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Senate Select Committee Report on the Harper’s Ferry Invasion
Testimony of Henry Wilson

Pp. 140-45


February 1, 1860.

Hon. Henry Wilson sworn and examined.

By the Chairman:

Question. Mr. Wilson, will you be good enough to inform the committee whether you had an interview with a certain Hugh Forbes in the city of Washington, when it took place, what led to it, and what resulted from it, and what communication he made, if any?
Answer. I was sitting in my seat in the Senate early in May, 1858, the first week I think of May, 1858, and Mr. Forbes came to my seat and introduced himself, the Senate not being in session. I think it was on Saturday. At any rate, the Senate was not sitting and I was sitting at my desk franking documents or writing. He came to my seat, introduced himself to me. I had never before heard of him, knew nothing whatever of him. He said he had been employed the year before, I think he said about a year before that, by Brown to go to Kansas, or somewhere near there, to drill some men for the defense of Kansas. That was the idea he communicated to me. I understood him that he was employed by Brown. He spoke of Brown and said he had left him, I think the fall before, I cannot fix the time. He seemed to be in a towering passion, greatly excited; said he had been abused and treated badly. Brown had discharged him or they had parted; Brown had failed to pay him what he ought to be paid; that he thought those persons in the East, and he mentioned Dr. Howe among them, who had made contributions for Kansas were under obligations to pay him; that his family was suffering in France, I think he said Paris, but I am sure it was in Europe. He said his family were starving. He spoke very nervously and excitedly about it. Then he said that some of the arms that had been contributed by these people in the East for the defense of Kansas had got into Brown's hands and were somewhere in the West, in Ohio or in Iowa. I do not remember whether he said these arms were at Tabor or not, but I am confident he said they were at Iowa; and he said that Brown was not a fit man to have arms, and that they ought to be got out of his hands. He said very decidedly that they ought to be got out of his hands, that he was not a fit man to have those arms, or something to that effect. That was the idea he conveyed to my mind. He said that he was a revolutionist by opinion; and he had no objection to going into anything of that nature. He then left me and I have never seen him since. He remained in the city, as I understood, some days afterwards, but I do not know how long. I think that was the latter part of the week when the Senate was not in session. Afterwards I saw Dr. Bailey, I think I called at Dr. Bailey's on the Sunday evening following.

Question. Who was Dr. Bailey?
Answer. The editor of the "Era." It was the evening I wrote, and I know I wrote Sabbath evening. He asked me if I had seen a man by the name of Forbes here. I told him I had. Dr. Bailey said to me that Forbes had said to him that John Brown had got some arms in his possession that were contributed for Kansas. Dr. Bailey then said to me that those people ought to get those arms out of Brown's hands, and that I had better write to some of them to that effect. I told him I had the same impression. I sat down that evening and wrote a letter to Dr. Howe, of Boston, which is the letter referred to here. When I was here the other day, I told you I had sent to Dr. Howe for the letter. Dr. Howe has written me that he has searched everywhere but cannot find the letter. He states, however, that he recollects substantially the contents. I have stated the circumstances under which I wrote and the knowledge I had. I had no knowledge whatever of anything like an organized invasion, or anything of the kind. I had the impression that Brown belonged to the class of men who had been in Kansas who entertained the idea that when any attacks were made on Kansas in any way, they ought to be retaliated by going over the line into Missouri, and I supposed this had reference to imprudent acts that might be perpetrated on the frontiers between that State and the Territory of Kansas. Nothing else ever entered my mind; and believing that policy was wrong, and that the only proper policy was a defensive one, I wrote the letter under those circumstances. The letter, as near as I can recollect -- I am very sorry it cannot be produced, because I should like to have the identical words -- was very brief, and to this effect: that I wrote to him for the purpose of saying it was rumored that some of the arms that had been contributed by gentlemen in the East for the defense of Kansas had passed into the hands of John Brown, and were held somewhere in his hands, and that they ought to get them out of his hands and put them in the hands of some reliable men in Kansas, who would use them only for the purposes of defense, for which they were contributed; that if these arms should be used for any illegal purpose, they would involve the men who contributed for the other purpose in difficulties. That was the substance of the letter; that if they should be used for any illegal purpose whatever, they would be involved in difficulty, and they should get them out of his hands at once. I received a letter, three or four days after I wrote mine, from Dr. Howe, to this effect: that they had sent to Brown to deliver the arms into the hands of somebody in Kansas; at any rate, they had sent to him to take the arms into Kansas, or deliver them up in some way; and I supposed, at the time, the arms were those referred to as being in Iowa, which were sent out there and stationed on the way. I received this letter a day or two after I wrote. That was the substance of it. The whole matter, I supposed then, was a quarrel between Brown and Forbes, and I paid but little attention to it; and never, until the outbreak took place, dreamed or heard from any quarter whatever anything in regard to it. I heard nothing from Forbes or Brown or any other source. When, some months afterwards, I think it was in the autumn or the first of the winter following, Brown made a raid into Missouri, after the troubles in the south part of Kansas -- the capture and murder of some free-State men -- I thought that was probably what Forbes referred to in saying that the arms ought to be out of his hands. That is my whole knowledge of the matter.

Question. In Forbes's interview with you, did he tell you at all the cause of quarrel between himself and Brown?
Answer. No, sir; but I had the impression it was on account of want of pay; that Brown had no men to drill; that he went out to drill some men and they had none, and Brown did not pay him; that he had been employed in New York, I think, in teaching the use of arms in fencing, and that he had lost his place by going west. I saw him but a very few minutes, and he was very much in a passion with Brown and the men in the East.

Question. Did he tell you who those men were in the Eastern States whom he looked to to pay him, and who had declined doing it?
Answer. He said he thought that men like Howe and Sanborn, and I think he mentioned Mr. Lawrence, and that class of men who had made contributions for Kansas, ought to pay him, and I think he told me that he had written them to that effect; at any rate, he spoke of them and Brown with a great deal of bitterness. He was a very nervous man, and seemed to be in a great passion. I told him I knew nothing of it whatever -- had never heard anything about it, and could do nothing about it.

Question. Will you state, if you please, why you wrote to Dr. Howe -- what control he had over the subject?
Answer. Forbes had mentioned his name to me, as among the men in the East who had made contributions of money or arms for Kansas. I had not direct communication about it, but I knew by the newspapers and common rumor that Dr. Howe had been very active in contributions for Kansas. I knew he was an active man in the matter; I had never had any communication with him myself about it.

Question. Do I understand you correctly, that in your communication with Forbes, and afterwards with Dr. Bailey, you derived the impression that Brown intended to make some illegal or improper use of those arms?
Answer. I had an impression of this kind from what he said to me about getting the arms, and from the manner in which Dr. Bailey spoke to me, saying that the arms ought to be got out of his hands; that there might be border difficulties in Kansas, raids over the line; that he might strike back; that he might go over the line if anything should happen, and in retaliation, capture, and run off slaves. I had this impression from what Forbes and Dr. Bailey said, and from my past knowledge that there were a class of men in Kansas who had the idea that when there was any attack on Kansas, it ought to be retaliated by an attack over the line into Missouri. My own opinions were, that that was a fatal policy, and an illegal one, and ought not to be tolerated for a moment. I had the apprehension when this remark was made to me, that these arms were in Brown's hands, and ought to be got out; that he might, in retaliation, use them for that purpose; that was my idea. I had this feeling, that it was a thing which ought to be discouraged; that the arms which had been sent, as I supposed, for defense, ought not to be used for any illegal or aggressive purpose; that it was illegal and wrong so to use the arms, and so far as the men were concerned who contributed the arms, they ought to take them out of Brown's hands, and give him no encouragement, but keep clear of him. I had no idea of any general organization for the invasion of Missouri or any other State; but I supposed reference was made to mere border difficulty which a few men might get up between Kansas and Missouri.

Question. You received a letter afterwards from Dr. Howe, informing you that he had taken measures to perfect what you had suggested?
Answer. I received a letter within three or four days, I think as soon nearly as the mail could carry my letter and bring his back, in which he said substantially -- I cannot give the exact words, but I remember distinctly about it, because I felt that the thing I had written for was accomplished -- that he had sent an order to Brown either to carry the arms into the Territory or deliver them to somebody in it. The idea was, that an order had been sent by a gentleman who had control of them. I do not know that he had control of them, but that such an order had been sent. Dr. Howe further said in the letter that there was a man in Washington, a disappointed and malignant man, by the name of Forbes, who he supposed had communicated any information upon which I might have written the letter. I did not mention any source of information in my note to him, and therein is where I supposed Mr. Realf might have mixed the contents of Dr. Howe's letter, in which he sent mine to Brown, with the contents of my letter.

Question. Did you hear anything at any other time from Dr. Howe of whether these arms had been taken out of Brown's possession?
Answer. I never heard about it. I never made an inquiry afterwards. I supposed it was done, and never paid any attention to it, or thought any more of it; and, in fact, the whole subject then dropped out of mind. I saw nothing, and heard nothing from any other sources, in regard to it. I supposed it was a matter that was settled, as things were getting peaceable in the Territory, and everything was quieting down. The idea of an invasion at Harper's Ferry, or organization for an invasion of the South, had never been entertained by me any more than I entertain today the idea of an invasion of Boston from France or England. I never heard Dr. Howe say anything about it.

Question. Had you any acquaintance with John Brown?
Answer. I met John Brown in Boston, in the spring of 1859.

Question. Do you remember the month?
Answer. The last of May or the first of June; I met him at the Parker House, at Boston. There were a dozen persons there. Brown came in with somebody and was introduced to quite a number of gentlemen who were there. I was introduced to him and he, I think, did not recollect my name, and I stepped aside. In a moment, after speaking to somebody else, he came up again and, I think, he said to me that he did not understand my name when it was mentioned, and he then said, in a very calm but firm tone, to me: "I understand you do not approve of my course;" referring as I supposed, to his going into Missouri and getting slaves and running them off. It was said with a great deal of firmness of manner, and it was the first salutation after speaking to me. I said, I did not. He said, in substance, I understand from some of my friends here you have spoken in condemnation of it. I said, I had; I believed it to be a very great injury to the anti-slavery cause; that I regarded every illegal act, and every imprudent act, as being against it. I said that if this action had been a year or two before it might have been followed by the invasion of Kansas by a large number of excited people on the border, and a great many lives might have been lost. He said he thought differently, and he believed he had acted right, and that it would have a good influence, or words to that effect. I saw him a night or two afterwards, on the stage of a large meeting in Tremont Temple, at which I was in the audience. Mr. Cheever, of New York, was delivering an address. That was all the conversation I ever had with Brown. In this conversation he spoke with great frankness, and I supposed that he referred to what I had said in regard to his going over the line, and taking away slaves from Missouri, which I had condemned, but he may have also referred to my letter to Dr. Howe.

Question. Did you learn from any credible source, or from anything that transpired, what was the object of his mission to Boston at that time?
Answer. I did not know anything of it. I never heard anything said about it in any way. I supposed that he was there as he was about the country generally, and I never heard that he was collecting funds for any special object; did not know anything about it.

Question. Do you remember the month?
Answer. I think it was the latter part of May or the first of June, because it was the week of the anniversaries in Boston, when the various religious and other societies hold meetings. It is called anniversary week with us. I think it is the last week in May in which a great number of societies -- religious, and tract, and charitable, and benevolent societies -- hold their anniversaries. The meeting at which I saw him on the stage, was the Church Anti-Slavery Society, an organization of ministers connected with the church. Dr. Cheever, of New York, was delivering an address before them, and I remember attending to hear him. Brown sat on the stand.

Question. Did Brown make any address?
Answer. He was called out, and said a word or two, but it was very brief indeed. I have little recollection of it, but it did not amount to much any way. It was just before Mr. Cheever got up, and there seemed to be a great desire to hear Cheever, and Brown sat down very abruptly. The meeting was called to hear Mr. Cheever deliver an address, and before they got ready, there being a very full audience, there was a call for Brown, and he got up, but he had hardly said a sentence or two before there was a call for Cheever, and he sat down saying he was more accustomed to action than to speaking.

Henry Wilson.

Source: Report of the Select Committee of the Senate Appointed to Inquire into the Late Invasion and Seizure of the Public Property at Harper’s Ferry , Report No. 278, Senate, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 1860 (commonly known as the Mason Report).


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