John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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stitution and ordinances." This constitution, drawn up
by John Brown, and adopted by himself and half a
dozen whites, and as many more negroes in Canada,
provided for legislative, executive, and judicial branches
of his government. It also provided for treaties of
peace, for a commander-in-chief, for communism of pro
perty, for capturing and confiscating property, for the
treatment of prisoners, and for many absurd things
besides. After providing for the slaughter or the rob
bery of nearly everybody in the United States who
did not join the organization, or voluntarily free their
slaves and agree to keep the peace, it culminated in a
declaration :

" Art. 46. The foregoing articles shall not be con
strued so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of


any state government, or of the general government of
the United States, and look to no dissolution of the
Union, but simply to amendment and repeal, and our
flag shall be the same as our fathers fought under in the

No one can read the absurd jargon and believe that
it was the product of the same brain. Yet the last
declaration of the document is no more inconsistent with
the facts than were the repeated declarations of Brown,
after he had killed a number of people at Harper s
Ferry, that he proposed no violence. Nor was it a whit
more absurd than the pretended loyalty to State and
country of those who applauded his career of murder
and robbery, and treason both state and national.

From May, 1858, to October, 1859, Brown pursued his
plans. He rented a farm near Harper s Ferry, and there
collected his arms and ammunition, without exciting sus
picion. Delays occurred from lack of funds, etc. An
anonymous letter was sent to the Secretary of War, in
the spring of 1859, revealing his plans and purposes, but
it seems to have made no impression, although the Secre
tary of War was a Southern man.

Shortly before Brown made his demonstration, his
cohorts, to the number of twenty, black and white,
assembled at his farmhouse, and Sunday night, October
16, 1859, they descended upon Harper s Ferry. About
10.30 P. M., they seized and captured the watchman upon
the railroad bridge across the Potomac, and proceeded
with him to the United States armory, of which they took
possession. Brown then sent forth a party, headed by his
lieutenant, Cook, to capture Colonel Lewis Washington
and Mr. Allstadt, leading citizens, who were to be held as
hostages. These gentlemen were compelled to leave their
beds, and accompany the invaders. Their slaves, to the


number of thirty, were also compelled, against their
will, to join the party. Colonel Washington was a grand-
nephew of George Washington, and a member of the
staff of the governor of Virginia.

A sword of Frederick the Great, which had been pre
sented to George Washington, was " appropriated " for
use by John Brown. At this point we are introduced to
the word selected by Brown as descriptive of his taking
other people s property. He did not call it stealing, or
robbery, or violent seizure. He invariably referred to it
as " appropriating, * and he pronounced the word in a
peculiar way, putting the whole emphasis upon the
second syllable, as if it were a-prop-Tiating. It was a
favorite and oft-repeated word with him. Here also we see,
in his appropriating the sword of Frederick the Great to
be worn by himself, that overshadowing egotism which
was one of his most prominent characteristics, the inor
dinate vanity of lunacy.

It was an ill omen for his venture that the first person
killed by his band in the early morning was an inoffen
sive colored man, a porter at the railroad station, who,
being ordered to stop and seeking to escape, was shot as
he ran away. The next victim was a citizen killed stand
ing in his own door. The next, a graduate of West Point,
who, having heard of the trouble at the Ferry, was shot
from the armory as he rode into town on horseback
armed with a gun.

It is impossible to describe the consternation which
these scenes produced among the citizens of Harper s

When the marines had completed their lawful and
proper work the following morning, John Brown lay on
the grass desperately wounded. His entire party was
killed, wounded, or captured, and the dead bodies of two


of his sons were beside him. It was a ghastly ending
of a horrid venture. As has been truly said of it by an
eminent Northern historian : " In the light of common
sense, the plan was folly ; from a military point of view,
it was absurd." The first question which arises in the
mind of every one is, Did John Brown know the nature
of his own acts? As far as man may answer such a
question, he answered it himself on many occasions.

While in the engine-house, receiving and returning
the fire of the marines, one of his prisoners, Mr. Dain-
gerfield, told him he was committing treason. One of his
followers spoke up and said : " Captain Brown, are we
guilty of treason in what we are doing? I did not so
understand it."

" Certainly," said Brown, and coolly kept up his fire.

When examined after his surrender, and upon his trial,
he said he fully understood the nature of his acts and the
consequences, and peremptorily refused to permit any
plea of lunacy to be interposed in his defense.

John Brown was tried for treason, murder, and inciting
slaves to insurrection. His trial occupied six days. He
was defended by able counsel, of his own selection, from
Massachusetts and Ohio. Every witness he desired sum
moned appeared. The evidence of his guilt was over
whelming, and he was sentenced to death. Any other
penalty would have been a travesty of justice, and a con
fession that the organized governments which he assailed
were mockeries, affording no protection to their citizens
against midnight murder and assassination. Did the
Virginians exult over the wretched victim of his own
lawlessness ? NO !

The " New York Herald " published the account of
how that verdict was received : " Not the slightest sound
was heard in the vast crowd, as this verdict was returned


and read; not the slightest expression of elation or tri
umph was uttered from the hundreds present. . . . Nor
was this strange silence interrupted during the whole of
the time occupied by the forms of the court."

When Brown was asked if he had anything to say
why sentence should not be pronounced, he said among
other things : " I admire the truthfulness and candor of
the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified.
... I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have
received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances,
it has been more generous than I expected." He ad
mitted a design to free the slaves, but denied all inten
tion to commit treason, or murder, or violence in so doing,
and declared that in what he had done he felt fully justi
fied before God and man.

There was nothing remarkable or unusual in talk like
this by a man like that. It has been the usual jabber
of desperate, unbalanced egotists and law-breakers since
vanity, ignorance, and fanaticism produced the first
assailant of organized government. It was heard again
when Wilkes Booth, assassinating Lincoln, exclaimed:
" Sic semper tyrannis ! " and again, when Guiteau slew
Garfield, claiming that he served his country in commit
ting the base deed.

The Virginians took the life of John Brown to preserve
their own lives, and the lives of their wives and children,
from destruction. He had, indeed, " whetted knives of
butchery " for them, and had come a thousand miles to
kill people who had never heard his name.

Yet, when the majesty of the law was vindicated, they did
not gloat over his dead body or mutilate his corpse, as he
had done his Kansas victims. They did not boil his bones
and articulate them to be hung in a public museum. When
justice was satisfied, his body, unmutilated, was delivered


to his wife to bear back to his home, and she is a witness
to the fact that she was shown all the sympathy, all the
tenderness, all the consideration, of which the awful situa
tion admitted.

When the Virginia people first came into possession of
the facts of the John Brown fiasco, they did not believe
the outrage had been promoted or would be justified by
any considerable number of sane, law-abiding people
anywhere. With an inborn love of courage, the bearing
of John Brown was so fearless throughout that, even in
their anger at his impotent violence, they admired his
fortitude. Even the governor of the State testified to
this. Describing his appearance as he lay wounded
before him, he said he could liken his attitude to nothing
but "a broken-winged hawk lying upon his back, with
fearless eye, and talons set for further fight if need be,"
and such was undoubtedly the man; such have been
many others like him. The quality of perfect courage,
coupled with an unbalanced judgment, narrow-minded
ness, and fanaticism, has produced a hundred characters
in history like Brown. Pity, pity, pity it is to see that
splendid quality perverted and destroyed by such fatal
accompaniments. It was with a genuine sigh of admira
tion for this fortitude that, without one doubt about their
duty, the Virginians imposed the penalty for his crime
upon John Brown.

To one who knows the truth, the most tantalizing
reflections upon the John Brown raid are these : The man
who, as colonel in the army of the United States,
captured Brown ; the governor of Virginia, under whose
administration he was justly hung ; ay, a majority of
the people of Virginia were at heart opposed to slavery.
Uninterrupted by madmen like Brown, they would have
accomplished, in good time, the emancipation of the


slave without the awful fratricidal scenes which he pre
cipitated. Of course there are those who will still deny
this, and conclusive proof is impossible. History took its
course. Yet it is hard that one madman was able to
warp that course, and it is wrong to glorify him as saint
and martyr, while men infinitely his superiors in intellect,
in broad philanthropy, in civilization, and his equals in
moral and physical courage, were driven by his folly into
apparent advocacy of slavery. Neither Colonel Lee nor
the governor of Virginia were champions of slavery.
Both rejoiced at its final overthrow, even at the great
price in blood and treasure at which it was accomplished.
The fanaticism which applauded Brown s acts made them
feel that there was no possible peace or union with such
people, and made them resolve that, sooner than submit
to such savage fraternity, they would fight for freedom
from its dictation, its taunts, and its interference.

When Virginia had performed her duty in executing
Brown, her next step was to inquire what sympathy she
received in the hour of her trial. She expected, as she
had a right to expect, that the North, boasting of its
superior civilization and its greater regard for the main
tenance of the laws protecting person and property,
would be practically unanimous in condemnation. Even
the half-civilized free-soilers of Kansas had denounced
Brown s barbarism.

When it was learned that, in many parts of the North,
churches held services of humiliation and prayer ; that
bells were tolled ; that minute-guns were fired ; that
Brown was glorified as a saint ; that even in the legisla
ture of Massachusetts, eight out of nineteen senators
had voted to adjourn at the time of his execution ; that
Christian ministers had been parties to his schemes of
assassination and robbery ; that women had canonized the


bloodthirsty old lunatic as " St. John the Just ; " that
philanthropists had pronounced him " most truly Chris
tian ; " that Northern poets like Whittier and Emerson
and Longfellow were writing panegyrics upon him ; that
Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison approved
his life, and counted him a martyr, then Virginians
began to feel that an " irrepressible conflict " was indeed
upon them. Still, they waited to ascertain how wide
spread this feeling was.

Horace Greeley, editor of the " New York Tribune,"
the leading Republican journal of the North, contented
himself with referring to Brown and his followers as
" mistaken men," but added that he would " not by one
reproachful word disturb the bloody shrouds wherein
John Brown and his compatriots are sleeping." John
A. Andrew, of Massachusetts, presided at a John Brown
meeting, proclaiming that whether the enterprise was
wise or foolish, John Brown himself was right. The
next year, Mr. Andrew was elected governor of Massa
chusetts. The Northern elections in the month succeeding
John Brown s raid showed gains to the Eepublicans in
the North. Lincoln spoke in February, 1860, at Cooper
Institute, New York. His comments on Brown were
looked for with anxiety. He said John Brown s effort
was " peculiar ; " and while he characterized it as absurd,
he had no word of censure. Seward spoke soon after
wards in the Senate. He was a man of more refine
ment than Lincoln. He represented a constituency more
highly civilized, and one in which a greater regard for
law existed than in the West. He dared to say that
Brown "attempted to subvert slavery in Virginia by
conspiracy, ambush, invasion, and force," and to add that
"this attempt to execute an unlawful purpose in Vir
ginia by invasion, involving servile war, was an act of


sedition and treason, and criminal in just the extent that
it affected the public peace and was destructive of human
happiness and life."

Seward s detestation of slavery was more widely known
than Lincoln s. Up to that time, he had no formidable
competitor for the Republican nomination for the presi
dency. It is not improbable that, in the then excited
state of Northern feeling, the two candid admissions above
quoted cost him the nomination for the presidency.

While these scenes were being enacted, a great change
of feeling took place in Virginia towards the people of
the North and towards the Union itself. Virginians
began to look upon the people of the North as hating
them, and willing to see them assassinated at midnight by
their own slaves, led by Northern emissaries ; as flinging
aside all pretense or regard for laws protecting the slave
owner ; as demanding of them the immediate freeing of
their slaves ; or that they prepare against further attacks
like Brown s, backed by the moral and pecuniary support
of the North.

During the year 1860, the Virginians began to organize
and arm themselves against such emergencies. They knew
that, while James Buchanan was President, the power of the
federal administration could be relied upon to suppress
such violence ; but they also knew that his term of office
was nearly at an end, and they had little hope of such
protection if the federal administration fell into the
hands of the Republicans. While the State was still
unprepared to secede, her citizens were a unit in the
resolve that Northern fanatics, who thenceforth appeared
on Virginia soil upon any such mission as that of John
Brown, should " be welcomed with bloody hands to hos
pitable graves."

When the troops came back from Harper s Ferry, they


were amply supplied with songs. The first and most
popular was one upon John Brown, sung to the tune
of " The Happy Land of Canaan." It had a number
of verses, only one of which I remember, running some
thing after this fashion :

" In Harper s Ferry section, there was an insurrection,
John Brown thought the niggers would sustain him,
But old master Governor Wise
Put his specs upon his eyes,
And he landed in the happy land of Canaan.


" Oh me ! Oh my ! The Southern boys are a-trainin ,
We 11 take a piece of rope
And march em up a slope,
And land em in the happy land of Canaan."

It is surprising how popular this rigmarole became
through the South, and many a time during the war I
heard the regiments, as they marched, sing verses from it.
It is in contrast with the solemn swell of " John Brown s
Body," as rendered by the Union troops. The latter
is only an adaptation of a favorite camp-meeting hymn
which I often heard the negroes sing, as they worked in
the fields, long before the days of John Brown. The old
words were :

" My poor body lies a-mouldering in the clay,
My poor body lies a-mouldering in the clay,
My poor body lies a-mouldering in the clay,
While my soul goes marching on.


" Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
As my soul goes marching on."



OUR life during the year 1860 was in strange contrast
with the busy and exciting scenes of 1858 and 1859.
Father s term of office expired January 1, 1860. He
sold his plantation in Accomac, and bought another in the
county of Princess Anne, near Norfolk. This change was
due partly to domestic and partly to political considera

During a period of rebuilding at " Rolleston," our new
home, I was sent, January 1, 1860, to live with a favor
ite sister, and attend a private school presided over by
the parish minister, a Master of Arts of the University
of Virginia. The location was in the county of Gooch-
land, about twenty miles west of Richmond, in the beauti
ful valley of the upper James.

From Lynchburg, which is near the foot-hills of the
Blue Ridge, the James River courses eastward to Rich
mond, a distance of about two hundred miles, through a
valley of great fertility and beauty. The width of this
valley seldom exceeds a mile, and at many points it is
much narrower than that. The flat lands along the
course of the stream are known as the " James River low
grounds," an expression which conveys to the mind of the
Virginian an idea of fatness and fecundity such as others
conceive in reading of the valley of the Nile. About
Lynchburg, high bluffs hang over the stream, and the flat
lands are narrow and small in extent ; but from Howards-


ville, in Albemarle, to Richmond, a hundred miles below,
the valley broadens, and the bluffs grow less beetling as
the gently rolling lands of lower Piedmont are reached.
In general characteristics, the section resembles the val
leys of the Genesee and the Mohawk in New York, with a
greater luxuriance of woodland and more extended vistas.

Upon the swelling hills overlooking the James were
built, at the time of which I write, for a distance of a
hundred miles or more, the homes of many of the wealthi
est and most representative people of our State.

No railroad penetrated the valley. The only means
provided for transporting products to market was the
James River and Kanawha Canal, an enterprise projected
by General Washington. It had been completed as far
as Lexington, passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains
at the point known as Balcony Falls, a spot suggestive of
the Trosachs pass in Scotland.

For their own transportation up and down the valley,
these prosperous folk had private equipages and servants.
When the distance was greater than a day s journey, the
home of some friend, generally a kinsman, stood wide
open for their entertainment. The canal was available
upon emergency as a means of travel, but as its speed
was only about four miles an hour, few of the grandees
resorted to it. A fine road ran along the foot-hills, par
allel with the canal and river, from Richmond to Char-
lottesville, often keeping companionship for a mile or two
with the route of the canal. The hills were of that stiff
red clay celebrated afar for its adaptability to corn and
tobacco ; and the soil of the low grounds, often refreshed
and rejuvenated by the overflow of the James, was a deep
alluvial deposit of chocolate loam, inexhaustible in rich
ness and fertility, and producing all the cereals in mar
velous abundance.


Recalling a few of the princely dwellers in this favored
section, one remembers the Cabells of Nelson ; the Gaits
of Albemarle ; the Cockes of Fluvanna ; the Hubards of
Buckingham ; the Boilings of Boiling Island and Boiling
Hall ; the Harrisons of Ampthill, and Clifton, and Elk
Hill ; the Hobsons of " Howard s Neck," and " Snowden,"
and " Eastwood ; " the Flemings of " West View ; " the
Rutherfords of "Rock Castle;" General Philip St.
George Cocke of "Belle Mead;" the Skipwiths ; the
Logans of " Dungeness ; " the Seldens of " Orapax " and
of "Norwood; " the Warwicks; the Michaux of Michaux s
Ferry ; the Morsons of " Dover ; " the Seddons of " Sabot
Hill ; " the Stanards of " Bendover; " the AUens of "Tuck-
ahoe ; " and many others :

" Their swords are rust,
Their bodies dust ;
Their souls are with the saints, we trust."

Scattered along the valley, owning respectively from
seven hundred to two or three thousand acres, with slaves
enough to cultivate twice the lands they owned, they were
the happiest and most prosperous community in all Amer
ica ; not rolling in wealth, like the sugar cane and cotton
planters of the South, yet with a thousand advantages
over them, in the variety of their productions, in the
beauty of their lands, in the salubrity of their climate, in
the society about them, and in their access to the outer

The home of my sister was on one of these fine James
River estates, and her neighbors were of the most highly
cultivated people of whom that region boasted. The
plantation had been purchased from Colonel Trevillian,
descendant of an old Huguenot family, and its name,
"Eastwood," had been bestowed by its former owner,
Peyton Harrison. My brother-in-law, after an education


in Europe, had essayed business, but ill-health compelled
him to adopt a country life. The house stood in a grove
of oaks of original growth, in the midst of an extensive
lawn carpeted with greensward. Behind it were the sta
bles, the inclosures, and the household servants quarters.
In front, half a mile away, were the low grounds and
river ; and to the left again, half a mile distant, stood the
overseer s house, the quarters of the farm hands, and
the farm stables. Up and down the river were visible
the handsome residences of the neighbors. On remote
hillsides or in the wooded points, one saw, here and there,
great barns of brick or wood for storing wheat or corn,
and houses where tobacco was stripped and hung, and
smoked and dried, and pressed into hogsheads. Intermi
nable lines of stone or post and oak fences, without one
missing panel, showed, as few other things in farming do
show, the prosperity of the owners of these lands. Great
fields this one pale green with winter wheat, this sere
and brown in pasture land, this red with newly ploughed
clods, and this with a thousand hillocks whence the
tobacco had been gleaned were spread out to the vision,
clean of weeds and undergrowth, and cultivated until they
looked like veritable maps of agriculture.

Near at hand, or far away upon the hillsides, one be
held the working-bands of slaves, well clothed, well fed,
and differing from other workmen, as we see them now,
chiefly in their numbers and their cheerfulness and their
comfortable clothing. Remarkable as the statement may
seem, those slaves, over whose sad fate so many tears have
been shed, went about their work more joyously than any
laboring people I ever saw.

Our school was located a mile away, in rear of the river
plantations, upon a road leading to what was known as
" the back country." A little church, built from the pri-


vate contributions of the river planters, was used as the
schoolhouse. It was near the parsonage. That point was
selected, not only for its convenience to the teacher, but
also because of its accessibility to the children of the
smaller farmers in this " back country." It is often said
that antagonism existed between this humbler class of
whites and the wealthy nabobs living upon the river.
Perhaps there may have been something of the inevitable
envy which the less fortunate feel everywhere towards the
prosperous and great, but certain it is, there was little
manifestation of it there. The wealthy sought in every
way to be upon good terms with the poor ; and one of the
best proofs that they succeeded is found in the fact that,
when war came, the two stood up together side by side,
and fought and slept and ate and died together, never
thinking of which was rich or which was poor, until a time
when such as survived were all poor together, and those

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 10 of 35)