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