Charles White's Account of the Raid at Harpers Ferry

Published as "John Brown's Raid at Harper's Ferry: An Eyewitness Account By Charles White," ed. Rayburn S. Moore, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 67 (October, 1959):387-395.

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, between the hours of 1O:OO and 11:00 P.M., John Brown, of Kansas notoriety, entered the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with eighteen men, took hostage some of its prominent citizens, and captured the federal arsenal. His intention, as he later made clear, was to liberate the slaves in the surrounding territory and form them into an army which would then free the Negroes throughout the South. Without an efective and detailed plan of action, Brown's "army" was surrounded on the afternoon of October 17 by local militia. After a brief skirmish, it was captured on the morning of October I 8 by marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, of the United States Army. Though Brown and some of his followers fought courageously, the raid, for all practical purposes, was a fiasco resulting in the death or capture of the insurgents, but its long-range effect on both northern and southern emotions far exceeded the wildest dreams of those who planned it. Accounts of the raid and the subsequent trial and execution of John Brown attracted national attention, nd the event became a symbol to both sides in the Civil War.[1]

Recently, a graphic eyewitness account of the raid has come to light. It is contained in a letter written several weeks after the affair by Charles White, minister of the Presbyterian Church at Berryville, Virginia, to his brother- in-law John Felt, of Salem, Massachusetts.[2] The Reverend Mr. White also served the Presbyterian congregation in Harpers Ferry, where on the Sunday evening of October 16 he had preached his regular biweekly sermon and then spent the night. In the early morning hours of October 17 he was awakened by his host, A. H. Herr, and informed of the disturbance in the town. Shortly thereafter he went out to investigate the report, and from that time until the capture of John Brown early on the morning of October 18, White was a minor participant and eyewitness to much that happened. In his letter he describes in detail what he saw and did. Unfortunately, a section of four pages is missing, but the eight pages and maps remaining contain valuable information concerning the raid.

Berryville Nov 10th 1859.

Dear John,

I have been intending for a long time to write to you, but have been called away so much that I could not find a convenient time. Since the world renowned H Ferry affair I have desired particularly to write-but have been travelling and sick all the time. I was to a very small extent a participator in the scenes-and an eye witness of a good deal. Brown and his men must have been in town as accurately as we can discover about Eleven oclock Sunday night-as the watchman in the bridge who was taken by them a prisoner had stuck his last peg at half past ten.[3] As you know I preached there that night.[4] Edward and myself slept together on what is called the 'Island'-which lies between the Rifle works and the Armory and arsenal.[5] We knew nothing until daylight when the gentleman with whom we were staying came into our room and notified us. After breakfast we went out to reconnoitre-and found we were guarded on both sides by Sharps rifles-revolvers and pikes-and not a single available gun or other weapon of defense in all our part of the town which was isolated from all the other part there being a mountain in front-the river behind-and on each side these bands of men at Rifle works and Armory.[6] And we had no idea how many there were. Of course we could do nothing just then. These men were passing two or three at a time all the morning just in front of us. They could have been easily killed if we had had guns. I was about as far from Rifle works as from your store to the depot-perhaps a few rods further. All we could do was to wait. About one o clock the men of Bolivar (the part of the town over hill) got guns from an isolated building of the Armory works. It was the stock house. A few weeks before-during the high water-providentially as I was told a number of guns had been removed from their usual place in front of the armory yard to this stock house which was the last house back of the yard. The insurgents supposed thes had all the guns-but the men of Bolivar who are mostly armorers- knew of the stock house guns. When they succeeded in getting them towards the middle of the day they came down the hill or over it rather and fired so heavily upon the insurgents at the Rif[l]e factory that they had to run. But I will just roughly represent where I was to give you a very imperfect idea.[7]

When the villains ran they crossed the Winchester Rail- road and made for the river. One ran towards us with his pike (slave of Mr Alstadts)-and beckoned us to come to him.[8] We ran immediately toward the whole of them-the Bolivar men pressing on them from the mountain - we on one side. One or two of our men had by this time procured guns. One negro was drowned-a slave-the only one of whom we have doubts as to his complicity with them-& that because he ran with them. When Alstadts man who ran towards us came up-I asked him how came he there & what he was doing with the pike-he said they had taken him and his master the night before-brot them down-& told him if he didn t keep guard at Rifle factory they would kill him. I beleive he was innocent. While talking a reckless fellow came up-levelled his musket at the negro's head within an inch or so-and was about to pull the trigger. I asked him not to fire as did others. He swore he'd kill him & that he had orders from the Captain of Charlestown Company. I told him no matter what the Capt said we had the man prisoner-perhaps he was innocent-he was ours-and stepping between the two, I ordered him not to fire. Several then took hold of his gun & saved the negro Perhaps you laugh at my orders. Of course I had no delegated authority- but so enraged were the multitude that it was with difficulty they were restrained from hanging & shooting several on the spot. I did all I could to prevent it. The other 3 men I saw shot in the river-Kagi the Sec of War was shot dead-one a mulatto from Ohio died next morning in Herrs Cooper Shop.[9] The other mulatto I think from Pennsylvania is in jail at Charlestown.[10]

The next four pages (five through eight) of the letter are unfortunately lost. When John Felt returned the letter in May 1899 to William C. White, Charles White's son, he remarked that he could not find the missing pages. That they contained valuable information (presumably abut the capture of Brown on the morning of October 18) is clear not only from the content of this letter but also from another written by Charles White in 1883. This latter communication is discussed later in the article.

[page nine begins] . . . Stevens are wretched-degraded looking bandits.[11] I was at first inclined to think Brown a brave man-of some remnant of a generous nature-but the more I see and hear of his devilish designs, the more thoro' becomes my contempt and horror of him-and all his abettors & sympathizers, including Cheever, Beecher & co. During the affair the negroes about H F were terribly alarmed and clung as closely as they could to master & mistress. One negro hid under a water wheel in the armory canal and didn't come out till Tuesday-and then was afraid Brown might catch him. One slave has since died of fright-whom Browm had prisoner. Some one or two slaves whom B had taken and given pilees ln the engine house-on that fearful night, true to their natures dropped the pikes and went to sleep. Not one slave that we can discoser was willingly with them-unless it be the one drowned. This shows well for the slaves I think. Those who were taken-escaped to their homes as soon as they got a chance. And not one woman was taken or freed - which is rather singular, when they had so good an opportunity-and loved them so. There is of course a great deal of excitement-and to add to it several stock yards-barns etc have been burnt in the last week in our county- and several masters have been beaten or attacked by their servants. But I beleive the majority of servants have no evil intentions-or desire any movement. They know & say they are better off where they are & as they are. We have patrols out every night. Ch[arle]stown is guarded every night at every point. I do not think you need be uneasy about us. Have you seen Wendell Phillips speech in H. Ward Beechers church) It is the most atrocious-treasonable & murderous piece of villa[i]ny I have ever read.[12] I suppose Beecher is as bad. I do not know that the Devil would display such malignity. There are a great many incidents etc I might mention- but it would perhaps be tedious. If you think of anything in regard to this you would like to ask-I shall be glad to answer. I wish I could see you all. You had better come down & take a look at the scene of action. These men must doubtless be hung. Cook I ought to have told you taught for several weeks a small school on his own hook entirely-in the basement of my church at H F-but I never saw him.[13]

The Presbyterian Church

I have been exceedingly unwell with a severe cold ever since the affair. Mary[14] has a very bad cold-it has fallen in her eyes and they are inflamed and swollen. Willie[15] also has a cold. All getting better however. Tell Mgt[16] our box came from Philada last night with a no. of Salem articles. Nothing going on here except talk of Brown's invasion. Patrol[s] were here last night. Mary will write soon I suppose. Give our love to all and write soon.

Yours Sincerely-

Ch White

Excuse my drawing. I was in too big a hurry to be particular.[17]


Beginning at the top left and moving to the right and thence to the bottom of the page, these notes attempt to elucidate Charles White's sketch. To the best of my knowledge, this is the most detailed map of ithe raid drawn by any eyewitness present during most of the action on October 17 and 18.

a. The men shot in the Shenandoah River were J. H. Kagi and Lewis Leary, who, together with John A. Copeland, Jr. and one or two captured slaves, had occupied the rifle works but had been forced by heavy fire from higher ground to evaacuate their position. Copeland was captured and one of the slaves was drowned. See also Villard, John Brown, pp. 444-445.

b. Bolivar Heights provided the high ground from which the "men of Bolivar," as White characterizes them, were able to use their newly acquired fire power to force Kagi and his party to leave the rifle works.

c. Herr's Mill was located on Virginius Island, which was separated from the town by a canal. The Winchester and Potomac Railroad (now a branch of the Baltimore and Ohio) ran between the mill and the Shenandoah River. Charles White spent the night at the mill as guest of A. H. Herr, the owner.

d. Jefferson's Rock was located on a hill not far from Charles White's church and was a familiar landmark in Harpers Ferry. It was from this vantage point that Thomas Jefferson reputedly observed the surrounding territory and described it in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).

e. As he walked down High Street early in the afternoon of October 17, George W. Turner, a prominent farmer and slaveholder who lived in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry, was shot and killed instantly by one of the raiders. See Alexander R. Boteler, "Recollections of the John Brown Raid. By a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight," The Century Magazine, XXVI (July 1883), 406 and Villard, John Brown, pps. 440-441.

f. The arsenal buildings were captured by Brown and his men soon after they entered the town on Sunday night. They were guarded thereafter (at one time or other) by Albert Hazlett, a native of Pennsylvania and a liestenant in Brown's command; Edwin Coppoc, another of Brown's lieutenants and a resident of Iowa; and Osborn P. Anderson, a Pennsylvania Negro who served as a private in the raiding force. Hazlett and Anderson escaped, though the former was later arrested in his home state and returned to Virginia for trial. Coppoc was captured with Brown and a few others in the fire-engine house of the armory on October 18, 1859. For the details, see Villard, John Brown, pp. 430, 439, 682, 685. Dangerfield Newby, a freed slave from Virginia who, like Anderson, served as a private in the insurgent band was killed in or near the arsenal yard as he retreated from his post on the Maryland bridge to join Brown's group in the armory (Boteler, "Recollections of the John Brown Raid," p. 406).

g. Since Fontaine Beckham was the agent of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Harpers Ferry, his office was railroad property. Stevens, one of Brown's ablest officers and Watson Brown, a younger son of the leader of the raiders, were both mortally wounded as they attempted to arrange a parley with the citizens who opposed them. Stevens was carried into the Wager House, a local hotel, and given medical attention and Brown managed to return to the engine house in the armory (Villard, John Brown, pp. 439-441)

h. John Brown himself had early taken command of the armory buildings. In the afternoon of October 17 he was forced by militia troops to retreat to the fire-engine house with "the remnants of his band, the slaves he had armed, and eleven of the most important prisoners," the remaining prisoners being released by the militia (Villard, John Brown, p. 439). See also Boteler, "Recollections of the John Brown 0 Raid," pp. 406-407. It was from this position that Brown and the others were taken on October 18 by marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee.

i. William Thompson, a young friend and follower of Brown from New York, was captured shortly before Stevens and Watson Brown were wounded. After the shooting of Fontaine Beckham by one of the insurgents, several citizens, including Henry Hunter, the son of Andrew Hunter who later became special prosecutor in the trial of John Brown, took Thompson's life in reprisal. See Villard, John Brown, pp. 441-443; Boteler, "Recollections of the John Brown Raid," p. 407; and D. H. Strother, "The Late Invasion at Harper's Ferry," Harper's Weekly, III, 713 (November 5, 1859)

j. The hotel in the sketch is apparently the Wager House.

k. Fontaine Beckham had not only been agent of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for twenty-five years but he was also mayor of Harpers Ferry and a benefactor of the Negro (Villard, John Brown, pp. 441-442). When he was shot without cause near the water station (also referred to as water tank), his friends and fellow townsmen tok justice in their own hands and summarily executed William Thompson.

l. The heavy dot marks the spot where Charles White stood on the morning of 0ctober 18 when Brown and his little group were captured.

m. John E. Cook (sometimes spelled Cooke) had come to Harpers Ferry as an advance agent, and during the preparation for and activities of the raid he served as a captain in the "Provisional Army." On the morning of October 17 he was put in charge of some wagons and sent by Brown to the base in Marryland to bring up guns and ammunition and thus was absent during part of the raid. He managed to escape when the cause was lost, but was captured on October 25 and hanged on December 16, two weeks after John Brown's own execution (Strother, "The Late Invasion at Harpers Ferry," p. 714, and Villard, John Brown, pp.435, 680-68I).

Fortunately for students of history, White's letter to Felt did not conclude his comments on his experience at Harpers Ferry during the raid. Almost a quarter of a century later, in 1883, he wrote a letter of a "private character" to the editor of the Christian Observer, a religious weekly published in Louisville, Kentucky, in which, among other things, he alluded to the John Brown matter again.[18] After asking if certain comments of his in recent letters to the editor had been "struck out" because of their "fair criticism" of Northern men, including "old John Brown" who "was hung for murder . . . as his crime of insurrection against the U. S. Gov. deserved," White continued:

But I ask as above because in your paper of July 5th [19] a writer makes allusion to the wicked man above mentioned [Brown] and quotes my friend Hon. Andrew Hunter[20] as saying, "The law hung him, and he deserved to be hung"-and you did not omit that. I do not know why that was published. Possibly the apparent commendation of the man insured it, tho' I should hardly like to think so.... The writer says "such language from his prosecutor (the commendatory part of course) as to Brourn's courag & conscientiousness evidently accords with the general sentiment of this community." I do not know the writer-but I have no hesitancy in saying that he writes evidently in the dark as to the "general sentiment of the community." There are one or two inaccuracies of statement in the piece I am sure, but it is not my business to point them out. I have known Mr. Hunter for many years. I can hardly think he thought John Brown brave in the truer, higher sense of the word. I can hardly think anybody that saw and heard on the occasion of Brown's advent at Harper's Ferry-could think him conscientious even except with the understanding that it was a conscience deeply, darkly perverted by his demonish purposes and desires. It fell to my lot as Pastor at Harper's Ferry at that time, with true and kind intent, and to seek to minister to his spiritual wants, to go in to see John Brown, when captured and wounded and it was thought he would probably die.[21] I was witness of the whole scene, fight, capture etc-and was familiar with the whole matter, having been in prison bounds by his two bands of ruffians. Some of my people were killed by him. I have no hesitancy in saying that after my personal interview with him then-and the many years of reflection since, my opinion is now what it was then-that there was no religious motive, nor even any truly philanthropic motive moving him to his dastardly, cowardly deed of shooting & killing innocent men, and forcing, as I personally know he did, negroes to carry two edged pikes for the slaughter of their own Masters. I have never been able to see but that he was an inexcusable, and unmitigated murderer. This I think is "the general sentiment" of that community now as it was then-to my knowledge-among those actors and witnesses of the horrible scene who still live. It was natural therefore that I should characterize him as I did in the line or two, that you did not publish.

With a sentence or two expressing his desire to avoid "controversy," a brief compliment for the "venerable Senior Editor" of the Observer (presumably Thomas E. Converse), and with the assumption that the "paper" will do "exact justice" and show "impartiality to all both South and North," White then concludes his letter.

Thus ends Charles White's written record of his experience at Harpers Ferry during the John Brown raid. He had been present on the scene from the very first, though he did not become a witness until the early morning hours of Monday, October 17. From that time until some time after the capture of the insurgents, he was not only an observer but also a "minor participator." Moreover, he had the opportunity of seeing Brown himself at close quarters after his capture and of interviewing him at a time when Brown and others thought that he (Brown) was seriously nounded. Unfortunately, there is no record of his interview with the commander of the raiders (unless, of course, White did participate as a bystander in the Wise interview) and an important part of his contemporaneous letter describing the affair has been lost; but what remains is nevertheless an invaluable eyewitness account and charting of the scene of one of the most controversial events in American history.

Return to the John Brown Homepage