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.