John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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whenever a slave escaped, the Northern community in
which he sought asylum was practically unanimous in
thinking it a great outrage and hardship if he was pur
sued into their territory and taken back to his owner. It
is often said that, before the war, only a small portion of
the Northern people belonged to the abolition party.
Whether that was true or not, it is certain that a vast
majority of every Northern community was in sympathy
with obstacles thrown in the way of recapturing escaped
slaves. Everybody, North and South, was well aware
that in many instances the slave was enticed from his
home by abolition emissaries. Yet when he reached the
North, thousands who would not have gone South to
incite him to escape did all they could to make the work
of the emissaries effectual.

In such a condition of affairs, the practical difference
between the abolitionist and the sympathizer, to the
man who lost his slave and could not recover it, was very
nebulous. From certain descriptions of these times, one
would think that all the threats and taunts were made,
and all the provocations were given, by the Southerners.
At this late day, such a contention is nonsense. No more
defiant, vindictive, or aggressive speech was ever made
than that of Charles Suinner, senator from Massachusetts,
in the United States Senate in 1859, on the " Barbarism
of Slavery." He had a personal grievance, it is true ; he
had been brutally assaulted in that chamber years before,
and his speech bore every mark of being the result of

" The patient watch and vigil long
Of him who treasures up a wrong."


It is not justifying the assault made upon Mr. Sum-
ner by Preston S. Brooks to say that no man ever did
more to provoke an attack upon himself than did Mr.
Sumner. His speech in 1856 was able, studied in its
malignity, and all the more provoking from its strength.
Nor was Sumner the only man of that class. We may
search through the congressional debates in vain for more
coarse and insulting language than that used by Senator
Ben Wade, of Ohio, upon the floor of the Senate. Every
opportunity was taken by him to lead the debates in the
Senate into sectional channels.

Acquisition of Cuba is more advocated in the North
to-day than in the South. In 1860, the project was branded
by the Kepublicans in the Senate as a slaveholder s scheme
for securing additional representation. The proposition
then made by Senator Slidell, to purchase Cuba for
thirty million dollars, was flouted by Wade and his party
as a mere ruse for providing " niggers for the niggerless."
Jealousy, antagonism, and hatred between the sections
animated the representatives of both, and neither lost any
opportunity to vituperate and recriminate.

While this was the condition of feeling among the
politicians, it had not yet extended to the masses. For
several years, the conflict had been in progress between
the free-soilers and pro-slavery men in Kansas. The
Virginians were conservative in their views about that
struggle. They realized that the men engaged in it on
both sides were a bloodthirsty and disreputable lot. Lead
ing Virginians, supporters of Mr. Buchanan, warned him
not to go too far in subserviency to the extreme pro-
slavery men, or to force a pro-slavery constitution upon
the State. Virginians, while they heard of the fanatical
and bloody butcheries committed in Kansas by one " Old
Brown," and men of his class, also heard of equally


horrid crimes committed by the pro-slavery men. They
held both in abhorrence, and indorsed neither.

It was not the Kansas trouble that occasioned them
concern, or excited their apprehensions concerning the
Union. It was the announcement by Abraham Lincoln,
of Illinois, in his debate with Douglas in 1858, that the
Union was a house divided against itself, and that sla
very and union could not coexist. It was declarations like
those of Senator Seward, of New York, that " an irrepres
sible conflict " existed between the North and South. It
was speeches of men like Charles Sumner, breathing
deep malice against the South, and denouncing it in
polished oratory. These and a hundred others like them
from men of the North, less prominent but not less
representative, made Virginians realize that the times
were perilous, and say to themselves : " If this temple
of union is divided against itself and must fall, if slavery
and union cannot coexist, if an irrepressible conflict is
upon us, if Mr. Sumner expresses the state of Northern
sentiment, it is manifest that the hour of disunion is
here. The only thing remaining for us to do is to begin
to consider which side of us the line of cleavage shall
come, north or south."

Virginians were no more angels or philanthropists than
people to the north or to the south of them. They were
moved by their affections, their interest, and their resent
ments, just as humanity is moved to-day. Their strongest
social ties were with the Southern people. They had a
great part of their wealth invested in slaves ; and, while
far in advance of the States to the south of them in the
desire for some plan of gradual emancipation, they were
not willing to have their property unceremoniously jostled
out of their hands without compensation, to gratify Mr.
Lincoln, Mr. Seward, Mr. Sumner, Mr. Wade, or the


constituencies which they represented. They thought the
conditions of future association announced by these men a
rather high and hasty price for the privilege. And, lastly,
their very love of the Union inflamed them against men
who, as they viewed it, were making union impossible,
except on terms involving humiliating surrender to the

It is often said by writers that Mr. Lincoln and Mr.
Seward, when they spoke of a divided house, the im
possibility of the coexistence of union and slavery, and
the " irrepressible conflict," were simply stating abstract
propositions, and did not mean that they would counsel
a physical assault upon slavery or the enactment of
unconstitutional laws, and that their figures of speech
referred only to the logic of the political situation. Their
language may have been intended as statements of
abstract principles ; but, assuredly, what they said was
susceptible of, and received, quite another construction.
By their followers and opponents they were understood as
declaring war on slavery, immediate and uncompromising.

As for Mr. Sumner and Mr. Wade, nobody pretended
that they meant anything else. The Southerners may
have been more demonstrative and noisy in their quarrels ;
but they were not a whit more stubborn, aggressive,
defiant, or irritating than the men of the North. The
Southern man scoffed the pretense that the Northern man
really desired union, when he refused to subordinate his
demands concerning slavery to any other consideration.
The Northern man denounced the Southern man as hat
ing the Union, because he would not consent to remain
in it, even if he believed that the North, while professing
the purpose of respecting his right, at heart intended to
deprive him of his slave property on the first opportunity.

This political warfare was very intense in 1858-59. The


debates between Lincoln and Douglas on the slavery
question, in the autumn of 1858, kindled the fires of
slavery and anti-slavery discussion on every hilltop. In
1859, the awful tragedy in which Senator Broderick was
killed by Judge Terry in California, in a duel growing
out of the slavery question, lent fuel to the flame.

Just at this crisis an event occurred, which was made a
test, in the mind of the average Virginian, of the real feel
ing of the North towards the South. After it happened, he
set himself to determining what was the real meaning,
the real tendency, and what was to be the outcome, of the
doctrines announced by Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Seward, Mr.
Sumner, and others during the years 1858 and 1859.
He believed that in the expressions of the North, concern
ing this event, he would find the best evidence of what
their real sentiments were towards the South.

The attack of John Brown upon Harper s Ferry came
upon Virginia like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky.

In the afternoon of October 17, 1859, I was passing
along Main Street in Richmond, when I observed a crowd
of people gathering about the bulletin board of a news
paper. In those days, news did not travel so rapidly as
now ; besides which, the telegraph lines at the place from
which the news came were cut.

The first report read :

" There is trouble of some sort at Harper s Ferry. A
party of workmen have seized the Government Armory."

Soon another message flashed : " The men at Harper s
Ferry are not workmen. They are Kansas border ruffians,
who have attacked and captured the place, fired upon and
killed several unarmed citizens, and captured Colonel
Washington and other prominent citizens of the neighbor
hood. We cannot understand their plans or ascertain
their numbers."


By this time an immense throng had assembled, agape
with wonder.

Naturally reflecting that the particulars of an outbreak
like this would first reach the governor, I darted home
ward. I found my father in the library, roused from his
afternoon siesta, in the act of reading the telegrams which
he had just received. They were simply to the effect
that the arsenal and government property at Harper s
Ferry were in possession of a band of rioters, without
describing their character. I promptly and breathlessly
told what I had seen on the bulletin boards, and, while I
was hurriedly delivering my news, other messengers arrived
with telegrams to the same effect as those posted in the
streets. The governor was by this time fully aroused.
He was prompt in action. His first move was to seize
the Virginia code, take a reference, and indite a telegram
addressed to Colonel John Thomas Gibson, of Charles-
town, commandant of the militia regiment within whose
territory the invasion had occurred, directing him to order
out, for the defense of the State, the militia under his
command, and immediately report what he had done.

Within ten minutes after the receipt of the telegram,
these instructions were on the way. Similar instructions
were flashed to Colonel Robert W. Baylor, of the Third
Regiment of Militia Cavalry.

The military system of the State was utterly inefficient,
having nothing but skeleton organization. The telegrams
continued to come rapidly, describing a condition of ex
citement amounting to a panic in the neighborhood of
Harper s Ferry. The numbers of the attacking force
were exaggerated, until some reports placed them as high
as a thousand. The ramifications of the conspiracy were
of course unknown.

I was promptly dispatched to summon the Secretary of


the Commonwealth, the Adjutant-General, and the colonel
and adjutant of the First Regiment. I found almost im
mediately all but the adjutant, for whom I searched long.
At last this young gentleman was discovered, all uncon
scious of impending trouble, playing dominoes in a Ger
man restaurant, and regaling himself with the then
comparatively new drink of "lager." Hurrying back
with my last capture, we found the others assembled, and
instantly the adjutant received instructions to order out
the First Virginia Regiment at eight o clock p. M., armed
and equipped, and provided with three days rations, at
the Washington depot.

In those days, the track ran down the centre of the
street, and the depot was in the most popular portion of
the city. News of the disturbance having gone abroad, it
was an easy task to assemble the regiment ; and, by the
time appointed, all Richmond was on hand to learn the
true meaning of the outbreak, and witness the departure
of the troops. Company after company marched through
the streets to the rendezvous. The governor transferred
his headquarters to the depot, where he and his staff
awaited the last telegrams which might arrive before his
departure. Telegrams were sent to the President and to
the governor of Maryland for authority to pass through
the District of Columbia and Maryland with armed
troops, that route being the quickest to Harper s Ferry.
The dingy old depot, generally so dark and gloomy at
this hour of the night, was brilliantly illuminated. The
train of cars, which was to transfer the troops, stood
in the middle of the street. The regiment was formed
as the companies arrived, and was resting in the badly
lighted street, awaiting final orders.

The masses of the populace swarming about the sol
diers presented every variety of excitement, interest, and


As for me, my " mannishness " (there is no other word
expressive of it) was such that, forgetting what an insig
nificant chit I was, I actually attempted to accompany the

Transported by enthusiasm, I rushed home, donned a
little blue jacket with brass buttons and a navy cap,
selected a Virginia rifle nearly half as tall again as my
self, rigged myself with a powder-horn and bullets, and,
availing myself of the darkness, crept into the line of
K Company. The file-closers and officers knew me, and
indulged me to the extent of not interfering with me,
never doubting the matter would adjust itself. Other
small boys, who got a sight of me standing there, were
variously affected. Some were green with envy, while
others ridiculed me with pleasant suggestions concerning
what would happen when father caught me.

In time, the order to embark was received. I came to
" attention " with the others, went through the orders,
inarched into the car, and took my seat. It really looked
as if the plan was to succeed. Alas and alas for these
hopes ! One incautious utterance had thwarted all my
plans. When I went home to caparison myself for war,
the household had been too much occupied to observe my
preparations. I succeeded in donning my improvised
uniform, secured my arms, and had almost reached the
outer door of the basement, when I encountered Lucy,
one of the slave chambermaids.

" Hi ! Mars John. Whar is you gwine ? " exclaimed
Lucy, surprised.

" To Harper s Ferry," was the proud reply, and off I

" I declar , I b leeve that boy thinks hisself a man, sho
nuff," said Lucy, as she glided into the house. It was
not long before she told Eliza, the housekeeper, who in


turn hurried to my invalid mother with the news. She
summoned Jim, the butler, and sent him to father with
the information.

Now Jim, the butler, was one of my natural enemies.
However the Southern man may have been master of the
negro, there were compensatory processes whereby certain
negroes were masters of their masters children. Never
was autocracy more absolute than that of a Virginia but
ler. Jim may have been father s slave, but I was Jim s
minion, and felt it. There was no potentate I held in
greater reverence, no tyrant whose mandates I heard in
greater fear, no ogre whose grasp I should have felt with
greater terror. This statement may not be fully appreci
ated by others, but will touch a responsive chord in the
heart of every Southern-bred man who passed his youth in
a household where " Uncle Charles," or " Uncle Henry,"
or " Uncle Washington," or uncle somebody, wielded the
sceptre of authority as family butler. Bless their old souls,
dead and gone, what did they want with freedom ? They
owned and commanded everything and everybody that
came into their little world. Even their own masters and
mistresses were dependent upon them to an extent that
only increased their sense of their own importance. What
Southern boy will ever forget the terrors of that frown
which met him at the front door and scanned his muddy
foot-marks on the marble steps? What roar was ever
more terrible what grasp more icy or relentless than
those of his father s butler surprising him in the cake-
box or the preserve-jar ? What criminal, dragged to jus
tice, ever appeared before the court more thoroughly
cowed into subjection than the Southern boy led before
the head of the house in the strong grip of that domestic
despot ?

" What ! " exclaimed the governor, on hearing Jim s


report of my escapade, " is that young rascal really try
ing to go ? Hunt him up, Jim ! Capture him ! Take
away his arms, and march him home in front of
you ! " Laughing heartily, he resumed his work, well
knowing that Jim understood his orders and would exe
cute them.

Think of such authority given to a negro, just when
John Brown was turning the heads of the slaves with
ideas of their own importance ! Is it not monstrous ? I
was sitting in a car, enjoying the sense of being my coun
try s defender starting for the wars, when I recognized a
well-known voice in the adjoining car, inquiring, " Gentle
men, is any ov you seed anythin ov de Gov ner s little boy
about here ? I m a-lookin fur him under orders to take
him home."

I shoved my long squirrel-rifle under the seats and fol
lowed it, amid the laughter of those about me. I heard
the dread footsteps approach, and the inquiry repeated.
No voice responded ; but, by the silence and the tittering,
I knew I was betrayed. A great, shiny black face, with
immense whites to the eyes, peeped almost into my own,
and, with a broad grin, said, " Well, I declar ! Here
you is at las ! Cum out, Mars John." But John did
not come. Jim, after coaxing a little, seized a leg, and,
as he drew me forth, clinging to my long rifle, he ex
claimed, " Well, fore de Lord ! how much gun has dat
boy got, anyhow ? " and the soldiers went wild with laugh

In full possession of the gun, and pushing me before
him, Jim marched his prisoner home. Once or twice I
made a show of resistance, but it was in vain. " Here,
you boy ! You better mind how you cut yo* shines.
You must er lost yo* senses. Yo father told me to take
you home. I gwine do it, too, you understand? Ef


you don t mind, I 11 take you straight to him, and you
know and I know dat if I do, he 11 tare you up alive fur
botherin him with yo foolishiss, busy ez he is." I real
ized that it was even so, and, sadly crestfallen, was deliv
ered into my mother s chamber, where, after a lecture
upon the folly of my course, I was kept until the Harper s
Ferry expedition was fairly on its way.

What I learned of events at Harper s Ferry was de
rived from the testimony of others. The First Virginia
Regiment reached Washington ; but, on arrival there,
the Richmond troops returned, in consequence of the
news of the capture of all the insurgents at Harper s
Ferry by the United States Marines.

This mad effort, so quickly and so terribly ended, was
in itself utterly insignificant. John Brown, its leader,
was the character of murderous monomaniac found at
the head of every such desperate venture. He has often
been described as a Puritan in faith and in type. It is not
the province of this writer to inquire into the correctness
of this classification. He was an uncompromising, blood
thirsty fanatic. Born in the year 1800, he lived for fifty-
six years without any sort of prominence. He was never
successful in business ventures, had farmed, raised sheep,
experimented in grape culture, made wine, and engaged
in growing and buying wool. At one time in his life, and
up to a period not long before his death, he was regarded
as an infidel by his associates, although at the time of his
death he declared himself a true believer. In October,
1855, he appeared in Kansas, and at once became promi
nent as a leader of armed bands of free-soilers. On his
way to the defense of Lawrence, in 1856, he heard of the
destruction which had taken place there, and turned back.
He resolved to avenge the acts of the pro-slavery horde.
He reckoned up that five free-soil men had been killed,


and resolved that their blood should be expiated by an
equal number of victims.

" Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission
of sins," was a favorite text with Brown. He called for
volunteers to go on a secret expedition, and held a sort of
Druidical conclave before starting out. Four sons, a son-
in-law, and two others accompanied him. He had a
strange power of imbuing his dupes with his own fanati
cism. When he avowed his purpose to massacre the
pro-slavery men living on Pottawatomie Creek, one of his
followers demurred. Brown said, " I have no choice.
It has been decreed by Almighty God that I should make
an example of these men."

On Saturday night, May 24, 1856, John Brown and
his band visited house after house upon Pottawatomie
Creek, and, calling man after man from his bed, murdered
five in cold blood. They first visited the house of Doyle,
and compelled a father and two sons to go with them.
The next morning, the father and one son were found
dead in the road about two hundred yards from the house.
The father was " shot in the forehead and stabbed in the
breast. The son s head was cut open, and there was a
hole in his jaw as though made by a knife." The other
son was found dead about a hundred and fifty yards
away in the grass, " his fingers cut off and his arms cut
off, his head cut open, and a hole in his breast."

Then they went to Wilkinson s, reaching there after
midnight. They forced open the door and ordered him
to go with them. His wife was sick and helpless, and
begged them not to take him away. Her prayer was of
no avail. The next day Wilkinson was found dead, " a
gash in his head and side."

Their next victim was William Sherman. When found
in the morning, his " skull was split open in two places,


and some brains were washed out. A large hole was cut
in his breast, and his left hand was cut off, except a little
piece of skin on one side." The execution was done with
short cutlasses brought from Ohio by Brown.

" It was said that on the next morning, when the old
man raised his hands to Heaven to ask a blessing, they
were still stained with the dry blood of his victims." 1 In
his life by Sanborn is a picture of him made about this
time. It represents him clean-shaven, and is, no doubt,
the best picture extant by which to study the physiog
nomy of a man capable of these things.

The tidings of these executions caused a cry of horror
to go up, even in bloody Kansas. The squatters on
Pottawatomie Creek, without distinction of party, met
together and denounced the outrage and its perpetrators.
The free-state men everywhere disavowed such methods.
The governor sent a military force to the Pottawatomie
to discover the assassins. The border ruffians took the
field to avenge the massacre. One Pate, feeling sure
" Old Brown," as he was called, was the author of the
outrage, went in search of him. Brown met him, gave
battle, and captured Pate and his command.

Kansas was in a state of civil war ; the governor or
dered all armed companies to disperse ; and Colonel Suin-
ner, with fifty United States dragoons, forced Brown to
release his prisoners, but, although a United States
marshal was with him, made no arrests.

This gives an insight into the character of John
Brown, " the martyr." Drunk with blood, inflamed by
the death of one of his sons in these border feuds,
impelled to further deeds of violence, no doubt, by the
immunity secured from those committed in Kansas, John
Brown began, as early as the fall of 1857, in far-away
1 See Rhodes s History of the United States, vol. ii. p. 162, etc.


Kansas, to formulate his plans for an outbreak in Vir
ginia. His confederate Cook, in his confession, has
left the whole story.

Inducing Cook and eight or ten others, over whom he
seems to have possesed complete mastery, to join him, they
started east to attend a military school, as it was said, in
Ashtabula County, Ohio. The party united at Tabor, Iowa ;
there, in the autumn of 1857, he revealed to this choice
band that his ultimate destination was the State of Vir
ginia. His companions demurred at first, but his strong
will prevailed. They shipped eastward two hundred
Sharp s rifles that had been sent to Tabor for his Kansas
enterprises the year previous. In May, 1858, Brown held
a convention in Chatham, Canada, in a negro church,
with a negro preacher for president, and adopted a con
stitution, which, without naming any territory to which
it was to apply, said: "We, the citizens of the United
States, and the oppressed people, who, etc., do ordain
and establish for ourselves the following provisional con

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 9 of 35)