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The Prisoner 1
MY father had a farm two miles west of the town. He owned quite a trac' of land there — seven or eight hundred acres — and was one of the leading men of the county. I suppose he was worth nearly a hundred thousand dollars. That seemed like great wealth then, but it wouldn’t carry ten yards in Wall Street now.
Harper's Ferry was a dandy town in those days. Oh! it was beautiful, and the government had put up the finest kind of shops for gun-makin'. Dude fellers worked there, and they could earn as high as four or five dollars a day at piece work. They'd go in wearin' their best clothes and shift to their work clothes in a special room. At the end of the day they washed up and changed their clothes, and when they came out you'd think they were just comin' out of church.
On that Sunday night in the autumn of 1859 when Brown captured the armory I went down to a protracted meetin' at the Harper's Ferry Methodist Church. I was seventeen years old. Me 'n' another young feller rode down on horseback. It was a big thing hyar then to have a protracted meetin'. There'd be a meetin' every evenin' for two or three weeks except Saturday. That evenin' we'd rest up, and we'd have an extra hot time on Sunday night. People would come from all directions, there'd be several preachers, and the church would be crowded.
Up in front under the pulpit was a long wooden bench, and the mourners knelt on either side of it tryin' to git religion. Whether people were religious or not they had a curiosity to go and see the mourners; and the ministers used to say, "It'll break up the meetin' if somebody don't come to the mourners' bench."
Those that went up there were usually all young people from twelve to twenty years old, and perhaps there'd be a dozen or more down on their knees at the same time shoutin' and prayin': "O Lord, have mercy on me! O God, help me!"
While they went on that way the ministers and elders talked among 'em and prayed over 'em. A good many of 'em were cryin', and a heap of the congregation would be cryin', too. There was singin' goin' on all the time, and the leaders would whoop and holler over the mourners, only stoppin' occasionally to ask 'em, "Now do you think you've given up to the Lord?"
When one of 'em said, "Yes," he'd jump up and go to singin'.
We had a lively time that Sunday evenin' I was speakin' of, and it was about twelve o'clock when us two fellers got on our horses to ride home. I remember it was a dark night and cool. On the way we overtook half a dozen men walkin', and they had blankets throwed around 'em. I found out later that they were some of Brown's raiders and that they wore the blankets to hide their weapons.
After I got home I went to bed and to sleep, but I hadn’t been sleepin' long when I heard a rappin' ag'in' the door that opened from the yard into the room where Father and Mother slept. I thought some tramp was there and I expected to hear him ask if he could sleep in the barn.
"What do you want?" Father said.
Then a man outside said, "Git up and open the door"; and after some more talkin' back and forth the door was busted right open with a rail, and the man walked in.
I had a long old country shotgun that I kep' loaded, and I thought I'd take it down there and order the feller out. of course, I was some scared, but you'd want to go and see what was goin' on if some one had broken into your daddy's room, wouldn’t you?
My aunt and sister had waked up, and they put their heads out of an upstairs window and hollered, "Murder!" But they got back out of the way quick when a colored man in the yard said he'd blow their heads off if they didn’t shut that window.
I slept' up at the head of some steps that went down from the second story right into Father's room, and I had got my gun ready when my aunt peeked down the steps.
"For gracious sake! don't take that gun down there," she said. "The man in your father's room is all armed. He's got revolvers in his belt, and he's got a gun besides. He'll just think you're goin' to kill him, and he'll kill you."
So I put back my gun and went along without it. I made a pretty heavy noise goin' down the steps, and the man turned to look and drawed his gun on me — click, click! "Come on," he said, and I came.
A white man and a big yeller colored feller were there, and they had pine torches, and the sparks flew all over the floor. I stamped some of the sparks out my with foot.
"What you goin' to do?" I asked.
"My name is Stevens," the white man said, "and I'm under the orders of Captain John Brown. We're goin' to free all the slaves."
I talked back to him right smart, and I was a little sassy, for I was on my own ground.
"Why don't you hush, Tommy?" Mother said. "Captain Brown has taken the government works at Harper's Ferry," Stevens told us.
"That wasn’t much to do," I said. "They only have one watchman there."
"You shut your mouth or I'll blow your brains out," he said.
Then the colored feller collared me and drawed a revolver and held it ag'in' my breast. That made me kind of nervous. I couldn’t do nothin', and I said to myself, "You've got me now."
They took Father and me out to the road where four more of their men were and a four-horse farm wagon and a two-horse carriage. They'd been up the road and got Colonel Washington, one of the leading planters of the region, and were takin' him to Harper's Ferry in his own carriage driven by one of his slaves. The wagon was his, too, and there were a number of his slaves standin' up in it.
Our slaves lived in a wing of our house. Stevens had 'em roused up, and he selected half a dozen and told 'em he was goin' to set 'em free, and that they must come along with him in the wagon. They kep' very quiet and it didn’t seem like they wanted to go.
The raiders were careful not to take their torchlights out to the road, and the neighbors never saw or heard a thing. My mother and sister and aunt came out to the fence, and they were very uneasy. Father and I had to git into the wagon with the slaves. We stood near the front. The procession started with Colonel Washington in his carriage goin' ahead. A colored man drove our horses. He sat on the left wheel horse and did the guidin' with a single line. That's the way we drive our work teams hyar.
When we got to Harper's Ferry everything was quiet as a mouse. "What's the matter? "Father said. "Is every one in the town killed?"
"Oh, no!" I said, "I reckon not."
We drove in the armory yard to the engine house and got out. Then Stevens delivered us over to an old man who was there with a gun, and said, "This is Captain John Brown."
"Yes, I'm Osawatomie Brown of Kansas," Brown said.
He was a tolerable large man, rough, and coarse-featured, and a little overbearing and rude in his conversation. He gave each of our colored men a spear. I believe he called it a pike. It had a han'le like a pitchfork, and on one end was an iron concern the shape of a butcher knife exactly, but sharpened on both edges. Brown had any quantity of 'em. "You take these pikes," he said to our slaves, "and don't let the prisoners git off the pavement in front of the engine house."
But the slaves didn’t 'mount to nothin' as a help to Brown. When his back was turned they'd set down their spears, but if they see old John Brown comin' they'd pick 'em up and tend to business.
By and by it got to be time to ring the armory bell, and the bell-ringer come right on in. Stevens checked him, and said, "Where you goin'?"
"I'm goin' to ring that bell," the man said, and started to walk along.
But Stevens give him a gouge with his gun. The gun was a tarnal heavy one, and it broke some of the old man's ribs, and he fell. Later the citizens were allowed to carry him away.
After it was daylight the townspeople began to come to see what was the matter at the armory, and as soon as they got opposite the yard gate one of Brown's men would say, "Come in hyar," and he'd run 'em right in so they couldn’t go back to tell the news.
Presently Brown had one of his men go and order the hotel landlord to send over breakfast for the raiders and their prisoners — eighty-five in all, I think. He didn’t pay then or afterward, and the landlord later got an attachment on Brown's horse and wagon and sold 'em for the bill.
A colored servant brought the food. There was butter and rolls and coffee. Some of the prisoners was so scared they couldn’t eat. Father was a little afraid there might be poison in the food, and I said to one of our darkies, "Bill, are you goin' to eat this?"
"Yes, sir, I'm goin' to try it," he answered.
"Well," I said, "go ahead and I'll see what it does to you."
It didn’t seem to have any bad effect, and then I ate, and I didn’t have nothin' more to eat till after Brown's Fort, the fire-engine house, was captured.
Brown stood around or walked backwards and forwards waiting for reinforcements. That was where he got fooled, you know. The feller who fooled him was one of his own men by the name of Cook. Cook come hyar peddlin' maps, and he got acquainted with an old widow lady, Mrs. McGregor. She got him a job of tendin' a lock on the canal. The old lady had a niece named Jane Kennedy who lived a few miles over in Maryland, and this niece come visitin' her Aunt McGregor. Cook got to sparkin' her, and by and by they married. Later he taught in the Harper's Ferry public schools.
He claimed he had gone around notifyin' the slaves what Brown intended to do, and he made Brown believe that all the darkies in the whole country would rush right in hyar ready to fight for their freedom under Brown's command. But Cook hadn’t done as much notifyin' as he pretended he had, and the darkies would have been too skeery, anyway. There were too many guns in the road. They are not a fightin' race, and those of 'em who became soldiers in the war only fought well when they had the advantage. Let the enemy bung it into 'em and kill a few, and the others scattered and run. So Brown never had much use for the fourteen hundred spears that he had had made to arm the colored recruits he expected.
We began to hear shootin' soon after breakfast, and by nine or ten o'clock they were crackin' away fast. The citizens got up in the houses and fired, and they Shot down from the hills. If any of the men at the engine house so much as peeped around a corner the citizens let loose at 'em.
After a while Brown sent Stevens on some errand to the hotel, and had him take along a prisoner so he wouldn’t be fired on. They had nearly reached the hotel when a colored boy at the engine house pointed to an upper window in the tavern not far from the bridge and said, "Look, look! there are two men up there and they're goin' to shoot."
That same instant one of the men punched a pane of glass out, and pop went his gun. A raider by the name of Coppic had joined the colored boy, and he remarked, "They've shot Stevens."
"I'm sorry for that," Brown said. "Is he dead?"
"No," Coppic answered, "he's fallen down, but he's movin' yet. Now he's got up on one knee. His prisoner has walked right on — glad to git away, I guess."
"Look!" the boy exclaimed, "they're goin' to shoot again."
They fired, and Stevens didn’t git up that time. He lay there near half an hour, and then Miss Foulke, the hotel landlord's sister, who was a very kind-hearted woman, got some men to take him up and put him in bed at the hotel. She arranged, too, for a heavy guard of militia, or the citizens would have gone right in there and killed him. He was quite a loss to the raiders, for, next to Brown, he was the ablest man in the bunch. But he was a mean devil and had been rough to the prisoners. Yes, he was a bad one.
For a while we took refuge in a watchhouse that was joined on to the engine house, but it had a lot of windows, and the balls came through the glass. Then Brown selected fifteen or twenty of the prisoners and took 'em into the engine house. He left the balance to do as they pleased, and pretty soon he said, "Listen at 'em gettin' out." They climbed through a back window and skedaddled.
We were jammed in the engine house pretty close. There were too many for the space. A dog that belonged to Brown was with us. He was a big black dog with a white stripe down his face, and he had white feet. The bullets was flyin' around there hot, and the raiders fastened the large double door with ropes so it would only open a little — just enough to Shoot through.
Brown had one of our colored men take a pick and dig three or four portholes through the walls. As the darky was gettin' out the last brick a bullet hit it and knocked it in and keeled him over.
Early in the afternoon Father was lookin' out, and he says: "There's Colonel Beckham walkin' on the railroad trustle. I wonder what he's doin' that for."
Beckham was the station-agent and the mayor of the town. Where he was walkin' there was a long platform extendin' from the depot up along the Potomac. That platform was the great promenade of the townspeople. Pretty soon Beckham got behind the water-tank and took a peek around the end. Brown had ordered his men not to fire at any one who was unarmed, but Beckham's peeking made Coppic, who was watching, think he was goin' to shoot. So Coppic fired.
"Did you git him?" Brown asked.
"No," Coppic said, "but if he peeks again I'll make sure of him by letting my bullet nip a corner of the tank."
Beckham peeked, and Coppic fired, and Beckham fell right out from behind the tank and lay still.
The militia could easily have taken the engine house, for there were only five raiders inside, but they didn’t have the nerve to storm it. Besides, Brown had the advantage of 'em in holding us prisoners. We were kep' for to protect his men. He knew the besiegers would be careful about shootin' and assaultin' lest they hurt their friends.
Late in the evenin' Watson Brown was lookin' out of the door, and sightin' his gun at a feller just opposite. That feller had seen Watson and was gittin' ready to take a shot, too, and Watson didn’t shoot quick enough. A bullet hit him, and he jumped back. He had his finger on the trigger of his gun, and in jumping he gave the gun a jerk that made it go off. He was hit in the stomach, and he suffered awfully.
After Watson was shot the raiders barred the door and pushed one of the fire-engines up ag'in' it, and there we stayed quiet as a lamb all night listenin' to the men jabberin' outside of the gate and to the shootin' that was done off and on to prevent Brown from attemptin' to git out. I thought that was the longest night ever I spent. We didn't have any light in there, so it was dark as a dungeon, and we just lay on the brick floor, or set down and leaned up ag'in' the wall and nodded. Some of the colored fellers were snorin' away, but the rest of us couldn’t sleep.
Young Brown lay in a corner. "Oh kill me and put me out of this sufferin'!" he'd beg his father.
But old Brown would tell him to quit his noise, and "die like a man."
Toward mornin' old Brown, who was sittin' near the door, called to his son and got no answer. "I guess he's dead," the old man said.
The marines were on hand in the morning, and an officer came to the engine house door. Brown opened it wide enough to talk to him. The officer said Brown might as well surrender. But Brown said, "I ain't a-goin' to do it."
"I've got sixty men out hyar, and I'll make you do it," the officer told him.
"All right," Brown said, and shut the door.
Then the officer ordered his men to take sledges and batter the door down, That didn’t succeed, and they got a heavy ladder and rammed it ag'in' the door. They rammed a second time, and some of the raiders fired out of the portholes and killed one of the marines and wounded another. But they rammed again and busted the door wide enough open so a man could squeeze through it. While this was goin' on we prisoners set there scared and shiverin'.
Lieutenant Green got inside first, and Brown was about to shoot him when the officer cut at the old man with his saber, and by havin' the science he knocked the gun up so it went off above him. His next stroke knocked Brown pretty senseless, and if Green had been a little nearer he'd have taken Brown's head off. That sweeping stroke just grazed my father and cut his hat-band. Green apologized afterward and wanted to git him a new hat, but Father wouldn’t hear to such a thing.
Coppic and the other raiders threw down their guns and surrendered, except one colored feller. This darky jumped up and said, "I'm one of the citizen prisoners."
"No you ain't," the officer said, and took him along with the others.
Brown couldn’t walk, and the marines carried him out and laid him on the grass. They formed a circle around him with their bayonets ready so he couldn’t be harmed. "Stand back, men," they'd say to the crowd.
I went into a store where Father dealt and got some crackers and cheese to eat, and I stayed in the town till night. The people liked to have talked me to death. "Hyar, tell us how you was arrested and all about it," they'd say. They kep' at me and would hardly let me away.
I got home a little befo' sundown, and I tell you I was Sleepy, for I hadn’t slep' none to speak of for two nights. My father had returned earlier, so Mother and the rest of the family knew we were safe, and they were all contented when I arrived.
One of our colored men was caught at the armory with a gun and was taken to Charlestown jail. He got the typhoid fever in the jail and died there.
Us young fellers would ride to Charlestown of a Sunday to see the prisoners. The jailer let a squad of four or five of us go in at a time, and he'd say: "Don't make 'em mad. Don't say anything mean to 'em."
Brown was very quiet and never said much more than:
"How do you do. Nice day," or something of that sort.
I saw Stevens, and I remarked, "S'pose you know me."
"No, indeed, no, indeed!" he replied.
"You broke in our house," I said, "and took me and Father prisoners."
"You're just as much mistaken as if you'd lost your hat," he said.
He was gritty, and, from all I saw, I can say that Brown and his men were none of 'em cowardly.
1 While my host talked we sat in one of the rooms of the farmhouse that had been his father's at the time of the historic raid. The dwelling was rather forlornly neglected in its aspect, and we were in a wing that had been the slave quarters. Walls and ceiling and everything in the room were darkened with an appalling accumulation of smoke and grime. The day was rainy, and my companion wore rubber boots. He was tall and thin, and, though no longer young, was still dark-haired and keen-eyed.