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The Free Jakes1
MY folks lived eight miles south of Harper's Ferry at Charlestown. I was a boy comin' up fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of the Brown Raid. The first I knew of it two men playin' a drum and a fife marched up the street. Then the bell at the courthouse rang, and the people all gathered there to learn the cause of the unusual summons. Half a dozen prominent men spoke. They said something was wrong at Harper's Ferry, and that an armed body had taken possession of the armory.
Some of us boys had organized a sort of juvenile militia company. We had wooden guns and called ourselves Free Jakes. But there was no nonsense about the way we drilled, and I've never forgotten the manual. I could drill a company now right up to the scratch. There was an old Revolutionary cannon in the place — a smooth-bore six-pounder. Most of the time it just set around on a vacant lot anywhere, but the boys and young men always used to fire it on Christmas Day. That was the biggest time of the year with us. We celebrated Christmas the same as the Fourth of July was celebrated up North. We'd start in the morning along about daylight and fire the cannon at every corner. The concussions would break all the windows in Charlestown, but no one ever complained. We made a fuse by soaking brown paper in salt petre, and when it was dried we tied it in a loose little roll on the end of a three-foot stick to use in touching off our cannon. The cannon kicked like the Old Harry and at every discharge jumped back eight or ten feet.
The jailer of our prison told us Free Jakes to get our cannon ready to go to Harper's Ferry. We needed some ammunition, and we got a number of oyster cans that would hold 'bout a pint and were just the right size for the muzzle of our gun, and we filled 'em with powder. Then we picked little holes in the bottom with a nail and a rock so the powder would ignite. Another set of cans we filled with clippings from horseshoes. The clippings were square slugs as big as large chestnuts and made fine missiles. We took a stick and rammed one of each of the cans home in the gun and filled up the touchhole with powder. After that we put ropes to the cannon and started along the pike. I guess fifty or sixty boys had hold of the ropes. Anyway there was a dickens of a bunch of us. We had two men for wheel-horses. They were big and strong, and we kept them full enough of whiskey to encourage them to work well. We had to stop now and then to rest, and it took us quite a while to travel the hilly eight-mile road.
As we neared the town we began to move very quietly, feelin' our way, and not knowin' what we had to contend with. It was afternoon when we got here. Everything was in a bustle, and we could see people lookin' down from the high ground all around. We planted our cannon up on Camp Hill to bear on the bridge across the Potomac. That bridge was a mile away, mind you, but we expected to keep out any enemy that attempted to cross it; and I suppose, if we had actually fired our cannon, the slugs in the oyster can would have been scattered all over the world.
But there seemed to be no immediate occasion for artillery, and we left our cannon, and each boy knocked around to suit himself and see what he could see. Our movements were cautious, however, for we didn’t know when we might run into an ambuscade, and we were particularly careful not to go too near the engine house because Brown's men had made portholes in it through which they could sight and pop at us.
We all had friends livin' here who gave us something to eat, and quite a number of the Free Jakes stayed overnight. I know I did. I was at the home of a cousin of mine where a bunch of us fellows slept together on the floor.
The next morning the raiders were captured, and I saw Brown as they put him on the train to take him to the Charlestown Jail. He appeared to me like a very roughlookin' old farmer.
Late in the day it was reported that a big crowd was comin' from the North somewheres, to rescue the raiders. We heard they were murdering and playing the mischief all along the line, and there was the blamedest excitement around here that night you ever saw. Some people out in the country gathered up what belongings they could carry in their arms, or perhaps put their stuff in a wheelbarrow and came into the town. Nobody slept. In fact, I tell you there was very little sleep here, or work either, for the balance of that week. What with the funerals and all kinds of reports, and the crowds that come in to look around, the town was in constant turmoil.
Thursday we dragged our cannon back, and we didn’t have so many to help pull then, by golly!
My mother was a very philanthropic woman who made it a point to hunt up things for the needy and afflicted, and several times she sent me to the jail with a basket of food for Brown. The poor old fellow had a bayonet wound in his side and a sabre gash on the side of his head, and he was always lying down. They tried him soon after he was captured, and the jail guards carried him across the street to the courthouse on a stretcher. A crowd was sure to be lookin' on, and it was kept back on either side by a file of soldiers.
I was a little shaver, but I was at the trial every day, I reckon. I'd run off from school to go. They couldn’t keep me away. You'd think Brown was pretty near dead to look at him on his stretcher. Sometimes he'd sit up a little bit, but he didn’t talk much.
He was condemned to be hung, and the appointed time came. It was a mild, pleasant day in early December. That morning Brown's wife visited him, and I was standing just opposite when she came out of the jail. She was dressed in deep black, with a heavy black veil over her face.
The place of execution was an open field on the edge of the town. The country people flocked in, and a good many strangers were present from a distance. The town was under martial law that day, and Ashby's Black Horse Cavalry was scouting all around. You know Brown had said he never would be hung, and we thought an attempt might be made to liberate him.
Brown rode from the jail to the gallows in a two-horse undertaker's wagon sitting on his coffin, and the sheriff sat on it with him. As they went along Brown remarked to his companion, "This is nice country through here."
On the seat in front were the driver and the undertaker. All around the wagon rode an escort of cavalry, and on ahead marched a troop of infantry, and more infantry followed behind. When the procession reached the field the soldiers formed a hollow square around the scaffold. I sat up on a fence. The crowd was very quiet. It was a solemn occasion, and yet not specially dreadful. We all thought Brown was getting just what he'd worked for, and there was more or less joking at his expense.
After the hanging the body was put in the coffin and sent to Harper's Ferry in the undertaker's wagon under a cavalry guard. There Brown's wife was waiting to take the remains back North with her.
Six other raiders had been captured — four of them white men and two coons — and their trials and executions followed within a few months.
Some one made up a song soon after Brown was captured. It was sung to the tune of "Happy Land of Canaan," and was very popular at the time of the trial and all through the war. It ran along like this:
There was an insurrection in Harper's Ferry section —
John Brown thought the niggers would sustain him;
But old Governor Wise put the goggles on his eyes
And sent him to the happy land of Canaan.
Chorus. Old John Brown, don't you see —
Never will do to set a nigger free?
People are a-comin' — comin' from all aroun'
They'll take you and hang you in old Charlestown.
Old Governor Wise, to Washington he went
And brought the marines on their own consent.
He marched them to the Ferry, he marched them all aroun',
He marched them to the engine house and took John Brown.
1 Most of the Free Jakes are no more. The survivor who related their history was at the time of this interview a hotel landlord at Harper's Ferry — a thin, active man, getting gray. Sometimes, while he talked, he was behind the office counter, but in his more leisurely intervals he occupied one of the row of chairs along the opposite wall.