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The Storekeeper's Son at Harper's Ferry1
IN 1859 Harper's Ferry was one of the nicest towns in the United States. The government had an armory here, and there were fountains all along the streets, and flowerbeds with men tending 'em. No expense was spared to keep things tidy and attractive. The surrounding scenery was beautiful too, for at the lower end of the town the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers met and went on through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The ground between the two rivers was rough and hilly, and most of the buildings huddled along the streams. Down near where the rivers joined was a bridge across the Potomac that served for both the highway and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. A short distance from its town end was the depot and a hotel high up on the bank.
The railroad continued close along the Potomac on a trestle, and back of the trestle was a long narrow strip of land that the armory buildings occupied. In the armory yard near the depot stood a small brick fire-engine house. The yard gate was close by, and across the street was the arsenal. Beyond that, right by the Shenandoah River, was a railroad that went down to Winchester.
That Shenandoah Valley railroad was a very poor one with no ballasting. The ties were laid on top of the ground. Near their outer edges were fastened wooden four by four strips with flat iron rails spiked to 'em. The rails were a sort of strap iron two or three inches wide and hardly a half inch thick. The spikes would work up and the ends of the rails get loose, and the trains had to move very cautiously. They didn’t go more 'n eight or ten miles an hour, and you could run and catch the blame things anywhere. We boys used to worry the conductors by hollerin' to 'em, "Change oxen!"
There were as many as five thousand people here. Nearly fifteen hundred were employed by the government, and this was a busy prosperous place, but John Brown put a curse on it. The town went down from the time of his raid, and the war followed soon afterward and just tore up everything.
Brown came to the vicinity with two of his sons early in July, 1859, and rented a farm in a secluded spot a few miles from the town over on the mountain north of the Potomac. They passed themselves off under the name of Smith and made a bluff at prospectin' for minerals.
I was eight years old then. My father had a drygoods and grocery store here, and I've seen him and Brown talkin' together in the store. Father even furnished Brown a team to haul some of his supplies over to his log house. A good many boxes came by railroad for him, and he said they contained shovels, picks, and that sort of thing. Really they were full of weapons and ammunition. Those would serve in starting his enterprise, and then, by seizing the arsenal here, he could put guns into the hands of a very formidable force. He expected to recruit an army from the large slave population in the region, and he thought numerous whites would also flock to his aid.
Brown's entire force, when he set forth on his raid on the evening of Sunday, October 16th, consisted of twenty-two men. Six of them were members of his family or connected with it by marriage, and five were colored men. Three of the raiders remained on the north side of the Potomac. The rest took possession of the armory and arsenal and gathered up several prominent slaveholders whom they put in the government fire-engine house with guards over 'em. You see it was a part of Brown's scheme to capture such men and only release 'em on condition that they set free their slaves.
Every working day the armory bell rang twice each morning. There was a first bell which was a sort of warning to the men to get up and eat breakfast. It rang somewhere about half-past five, I reckon. There was a second bell along toward seven, and then the men were supposed to hustle into the armory and begin work. On Monday of the raid the old bell-ringer, Tommy Darr, came to the armory at the usual time, and the raiders made him a prisoner. So the bell didn’t ring. By and by the workmen stirred out to see what the trouble was, but Brown had fellers at the armory gates, and they picked the men up and held 'em with the other prisoners.
Soon after I got out of bed I heard shots, and came out on our front porch. Our house wasn’t very far from the armory gates, and I could see something of what was going on.
One man had been killed during the night. He was a free negro who bunked at the Baltimore and Ohio depot and took the luggage back and forth between that depot and the one of the Shenandoah Railroad. The second man the raiders killed was my father. He walked down Street from the store to the corner, and a feller who had scooched in behind the arsenal wall shot him. Father was a big powerful raw-boned Irishman, and he could have whipped all the men Brown had if they'd been unarmed. After he was shot he walked back up the hill pretty near home. Then his strength failed, and some of the townspeople brought him into the house. He died two hours later.
The third man shot by the raiders was Farmer Turner. I seen a black feller do the shootin'. He'd got into what we called the stock-house where the government rifles were packed. Turner had brought his gun. He was on horseback, and he rode down too far. Jake Bagent was up the street in a silversmith's shop, and pretty soon after Turner was killed Jake saw the black feller at the arsenal peeking around the corner. So Jake poked his gun out of the door and whacked it into him. Like every one else, Jake had only an old gun that was made for hunting rabbits and other small game, but he had loaded it with a six-inch spike. The spike hit the negro in the neck. It made an awful wound, and he rolled right out into the road, and there he lay till evening.
The citizens were now shooting all around, and nobody run out on the streets any more. They didn’t know what they were up against, for they didn’t know how many raiders there were or their object. Everybody had been livin' quiet and peaceful, and why men should come in here at midnight shooting people down was a mystery. I heard men talking about it, and they called it an insurrection.
One of the townsmen who got mixed up in the affair was Daddy Molloy. He was a character — a shiftless, but good-natured feller who was never sober when he could get the booze; and yet, when he first came here, you wouldn’t find a nicer-lookin' young man in a thousand miles. He claimed some girl went back on him. After that his head wasn’t right.
Daddy wore all sorts of cast-off clothing. If a man three times his size was to say to him: "Here's an old coat of mine. Do you want it?" he was sure to accept it.
He did odd jobs at a boarding-house for his food and lodging. I s'pose the lady there kept him because she pitied him. Often you'd find him going around and cleaning up the bar-rooms for a drink. He'd do anything to get liquor. Sometimes, when he saw a stranger in town, he'd say to one of his friends, "I'll fall down and commence chawin' on the stones, and you tell that man I'll get well right off if I have a good drink of whiskey."
So Daddy falls down, and there he lies puffing away with the white foam coming from his mouth. The stranger looks on very much concerned and says to Daddy's friend: "Do you know that feller? What's the matter with him?"
"Well," the friend says, "he has spells like that once in a while."
"Ain't there anything can be done for him?" the stranger says.
"Yes," the friend answers, "a drink of whiskey would fix him all right."
"Go get him a pint," the stranger says.
The whiskey is put in Daddy's hands, and he drinks it.
"Ah!" he says, "if I'd had that before I wouldn’t have had a fit."
But sometimes the friend Daddy asked to help him in this little game went back on him, and would say to the stranger, "That's just Daddy Molloy, and he's playin' off."
Then old Daddy would get up and give the friend thunder.
On the morning that the town learned something was wrong at the armory, Daddy went to investigate, and no sooner did he enter the gate than a man with a gun told him he was arrested.
"What have I done that you should arrest me?" Daddy says.
"Ask no questions," the feller says. "You go right along into that engine house."
"But I want to know what the charge is against me," Daddy told him.
"Bounce him in," the raider said, and he had one of his comrades shove Daddy into the engine house.
Brown had a good bunch of other prisoners in there, and Daddy asked old Mr. Graham, who was sitting near the door, what he was there for. He didn’t get any satisfaction. Graham was a crusty old feller, and Daddy said afterward, "I thought he was goin' to bite my head off." But most of the men were not so close-mouthed. Some said: "There's goin' to be hell here. The citizens will just set fire to this building and burn old Brown and all the rest of us."
Daddy looked around to see if there was some chance to escape and concluded he might be able to get out through the cupola. There were two fire-engines in the building — the kind that had handles along each side for the men to take hold of and pump the water. Daddy climbed onto one of 'em and reached up to the edge of the cupola. He was very strong in his arms, and he said to himself, "Where I can reach I can pull myself up." And up he went.
Some cross timbers gave him a resting-place, and after peeking all around he crawled out on the slate roof, slid down to the grass behind the building, and scrambled over the wall around the armory grounds. In the upper stories of the near houses were men on the watch, and they began firing, for Daddy was dressed so rough they thought he was one of Brown's men. "You ought to have heard those balls spattering against the brick wall," he said afterward.
Yes, everybody was shooting at old Daddy, and he ran up the street making for the boarding-house where he was the porter; "and if I hadn’t run zigzag they'd have got me," he declared.
He used to show an old gray coat that had ten or twelve bullet holes in it, and he claimed those were made during that flight, but I think he may have punched some of 'em himself.
Daddy wasn’t born to be killed. Every train on the railroads here hit and knocked him over at one time or another; and all the bones in his body had been broken. Once a projecting iron on a car ketched him under the jaw and dragged him across the bridge, and yet he survived. At last, however, he got the smallpox, and he went off all alone to an old canal boat and died there; but he'd have got well if he 'd been tended to and given any nourishment.
A number of the raiders were killed that Monday while trying to escape by wading across the Shenandoah.
Others were killed in the town, or captured, and the few that were left retreated to the engine house. Several companies of militia had come from neighboring places to put down the insurrection, and if it hadn’t been that Brown had his prisoners in the engine house with him they'd have blown the whole thing up.
Toward evening, after they had the raiders penned up, I went out a little bit. Down at the corner the body of the darky still lay in the road, and old Mrs. Stephenson's sow was just diving into the big hole in his neck. The hogs ran loose here then. They were the Harper's Ferry street scavengers. The doctors used to argue that it was better to let 'em run out because by picking up the refuse that might otherwise be neglected they kept down sickness. It's only of late years that we've made the owners keep 'em up. We'd vote on the question once in a while at town-meeting — hog in and hog out — same as now we vote wet or dry, whiskey or no whiskey. People would get so hot on the subject that we had several knockdowns on account of it. But in the end the hogs lost. The families that didn’t keep hogs had come to be in the majority — that's about the amount of it.
Well, no decided push was made to end the insurrection until a company of United States Marines came from Washington under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. They arrived early Tuesday morning, and while they were getting ready for business some of the militia decided to be doin' something. One of 'em by the name of Murphy had a few drinks on, and he said he'd go and storm that engine house. So he went into the armory yard with a couple of his comrades follerin' along behind and tellin' him he'd better look out. He hadn’t gone far when a bullet touched him in the jaw. That settled Murphy. He'd got stung, and he retreated.
Then the marines tackled the job, and they soon got possession of the engine house, and took Brown and his men prisoners. They put 'em on board a train that carried 'em to the jail in Charlestown a few miles south of here. After the marines had disposed of their prisoners they got on a train themselves, and back they went to Washington.
Of the twenty-two raiders ten were killed, five escaped, and seven were captured, tried and hung. Five of the townspeople were killed and eight wounded.
1 This and the other footnotes at the beginning of the chapters give a brief account of the circumstances of each interview and afford a glimpse of the narrators as I met them and listened to their recollections. The "storekeeper's son" told his story as he sat smoking in the office of a Harper's Ferry hotel. He was a fleshy man of hardly more than middle age who apparently had a habit of loitering there for contemplation and to read the newspaper and discuss with friends the affairs of the town and the world.