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The Watchman on the Bridge 1

I WAS twenty-siven years old when Brown made his raid, and I was a watchman on the bridge across the Potomac. She was a covered wooden bridge, and the railroad trains wint through her, besides teams and people on foot. There were two of us watchmen. My partner would be on duty for twelve hours, and then I'd take my turn for twelve hours. I wint on at midnight and stayed on till noon. We had to tind to a switch, and at night I had to collect the tolls. A regular collector took the tolls in the daytime.

Brown had rinted a farm on the Maryland side of the Potomac. I knew him as Captain John Smith, and he was as nice a man as you'd want to meet. He bought a horse and a little wagon, and I saw him daily comparatively speakin'. He'd come to the town and go back wid a box that had been shipped to him from the North. We found out afterward that those boxes had revolvers and Sharps's rifles and such things in 'em. Brown 'peared to be very fri'ndly wid me, and he'd be shakin' hands and havin' a few words to say. He claimed he'd found a vein of silver in the mountains.

I lived at the village of Sandy Hook about a mile down on the north side of the Potomac. On the October Sunday night that the raid began I got up at the usual time, put on me overcoat, for the air was right cool, and started for work. I carried a lantern, though there were stars in the sky, so the night wasn’t disperate dark. Me watch showed it was ten minutes past twelve o'clock when I reached the bridge. We had three or four oil lamps in the bridge to guide people across, and I seen that the lights was out, and it sthruck me there was something wrong.

The watch-box was at the other end of the bridge, and I 'd walked three fourths of the way across when I saw two men wid blankets around their shoulders. They were standin' at a place where the bridge widened out, and where there was a seat at one side wid a banister at each end. One of the men stepped back out of the way, but the other stood there and said, "Halt!"

I didn’t know no more what "Halt" meant than a hog does about a holiday, and I kep' movin' on. Then he said, "Halt!" again, but I wint on till I got close.

I wasn’t expectin' to have no trouble, for I was p'aceable, and I was unarmed. I niver carried a revolver. If I was attacked I'd rather get a black eye than shoot a man. I didn’t believe in a revolver. I don't believe in 'em yet, and I don't believe in war. I seen enough of war and Shootin'.

The man had one of thim pikes that Brown got to arm the nagurs, and a very wicked lookin' weapon it was. He gave me a jab in the side wid the handle, and I wint very near throwin' up. I come to a little, and I said: "What's wrong? I'm the watchman on this bridge. What's the matter?"

"We'll watch the bridge to-night," he said.

Just then I noticed six or eight of thim pikes leanin' ag'in' the seat there, and the sight of thim made me frantic.

"Come wid me," the man said, but he didn’t say where he was goin' to bring me. He reached down his left hand and got hold of the handle of me lantern. "Come," he says.

About that time I up wid me fist and hit him back of the jaw under his ear and knocked him ag'in' the seat. The lantern dropped and was smashed, and the light wint out. I run, and don't you forget it. Dark as it was in that bridge I wint at the rate of twelve miles an hour, no doubt. The other man shot at me when I passed him, and I lost me hat.

Near the end of the bridge was a hotel, and the dure was always open for me. You see I often used to go there, just before the eastbound night express arrived, and warn 'em, so whoever wanted to go on the train could get ready. I run to the hotel and found the clerk and a man named Horsey in the office. This Horsey was goin' on the express. I told 'em about the men on the bridge, and Horsey said: "They're some of the town people who want to test your pluck. They're jokin' you."

That made me kind of angry, but I soon cooled off, and then I wint to the depot. A very big, stout colored man named Haywood handled the baggage and slept in the office there. He was a free nagur and worth some sixteen or eighteen thousand dollars. I woke him up. He had a pistol wid a knife attached to the end of it, and I borrowed it from him and wint to the house where me partner lived. I knocked at the dure and called to his wife. She knew me voice, and she said, "Is that you, Mr. Higgins?"

I asked her was her husband at home, and she said, "No."

I didn’t want to scare the woman, and I said, "Well, I'll see him down town."

Then I wint right back to the depot, and pretty soon the express come. I told the conductor that two men held the bridge, and I wouldn’t be responsible if the train wint out there. He was a tall, powerful man, and he hollered to the baggage-master on the train, "Let me have a lantern—"

As soon as he had the lantern in his hand he told me to go wid him. I didn’t care about goin', but I wint, for I niver was a coward and I didn’t like to refuse. It seemed best though to keep a little behind him so if a bullet came our way he'd get it first. The baggage-master follered. We got onto the bridge, and bang wint a gun, but I suppose it was just fired in the air as a warnin'.

"Boys, what's wrong?" the conductor says.

"The town is taken," was the reply. "Advance no further."

The conductor told 'em who he was, and they said he could go on with his train, but he didn’t want to risk it. We had turned to leave the bridge when the baggage-master picked up something and looked at it by the light of the lantern. "Pat, here's your hat," he said, "and there's a hole in it."

I put me hand up to me head and found blood in me hair. A bullet had just grazed the skin on the top of me head. I didn’t know I was hit at the time of the shootin' I was that bad skeered. It was a close shave.

When the passengers learned that the train was goin' to stay there they got off and filled up the ticket office. Then Haywood, the colored man, wint out toward the bridge lookin' around, and the men there shot him through the body. He walked back and lay down on his couch in the depot. A doctor in the town had heard the shootin', and he came to see what the trouble was. We had him look at Haywood, and he said the wounded man couldn’t live. Oh, poor feller! he suffered awful.

The train stayed there on the trestle till daylight in the morning. Then John Brown himself came and walked with the conductor ahead of the train across the bridge, and the conductor jumped on and proceeded.

After I'd watched the train go I wint to see if there was anything more I could do for Haywood. "For God's sake, Mr. Higgins, will you go and get me a drink of water?" he said.

There had been a big stone pitcher full of water in the waiting-room, but the people from the train hadn’t left a drop in it. So I took the pitcher and wint down to a pump in the street and drew the water. As I was goin' back a man come out of the bridge eatin' a cracker, and he asked me very politely would I let the men on the bridge have a drink. I said, "Yes," and wint along wid him.

He was the one who had shot at me, and I learned that his name was Thompson, and that the man I had hit was Oliver Brown. They had been reinforced by a chunky little mulatto who sat on the bench whittling a stick. I mistook the mulatto for a white man at first in the gloom of the bridge.

Brown said, "You're the laddie buck who sthruck me here last night, ain't you?"

I told him I was.

"Well, you acted very impudent," he said.

Then Thompson said, "I 'm proud that I didn’t kill or cripple you when you ran and I fired."

"What does it all mean?" I asked Oliver.

He said, "It's a darky scrape."

"Well, where's the darkies?" I asked.

"I am one," Oliver said; and Thompson said, "I am another"; but the mulatto niver opened his mouth at all. Then I said: "For myself, I ain't rich enough to own a darky. I work twelve hours a day for a dollar."

"Yes," Brown said, "I know these slave states are not as good as the free states for you working-men. We're goin' to free the blacks, and that will help such as you. There'll be blood shed, but it's not our object to hurt any one who don't take up arms against us."

"I'm not very fond of fightin'," says I, "and I'm takin' this water over here to the depot to give to a nagur that you shot."

"It was his fault," Brown said. "He ought to have done as we told him to do."

I wint along wid the water. By this time the men in the town had begun to come to their work in the armory, and I could see a crowd of prisoners down there. The people soon became greatly excited over the state of affairs, and rumors flew far and wide. My wife got word of the raid, and she thought I'd lost an arm or a leg, or maybe was dead. So she leaves her four-months-old baby, and off she starts to find me. She passed the men on the bridge, and they put their hands to their hats very polite.

After she found me and knew I was all right, then she wouldn’t go back alone wid herself. Nothing would do but I must go along, too. The baby needed her, so I wint. As we crossed the bridge I told Thompson I would be back in a few minutes. You see, it was me duty as watchman to look after things there. If I didn’t the bridge owners might discharge me.

I walked down the road a ways toward Sandy Hook, and then I told me wife I must return. She took on cryin' and said she was sure I'd be killed or at least taken prisoner.

But I had to go. It was now about eight o'clock, and I remember the weather was kind of a little misty. As I wint along I could see a half dozen or more people comin' down the mountain on the Maryland side of the river, which was the side I was on, and I took notice some of 'em had guns. I waited for 'em at the entrance to the bridge, and I told 'em how I was obliged to go across, but that if they wint they'd be captured.

Then I left thim, and soon I was back in the office at the depot. I was sittin' there, watchin' and condolin' to myself what was goin' to be when those fellers across the river fired on the men who held the bridge. Oliver and the other two run like sheep. But a bullet stopped Oliver, and Thompson halted and tried to make a treaty wid the men. They wouldn’t make any treaty, and they just tied his wrists together in front of him wid strong cord and took him to the hotel, where they held him a prisoner.

The colored man was so panic-stricken that instead of goin' to the armory he ran and jumped into the arsenal yard. By and by, when he was tryin' to get from the arsenal across the street to the armory gate he was shot in the neck and fell dead. I seen men come along afterward and take out their knives and cut off a piece of his ear for a relic and put it in their pockets. He had no ears left by night.

In the middle of the morning Stevens was shot. He was a fine-lookin' man, and it 'pears to me he was no coward. He fell behind the station warehouse. "O Lord! is there no one will take me out of here?" I heard him say.

I wint to where he was and turned him over, and I saw he had a Colt's revolver in his inside pocket, and I took it. While I was stoopin' over him they fired on me from the engine house. The bullets sthruck the wall behind me, and pieces of the brick flew and hit me head. A lady in a building right across from the depot called out of a window, "Fall back, fall back!" and I hurried to shelter.

My goodness! the excitement was terrible. The country people were flockin' in from all directions. Men broke into the saloons and got drunk, and they wint to the arsenal and everybody had plenty of guns. They were firin' crossways, and it's my opinion they wounded some of thim-selves. The wonder is that more were n't hurt.

In the afternoon the nagur at the depot died, and I wint to the hotel and told Beckham, who was the station-agent and the mayor of the town. I could see the tears come in his eyes he thought so much of that darky. Me 'n' him walked back to the depot office and looked at Haywood, and then Beckham told me to lock the office and put the key in me pocket. We wint along the trestle to the water-tank. Says I: "Squire, don't go any further. It ain't safe."

He leaned over and looked around the end of the tank, and while he was lookin' a bullet sthruck him. He took a step forward and said, "Oh!" and fell on his face. They'd shot him through the heart, and he lay there quiet and niver quivered, I stood twinty minutes or so lookin' at the poor feller, afeared to get him. Then I returned to the depot.


His death all but crazed the townspeople, and they made a rush in at the hotel to get Thompson. The landlord and Miss Foulke, his sister, fought hard for Thompson and plead and prayed for him. Tables and chairs were upset and there was an awful racket. The mob didn’t leave the hotel till they had the prisoner in their possession. They took him up to the depot platform at the entrance to the bridge.

George Chambers had become the actin'-mayor, and he wanted me to go get a rope to hang Thompson. In thim days I didn’t care for Chambers or no man, and I wouldn’t go.

Then Chambers said to Thompson: "I'll tell you what will save you. Give us a history of the Abolitionist proceedings that led to this insurrection, and we'll spare you,"

But Thompson niver had a word to say. Chambers was a blood-thirsty feller, and he took a revolver, put it to Thompson's breast, and shot him. I always thought that was a cowardly act, and I niver liked Chambers so much afterward. They throwed the body over the wall, and it fell partly in the water and partly on the land, and during the day a good many men came and shot at it. That seemed brutal. The carcass laid there nearly all that week.

After dark some of us wint to get Beckham. Guns were still bein' fired, and we didn’t like to expose ourselves. So I took hold of Beckham's feet and pulled him back a little till he was behind the tank. Then we lifted and carried him away.

Finally I wint home to Sandy Hook, and about two o'clock that night the marines from Washington got off the cars there. They walked the rest of the way to Harper's Ferry, and I wint wid 'em. When it was daylight their commander, Colonel Lee, said to the people: "The first one of the citizens that fires a shot will be put under arrest. This is government property and we will take care of it."

After a while an officer pulled out a white handkerchief and waved it up and down where it could be seen from the engine-house portholes. Then he wint and had a talk wid Captain Brown. He stayed not more than ten minutes and came back and said: "He will not surrender. It's old Osawatomie Brown."

So they got a long, heavy ladder, and as many of the marines took hold of it as could, and they ran and rammed it ag'in' the big iron dure. That made an awful noise. At the third charge the dure wint in, and soon the raiders were all captured. They'd have been lynched by the citizens, and there'd niver have been a bit of a trial if the troops hadn’t been here to protect 'em.

After Brown was hung I helped put his remains on the express at our depot for his wife to take North, and I couldn’t help thinkin' what a mistake he'd made. He seemed a sinsible man in most respects, but he was a maniac on this question of slavery. The effect of the raid was just the opposite of what he hoped, even on the slaves. He had killed a nagur here the first thing, and that shocked thim. You couldn’t get one of 'em out after dark till weeks and months had gone by, they were so skeered.

Well, the Monday of John Brown's Raid bate anything I iver seen, and I seen desperate times during the war — bridges burnt and government buildings a-fire — but niver no such excitement as that day. It was a dreadful time.


1 As I saw him he was a very hearty, friendly old Irishman of alert mind and decided opinions. We spent an evening together in the little sitting-room of his home a short distance from Harper's Ferry.

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