It is said that the history of Jefferson County is closely tied to its rivers. In the fall of 1859, John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry’s gun factories was just one example of how the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers helped shape the history of Jefferson County.
John Brown’s ultimate goal was to end slavery in the United States and free all enslaved men and women. Virginia was the northern-most slave state, and had an enslaved population of 495, 826 with the over whelming majority east of the Allegheny Mountains. When the new state of Kanawha [later changed to West Virginia] was proposed, there were only 6,894 enslaved men and women living in the 44 counties west of the Alleghenies. The Potomac River was a barrier to entry into Virginia from the north with easy access via a bridge at just a few locations. The Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road bridge at Harpers Ferry offered easy entry into Virginia, and Brown chose the wooden covered bridge as the route to cross the Potomac River into Jefferson County, with an enslaved population of 3,960. However, the B & O bridge was only one factor which led Brown to select the juncture of the Shenandoah and the Potomac as the launchpad for his grand plan.
Harpers Ferry was home to not one but two United States gun factories. The U.S. Musket Factory along the shores of the Potomac and the US Rifle Factory on the banks of the Shenandoah had been in production for a combined total of six decades.
While president, George Washington selected Harpers Ferry as one of two sites for a national armory because of the water power of the Potomac River—in his words the Potomac would provide an “inexhaustible supply of water” for the production of guns. Once he crossed the Potomac River on the B & O bridge, John Brown wanted the guns stored in Harpers Ferry’s arsenals for his army of liberation. Absent the Potomac River and its water power, absent General Washington’s knowledge of the Potomac and the lands which it drained, absent Washington’s decision to build the US Musket factory at Harpers Ferry, would Harpers Ferry have been John Brown’s point of entry?
Once Brown had settled on Harpers Ferry as his entry point into Virginia, he sent John Edwin Cook to Harpers Ferry to conduct reconnaissance. In the months leading up to the attack, Cook inserted himself into the local community—he lived and worked in Harpers Ferry and married a local woman. Always observant, by October 1859 Cook “had become well acquainted with the country around Harper’s Ferry,” and when Brown and his men crossed the railroad bridge on the night of the sixteenth, Cook used his expertise and acted as the guide for Brown and his 20 followers. In addition to getting the lay of the land, Brown had instructed Cook to locate places in the near vicinity of Harpers Ferry where they could find enslaved men and women. Cook set his sights on the farms of two slave-holding men—John Hall Allstadt and Lewis William Washington.
After securing the B&O bridge, the U.S. Musket factory on the Potomac, and the U.S. Rifle factory on the Shenandoah, Brown turned his attention to Allstadt and Washington. Just after midnight on October 17, with John Cook in the lead, a party of six men comprised of Cook, Shields Green, Francis Jackson Meriam, Aaron Stevens, Stewart Taylor, and Charles Plummer Tidd began the trek along the Harpers Ferry Pike headed west. Once they reached Halltown, the men followed a farm lane which was described as “inaccessible to easy approach and not readily discerned by the uninitiated traveler.” The lane paralleled the rail line of the Winchester & Potomac Rail Road and led the party to Beall Air, the home of George Washington’s great grandnephew, Lewis William Washington. The property was developed by the Beall family, thus its name, and was inherited by Lewis Washington through his mother, Elizabeth Ridgely Beall who married George Corbin Washington. In the words of Dr. Henry Temple McDonald, “It would further appear, from the study made, that this [Beall Air] was not an original Washington estate, but that it became such by will and inheritance.”
When they arrived at Beall Air, Brown’s men moved quickly to capture Washington, who at that hour was in bed. Washington later testified that he heard his name called and when he opened his bedroom door and he was confronted by “an armed party with their arms presented towards” him. He further testified that he “looked around at every gun to see if it was cocked, and found that they were all cocked.” Washington was alone in the house—his overseer lived in his own house and his daughter was in Baltimore.
Although 11 enslaved men and women lived at Beall Air, only two men were there on the morning of the 17th. Washington explained, “My servants were almost all away, that being Sunday night. They [Brown’s men] took two of mine, and one, the husband of one of my servants.” As was the custom at that time, enslaved men and women visited with family on Sundays and returned by Monday morning. The husband of Washington’s servant “did not belong to me, but to Dr. Fuller. He was hired at my house.” Dr. William Fuller was a Winchester dentist, and the man in question was not at Beall Air but joined the procession at Allstadt’s house. Francis Merriam supervised rigging Washington’s carriage and farm wagon, Washington joined Tidd in the carriage, the two enslaved men and the remaining men rode with Merriam in the wagon, and the entourage retraced their steps down the lane headed to Allstadt’s.
The farm adjacent to Beall Air was owned by Richard Henderson and his wife Elizabeth Beall English Henderson.
Richard Henderson had died just weeks before, and when the carriage and wagon stopped in front of the Harrison house, Washington told Tidd, seated next to him in the carriage, “There is no one here but ladies and it would be an infamous shame to wake them up at this hour of the night.” Hearing this, “Tidd jumped out [of the carriage], went to the wagon, and made some remark, and they went on.” The party continued on to Allstadt’s.
The caravan arrived at the home of John Hall Allstadt “at three o’clock in the morning on the 17th of October.” The Allstadt house dated to the 1790s, and in 1811, Jacob Allstadt purchased the house and 114 acres from Jesse Moore. Allstadt had a license to operate an ordinary and for several years was in charge of the toll gate on the Harpers Pike at the base of the hill which would soon bear his family’s name. When Brown’s men knocked at his door, Allstadt declined to open “but at that moment they bursted the door open with a rail. The door was locked. When the door was bursted open I could see out.” Brown’s men had removed a rail from a Virginia worm fence and used it as a ram to break through Allstadt’s locked door. Upon entering the house, the men ordered Allstadt to get dressed and when he inquired as to their purpose they replied, “they intended to free the country of slavery” and that “they were going to take me to Harper’s Ferry.” When dressed, Allstadt was escorted outside where he observed that “they had all my black men and boys — they were all men except one — at the door waiting for me. There were seven of them. They were all grown but one.” Of Allstadt’s 12 enslaved men and women, seven of them joined him and his 18-year-old son John, Jr. in Washington’s wagon. With Tidd driving the carriage and Merriam the wagon, four of Brown’s men walked in front of the wagon as it proceeded up the hill to Bolivar Heights. At the hill’s top, the procession halted, and Brown’s men walked into William Smallwood’s woods which crowned the heights on the north side of the pike. When the men returned from the woods, they approached both the carriage and the wagon advising, “Boys, mind; we may have a little fight.” Cautiously the caravan continued through Bolivar and then down the steep hill towards their destination—the grounds of the U.S. Musket Factory.
Although the disposition of John Brown and his men is well documented, less is known about the enslaved men taken with John Allstadt and Lewis Washington and transported to the armory grounds in Harpers Ferry. In the aftermath of the raid, the “Select Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Invasion” of United States Senate conducted a months long inquiry chaired by Virginia Senator James Murray Mason. Both Allstadt and Washington testified, and limited information about these men can be gleaned from their testimony.
As previously mentioned, based on the testimony of Allstadt and Washington, a total of 10 enslaved men were taken by Brown’s men—three from Washington’s Beall Air farm, and seven from Allstadt’s. According to Washington, when the party arrived at the armory, “the gates were opened and I was driven in and was received by old Brown; the carriage drove into the armory yard nearly opposite the engine-house.” Washington described the engine-house as a building “22 or 24 feet square” divided into two rooms by “a wall between them” which isolated one room from the other. The smallest of the rooms was the watch-house, wherein hours before the raid began, night watchman Daniel Whelan sat before a woodstove intent on passing another peaceful night. Brown’s shouted challenge at the locked armory gates broke Whelan’s reverie and set-in motion Brown’s plan to liberate Virginia’s slaves. The larger of the two rooms was the engine-house and housed the armory’s firefighting equipment.
Both Allstadt and Washington testified that they were taken to the watch-house where the stove was located while the enslaved men were taken to the unheated engine-house. In Washington’s words, “The servants were all taken into the engine-house, and we into the watch-house, but they [enslaved men] came in repeatedly to warm themselves.” When asked where his men were, Allstadt replied in a similar fashion saying, “they [enslaved men] were backwards and forwards; sometimes some of them would come into the watch-house.”
In 1857, John Brown had contracted with Charles Blair, a blacksmith who lived in Collinsville, Connecticut, to make 1,000 pikes. Brown told Blair that he had seen weapons which he called dirks used in Kansas “and he remarked that if he had a lot of those things to attach to poles about six feet long, they would be a capital weapon of defense for the settlers of Kansas to keep in their log cabins to defend themselves against any sudden attack that might be made on them.“ The pikes were shipped to Brown in June 1859, and Allstadt and Washington testified that once they reached the armory grounds, they saw the pikes in use. According to Washington, when enslaved men came into the watch-house to warm up, each had “a pike in his hand.” Similarly, Allstadt testified that the enslaved men were armed “with spears, and they would occasionally walk in to the stove and they would go out again.” Allstadt also reported seeing the enslaved men “in the engine-house, standing there, some of their [Brown’s] men with them.”
In the morning of October 17th, Brown put the enslaved men to work. John Cook, Brown’s son Owen, and Barclay Coppoc left the armory grounds in Lewis Washington’s wagon accompanied by four enslaved men—one from Beall Air and three from Allstadt’s. These men were charged with moving supplies—Sharp’s carbines, “revolving pistols,” and the remainder of the pikes—from Dr. Kennedy’s farm to a school house “about a mile from the village of Harper’s Ferry, on the Maryland side.” Four enslaved men remained at the engine-house. Washington testified that the enslaved man from Beall Air “was in the engine-house with me all the time.” Three of Allstadt’s enslaved men were in the engine house, and Washington reported that one of those, a man named Phil, was put to work by Brown opening holes in the engine-house’s brick walls. In Washington’s words, “Old Brown said to him [Phil], ‘you are a pretty stout looking fellow; can’t you knock a hole through there for me?’ There were some mason’s tools with which he effected it. The holes were loop-holes to shoot through.”
Two enslaved men, Jim and Ben, accompanied raiders John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and John Henry Kagi to the grounds of the U.S. Rifle Factory. Jim worked at Beall Air and was the man that Lewis Washington mentioned he had hired from Dr. William Fuller. Ben worked at Allstadt’s, and in Allstadt’s words, “he was a very valuable fellow; the most valuable one I had.” At midday on the 17th, these four were the first of Brown’s men to face Charles Town’s militia. Severely outnumbered, the men sought to escape across the Shenandoah. Kagi was killed and Jim drowned, and both Ben and Copeland were captured and taken to the Jefferson County Jail in Charles Town.
Early the following day, Brown’s raid came to an end, and Brown and his remaining men were captured and taken to jail in Charles Town. The remaining eight enslaved men returned either to Allstadt’s or to Beall Air. Lewis Washington stayed in Harpers Ferry with Virginia’s Governor Henry Wise and did not return to Beall Air until Wednesday the 19th. Upon arrival he discovered that both men had returned on Tuesday night. John Allstadt made a similar report. Three of his enslaved men returned home “pretty soon after I did,” while the three involved in the transport of supplies came back at different times—” two of them got home that evening pretty soon after; I do not know what time; the middle of the evening,” while the final man “got home in the evening.”
After 30 hours of “freedom,” eight enslaved men returned to the daily work routine at Allstadt’s and Beall Air. Jim’s fate was sealed on the banks of the Shenandoah. That left Ben to be accounted for. John Allstadt testified that after more than a day in the engine-house, he “was very hoarse when I came out of the engine-house on Tuesday; I thought I had better take care of myself, or else I might be taken sick.” Because of this, he “did not go to Charlestown for some few days” and when he finally made it to the jail, he found that Ben “was very sick when I went there, so much so that I could not move him home.” On Saturday, November 5, 1859, the Shepherdstown Register made this sad report:
Ben, the property of Mr. John H. Alstadt [sic] who was captured with his master by the Brown party, died in the Jail in Charlestown on Monday last [October 31, 1859], from fright and excitement.
Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson.