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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.

The Cadets

    This newspaper account of the cadets' stop in Petersburg, VA while returning from duty at John Brown's execution provides the only known published list of the cadets who were at the execution. It omits the name of Maj. Thomas J. Jackson,  who was also among the

    This newspaper account of the cadets' stop in Petersburg, VA while returning from duty at John Brown's execution provides the only known published list of the cadets who were at the execution. It omits the name of Maj. Thomas J. Jackson, who was also among the faculty members on the trip.



    Richmond, December 7.

    The weather continues gloomy.  There is no improvement on yesterday in this respect, and the city is as dull as the weather is sombre.  Our streets were enlivened this morning by the arrival of the Military Institute Cadets from Charlestown.  They were conducted to the St. Charles Hotel, where they are comfortably quartered.  The following officers accompany them: Col. F. H. Smith, Supt.; Majors W. Gilliam, Preston and Colston; Surgeon Graham, Lieutenants McCausland, Otey, Shipp and Truehart; Sergeant-at-Arms Hempsch, and an old negro cook, called Judge Anderson.  The men number 85, as follows: Adams, Battyelle, Breckenridge, Bentley, Bray, Booker, Baird, Browne, Broome, Bargwyn, Cunningham, Cherry, Coletrane, Cox, Chew, Davidson, Dunn, (of Petersburg) Dabney, Fry, Fauntleroy, Goode, Gregory, W. Gregory, A. Gouldmar, Galloway, Hutter, Hubard, Harris, Hith, Heuck, Hart, Hairsten, Harding, Hammet, Johnson, Jacobs, Kirby, Kyle, Kerr, Keuney, Kent, Lumeden, of Petersburg, Lynch, Lawson, Lubboch, Leistwich, Miller, Morrison, Mercer, Morgan, McCarty, Mosely, Marshal, McDonald, Majett, Moseler, Norton, Nalle, Oliver P. Otey, J. Otey, Overton, Preston, Park, Pritchard, of Petersburg, Pendleton, Parker, Paris, Robinson, Rowley, Rouse, Scott, Sydnor, of Petersburg, Simmons, Smith, Spratley, Taylor, Turner, Urquhart, of Southampton, Walchen, Wherry, Williams and Young.  The corps paraded to-day and have just marched up Broad street in full force.  With their red shirts they present a splendid appearance.  They have two drummers and two fifers and give us real martial music.  The officers are all in full uniform.  The streets are thronged with people, and the corps is universally applauded.  I understand that Governor Wise has ordered the company here for the purpose of exhibiting their admirable drill and excellent discipline to the Legislature, which is now in session.  They drill to-morrow for the special inspection of the Legislature....Marion."
    Source: The Daily Express/Petersburg, Virginia/Volume 9/Number 282/Page 3/Thursday, 8 December 1859.


      Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson

      Served on the VMI Faculty as Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy & Instructor of Artillery from August 1851 until the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861. The Virginia Military Institute Archives holds a large collection of Stonewall Jackson's personal papers, Jackson images, and other information about his life and times. Included on this page are links to full text correspondence, as well as to full text information about various topics of interest to Jackson researchers.

      Letter of John T. L. Preston

        John T. L. Preston was one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute and one of its first faculty members. This letter was published in the Lexington (VA) Gazette, December 15, 1859.

        Charles Town, Dec. 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

        Between eight and nine o'clock, the troops began to put themselves in motion to occupy the positions assigned to them on the field, as designated on the plan I send you. To Col. Smith 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 ten o'clock all was arranged. 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 gay, dashing, Zouave look, and was exceedingly becoming, especially at the Battery. They were flanked obliquely by two corps, the Richmond Grays (Greys) and 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, amounting in all to about 800 men. The military force was about 1,500.

        The whole enclosure was lined by cavalry troops posted as sentinels, with their officers--one on a peerless black horse, and another on a remarkable-looking white horse, continually dashing round the enclosure. Outside this enclosure were other companies acting as rangers and scouts. The jail was guarded by several companies of infantry, an pieces of artillery were put in position for its defense.

        Shortly before eleven o'clock the prisoner was taken from the 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. Had he desired it, it would not have been permitted. Any speech of his must, of necessity, have been unlawful, and 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.

        His manner was without trepidation, 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 he 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 his feet as if afraid he would walk off the scaffold. The man who stood unblanched on the brink of eternity was afraid of falling a few feet to the ground.

        He was now all ready. The sheriff asked him if he should give him a private signal before the fatal moment. He replied in a voice that seemed 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 into their position, and while this was going on, he stood for some ten or fifteen minutes blindfold, the rope around his neck, and his feet on the treacherous platform, expecting instantly the fatal act. But he 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 perceive 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 hearing 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 ready 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 beneath him, and 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 demi-god 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 profound stillness during the time his struggles continued, growing feebler and feebler at each abortive attempt to breathe. He 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 to and fro by the wind.

        It was a moment of deep solemnity, and suggestive of thoughts that make the bosom swell. The field of execution was a rising ground, and commanded the outstretching valley from mountain to mountain, and their still grandeur gave sublimity to the outline, while it so chanced 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 noblest sons, and commanded by her best officers; and the great canopy of the sky overarching all, came to add its sublimity ever present, but only realized when other great things are occurring beneath each.

        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 has seen his two sons cut down before him, 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 that it was right. On the other hand, there was not one single word or gesture of exultation or of insult. From the beginning to the end, all was marked by the most absolute decorum and solemnity. There was no military music, no saluting by troops as they passed one another, nor anything 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 awaited 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 enclosure, 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 Rairoad were subjected to examination and detention. An arrangement was made to divide the expected crowed into recognized citizens, and those 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 last night there were not in Charles Town ten persons besides citizens and military.

        There is but one opinion as to the completeness of the arrangements made on the occasion, and the absolute success 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 was that everything was arranged solely with the view of efficiency, and not for effect upon the eye. Had it been intended as a mere spectacle, it could not have been made more imposing, or 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 the 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 fairly be claimed by those who accomplished it.

        Semi-Annual Report of VMI Superintendent Francis H. Smith

          Semi-Annual Report of VMI Superintendent Francis H. Smith
          Submitted to the Governor
          1860 January 16

          As soon as I heard of the invasion of our rights and territory, by the gang of marauders headed by John Brown, I deemed it my duty as well as privilege to tender the services of the officers and cadets to the governor, for any duty to which he might think proper to assign them. Accordingly, I was ordered by his Excellency Governor Wise to proceed to Charles Town with an artillery detachment of 80 cadets, serving with howitzers. Taking with me on my personal staff, Major J. T. L. Preston, acting quartermaster, Major R. E. Colston, acting adjutant, Surgeon E. L. Graham and Commissary J. T. Gibbs, I detailed 64 cadets to served as infantry under the command of Major Wm. Gilham and 21 cadets with two howitzers, under the command of Major T. J. Jackson. Lieuts. J. McCausland, H. Otey, and S.Shipp accompanied the infantry detachment, and Lieut. D. Trueheart the artillery detachment. The command reached Charles Town on the 26th of November, and remained on duty there until they were relieved on the 6th December. In pursuance of orders received from the governor, the command returned to Lexington, by the way of Richmond, and I was afforded the privilege of presenting them to the governor, in the presence of the general assembly.

          It gives me great pleasure to report, that the novel duty thus assigned to the corps of cadets, although at times involving much exposure and hardship, was discharged with an alacrity and fidelity which reflected the highest credit upon them, and won from all observers the plaudits of approval. I am pleased to add that my command returned to their regular duty on the 10th December without the slightest accident, or without a single case of serious sickness.

          It has afforded me much gratification to know that the service thus discharged on the part of the institution was in perfect harmony with the wishes of the parents and friends of those who accompanied the detachment. One widowed mother, who had three sons under my command, thus wrote to them:

          "My dear boys--- only think of your being in camp, preparing for war! -- and civil war too! And yet I would not have you back, even if I could. I would not have one of my sons to be recreant to their state in this her hour of trial." Such is the spirit of the mothers of Virginia.

          VMI Cadets at the execution of John Brown

            VMI Cadets at the execution of John Brown
            From the Virginia Military Institute Order Book
            November 19-December 12, 1859

            Head Quarters, Va Military Institute
            Nov 19, 1859
            Order No 237

            In anticipation of orders from the Governor for the services of a portion of the Corps of Cadets on special duty at or near Charles Town, Virginia, those cadets who have been detailed for such service will hold themselves in readiness to take up the line of march at a moment's notice. The Corps of Cadets will be under the command of Major Gilham, who will have his command in readiness for the special services of infantry troops. The artillery detachment will be under the command of Major Jackson, who will be prepared specially for the use of Howitzers. Majors Preston and Colston will accompany the Superintendent as part of his special staff.

            The Superintendent need scarcely say to those detailed for this important service that there never was a time in the history of the State when more prudence, judgment, and fidelity were demanded than at this moment. He implicitly confides in the cadets that they will promptly discharge every duty and obey every command, that they will abstain from all thoughtless levity and from all forms of indiscretion and immorality and that they will remember that called into service for duty as men they will acquit themselves like men and as true sons of a common mother. His own word stands pledged for this. He looks to each and every one to redeem it.

            It is important for the order as well as efficiency of the Institution that the regular duties may proceed with as little interruption as possible. A moment's reflection will show the necessity of this. Let no boisterous noise be heard at any time and let those who remain on duty at the Institute remember that their duty at home is a trust also, in which their fidelity may be tried at any moment. Be faithful to all duties and especially on the alert for night guard duty. The recitations will be regularly kept up, but lessons will be so regulated as to impose light burdens upon the student. Special orders have been given to the Commandant of Cadets for insuring due protection to the public property.
            By order of Col. Smith

            Raleigh E. Colston, Class of 1846

              Raleigh Edward Colston, b. Paris, France on October 31, 1825. Adopted son of Dr. Raleigh Edward Colston (1796-1881) and his wife Maria Theresa, Duchess of Valmey (ca. 1775-1845). The young Colston was sent to the United States in 1842, in care of his uncle Edward Colston of Berkeley Co. [West] Virginia, to complete his education.

              VMI record
              Entered VMI on July 8, 1843; was graduated on July 4, 1846, standing 4th in a class of 14.

              Louise Meriwether Bowyer of "Thorn Hill," Rockbridge Co., Virginia. Two daughters: Mary Frances and Louise Elizabeth.

              Pre-Civil War
              Professor of French at VMI from 1846 until outbreak of war. In November 1859, he accompanied a contigent of VMI cadets assigned to guard duty at the execution of abolitionist John Brown.

              Civil War
              Commissioned Col. 16th Virginia Infantry Regiment; 1862 Dec. appointed Brigadier General and led brigade under Longstreet in the Peninsula; given brigade under Jackson in April 1863 and commanded a division at Chancellorsville; served under Beauregard in defense of Petersburg in 1864; in command at Lynchburg at end of war.

              Established military school in North Carolina;Colonel Egyptian army, 1873-1879; War Dept. clerk, 1882-1894; died 1896, at Soldiers' Home, Richmond, VA; buried Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond.

              Telegraphic dispatch has been recd from Governor Wise.

                Harpers Ferry, 3 o'clock PM
                Gen. W.H. Harman or J.H. Kinnier, Staunton
                Dispatch message to Col. F.H. Smith Supt of Va. Military Institute that his corps of howitzers is required at Charles Town by the 1st of Dec next. He will come ahead & let his corps follow. Henry A. Wise
                II. In obedience to the above order Maj Gilham will hold the detachment in readiness to leave by Monday morning next or at such other time as may be required. No cadet in the detachment will be permitted to leave the Institute except with special permission & then for a limited time.
                By order of Col. Smith.

                Head Quarters, Va Military Institute
                Charles Town Va Nov 28th, 1859
                Genl Order No 1
                The detachment of cadets called into the service of the State, being now on war footing all the rules and articles of war governing an army in the field will govern this command.

                Maj. J.T.L. Preston is detailed on Quarter Master & Maj. R.E. Colston is adjutant of the command. Reveille will sound at 6 AM, breakfast call at 7 1/2 AM, guard mounting at 8 1/2, dinner call at 2 PM, Dress parade at 3 1/2 PM and retreat at 6.
                By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt.

                Head Quarters, Va. Military Institute
                Charles Town, VA, Nov 28th, 1859
                Order No. 2
                I. Cadets are authorized to leave their Barracks between the hours of the established roll calls. But they will not pass beyond the limits of the town without special authority, and no cadet will be absent from quarters after retreat at 6 PM. It is expected that the detachment of cadets on duty here will be a model command & it is hoped that every officer and cadet will consider himself in the solemn sanctions of honor bound to abstain from impropriety which could by possibility impair the standing of the corps occupying so proud a position in the command of the state. The eye of the military of the state is turned with peculiar interest to every act a movement of the cadets. Let that criticism only tend to exhibit in their highest proportion all the elements of a true soldier.
                By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt.

                Head Quarters, Va. Military Inst. Charles Town Va.
                Nov 28th 1859
                Order No 3
                I. Besides the regular detail for the general guard a special detail for a quarter guard of one commissioned officer and 6 privates will be made.
                II. No cadet shall at any time enter the commissary's department, or the kitchen without permission, and if necessary to prevent it a special sentinel shall be placed there at all times.
                By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt.

                HQ, VMI
                Charles Town Va, Dec 1st 1859
                Order No 4
                The detachment will hold themselves in readiness for immediate action tonight & tomorrow night. This morning a quarter guard of three privates from the infantry and an artillery guard with the proper non-commissioned officers will be detailed and mounted on for duty tonight. The cadets will be relieved from the picket guard tonight.

                Every cadet will have his musket in perfect firing order, for inspection this evening at 3 1/2 o'clock and 12 rounds of ball cartridges in good order in his cartridge box. The cadets will lie down in their clothes and accoutrements with their arms loaded by their sides to be ready at a moments warning for any emergency tonight.
                By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt.

                HQ, VMI, [Lexington]
                Dec 12th, 1859
                Order No 245
                The commanding officer of the detachment of cadets on duty at Charles Town deems it his duty to tender to the officers and cadets engaged in this special service his thanks for the cheerful alacrity with which they have one and all met the duties to which they were so suddenly called. It is no slight praise to receive the commendation of the Governor so publicly, and so honorably expressed in his annual message, but when this is associated with the spontaneous sentiments of the citizen soldiery collected at Charles Town, and responded to by the approbation of the public at large.
                This command has real cause of honest pride, that they have been able to render the state some service, and in doing so, have demonstrated the value of the Institution as the chief dependence of the state in time of trial. The Institution has been placed in great prominence by the service thus proffered and it should be the aim of all to make it more and more worthy of confidence and support.
                By order of Col. Smith


                  Photo at right:   A 19th century view of Harper's Ferry, site of the federal arsenal captured by John Brown