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The Execution of John Brown

By J. T. L. Preston

The Southern Bivouac
August 1886

THE following letter was written by Colonel J. T. L Preston, of the Military College of Lexington, Virginia, a few hours after the execution of John Brown. The writer was there on duty, as an officer of the corps of cadet who were ordered to Harper's Ferry at the time. As there has been a remarkable revival of interest in every species of war literature of late, this minute description of the tragic scene has an interest which justifies its publication. As it was written on the ground it is worthy of preservation as a bit of veritable history.

"CHARLESTOWN, December, 2, 1859. "The execution is over; we have just returned from the field, and I sit down to give you some account of it. The weather was very favorable; the sky was a little overcast, with a gentle haze in the atmosphere that softened, without obscuring, the magnificent prospect afforded here. Before nine o'clock the troops began to put themselves in motion to occupy the positions assigned to them on the field. To Colonel Smith (now General Smith, of the Virginia Military Institute), had been assigned the superintendence of the execution, and he and his staff were the only mounted officers on the ground until the Major-General and his staff appeared.

"By 10 o'clock all was arrayed, the general effect was most imposing, and at the same time picturesque. The cadets were immediately in rear of the gallows, with a howitzer on the right and left, a little behind, so as to sweep the field. They were uniformed in red flannel shirts, which gave them a dashing, Zouave look, and was exceedingly becoming, especially at the battery. They were flanked obliquely by two corps, the Richmond Grays and the Company F, which, if inferior in appearance to the cadets, were superior to any other company I ever saw outside of the regular army. Other companies were distributed over the field, in all amounting to perhaps eight hundred men. The military force was about fifteen hundred. "The whole inclosure was lined by cavalry troops, posted as sentinels, "with their officers, Turner Ashby and his brother, one on a peerless black horse and the other on a remarkable looking white horse, continually dashing round the inclosure. Outside this inclosure were other companies, acting as rangers and scouts. The jail was guarded by several companies of infantry, and pieces of artillery were put in position for its defense.

"Shortly before eleven o'clock the prisoner was taken from jail, and the funeral cortege was put in motion. First came three companies, then the criminal's wagon, drawn by two large white horses. John Brown was seated on his coffin, accompanied by the sheriff and two other persons. 'The wagon drove to the foot of the gallows, and Brown descended with alacrity and without assistance and ascended the steep steps to the platform. His demeanor was intrepid, without being braggart. He made no speech; whether he desired to make one or not I do not know; even if he had desired it, it would not have been permitted. Any speech of his must of necessity have been unlawful, as being directed against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth, and as such could not be allowed by those who were then engaged in the most solemn and extreme vindication of law.

"John Brown's manner gave no evidence of timidity, but his countenance was not free from concern, and it seemed to me to have a little cast of wildness. He stood upon the scaffold but a short time, giving brief adieus to those about him, when be was properly pinioned, the white cap drawn over his face, the noose adjusted and attached to the hook above, and he was moved, blindfold, a few steps forward. It was curious to note how the instincts of nature operated to make him careful in putting out his feet, as if afraid he would walk off the scaffold. The man who stood unblenched on the brink of eternity, was afraid of falling a few feet to the ground!

"Every thing was now in readiness. The sheriff asked the prisoner if he should give him a private signal before the fatal moment. He replied, in a voice that sounded to me unnaturally natural - so composed was its tone, and so distinct its articulation - that 'it did' not matter to him, if only they would not keep him too long waiting.' He was kept waiting, however; the troops that had formed his escort had to be put in their proper position, and while this was going on he stood for some ten or fifteen minutes blindfold, the rope round his neck, and his feet on the treacherous platform, expecting instantly the fatal act; but be stood for this comparatively long time upright as a soldier in position, and. motionless. I was close to him, and watched him narrowly, to see if I could detect any signs of shrinking or trembling in his person, but there was none. Once I thought I saw his knees tremble, but it was only the wind blowing his loose trousers. His firmness was subjected to still further trial by bearing Colonel Smith announce to the sheriff, 'We are all ready, Mr. Campbell.' The sheriff did not hear or did not comprehend, and in a louder tone the same announcement was made. But the culprit still stood steady, until the sheriff descending the flight of steps, with a well-directed blow of a sharp hatchet, severed the rope that held up the trap-door, which instantly sank sheer beneath him. He fell about three feet; and the man of strong and bloody hand, of fierce passions, of iron will, of wonderful vicissitudes, the terrible partisan of Kansas, the capturer of the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, the would-be Catiline of the South, the demigod of the Abolitionists, the man execrated and lauded, damned and prayed for, the man who, in his motives, his means, his plans, and his successes, must ever be a wonder, a puzzle and a mystery, John Brown, was hanging between heaven and earth.

"There was profoundest stillness during the time his struggles continued, growing feebler and feebler at each abortive attempt to breathe. His knees were scarcely bent, his arms were drawn up to a right angle at the elbow, with the hands clenched; but there was no writhing of the body, no violent heaving of the chest. At each feebler effort at respiration his arms sank lower and his legs hung more relaxed, until at last, straight and lank, he dangled, swayed slightly to and fro by the wind.

"It was a moment of deep solemnity, and suggestive of thoughts that made the bosom swell. The field of execution was a rising ground, that commanded the outstretching valley from mountain to mountain, and their still grandeur gave sublimity to the outline; and it so happened that white clouds resting upon them gave them the appearance that reminded more than one of us of the snow-peaks of the Alps. Before us was the greatest array of disciplined forces ever seen in Virginia, infantry, cavalry, and artillery combined, composed of the old commonwealth's choicest sons, and commanded by her best officers; and the great canopy of the sky, over-arching all, came to add its sublimity, ever present, but only realized when other great things are occurring beneath it. "But the moral of the scene was its grand point. A sovereign State had been assailed, and she had uttered but a hint, and her sons had hastened to show that they were ready to defend her. Law had been violated by actual murder and attempted treason, and that gibbet was erected by law, and to uphold law was this military force assembled. But greater still, God's holy law and righteous providence was vindicated: 'Thou shalt not kill,' 'Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.' And here the gray-haired man of violence meets his fate, after he had seen his two sons cut down before him earlier in the same career of violence into which he had introduced them. So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race! So I felt, and so I said, with solemnity and without one shade of animosity, as I turned to break the silence to those around me.

"Yet the mystery was awful - to see the human form thus treated by men - to see life suddenly stopped in its current, and to ask one's self the question without answer, 'And what then?' "In all that array there was not, I suppose, one throb of sympathy for the offender. All felt in the depths of their hearts it was right. On the other hand, there was not one single word or gesture of exultation or insult. From the beginning to the end, all was marked by the most absolute decorum and solemnity. There lifts no military music, no saluting by troops as they passed one another, nor any thing done for show.

"The criminal hung upon the gallows for nearly forty minutes, and, after being examined by a whole staff of surgeons, was deposited in a neat coffin to be delivered to his friends, and transported to Harper's Ferry, where his wife waited it. She came in company with two persons to see her husband last night, and returned to Harper's Ferry this morning. She is described by those who saw her as a very large, masculine woman, of absolute composure of manner. The officers who witnessed their meeting in the jail said they met as if nothing unusual had taken place, and had a comfortable supper together.

"Brown would not have the assistance of any minister in jail during his last days, nor their presence with him on the scaffold. In going from prison to the place of execution he said very little, only assuring those who were with him that he had no fear, nor had he at any time in his life known what fear was. When he entered the gate of the inclosure, he expressed his admiration of the beauty of the surrounding country, and, pointing to different residences, asked who were the owners of them.

"There was a very small crowd to witness the execution. Governor Wise and General Taliaferro had both issued proclamations exhorting the citizens to remain at home and guard their property, and warned them of possible danger. The train on the Winchester Railroad had been stopped from carrying passengers; and even passengers on the Baltimore Railroad were subjected to examination and detention. An arrangement was made to divide the expected crowd into recognized citizens and persons not recognized, to require the former to go to the right, and the latter to the left; of the latter there was not a single one. It was told that last night there were not in Charlestown ten persons besides the citizens and the military.

"There is but one opinion as to the completeness of the arrangements made on the occasion, and the absolute order with which they were carried out. I have said something about the striking effect of the pageant as a pageant; but the excellence of it is, that every thing was arranged solely with a view to efficiency, and not for effect upon the eye. Had it been intended as a mere spectacle it could not have been made more imposing; had actual need occurred it was the best possible arrangement.

"You may be inclined to ask, Was all this necessary? I have not time to enter upon this question now. Governor Wise thought it necessary, and he said he had reliable information. The responsibility of calling out the force rests with him. It only remained for those under his orders to dispose the force in the best manner. That this was done is unquestionable, and whatever credit is due for it may be fairly claimed by those who accomplished it."

J. T. L. Preston.

Source: Copy in John Brown Pamphlets, Vol. 6, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Chapter Twelve: Death and Burial

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History