Fighting begins in Virginia

Well, all right, continues. Alexandria, VA, was captured on 24 April as part of the US’s effort to establish a safe zone around Washington, DC. There wasn’t much of a fight but there were two casualties.

At any rate, today the fighting at Sewell’s Point, Virginia began. Sewell’s Point guards the mouth of the harbor at Hampton Roads and more importantly, it offered a vantage from which artillery could be fired at US-occupied Fort Monroe. Naturally the Confederates began setting up guns there, and equally naturally the occupants of the fort sent a war-ship and an armed tug over to see what the hell was going on. The captain of the USS Monticello, the warship, took exception to the construction of breastworks and artillery emplacements and opened fire. The Confederates, after a startled pause, opened fire right back. There were no casualties during the two-day battle, and eventually Monticello limped back to Fort Monroe with several holes in her sides, the tug trailing behind.

Published in: on 18 May, 2011 at 11:24  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering In The Grave

On 2 December, 1859, at high noon, John Brown was hanged by the neck until dead.

The night before his wife had finally made it to Charles Town to visit him. They had dinner together but his jailers wouldn’t allow her to stay the night. Witnesses report that was the only time in prison that John Brown lost his composure.

On his way to the scaffold, John Brown handed one of his supporters a note, which read

Charlestown, Va
2nd December 1859
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that withought very much bloodshed it might be done.

He mounted the scaffold, the rope was placed around his neck, the trapdoor sprung, and John Brown passed into history, to become a hope for the slaves, a song for the soldiers, and a terrifying specter for the south.

Published in: on 2 December, 2009 at 18:59  Leave a Comment  

Reading Material: John Brown’s Letters

I have just found the niftiest historical widget. has 202 of John Brown’s letters online and you can filter them by recipient, the place he wrote from, or the date he wrote. The filters aren’t perfect, but they are fascinating, and it’s a neat way to shuffle through Brown’s voluminous correspondance.

These 202 letters were written between 1833 and 1859, with the vast majority of them (56) being written in 1859. This is not particularly surprising given what John Brown was up to that year. Among other things, they have John Brown’s will, written on the 1st of December, the day before he was hanged. Most of his children got only a Bible from him, “as good a copy of the Bible as can be purchased at some bookstore in New York or Boston, at a cost of $5 each in cash. . .” His grandchildren were to receive Bibles worth $3.

The one-sided view we get of Brown’s correspondance is by turns tantalizing and poignant. What are we to make of letters like this:

Charlestown, VA., Nov. 30, 1859.

DR. THOS. H. WEBB, Boston.

MY DEAR SIR, I would most gladly comply with your request most kindly made in your letter of the 26th inst., but it came too late. It is out of my power. Farewell: God bless you!

Your friend, JOHN BROWN.

And then there is this one:


Dec. 1, 1859.


MY DEAR FRIEND, I have only time to say I got your kind letter of the 26th of November this evening. Am very grateful for all the good feelings expressed by yourself and wife. May God abundantly bless and save you all! I am very cheerful, in hopes of entering on a better state of existence in a few hours, through infinite grace in Christ Jesus my Lord. Remember the poor that cry,” and them that are in bonds as bound with them.” Your friend as ever,


Anyhow, it’s worth a little time to click over there and rifle through John Brown’s correspondance and watch him develop, as it were, pointing himself with greater and greater surety toward the tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Interestingly he never expresses anything but peace at the thought of his execution. One might almost think that John Brown wanted to be a martyr to the abolitionist cause.

Mahala Doyle and John Brown

I’ve previously discussed one woman who wrote to John Brown after his capture at Harpers Ferry. L. Maria Child was an outspoken abolitionist who admired John Brown’s “work” in Kansas and in Harpers Ferry. Later, though, John Brown got a different kind of letter.

In this world you have no abiding place

In my last entry I briefly touched on John Brown’s letters from prison before haring off and ignoring them entirely to deal with the interrogation of John Brown that took place after his capture. Sorry about that. Sometimes, I am a sloppy writer when I blog and my digressions get the better of me.

The end of that is not yet

We’re kind of killing time here. John Brown has been convicted and sentenced to hang and sits in prison in Charles Town, Virginia. His hanging marks the next Sesquicentennial on December 2nd. Meanwhile, he was writing letters. The letters and the interview with him in the Charles Town jail on the 31st of October can tell us a lot about what kind of man he was.

The sentencing of John Brown

On November 2nd, 1859, a verdict was rendered in Virgina vs. John Brown. The trial had begun just over a week earlier. Technically speaking the crime John Brown had committed was if anything treason against the United States of America, but President Buchanan caved to pressure from Virginia Governor Henry Wise and allowed John Brown to be tried for treason against the state of Virginia.

Governor Wise and other pro-slavery forces were doubtless concerned that a federal trial might result in an acquittal. Trial in a state court in Virginia, on the other hand, virtually guaranteed a conviction and death sentence. And that’s what they got. John Brown was sentenced to hang. After the verdict was announced, he spoke to the court.

. . .Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. . . .

In the month that followed, John Brown wrote many letters, but this was the last speech he gave.

L. Maria Child and John Brown

I published this once before, but am dragging it out again for the sesquicentennial of its beginning, when Lydia Maria Child wrote to John Brown, who was in prison in Charles Town, Virginia (now West by-God Virginia).

On October 26th, a little over a week after John Brown’s failed uprising at Harpers Ferry, a woman named Lydia Maria Child wrote him a letter. Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1802, Mrs. Childs began her career as an author in 1824, when her novel Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times was published. In 1831 she heard William Lloyd Garrison speak, and by her own account he “got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms.” In 1833 she published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, writing in the introduction “I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken, but though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them.”

Dangerfield Newby

Dangerfield Newby was the first man of John Brown’s Provisional Army to die at Harpers Ferry. He was born in 1815 in Culpeper County, Virginia, the oldest son of a white man and an enslaved African-American woman. Mr. Newby married a woman named Harriet, who was also enslaved and belonged to someone else. When Newby’s father moved his entire family to Ohio and freed them, Harriet was left behind in Brentville, Virginia, with their seven children. Dangerfield Newby tried to save up the money to buy his family, but her master wanted $1000 for her and their youngest child, and he was only able to come up with about $750. John Brown’s plan must have looked like his next best option to free his family and have them with him again. After the raid on Harpers Ferry was over, the Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee rifled the bodies of the fallen, looking for clues to what had taken place. What they found in Dangerfield Newby’s pockets were three letters from his wife.

You can see those letters from Harriet to Dangerfield on the 2009 African American Trailblazers in Virginia History site (Dangerfield Newby is one of the honorees).

The letters will break your heart. On April 11, 1859, Harriet wrote:

oh Dear Dangerfield com this fall with out fail monny or no money. I want to see you so much that is one bright hope I have before me. . .

His replies to her do not survive. All we’re left with are the pleading and hopes of Harriet:

Dear Dangerfield you Can not amagine how much I want to see you Com as soon as you can for nothing would give more pleasure than to see you it is the grates Comfort I have is thinking of the promist time when you will be here oh that bless hour when I shall see you once more. . . (April 22, 1859)

And then one more, on August 16th, exactly two months before Dangerfield Newby died in Harpers Ferry:

. . .it is said Master is in want of monney if so I know not what time he may sell me an then all my bright hops of the futer are blasted for there has ben one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles that is to be with you for if I thought I shoul never see you this earth would have no charms for me. . .

She never saw Dangerfield Newby that fall. After the raid, her master sold her down the river. Literally. Virginia was an exporting state where enslaved people were concerned, and Harriet Newby’s owner, doubtless fearing the association with one of the Provisional Army, sold her south to Louisiana.

Harpers Ferry, 150 years later

It was freezing cold and drizzling rain here on Saturday, when I not only got up nice and early but dragged my Mom out of bed as well. What with the cold and the wet, I wasn’t going to be able to take a dog along, so Mom volunteered instead. We left the house at 7am and sped north on winding back roads, arriving at the Harpers Ferry visitor center around 9. I managed to get a few pictures, despite wearing (I kid you not) 4 shirts, 2 layers of pants, Carhartt boot socks, combat boots, my disreputable pink and green hat, and a rain coat. I mentioned it was cold, right? And wet. Cold and wet.