Harpers Ferry raid aided by many blacks


It is commonly said that John Brown tried to incite the slaves to rebel, but blacks did not join him. That is not true. What really happened is more complicated, more inclusive of black participation, and was more successful than even Brown might have imagined.

Brown raided Harpers Ferry to free the slaves on Oct. 16, 1859, with 21 men.

The first civilian who lost his life, Heyward Shepherd, was a free black man, a baggage handler at Harpers Ferry. Shepherd came upon the raiders on the bridge. They tried to entice him to join them. He balked and ran, only to be shot in the back by the raiders.

However, blacks by the hundreds were motivated to help. Among them were two slaves captured in the raid. Slave Jim was clubbed to death during the raid. Slave Ben was captured and taken to Charles Town, where he died in jail. Both had joined Brown’s cause.

Several blacks helped Brown’s men escape, and five or six others helped load wagons at the Kennedy Farm.

U.S. Army Col. Robert E. Lee, in charge of putting down the rebellion, listed two more dead raiders than the number of raiders who crossed the bridge – presumed to be blacks. Commander Robert Baylor cites four more insurgent deaths in his reports – believed now to have been blacks who helped in the raid.

Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise declared martial law in November, saying the mountains above the Shenandoah River were filled with “hundreds of fugitives.”

Local blacks burned crops and barns belonging to members of the jury.

W.E.B. Dubois in his biography “John Brown” in 1909 said, “Even as it was, fifteen or twenty Negroes had enlisted and would probably have been present had they had time to arrive before Brown was captured. Five, probably six, actually came in time to fight and thirty or forty slaves actually helped.”

Frederick Douglass, a national black leader, said, “With eighteen men John Brown overpowered a town of over three thousand souls. With those eighteen men, he rallied fifty slaves to his standard, and made prisoners of an equal number of the slaveholding class.”

Years later, Douglass said, “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”

The Weekly Anglo-African newspaper in New York said, “Virginia would never have trembled at seventeen, nor seventeen hundred white men in arms, had they been all John Browns; it was the five black men armed to the teeth, and the hundred black men in their midst armed with a quarrel just, who caused the Virginians to tremble and shudder.”

Another locally born black man supported Brown. Martin R. Delany, a free black who had moved to Pittsburgh, organized the 1858 convention where Brown’s provisional constitution was adopted.

Henry Watson, a black barber in Pennsylvania, certainly aided and abetted Brown. He arranged Brown’s meeting with Douglass and provided overnight accommodations to Douglass.

The five black raiders were Osborne Anderson, Lewis Leary, Shields Green, John Copeland and Dangerfield Newby. Of these, two had been born into slavery and three were free black men.

Anderson was a free black in Canada and a member of Brown’s convention. In his book, “A Voice From Harpers Ferry,” Anderson says Brown was “surprised and pleased by the promptitude with which the Africans volunteered, and with their manly bearing in the scene of violence.”

Newby was a 44-year-old, recently freed slave from Fauquier County, Va. Anderson said Newby had more to lose than anyone because Newby hoped to free his family from slavery. Newby was the first raider killed.

Leary, along with Copeland, came to the raid from Oberlin, Ohio. Leary and Copeland were both free blacks from North Carolina who emigrated in family groups. Leary, who was Copeland’s uncle, died in the raid, while Copeland was captured, tried and hanged.

Green was a 23-year-old fugitive slave from South Carolina. He had once worked for Douglass. Green was captured, tried and hanged.

Copeland and Green were the only raiders found not guilty of treason. To be found guilty of treason, you must be a citizen. Blacks were property and not considered citizens.

When Brown died Dec. 2, 1859, on the gallows in Charles Town, he had done his work, told his story, and had nothing else to offer except his martyrdom for the cause.

Douglass said it best. “If we look over the dates, places, and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia – not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry and the arsenal – not Colonel Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery.”

Historians even to this day will say that Brown tried to incite slaves to rebel at Harpers Ferry, but that the slaves and free blacks did not show up. Do not believe them. The record shows otherwise.

This year, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and surrounding communities are commemorating the 150th anniversary of Brown’s raid with at least 70 events. See www.johnbrownraid.org for details or call 1-866-HELLO-WV.

• Bob O’Connor is the author of “The Perfect Steel Trap: Harpers Ferry 1859.” This historical fiction account of the raid is available at www.boboconnor books.com.

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Washington Times, Used by Permission


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