Skip Navigation

(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

The Historical Authenticity of John Brown's Raid
in Stephen Vincent Benet's 'John Brown's Body'

By Mary Lynn Richardson

Volume 24, Number 2 (January 1963), pp. 168-75


In the "Note" prefacing Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body, he says:

In dealing with known events I have tried to cleave to historical fact where such fact was ascertainable. On the other hand, for certain thoughts and feelings attributed to historical characters, and for the interpretation of those characters in the poem, I alone must be held responsible.1

John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry is covered by Benet in nine pages of poetry. The scene at the courthouse is covered in two pages. John Brown's last speech is then given, although several parts of it are omitted.2

In this paper I am comparing the historical accuracy of John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry as told by Benet with that of other historical accounts available. Historians themselves differ in giving accounts of this, but even with their differences, they are important because the characters become less confused and more understandable when reading Benet's narrative. It is almost necessary to read Benet's account along with the material covered in this paper.

The Historical Authenticity of John Brown's Raid in Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body

In Benet's narrative no background information about John Brown's arrival in Harpers Ferry is given. Brown had rented the Kennedy Farm near the village of Sharpsburg and told people he was a mining prospector. He called himself "Isaac Smith".3 "One day two large boxes arrived at the Kennedy Farm. Mining machinery, he told people. They believed him. Why not? The boxes actually contained 200 new rifles, 200 revolvers and - a thousand spearheads and tomahawks. And not an Indian within a thousand miles."4

Another account says that when wagon loads of heavy boxes arrived, a neighbor asked about them. John Brown said it was household goods and were not to be opened until "Mrs. Smith" arrived.5

Brown had no "well-defined purpose in attacking Harpers Ferry, save to begin his revolution in a spectacular way, capturing a few slaveholders and release some slaves."6

Benet's story begins with John Brown's descent into Harpers Ferry. "On the night of October 16, 1859 [Sunday], with eighteen men, five of whom were Negroes, he made the attack"7 at 8:00.8 Benet names six of the men: Kagi, Stevens, Dauphin Thompson, Oliver Brown, Dangerfield Newby, and Watson Brown.9 The others of the total of twenty-two men were: Owen Brown, Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, John Edwin Cook, William Thompson, Francis J. Merriam, William Henry Leeman, Steward Taylor, Osbome Perry Anderson, John A. Copeland, Lewis Sherrard Leary, Shields Green, Albert Hazlett, Jerry Anderson and Charles Plummer Tidd.10

Benet describes the six men he mentioned fairly accurately. He calls Kagi "the self-taught scholar, quiet and cool."11 John Kagi went to the district school and later attended an academy in Virginia.12 He had also been called a "philosopher and scholar."13

Aaron D. Stevens is described by Benet as "the cashiered soldier, quiet and cool, a singing giant, gunpower-tempered and rash."14 "Stevens was hard to discipline and could seldom restrain his disposition to resist the daily tyrannies."15 He also had a "beautiful baritone voice". "He did not affect the faith of a Christian. He was a devoted spiritualist, however, and died believing absolutely in the immortality of life."16

Dauphin Thompson is described by Benet as "the pippin-cheeked country-boy, more like a girl than a warrior."17 Dauphin Thompson had just turned twenty-two and was the brother of William. Both were eventually slain.18

Benet says that Oliver Brown was "married last year when he was barely nineteen."19 Hinton calls him the "boy-husband" who was just recently married and still very young.20

Benet calls Dangerfield Newby the "colored and born a slave, freeman now, but married to one not free who, with their seven children waited him South, the youngest baby just beginning to crawl."21 Hinton says he was "thirty years old, mulatto, who was married to one not free and had seven children."22

Watson Brown was another of John Brown's sons. Benet inserts a portion of a letter from Watson Brown to his wife23 which was not located in the sources used in this paper. He then gives his own opinion of Oliver Brown, whom he says had a face that has a "masculine beauty somewhat like the face of Keats."24

John Brown had assigned Owen Brown, Merriam, and Barclay Coppoc to watch the house at the Kennedy Farm, Tidd and Cook to cut the telegraph wires, Watson Brown and Taylor to hold the bridge over the Potomac, Kagi and Stevens to detain the bridge guard, Oliver Brown and William Thompson to hold the bridge over the Shenandoah, Jerry Anderson and Dauphin Thompson to occupy the engine house in the arsenal, Hazlett and Edwin Coppoc to hold the armory and during the night Kagi and Copeland were to seize and guard the rifle factory.25

Benet first tells of the capture of the rifleworks. "They tied up the watchmen and took the rifleworks."26 DuBois says that Brown's men ordered the gate to be opened. The watchmen refused. They then ordered them to get the key, but the men refused. Brown's men got a crowbar and large hammer from a wagon and opened the door. They captured the two watchmen and left them in the custody of Jerry Anderson and Dauphin Thompson. Albert Hazlett and Edwin Coppoc held the armory for the time being.27

The excitement began and they took several prisoners. The raiding party, headed by Stevens and Cook, then went to Colonel Lewis Washington's farm.28

"It is remarkable," said Governor Wise, speaking of the event, "that the only thing of material value which they took, besides his slaves, was the sword of Frederick the Great, which was sent to General Washington [great-uncle of Colonel Lewis Washington]. This was taken by Stevens to Brown, and the latter commanded his men with that sword in this fight against the peace and safety of Washington's native State!"29

Another account says that Cook had taken Lafayette's pistols and Frederick's sword which Colonel Washington had once shown them in courtesy.30

In reference to the slaves:

John Brown could not see the liberated slaves when they laid down the pikes or guns, which they had so uncomprehendingly and obediently carried about all day, and slunk off homeward through the trees.31

Benet covers this episode quite accurately, adding a description of the slaves who were acting as guards.32

Benet then tells of Patrick Higgins, the night watchman of the Maryland bridge being shot, leaving a bullet-crease in his scalp.33

Robert Penn Warren gives this account:34

The watchman who came to relieve Bill Williams met the guard on the bridge, struck Captain Owen Brown, and tore himself away from the men who seized him. "I didn't know what 'Halt' mint [sic] then any more than a hog knows about a holiday," once explained Patrick Higginson. . . .

Warren got the names confused, because the man's name was Patrick Higgins according to Villard35 and duBois36 and it also was Oliver Brown whom Higgins struck.

It was about this time that the B&O train was due in Harpers Ferry. Higgins got away and warned the train.37 The train arrived at the station known as the Wager House38 and Brown's men shot the colored porter.39

Heyward Sheppard, [sic. Shepherd] colored porter, came up from the rear of the train. The men remonstrated with Cromwell. There was the bark of a rifle from somewhere in the crowd and the porter fell with a mortal wound.40

This was, indeed an ill omen for the army of liberation. The first man to fall at their hands was neither a slaveowner nor a defender of slavery, nor one who suffered by it, but a highly respected man in full possession of his liberty and favored with the respect of the white community. He had not even offered to resist.41

The passengers in the train went to the Wager House and remained there.42 At sunrise the train proceeded.43 Benet tells of this in great detail. He interprets Shepherd's thoughts while dying as a man who had found his place in society.44

Benet then switches the scene back to the town. He mentions that a townsman named Boerley was killed. He does not tell anything about Boerley.45

Thomas Boerley, a local grocer, was the first white man killed by the raiders.46 "He had walked out into the invading riflemen, still so sure of success, asked no questions about any man's errand; a man showed himself a fair target and that was enough."47

Benet tells of the attitude of the people in Harpers Ferry. They thought it was Nat Turner who had returned.48

What the South had been dreading ever since the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831 had come to pass: there was another servile uprising in the land. For years patrols had ridden the roads and men had watched of night lest the negroes turn upon their masters. It was an ever-present fear; that the Abolitionists wished the slaves to rise and kill their masters in their beds was a belief widely held in the South and often publicly expressed, and no happening that could be imagined contained a greater possibility of horror and bloodshed.49

"At daylight, every person who appeared in the street was taken prisoner, until they numbered between forty and fifty men."50

Benet next tells of the arrival of the militia. He says that the Jefferson Guards had no uniforms. Their weapons consisted of old squirrel rifles and shot guns loaded with spikes and scraps of iron.51 DuBois verifies this. He says that Captain Rowan, who headed the volunteer company, "found one or two squirrel rifles and a few shot guns."52

Benet then rejoins the raiders in his account. He speaks of Kagi, who was holding the rifle-works, sending Brown messages to retreat. He says that Brown "neither replied nor heeded."53

John H. Kagi, who had been in possession of the Hall gun factory up the Shenandoah and who was the chief advisor of John Brown, had urged the leader several times during the morning to retreat, but Brown refused to turn about.54

The scene again changes back to the militia. Benet says, "Just about noon the Jefferson Guards took the Potomac Bridge and drove away the men Brown posted there."55

The militia began to arrive and the movements to cut off Brown's men began. The Jefferson Guards crossed the Potomac, came down to the Maryland side and seized the Potomac bridge. The local company was sent to take the Shenandoah bridge, leave a guard and march to the rear of the arsenal, while another local company was to seize the houses in front of the arsenal.56

Benet continues saying the other bridge, meaning the Shenandoah, was soon recaptured.57 Redpath, in his Echoes of Harper's Ferry, published the year after John Brown's raid said "the first attack was made by the Charlestown Guards at the Shenandoah Bridge. William Thompson was taken prisoner, unwounded. . . ."58

The first of the raiders were killed. Benet describes Dangerfield Newby again. He gives his thoughts on what Newby and Shepherd would say to each other.59

There are several accounts of Stevens and Watson Brown asking for a truce. Villard, duBois, and Redpath all verify Benet's account. Redpath's account is as follows:

At the request of Mr. Kitzmiller, one of John Brown's hostages, Stevens went out of the Arsenal with him in order to enable him, if he could do so, to "accommodate matters" for the benefit of the prisoners. Stevens carried a flag of truce; but yet he was shot down and seized by the ruffianly militia.60

Benet then tells of Mr. Brua trying to calm the citizens. He then gives his own opinion of Brua as a man and a citizen.61

Other accounts say that "a brave prisoner named Joseph A. Brua went backward and forward"62 "despite the desultory fire from the citizens"63 "begging the citizens not to shoot, as they endangered the lives of Colonel Washington and the other prisoners."64

Benet then tells of other killings. He tells of Leeman, "a boy eighteen and the youngest raider, trying to flee . . . from the engine-house . . . and killed on an islet in the Potomac."65 DuBois says Leeman, who was taking a second message to Brown, was killed.66

The next person Benet mentions was Fontaine Beckham, mayor the town. He tells how Beckham went to look at Heyward's body. Benet tells Beckham's thoughts while going to see Heyward and of his being killed, although he does not tell how he was killed.67

Warren gives this account:

The kindly old Fontaine Beckham, agent for the railroad and mayor of the town was the next victim. The poor fellow, greatly disturbed by the death of his man, Sheppard, crept up on the trestle- work near the station to watch the outlaws who were causing all this violence in the streets of his town. Crouching in the protection of the engine-house building, Edwin Coppoc saw a man peering around the corner of the water tank, some thirty yard. "If he keeps on peeking. I'm going to shoot." Coppoc fired, but missed. The prisoners recognized Beckham and shouted in protest, but Coppoc's rifle was raised again. Beckham crumpled up with his head twisted against the timbers of the trestle.68

Benet next mentions the killing of William Thompson, which has already been noted in this paper.69 He mentions that Kagi and Oliver Brown were killed. DuBois tells of the death of Kagi and Oliver Brown. Kagi fell and died in the water while trying to reach a large flat rock near the middle of the river.70 Oliver Brown was shot and died without speaking a word.71 Benet tells of Oliver Brown crying in agony and John Brown telling him to die like a man.72

Benet devotes the next several paragraphs to Brown's thoughts. He then begins to tell about the marines.73 He tells of Lee's arrival. Lee offered the "honor of the attack" to the colonel of the militia, who declined, saying that Lee's men were paid for this kind of work, while theirs had wives and children.74

Robert E. Lee, with one hundred marines, arrived just before midnight on Monday. . . 75

Colonel Lee offered the privilege of the attack to Colonel Shriver of the Maryland militia, who declined for a sound reason. "These men of mine have wives and children at home. I will not expose them to such risks. You are paid for doing this kind of work.76

Benet then tells of Stuart taking a letter to Brown.77 "J. E. B. Stuart was the first to recognize Brown as Osawatomie Brown of Kansas, whom he had once had as a prisoner."78 When Brown would not surrender, Stuart gave the signal for the marines to attack.79

Benet then tells of John Brown watching the marines come and what the rifle-shots sounded like.80 He does not mention Lieutenant Green by name. He refers to him as "the shadow."81

Warren, duBois, and Redpath all tell of Lieutenant Green's entrance into the engine house.82 Green had a flimsy dress sword in hand and rushed to the rear of the building and jumped on top of the engine. "This is Osawatomie," Washington said, pointing to Brown. Green sprang about twelve feet at Brown, giving him an up-ward thrust with the sword,83 then brought the hilt down several times on Brown's head until he lay still.

Benet says that two marines were down. He says that one of Brown's men was pined to the wall with bayonets, another to the floor.84

Warren says "the first two Marines to follow Green fell the breach, and then their comrades were in with the bayonets. They caught one fellow, skulking beneath the engine, and pinned another clean to the wall with a single thrust."85

Green shouted the order to hold, and the fight was over. It had lasted only some two or three minutes from the time the door gave under the impact of the ladder."86 For nearly three hours the firing went on before he Brown saw the futility of further resistance."87

Benet says it had been a quarter of an hour since Stuart gave the signal for the storm.88

"And now it was over.
All but the long dying."


1 Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown's Body (Murray Hill, New York, 1928), p. vii.

2 Compare with "Testimonies of Capt. John Brown at Harper's Ferry with his address to the court". (New York, 1860), p. 15.

3 Frank Ball, "Harper's Ferry Episode," West Virginia Review, October, 1939.

4 Charles Carpenter, "John Brown in Harper's Ferry," National Republic, August, 1931.

5 Ball, op. cit.

6 Oswald, Garrison Villard, John Brown 1800-1859 (Boston, 1911), p. 427.

7 Encyclopedia Britannicae (Chicago, 1960), vol. 4, p. 266.

8 B. Burghardt duBois, John Brown (Philadelphia, 1909), p. 308.

9 Benet, op. cit. p. 25.

10 Richard J. Hinton, John Brown and His Men (New York, 1894).

11 Benet, op. cit.

12 Hinton, op. cit., pp. 455-6.

13 Ibid., p. 449

14 Benet, op. cit.

15 Hinton, op. cit., p. 493.

16 Ibid., p. 499.

17 Benet, op. cit.

18 Hinton, op. cit., p. 528.

19 Benet, op. cit.

20 Hinton, op. cit., p. 332.

21 Benet, op. cit.

22 Hinton, op. cit. p. 505.

23 Benet, op. cit., p. 26

24 Ibid.

25 duBois, op. cit., pp. 308-9.

26 Benet, op. cit.

27 duBois, op. cit. pp. 310-311.

28 Ibid., p. 311.

29 James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (Boston, 1860), p. 248.

30 Robert Penn Warren, John Brown, the Making of a Martyr (New York, 1929), p. 354.

31 Ibid., p. 372.

32 Benet, op. cit.

33 Ibid., p. 27.

34 Warren, op. cit., p. 356

35 Villard, op. cit., p. 432.

36 duBois, op. cit., p. 309.

37 Villard, op. cit.

38 Ball, op. cit.

39 duBois, op. cit.

40 Ball, op. cit.

41 Villard, op. cit., p. 433.

42 Redpath, op. cit.

43 duBois, op. cit., 311.

44 Benet, op. cit., pp. 27-8.

45 Ibid.

46 Benjamin Bradlee, "Harper's Ferry; 1959", Newsweek.

47 Warren, op. cit., p. 358.

48 Benet, op. cit.

49 Villard, op. cit., 436.

50 Redpath, op. cit., p. 248.

51 Benet, op. cit., p. 29.

52 duBois, op. cit., p. 320.

53 Benet, op. cit.

54 Carpenter, op. cit.

55 Benet, op. cit.

56 duBois, op. cit., p. 321.

57 Benet, op. cit.

58 Redpath, op. cit., 252.

59 Benet, op. cit., p. 30.

60 Redpath, op. cit., p. 254.

61 Benet, op. cit., p. 30-1.

62 Villard, op. cit., p. 438.

63 Warren, op. cit., p. 364.

64 Villard, op. cit.

65 Benet, op. cit., p. 31.

66 duBois, op. cit., p. 325.

67 Benet, op. cit., pp. 31-2.

68 Warren, op. cit., pp. 367-8.

69 See page 169.

70 duBois, op. cit.

71 Ibid.

72 Benet, op. cit., p. 33.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., p. 34.

75 duBois, op. cit., p. 332.

76 Warren, op. cit., 377.

77 Benet, op. cit., 34.

78 duBois, op. cit.

79 Ibid.

80 Benet, op. cit., p. 34-5.

81 Ibid., p. 35.

82 Warren, op. cit., p. 380; duBois, op. cit., p. 333-4; Redpath, op. cit., p. 262.

83 "It seems that Green's sword, in making the thrust, struck Brown's belt and did not penetrate the body. The sword was bent double. The reason that Brown was not killed when struck on the head was that Green was holding his sword in the middle, striking with the hilt and making only scalp wounds." DuBois, op. cit.

84 Benet, op. cit.

85 Warren, op. cit.

86 Ibid.

87 Ball, op. cit.

88 Benet, op. cit.

West Virginia History Journal

West Virginia History CenterWest Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History