Friday, July 12, 2013

The Execution of John Brown

John Brown, 1859

December 2, 1859 was a clear, unseasonably warm day in Charlestown, Virginia.  The bright blue sky infused the surrounding Shenandoah Valley with a warm and dreamy haze. On such a delightful day the shops lining the main thoroughfare, George Street, should have been bustling with activity.  But on the day John Brown, the leader of a bloody attempt to capture the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry Virginia, was to be executed the shops were closed and shuttered.  Women and children were nowhere in sight; General George Taliaferro commander of the Virginal militia had ordered them to stay in their homes. About a hundred yards from the red brick Jefferson County jail small groups of men milled about whispering and pointing.  Their view of the building was obstructed by a phalanx of six companies of infantry. The soldiers formed a cordon from the jail up George Street to a 40 acre field southeast of town. Amid the rye and corn stubble 2,000 Virginia militia with bayonets fixed formed two concentric squares.  On a small rise in the center of the formation a single trap door gallows struck a hideous pose.

     At 11:00 AM a farm wagon with two white horses in harness pulled up to the front steps of the jail.  In the back of the wagon a fine oak coffin rested inside a large  pine box. The front door of the jail opened. Abolitionist and convicted traitor John Brown appeared in the doorway.  He wore a wrinkled black suit over a white shirt. On his feet he wore faded red bedroom slippers. A slouched black hat, its brim turned up, gave him a strange jaunty look. His hands tied in front of him, Brown paused. With a quick glance his dark eyes surveyed the soldiers, the street, the wagon and the coffin.  Then with deputy sheriff John Avis on his left and sheriff John Campbell on his right he descended the stairs and climbed into the wagon. His long white beard billowed in a puff of breeze as he sat on the coffin. Avis and Campbell took up positions on either side of him. With a flick of the reins the wagon driver slowly guided the horses towards the field.  A file of 300 armed soldiers marched alongside the wagon. 

   Brown showed no emotion as the wagon trundled towards its destination.  The undertaker, seated in the front of the wagon, turned to him and remarked, "Captain Brown, you are a game man."  Brown replied, "Yes, I was so trained up; it was one of the lessons of my mother, but it is hard to part with friends though newly made." As the wagon passed through the field Brown gazed at the undulating farmland and gentle hills around him. The Blue Ridge Mountains shimmered in the distance.  He turned to Sheriff Avis and said, "This is beautiful country, I have never had the pleasure of seeing it before."  For the next few minutes they rode in silence.  Then the wagon stopped in front of the gallows. Escorted by Avis and Campbell, Brown climbed the steps and stood on the  trapdoor. Avis tied Brown's arms behind him and placed a hood over his head.  Sheriff Campbell placed a cotton noose around Brown's neck. No minister tended the condemned man. Avis asked Brown if he had anything to say. "I am ready", Brown replied, "but don't keep me waiting more than necessary."  However all the troops were not yet settled in their formations. Brown stoically stood on the trapdoor for 15 minutes while officers barked orders and soldiers rushed to their positions. A Virginia officer, Colonel Preston, watched Brown from behind the gallows.  Preston hoped to see signs of fear or cowardice. There was none.  Once he thought he saw Brown's knees tremble, but it was only the wind blowing his loose trousers.

    When the troops were settled Campbell descended the stairs. He walked behind the gallows, hefted the hatchet, and cut the rope that held the trap door in place.  Brown dropped three feet. The noose jerked. His  hands clenched and his body went rigid. After a few minutes his body relaxed and began to sway in a gentle breeze.  John Brown, leader of a bloody, ill conceived raid on the Harper Ferry Virginia arsenal was dead. No one cheered. No one jeered.  No one spoke.   Then Colonel Preston's voice rang out, "So perish all such enemies of Virginia!  All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!"

     Like many other Southeners Colonel Preston believed the execution of  John Brown was a righteous example for those who would free the slaves and in the process cleave the cultural and economic fabric of the south.  An editorial in the December 21 in the North Carolina Raleigh Register made it clear that for the South there would be no compromise on the issue of slavery.

    "The affair at Harper's Ferry marks a new and most important era in our country's history. It will bring to an immediate solution the question as to whether the Union can be preserved, and the right of the South to hold property in slaves be maintained. This is the issue to be tried now. The trial can no longer be deferred. The issue has been forced upon the South, and let the result be what it may, her skirts will be clear of all responsibility. There has been one gratifying fact developed by the Harper's Ferry raid. The promptness and ease with which large numbers of troops were brought together from different quarters of Virginia, and the alacrity with which the call to arms was obeyed, will prove to the Abolitionists at the North that although they make an occasional foray into a Southern State, and commit a few murders and arsons, they can never maintain a foothold on Southern soil for more than forty-eight hours. Virginia has showed conspicuously that she was able to take care of herself. Had she not been, had she stood in need of aid from her sister States of the South, she would have received it to an amount more than equal to her necessities, as the prompt tender of aid from all quarters of the South most abundantly proves."

To be continued