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Page Two~Documents, November 1859 - January 1860 A Civil War Resource from the VMI Archives


Militant American Abolitionist

John Brown b. May 9, 1800, Torrington, Conn.
d. Dec. 2, 1859, Charles Town, [W] Va.

John Brown was a militant American abolitionist, whose capture and execution following his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, [West] Virginia made him a martyr to the antislavery cause. This series of events also contributed to a heightening of the sectional animosities that increasingly divided north and south. Less than two years after Brown's death, the country would be at war.

In the summer of 1859, leading an armed group of 16 whites and 5 blacks, Brown set up a headquarters in a rented farmhouse in Maryland, across the Potomac from Harper's Ferry, Virginia, the site of a federal arsenal. On the night of October 16, he captured the arsenal and rounded up some 60 leading men of the area as hostages. Brown took this action in the hope that escaped slaves would join his rebellion, forming an "army of emancipation" with which to liberate their fellow slaves. Throughout the next day and night he and his men held out against the local militia, but on the following morning he surrendered to a small force of U. S. Marines, commanded by Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was wounded, and 10 of his followers (including two sons) were killed. He was tried for murder, inciting slave insurrection, and treason against the state, and was sentenced to be hanged.

Fearing the possibility of another uprising by Brown's supporters, the Governor of Virginia accepted the offer of VMI's Superintendent, Francis H. Smith, to send a part of the Corps of Cadets to provide an additional military presence at the execution, which was to take place at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Smith consulted his faculty and selected upperclassmen to prepare for duty at Charles Town. Official VMI records do not include a list of the selected cadets. The only known list was published in the Petersburg (VA) newspaper on December 8, 1859.

Smith, by directive of the governor, was placed in charge of the execution itself. Overall command of the cadet detachment was given to VMI faculty member William Gilham, who also commanded two cadet infantry companies consisting of 64 cadets. His colleague Major Thomas J. Jackson, was placed in command of the artillery--two howitzers manned by 21 cadets. (less than two years after the duty at Charles Town, Jackson would acquire the nickname "Stonewall" and would soon thereafter achieve fame as one of the Confederacy's ablest military leaders). The VMI cadets reached Charles Town on November 26th and were relieved from duty on December 6th. They returned to Lexington via Richmond, where they were greeted by the Governor and members of the Virginia Assembly.

Photo at right: VMI Cadet group, ca. 1860. Henry K. Burgwyn (front center) witnessed the execution.

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