A Veteran Railroad Man’s Memories of John Brown and the Raiders of 1859
HARPER’S FERRY, W. VA., Dec. 26. NEXT Tuesday will mark the anniversary of the execution of John Brown and his band of raiders at Charlestown, W. Va., December 29, 1859, following their attack upon the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.
Probably the most interesting survivor of those stirring ante-bellum days is Patrick Higgins, who for more than 40 years watched the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge at the Ferry, was on duty at the time of the attack and, so far as can be learned, is the only living acquaintance of Brown.
Mr. Higgins’ record as a railroad man antedates the Civil War, and was begun on the Baltimore and Ohio way back in 1853, just five months after the railroad had opened the first trunk line in the country from Baltimore to Wheeling, on the Ohio river, and when— as he expresses it— “the father of American development, the railroad, was an infant.”
Well may he be termed a railroad man of the old school, for since starting in his life’s work, more than 50 years ago, he has seen many conditions of railroading and improved methods of operation. His first employment with the Baltimore and Ohio was as a trackman on the first division, between Baltimore and Martinsburg, W. Va., and he was later made a watchman on the Harper’s Ferry bridge, where he remained throughout the war.
COMING OF THE TELEGRAPH. Mr. Higgins considers that no one agency so served to improve railroad conditions of the early days as the telegraph. It is rather amusing to listen to him tell of the construction of the line through Harper’s Ferry.
It was in 1854 that the wires were strung through here,” said he, “and when I asked the linemen the use to be made of the poles they were planting and they told me they were for the telegraph, which would enable the officials in their offices at Baltimore to keep in touch with train movement out on the road, I really thought the men were crazy.
“You see, before that time train schedules called for certain meeting points along the line, and if upon arrival of a train the one going in the opposite direction had not made its appearance, the roles required the first train to wait an hour, and allow five minutes for a possible variation of watches, before proceeding.
“And in those days,” continued Mr. Higgins, “for a man to be a railroad man meant that he could endure countless hardships. There were no cabooses and other present-day accommodations for the crews, our pay was much less, and there was no overtime then, such as is allowed the trainmen of today.
“Why, I remember well making a trip from Martinsburg to Baltimore when I was out on the road twenty-two and three-quarter hours and received for my day’s work $1.75.
“The cars in those days were of smaller capacity than our present ones, and on each train was carried a house car, in which were the extra lamps. You see the roadbed wasn’t as smooth as our twentieth century, seventy-mile-an-hour right of way, and the jolting of the trains would often extinguish the lights and markers.”
Owing to his varied railroad duties, Mr. Higgins was closely identified with the thrilling events of the war-time history of this quaint little mountain town, and although at present retired from active duty, he is as hale and hearty as a young man of one-third his years, his memory is as retentive as a schoolboy’s, and he delights in talking of the bygone days when John Brown and his abolitionist followers were inciting outbreaks of violence among the negroes of the vicinity.
WHEN JOHN BROWN ARRIVED. “Yes, I knew John Brown very well,” said Mr. Higgins, “but it will be getting considerably ahead of my story to refer to him as ‘John Brown.'”
“About the middle of March, 1858, a man giving his name as John Smith– Capt. John Smith— came to Harpers Ferry and procured boarding accommodations over at Sandy Hook. I was at that time employed as a watchman on the old wooden bridge at the ferry and boarded also in Sandy Hook, a few doors from ‘Captain Smith.’.”
“Naturally, I got to see a good bit of the ‘Captain,’ and he told me he was a prospector who had come to Harpers Ferry in the hope of discovering valuable minerals in the surrounding mountains. He used to carry a pick with him and would frequently take long strolls, and I remember upon two different occasions that he showed me manganese which he claimed to have obtained here and also some silver which he likewise said he found in the vicinity.”
“Of course, we people of the locality were very much interested in ‘Captain Smith’s’ pretended discovery, and he said he intended opening some mines. Later he rented the Kennedy farm, over on the Antietam road, about six miles from Harpers Ferry, and said it was his aim to start at once on his mining venture.
“Shortly after moving on the Kennedy property he bought a horse and small wagon, and pretty soon ‘Captain Smith’ began receiving, almost daily, boxes from the depot, explaining that it was mining machinery. But the length of those mysterious boxes I have since come to believe that htey contained the rifles, revolvers, etc., which he afterward used in his attack on the arsenal.
“This went on for some time and, of course, the residents suspected nothing to be wrong.”
HELD UP ON THE BRIDGE “But, as I have said, I was employed watching the bridge, and before a great while and during the summer a number of strangers came over the bridge and inquired from me whether a ‘John Smith’ lived in the neighborhood and to direct them there. These men usually came at intervals of about a week, always alone, and as I later learned, were the men who comprised ‘Captain Smith’s’ following in his attack on the arsenal.”
“Historians have repeatedly written that the insurrection was created by negroes, but this is entirely incorrect and there were not more than three negroes in the party. I personally saw the men who made the attack and with one or two exceptions recognized every man.”
“Employed with me in watching the old railroad bridge here at the Ferry was a man named William Williams, and we relieved each other at six-hour intervals. The railroad then had a time clock on the bridge such as is in use in the large offices today, and we were required to register every 30 minutes.”
“On Sunday night, October 16, 1859— I remember it well — I was due to report at midnight, but Williams and myself never quarreled with each other if one happened to be a few minutes late. On this night I arrived at the bridge at exactly 12:20 o’clock and was surprised to find that Williams wasn’t there and had not registered on the clock since 10.30.”
“I immediately started back across the bridge in search of him and was accosted on my way by two armed strangers, this being the first intimation I had of the siege. I was commanded by the men to halt, but not being familiar with military life didn’t obey.”
“After my failure to stop upon the second command I was struck in the side by a bayonet and rendered almost unconscious by the blow. Regaining my feet, I asked the reason for their molestation and told them I was the watchmen on the bridge.”
“‘Well,’ answered the man that I afterward learned was John Brown’s son Oliver, ‘we will watch the bridge tonight— you come with us.'”
“As we started back across the bridge I saw several long spears and was almost frantic from fear. I struck young Brown a powerful blow with my fist, knocked him down and made my escape. In those days I was a swift runner and, scared as I was, I lost no time in getting back into the town.”
“JAKE” WASN’T AFRAID. “The railroad company’s agent at Harper’s Ferry at that time was Fountain Beckam, who was also the Mayor of the town. He had a negro by the name of Hayward Sheppard, whom he had freed some time before and employed around the station, and Sheppard slept in the building. After making my escape from the bridge I awoke the negro and told him what had taken place.”
“I discovered that a bullet had slightly grazed my head, but proceeded to Williams’ house to see if he had returned home. Mrs. Williams told me he had not, so not wanting to frighten her I said I had just come over to see him about my lantern.”
“About this time the Western express was due from Cincinnati, so I returned to the station. She was on time that night, I remember well, and reached the Ferry at 1.26. The conductor in charge of her was ‘Jake’ Phillips, and I cautioned him not to cross the bridge with his train, as it had been besieged and such action would be dangerous.”
“‘Jake’ was a large and powerful man— a typical railroader of the time— who didn’t know the meaning of the word fear. He took his lantern and started over toward the bridge, asking me to join him. While I was terribly scared I didn’t want to be a coward, so went with him.”
“We were fired at by the abolitionists, though I am convinced they merely wanted to scare us. A man carrying a lantern makes an excellent target for those so skilled in the use of firearms, but the raiders commanded us to advance no farther, saying they wanted liberty and that it was only some negroes fighting for freedom.”
“Together Conductor Phillips and myself returned to the station and shortly afterward Hayward Sheppard, the negro, ventured out and was mortally wounded.”
“In the meantime a farmer by the name of Gist and his sons, who had been attending a religious meeting and were returning home by way of the bridge, were taken prisoners, the sons held and the father dispatched by ‘Captain Smith’ to tell Phillips to proceed with the train. The message was to the effect that the idea was not to molest the railroad or delay the United States mail.”
“Still Phillips refused to move his train during the night, and it was not until after 7 o’clock Monday morning, when ‘Captain Smith’ himself had come and assured Phillips that no harm would befall the train that it resumed its journey east.”
FEDERAL TROOPS ON HAND. “The abolitionists held the arsenal all day Monday, the 17th of October.” continued Mr. Higgins, “and kept the village in a state of terror. On Monday afternoon the negro Sheppard, who had been wounded the previous night, appeared to be dying and pleaded with me to give him a drink of water. The poor fellow’s sufferings were so agonizing that I determined to risk going for the water, starting for the Shenandoah river with a pitcher.”
“I was halted, as expected, by a son-in-law of ‘Smith’s’, named Thompson, who, on learning my mission, bade me get the negro the water. He made a remark, however, that has caused me to ponder many, many times during these years since. As I returned from the river with the water he said: ‘It serves the nigger right, and if he had listened and taken our advice he would not have been shot.’ From this I am certain Hayward Sheppard was approached and asked to join in the uprising, which he likely declined and was threatened with death in the event he told.”
“On Tuesday, October 18, a company of United States marines from Washington, under command of Col. Robert E. Lee, afterwards the great Confederate leader, and Major Green, arrived at Sandy Hook by freight train over the Baltimore and Ohio and marched to the ferry prepared to take possession of the Government arsenal.”
“Major Green advanced toward the fort waving a white handkerchief, went inside and had a consultation with the raiders. Returning from the fort he came over to where I was standing alongside of Colonel Lee and said: ‘Colonel, those raiders in there are commanded by old Osawatomie Brown, of Kansas, and he refuses to surrender.'”
“Then it was that the real identity of ‘Captain Smith’ was learned; the order was given to charge the fort and after the third attack Brown and his men were captured. Eleven of these were killed in the encounter and were buried, including Brown’s oldest son Oliver, along the Shenandoah river.”
“Brown and the remainder of his men were taken on the first train to Charlestown, the county seat, and were tried and executed without delay.”
“I shall never forget that eventful 29th of December, 1859, when John Brown was hanged up at Charlestown,” said Mr. Higgins. “His remains were brought here and met by his widow and a man by the name of Tindale, from Philadelphia, who afterwards came to the ferry as a major in the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry.”
“Brown’s remains were taken back to his old home in New England to their last resting place, many miles away from the banks of the peaceful Shenandoah and the dreamy little town he immortalized by his fanaticism in the cause of abolition.”
TURBULENT IN WAR TIME. By reason of the geographical situation and proximity to both the Federal capital at Washington and that of the Confederacy at Richmond, Harper’s Ferry and the adjacent country figured prominently in the maneuvers of both armies.
Union troops first entered the village on July 4, 1861, and both armies were constantly picketing their forces on the heights surrounding the town and pouring volley after volley across the valley below.
On September 15, 1862, Generals “Stonewall” Jackson and A. P. Hill captured 13,000 Union soldiers under General Miles. General Jackson then left and crossed into Maryland, where he reinforced General Lee for the battle of Antietam, which was fought on the 17th of the same month.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad suffered great damage at the hands of both armies through the war and in numerous places the road was entirely destroyed for miles.
“You see,” said Mr. Higgins referring to this, “the Baltimore and Ohio was the most direct line to Washington and through its western connections the majority of the Union forces from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc., were transported to Washington. This the Confederates tried to prevent by destroying the road, and I saw them at different times heating the rails over fires made of ties and twisting them around telegraph poles.”
“Pat” Higgins remained in the employ of the Baltimore and Ohio continually from 1853 until his retirement, April 1, 1897. He is now enjoying the comforts of a cozy home at Sandy Hook, but can be seen almost daily at Harper’s Ferry walking the platform of the unpretentious little station, whistling a tune of ante-bellum days, shaking hands with passengers and reminiscing of the days when “all wasn’t quiet along the Potomac,” and John Brown, prospector, farmer, and abolitionist, was inciting the ignorant negroes of the vicinity into a demonstration which may be said to have practically marked the opening of the Civil War.
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