick.  Together we will bring slavery down."

    "Brown continued.  "The southern militia are cowards, and if they come to me they will be even less eager to fight in Virginia than they were in Kansas."  Brown's fervor staggered Douglas.  Brown's unfettered commitment to freeing the slaves clearly included sacrificing his own life. In his later writings Douglas said he felt like the light of a taper next to a burning sun. While his respect for the fire breathing abolitionist soared it did not change his dim view of the Harpers Ferry plan.  As they parted Douglas said, "You forget, John, that I have some experience with the south. Virginia will blow you and your hostages sky-high rather than let you hold Harpers Ferry for an hour."

    As they approached the river crossing Brown brushed away nettlesome doubts. Straight ahead the covered B &O trestle crossed the Potomac River into the lower section of the village.  The bridge was enclosed with a tin roof and ran for a thousand feet .  At night crossing the bridge felt like passing through a dark tunnel.  The armory was located on a strip of land a few hundred yards north of the Harper's Ferry train platform and the adjacent Wager House Hotel.  The several buildings that comprised arsenal and armory ran for 900 yards parallel to the Potomac river.  A privately owned rifle factory was located a half-mile south of the armory on Shenandoah Street.

    Shortly before 11:00 AM B&O watchman Bill Williams walked along the carriage path that ran parallel to the covered bridge tracks.  He was almost at the end of his finishing his twelve hour shift for which he was paid a dollar a day. His job was to monitor track switches, and watch for embers spewing from a locomotive stack that could start a fire.  He earned a dollar a shift.   Williams was near the Maryland end of the bridge and about to reverse direction to Harpers Ferry when he heard the clip-clop of horse hooves and the creaking of a wagon. Williams raised his lantern and peered into the gloom.  Suddenly the lantern was struck from his hand and three Sharps rifles were pointed at his chest.  Brown's "Provisional Army of the Untied States" had taken its first prisoner. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Battle of Black Jack


John Brown Jr. predicted that the brutal retaliation for the sack of Lawrence at Potawatomie Creek would "likely cause a restraining fear" among the Missouri "Border Ruffians". He could not have been more wrong. Rather than checking proslave violence the Pottawatomie Creek killings triggered immediate cries for vengeance. The proslave Missouri newspaper "The Border Times" urged readers to "Let Loose the Dogs of War!" The editoral predicted "Hundreds of the Free State men, who have committed no overt acts but who have only given countenance to those reckless murderers, assassins, and thieves, will of necessity share the same fate of their brethren. If civil war is to the result of such a conflict, there cannot be, and will not be, any neutrals recognized." (Carton, p. 203)  

     Kansas governor Shannon feared that territory was on the verge of civil war.  In a letter to President Pierce he said that the murders "had produced an extraordinary state of excitement in southeastern Kansas". (Oates, p.142)  In an attempt to quell the violence the governor dispatched a company of federal troops to Osawatomie and another to Lawrence, and he put a five hundred dollar bounty on John Brown, dead or alive.  Posses of Missouri "Border Ruffians" along with United States cavalry units scoured eastern Kansas searching for Brown.  Not wanting to endanger his family Brown along with  his sons Owen, Frederick, and Oliver fled the family enclave north of Potawatomie Creek, and vanished into the wilderness. 

     Several days after the Pottawatomie Massacre, James Redpath a journalist from St. Louis stumbled upon the Brown hideout. The previous evening a group of proslavers accosted Redpath near Palymyra. Recognizing him as a freeman they pulled him from his saddle, and stole his horse. The next day while traveling on foot along the trail that ran next to Ottawa Creek Redpath pushed through a thicket of brush and stopped short. Several yards in front him a heavily built man stood knee deep in the creek. In one large hand he gripped a pail of water. He wore a coarse blue shirt and pantaloons tucked into calf high boots. A thick brown leather belt held three pistols and a double edged Arkansas bowie knife. The man's bulky build, tangled hair and piercing eyes gave him a wild, ominious look. For a moment both men stood gaping at one another. Then the big man put down his pail and strode towards Redpath. The journalist picked up a sturdy oak branch to defend himself.  "Don't fear", said Frederick Brown, "I have seen you in Lawrence and you are true." Redpath told Frederick he was searching for John Brown. His readers, Redpath said, were anxious to learn more about the controversial abolitionist leader. Redpath was delighted when Frederick offered to take him to the Brown hideout. For an hour he led the journalist on a meandering trek through the woods and along the creek.  Just as Redpath was beginning to wonder if the big man had lost his way, or his mind, they came to a clearing.  Redpath described the scene before him.

          a dozen horses were tied, all ready saddled for a ride for life,
          or a hunt after Southern invaders.  A dozen rifles and sabres were
          stacked around the trees. In an open space, amid the shady and lofty
          woods, there was a blazing fire with a pot on it; a woman bareheaded,
          with an honest, sunburned face, was picking blackberries from the bushes;
          three or four armed men were lying on red and blue blankets on the
          grass; and two fine-looking youths were standing, leaning on guard
          nearby.  [Brown] stood near the fire, with his shirt-sleeves rolled
          up, and large piece of pork in his hand.... He was poorly clad, and his 
          toes protruded from his boots.

     Brown welcomed the opportunity to get his intentions into print. During their talk Brown expounded on the evils of slavery and the qualities of a good soldier, but he refused to discuss the murders at Potawatomie Creek. Redpath asked Brown how he could continue the freeslave fight against such overwhelming resistance from the Kansas governor, Missourians, and southeners. Brown replied, "I would rather have smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera all together in my camp, than a man without principles. It's a mistake sir, that our people make, when they think that bullies are the best fighters, or they are the men fit to oppose these Southeners. Give me men of good principles, God fearing men, men who respect themselves, and with a dozen of them, I will oppose any hundred such men as these Buford ruffians." Brown's rhetoric impressed Redford who later wrote of Brown's men, "They were not earnest, but earnestness incarnate. Redford reserved his most glowing praise for Brown.. "I left this sacred spot with a far higher respect for the Great Struggle than ever had I felt before.... I had seen the predestined leader of the second and holier American Revolution."

     Four days after his interview with Redpath, Brown was presented with an opportunity to test his military convictions. A posse of approximately sixty Border Ruffians commanded by Colonel Henry C. Pate was combing the woods and ravines around Prairie City searching for Brown.  Captain Samuel Shore commander of Prairie City's Free State militia tipped off Brown that Pate was camped next to a stream five miles east. Settlers called the area "Black Jack" after the diminutive oak trees that proliferated along the banks of a cold spring stream. The enemy was at hand and Brown was ready. Once again he drew inspiration from the Old Testament. He proclaimed that like Gideon driving Midianites from the Wall of Harod and across the Jordan, he would expel Pate and his slavers from Kansas. 

  At dawn, two days later, Captain Shore accompanied by 17 Prairie City volunteers and Brown's small band of nine men dismounted their horses on the edge of the woods above Black Jack.  Leaving his son Frederick to guard the horses Brown ordered the troop to spread out and wend their way through a thicket of trees north of Pate's camp. The freeslavers burst out of the woods and ran onto a plateau covered with tall prairie grass. Suddenly two shots reverberated across the plateau. Sentries had spotted the invaders. Alerted to an impending attack the proslavers set up a defensive line at the south edge of the plateau. Pate ordered his men to line up four wagons to protect their rear. Behind the wagons a ravine ran followed the meandering Black Jack stream. Shore's men were armed with Sharps rifles. The single shot carbine was deadly up to five hundred yards.  An experienced rifleman could get off 8-10 shots in a minute. Pate's men also had Sharps but Brown and his men had only muskets and pistols. Their weapons were useless at a range over a hundred yards, and Pate's force was dug in several hundred yards away.
    Throughout the morning the crack of rifle fire reverberated across Black Jack. Brown and Shore's men zig-zagged through the prairie grass finding cover where they could. Although they killed several proslavers Brown's force could not gain an advantage. After three hours the antislavers began to run low on ammunition. As the stalemate continued some of Shore's men began sneaking back to their horses and riding off.  Frustrated by the desertions and his inability to strike a decisive blow Brown decided to outflank Pate. Moving slowly through the thick brush he led several men into the eastern edge of the ravine.  From their new vantage on Pate's right flank they fired on the proslavers who had taken cover behind their wagons. Shore's small force joined Brown, but Pate still held the high ground. When six more Prairie City volunteers appeared ready to abandon the fight Brown confronted them.  Kill the Missourian's horses and mules, he argued and we will cut off their ability to escape. The six followed Brown's orders. Soon the terrified cries of mortally wounded animals mingled with rifle fire and the moans of wounded men.

     Meanwhile on the far side of the woods Brown' son Frederick was tending the horses. Throughout the Kansas campaign Brown had been concerned about Frederick's fragile emotional state. Despite his menacing appearance, Frederick did not have the stomach for bloodletting. On the rare instances that Frederick accompanied his father on a raid, Brown isolated him from hostilities. Frederick accepted his rear guard status, but this day was different. For three hours he had been listening to the din of battle. Inexplicably he mounted his father's horse and charged through the woods into the center of the fray.  Waving a cutlass over his head he bellowed, "Father we have them surrounded and we have cut off their communication".   

     Believing that Frederick Brown was the vanguard of reinforcements, Pate panicked.  He raised a white flag and sent a messenger to parley with Brown. Brown sent the man back and demanded that Pate come forward. The two leaders confronted each other in the center of the battlefield.  Pate commanded Brown to surrender. He reminded Brown that he was a deputized U.S. marshal. Brown cut him off and pointed a pistol at Pate's chest. "I understand exactly what you are, and I do not wish to hear any more about it", Brown replied.  He told Pate if he didn't surrender unconditionally he would shoot him where he stood. Flabbergasted Pate said, "You can't do this; I'm under a white flag; you're violating the articles of war."  Brown simply stared at Pate and said, "You are my prisoner".  Then he walked Pate back towards the Missourian's battle line with a pistol at his back. When they reached the wagons Brown raised his pistol to the back of Pate's head. No more words were necessary.  Pate's men laid down their weapons.
     Brown took twenty-five prisoners along with food, ammunition and guns back to the Ottawa Creek camp.  Several days after his release, which was brokered by federal troops, Pate said, "I went to take Old Brown, but Old Brown took me!" The Battle of Black Jack was the first of many bloody battles over slavery. While Fort Sumter is generally considered the armed engagement that launched the Civil War an argument can be made that the Civil War actually began on June 2, 1856 on an isolated Kansas plateau known as Black Jack.

To be continued