Chapter 20- Five Black Men, A Retelling Of The Raid At Harper’s Ferry

Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because sometimes our story begins with those who came before.

As a student, I learned John Brown was an abolitionist executed for his unsuccessful attempt to steal guns to free enslaved people. I sang the song written about him many times with the lyrics, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. His soul goes marching on.”

About twenty men, many of whom had fought with Brown in other skirmishes, were with him on October 16, 1859. That night they intended to steal weapons from the armory at Harper’s Ferry to ignite a slave rebellion.

Five men in Brown’s small army were black, a fact I never learned in school. Who were these black men, the white-centered telling of history left out, and why did they cross the bridge at Harpers Ferry that fateful night?

If teachers taught us of their bravery and sacrifice, we would know courage is not skin color. And that whiteness is not what makes us American.

Osborne Perry Anderson, John Anthony Copeland Jr, Shields Green, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby were five black men who risked their lives fighting with John Brown at Harpers Ferry to break the chains of slavery. Of the five, three had their bodies desecrated, one died from being shot in the Shenandoah River, and one lived to tell the story of his time as a soldier in John Brown’s army.

Slavery in the United States began in the 1600s. By 1859 it was fully entrenched in our laws, institutions, and religions. Owning black men, women, and children was an acceptable lifestyle. Laws penalized enslaved people trying to free themselves and anyone aiding their escape.

John Brown was an abolitionist who felt called by God to eradicate slavery. Growing up as a Puritan, he saw his father hide runaway enslaved people traveling on the Underground Railroad.

John Brown’s most famous attack was on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where the government stored thousands of muskets and rifles. The plan was to steal weapons and use them to free and arm enslaved people in the surrounding towns. Together they would march county by county, freeing more enslaved people. He hoped this rebellion would cripple the economy of states holding enslaved people by taking away their free labor.

Brown traveled to many states asking others to join or support the effort financially. He asked Harriet Tubman, whom he referred to as “General Tubman,” to use her connections to recruit formerly enslaved people to fight alongside him. A group of men called the Secret Six provided some monetary backing. Two were Unitarian ministers who believed a peaceful end to slavery was impossible. He met with Frederick Douglass several times. Douglass wanted freedom for black people but disagreed with Brown’s tactics.

Three months before the raid, he pretended to be a cattleman and rented a farmhouse in Maryland. Since the farmhouse was four miles from Harpers Ferry, it was ideal for planning and waiting for more men he hoped would join.

Brown’s teenage daughter Annie, and daughter-in-law Martha, cared for the men, provided a lookout, and made it appear a family was living at the farmhouse. They kept a low profile to avoid alerting neighbors to their militant activities.

Unfortunately, only sixteen white men and five black men arrived at the farm. Three were Brown’s sons.

Osborne Perry Anderson, John Anthony Copeland Jr, Shields Green, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby were the black men who joined Brown at the farmhouse. Most were in their early twenties. Three of them had lived the entirety of their lives as free men. The other two had once been enslaved. One of the two enslaved born claimed his freedom through escape; his white owner freed the other.

Anderson, Copeland, and Leary each attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin College was one of the first colleges to permit African Americans and women to enroll. At the time, Oberlin was a vibrant abolitionist city where black people, born free or escaping their enslavement, could live mostly peaceful and safe lives.

After his time in Ohio, Osborne Perry Anderson, a free man, moved to Canada and opened a print shop. He returned to the United States a year before the raid to join Brown. He was twenty-eight. Anderson’s writing skills proved valuable at planning meetings leading up to the attack.

John Anthony Copeland Jr., a carpenter, was familiar with abolitionist work at twenty-five. He was a free black man who participated in anti-slavery actions, including the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. During this rescue, John Price, a runaway, had been recaptured and was held in a hotel awaiting his master to reclaim him. Copeland and others freed Price, allowing him to flee to Canada.

Lewis Sheridan Leary, John Anthony Copeland’s uncle, lived in Ohio, working as a saddle and harness maker like his father. He was a free man. His father was Irish, while his mother was likely part African and Native American. Leary recruited his nephew Copeland to join Brown’s raid with him. Leary left behind his wife Mary and baby daughter Louise.

Shields Green did not have a formal education and was said to be a man of few words. His nickname, “Emperor,” may have been because he descended from African royalty. At twenty-three, he was either an escaped enslaved person, a sailor, or both. He was acquainted with Frederick Douglass and met Brown through meetings the two of them had. Although Douglass’ concerns about Brown’s plan kept him from participating, Green decided to join.

Dangerfield Newby, a blacksmith, was born enslaved in Virginia. His mother, Elsey, was owned by a man named Fox. She had many children with a Scottish landowner named Henry Newby. Somehow, when Dangerfield was thirty-five, his father secured freedom for Elsey and their children. He moved them to Ohio, where he could live as a free man. Unfortunately, Newby’s wife, Harriet, and their children were enslaved in Virginia. A man named Jennings owned them. Jennings had allowed Harriet and Newby to be common-law partners and have children together. All of which belonged to him. Facing financial troubles, Jennings decided to sell Harriet and at least one of their children to a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Harriet wrote a letter pleading with her husband, Newby, to buy her quickly so someone else would not. Newby tried to purchase them himself by saving the $1500 asking price. After traveling nearly sixty miles back to Virginia to buy them, Jennings raised the price, making it impossible for Newby to buy their freedom. Shortly afterward, Newby joined Brown’s army, hoping it would help him liberate his family.

On October 16, 1859, in Woods Cross, Utah, my grandfather enjoyed his 59th birthday surrounded by his wives and children. Two thousand miles away, under cover of darkness, Brown, Anderson, Copeland, Green, Leary, Newby, and sixteen other men left the safety of the Maryland farmhouse heading towards Virginia. A bridge was the only way into Harpers Ferry since the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers surrounded it.

Once across the bridge, the men divided into even smaller groups, each with a specific mission. Some stayed to guard the bridge. Others took a couple of enslavers and enslaved people hostage. More went to nearby plantations trying to recruit enslaved people living there. Even though most didn’t know how to use firearms, Brown hoped they would fight.

A few of Brown’s men went to the nearby rifle factory. They planned to overpower the guard, secure hostages, and gain control of the armory.

It didn’t take long for the local militia to be alerted to their attack. The train conductor of a passing train telegraphed a warning which the US Marines ultimately received. Hayward Shepherd, the train’s baggage master, died from gunshot wounds. The townspeople and Brown’s army engaged in a gun battle until the marines arrived the next day.

Newby was the first to be killed. A spike shot from a rifle cut his throat ear to ear. Differing articles describe men cutting off Newby’s genitals and ears for souvenirs or stabbing him repeatedly and amputating his limbs. Both say his body was left for the hogs to devour. A letter from his wife found on his body describes their youngest baby’s attempts to stand and walk.

Although the local militia’s bridge control cut off their escape route, Anderson, Brown’s son Owen and five others escaped. Anderson encouraged Green to come with them, but Shields decided to turn back to help Brown, whom he called “the ole man.” The militia captured Shields.

Copeland was in a nearby rifle factory with his uncle, Leary, and a few other men. Realizing defeat was imminent, they fled through the back and tried swimming across the Shenandoah River. Soldiers captured Copeland and wounded Leary. Leary lived long enough to tell his family he was ready to die.

Brown, several of his men, and some hostages took cover in the engine house, a one-room building used to store fire engines and pumping wagons. Once surrounded, Brown sent his son Watson out waving a white flag to negotiate a surrender. Watson was shot and killed.

Robert E. Lee arrived with a company of marines. He offered to spare their lives if they surrendered. Brown said he would rather die a martyr. It took moments for the marines to break through the engine room door and capture the rebels.

The battle took the lives of the mayor, a few townspeople, a marine, a baggage master, and some enslaved people. Reports vary on whether the enslaved people had joined the fight during the short-lived rebellion.

Most of Brown’s small army, which crossed the bridge less than two days earlier, were killed or died from wounds inflicted during the raid.

John Anthony Copeland Jr. and Shields Green, along with Brown and the other captured men, were charged with murder and attempting to incite a slave revolt.

While in jail, Copeland wrote letters to his parents, asking them not to be sad but rather to rejoice in his part for the holy cause of freedom. His faith assured him he was bound for heaven. It was not death he regretted but the institution of slavery.

Green didn’t speak during his trial but sent word to Brown, telling him he was glad to have fought alongside him.

Brown found solace in reading the bible. He believed those who accepted the horrific treatment of enslaved people could not say they followed God. His actions were righteous. He was comforted by his wife, Mary Ann, who traveled over five hundred miles from their home in North Elba, New York, to see him before his execution.

The jury in this pro-slave state found them guilty and sentenced them to death by hanging. Virginia’s governor received hundreds of letters asking for Brown’s release or to have at least his death sentence commuted. Letter writers did not include the same pleas for Copeland and Green.

Brown was the first to be hung on the morning of December 2, 1859. His final words expressed his belief freedom now could only be achieved through bloodshed. He declined being prayed over by local pastors who preached slavery as God’s will. Lawmen led Brown to the gallows nearby, where people gathered to watch his execution. One story said the noose remained on his neck even as the casket was loaded on a train so his wife could take him home to their farm for burial. People in the North viewed him as a martyr and showed respect with church bells, memorials, and words of praise.

Copeland and Green were hung two weeks later, on December 16, 1859. Although it was customary to say last words, it seems the law put hoods over their heads and nooses around their necks before they could speak. Unlike Brown, whose wife buried him in a cemetery a few feet from his front door, Copeland’s parents were not allowed to carry their son’s body home even after pleading with the governor of Virginia. Instead, their bodies, along with Brown’s son Watson, were dug up and given to the Winchester Medical College to be dissected in the anatomy labs by medical students. Their brave bodies were cut open by white men studying the science of where kidneys and hearts are and how muscles attach to bone.

Initially, the South underestimated the impact of the attempted rebellion. Most agree this event stoked the fires leading to the American Civil War, which began a short two years later in 1861.

Osborne Anderson escaped north to Canada and wrote his memories of Harpers Ferry. He returned to the United States to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War. In his early forties, he died of tuberculosis.

Newby’s death meant he could not save his wife and children from being sold. I wonder if the Emancipation Proclamation three years later gave his wife and children the freedom he could not. Leary’s young wife Mary met and married Charles Henry Langston. Together they had a daughter Caroline who gave birth to the famous American writer and activist Langston Hughes. Decades after the raid, some men who fought with Brown, including Newby and Leary, were buried near Brown in North Elba, New York. Copeland and Green’s burial spot after being dissected is unknown.

How would we see black men differently if Dangerfield Newby’s love for his family had been included in the song about John Brown? Or the faith of John Anthony Copeland Jr. and the bravery of Osborne Anderson, Shields Green, and Lewis Sheridan Leary?

I’m adding a verse to John Brown’s marching song that should have been there all along. They, at the very least, deserve that.

“Osborne, Shields, Lewis, John, and Dangerfield.
Brave, courageous black men who fought so we could live.
Their sacrifice freed millions who were shackled in slavery.
Heroes were they all.
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.
Their souls go marching on.”

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