History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/2/1

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ON the 3d of July, 1859, John Brown, his sons Owen and Oliver, and John E. Cook were at Harper’s Ferry carefully making observations and plans for the attack. The men enlisted for the enterprise were assembling at the Kennedy farm, a few miles distant on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Here the arms, including a large number of pikes, were selected. The appearance of a party of strange men at the farm had aroused suspicion in the neighborhood and warrants had been taken out for searching the premises. As soon as Brown was informed of this danger he issued orders for the attack at once, eight days in advance of the time that had been originally fixed, and several men who were on the way failed to reach the rendezvous in time to participate in the desperate conflict.

On the 16th day of October there was assembled at the Kennedy farm a remarkable group of men, twenty-two in number. As the roll was called on that eventful morning, the following persons responded “here”: John Brown, Owen Brown, Watson Brown, Oliver Brown, A. D. Stevens, John E. Cook, J. H. Kagi, Chas. P. Tidd, Edwin Coppoc, Barclay Coppoc, J. G. Anderson, Steward Taylor, Albert Hazlett, Francis J. Merriam, Wm. Thompson, Dauphin A. Thompson, Wm. H. Leeman, Oliver P. Anderson, John A. Copeland, Lewis S. Leary, Dangerfield Newby and John Anderson. The last five were colored men. Brown now issued his written orders, eleven in number, assigning to each man his part in the attack. Thirteen of the number had proved their valor on the battle-fields of Kansas.

Iowa furnished more actors in the last great tragedy, leading to the martyrdom of John Brown and most of his youthful followers, than any other State. It was in Iowa that he had established his chain of stations on the “Underground Railroad,” leading from the Missouri slave plantations to freedom. It was at Springdale that his men had been drilled for the desperate assault upon slavery. Of the twenty-sic volunteers who enlisted in this “forlorn hope,” Edwin Coppoc, Barclay Coppoc, Steward Taylor, Jeremiah G. Anderson, George B. Gill and Charles W. Moffat were Iowa men. It was in Iowa that the rifles and revolvers were collected and secreted for arming the volunteers who were expected to join the expedition at Harper’s Ferry. It was from West Liberty, Iowa, that they were shipped as “carpenters’ tools,” by John H. Painter to a fictitious consignee near Harper’s Ferry. It was from Iowa that the mysterious letter of warning was written to the Secretary of War two months before the attack. It was an Iowa Governor who saved from the Virginia gallows the Iowa boy who escaped capture and slaughter in the bloody conflict.

When the true story of the tragic affair came it was learned that twenty men captured Harper’s Ferry and seventeen of them held it for two days and three nights against Virginia citizens and militia, from one to two thousand strong. One by one the members of the heroic little band fell. Not a man flinched. When the third night came, John Brown, Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, Jeremiah G. Anderson, Watson Brown and Dauphin A. Thompson were the only survivors cooped in the engine house. Ten had been killed and several more severely wounded; still Brown sternly refused to surrender. It required a reinforcement of one hundred United States Marines, commanded by Robert E. Lee, and an assault led by J. E. B. Stuart, to enable the army to capture or slay the six unyielding emancipators. Of the Iowa members of the little army, Steward Taylor was killed at the engine house; Jeremiah G. Anderson was pierced through by

Edwin Coppoc - History of Iowa.jpg


Barclay Coppoc - History of Iowa.jpg


bayonets in the last assault; Edwin Coppoc, who fought to the end, was disarmed and captured unhurt. Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc and F. J. Merriam had been left on the Maryland side to guard the arms there stored, while John E. Cook and C. P. Tidd were sent over Tuesday morning to take some prisoners to the schoolhouse. More than a thousand armed men were now between them and the spot were their leader and six survivors were making their last desperate fight. To join them was impossible. Lieutenant Hazlett, with O. P. Anderson and Shields Green, had been detailed to hold the arsenal, which they did until cut off from their comrades by a great body of militia. Brown and the other survivors, now surrounded, had retreated to the engine house shelter. Green, who went as a substitute for Frederick Douglass, was a very black negro slave, who had escaped from South Carolina, leaving his only boy in slavery. He fought like a tiger all through. Now, when Anderson and Hazlett saw that all was lost, and there was a bare possibility for them to escape, they urged Green to go with them. He turned and looked toward Brown and the remnant of his command fighting at the door of the engine house, and pointing toward them, said: “You tink der’s no chance?”

“Not one,” said Anderson.

“An’ de ole Captain can’t get away?”

“No,” said both men.

“Well,” said the loyal negro, “guess I’ll go back to de ole man.” And he marched calmly to certain death.

Anderson and Hazlett escaped across the river in the gathering darkness, the latter only to be captured and hung. The men on the Maryland side would not abandon their companions as long as there was a ray of hope. Led by Owen Brown they approached as near as possible to the Ferry and saw more than a thousand armed men between them and their comrades. Their rescue was hopeless, but the chivalrous Cook crept still closer, and climbing among the limbs of a huge oak, opened fire on the enemy. Twenty or thirty men in range of his rifle fled to shelter, while a hundred guns were turned upon him. The balls severed the limb upon which he was resting and he fell to the ground. With a parting shot he turned sadly away and joined his companions in retreat to the mountains.

Volumes have been written in this country and Europe on John Brown the liberator and martyr, who gave his life without a murmur to free the slaves. The noblest men and women of his generation have paid tributes to his unselfish life and his fidelity to duty as he saw it—a fidelity which led him to the scaffold. His name will live in history for all time. But little is known of his twenty-two followers who, in the early morning of their lives, actuated by the same spirit of self-sacrifice, enlisted in his “forlorn hope” and bravely marched to heroic deeds and almost certain death. In the world’s history no more desperate and apparently hopeless undertaking has ever been entered upon by sane men. The chances for success were not one in a thousand and yet these young men were so imbued with their leader’s abhorrence of slavery, a fierce and fearless determination to devote their lives to its destruction, that they stopped not to count the cost or to calmly consider the chances of success. They had such confidence in the wisdom, courage and invincibility of their leader, that, where he commanded, they marched without a murmur; where he led, they hesitated not to follow.

Not one of them could have been actuated by selfish motives. There was no hope of reward, even in case of success. There were no honors to be won; there was no glory to be achieved. They fully realized that death was far more likely to meet them than was success. And yet twenty-two men in the fervor of youth, freely offered their services and their lives, if need be, to strike a blow at American slavery, which, they firmly believed would, in some way not clearly developed, result in its final overthrow. As unlikely as it appeared to all the world besides, they were not mistaken. They sacrificed their own lives, but the sacrifice proved to be the fire brand that, in less than five years, melted with the red glare of a hundred battle-fields, the shackles from four millions of slaves.

Justice to the memory of the four young men from Iowa, who fought at Harper’s Ferry in John Brown’s band, requires a permanent record of what is known of their brief lives and heroic deaths.

Steward Taylor was born at Uxbridge, Canada, October 29th, 1836. He came to Iowa when but seventeen years old and learned the wagonmaker’s trade at West Liberty. Here he became acquainted with George B. Gill who took him to Springdale in the winter of 1858, and at John H. Painter’s house they met John Brown. Young Taylor was greatly impressed with the fervor of the old “hero of Osawatomie,” and listened eagerly to his recitals of the horrors of American slavery. He made the acquaintance, also, of the young men who were drilling under Stevens at the Maxson farm for the Harper’s Ferry campaign and soon after enlisted with them. When the Chatham Convention was held he went to Canada to attend it. While waiting for the leader to complete his plans for the invasion, Taylor found work at his trade in Illinois. He waited impatiently for many months for notice to join the expedition. At times he feared that he was not to be included in the select band that was to strike the blow and he wrote to an Iowa friend: “My hopes were crushed and I felt as though I was deprived of my chief object in life. I believe that fate has decreed me for this undertaking, although at one time I had given up being wanted.” But early in July, 1859, a letter came from Kagi telling him to “come on.” He wrote back: “It is my chief desire to add fuel to the flame. My ardent passion for the work is my thought by day and my dream by night.” He raised what money was due him and at once started for the rendezvous at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, paying his own expenses. He was now twenty-one years of age and is described as of medium height, rather heavy in build, strong and capable of great endurance. His complexion was dark, his hair reddish-brown, his eyes dark brown, large and full. He was smooth-faced and boyish looking. He was a constant student, always carrying books with him. He was a stenographer, and played the violin. He was quiet but persistent in his purposes, faithful, courageous and loyal. When John Brown issued his eleven orders, just before the night of the attack, No. 6 required Captain Watson Brown and Steward Taylor to “hold the covered bridge over the Potomac and arrest anyone attempting to cross, using pikes, if resistance is offered, instead of Sharpe’s rifles.” Taylor was cool and fearless through out the conflict. He escorted one of Brown’s prisoners to his home, to let his family know of his safety, and brought him back through crowds of armed, excited, desperate, drunken men. Later on in the day, while bravely fighting near the engine house, he received a mortal wound. He fell in the thickest of the fight and suffered great agony for three hours, when death came to his relief. The day before the attack he remarked to his comrades that he felt he would be one of the first killed. He was so impressed with the presentiment that he wrote farewell letters to his friends at home and then calmly marched to his death. Anne Brown, who kept house for her father, brothers and their comrades at the Kennedy farm, says of Steward Taylor: “He was one who could never have betrayed a friend or deserted a post.”

Jeremiah G. Anderson was the grandson of an officer of the American Revolution. His father, John Anderson, left the slave State of Virginia soon after his marriage and settled in Putnam County, Indiana, where Jeremiah was born on the 17th of April, 1833. After his father’s death, his mother moved with her family to Des Moines, Iowa. Jeremiah was well educated. He was sent by his mother to a Presbyterian Academy at Kossuth, in 1854, to prepare for the ministry. Hon. James W. McDill, afterwards Judge, and United States Senator, was one of his instructors. Judge McDill said “he was an eccentric young man, quiet and very studious.” But he had no taste for the orthodox ministry. In an essay he declared his belief in universal salvation and soon after became a Spiritualist. In 1857, Jeremiah went to Kansas and took a claim on the Little Osage. He joined Colonel Montgomery’s army and fought with him to make Kansas a free State. He afterward served under John Brown and was with him in one of his successful incursions for the liberation of Missouri slaves. He again joined his old commander in New York, where he was organizing the Harper’s Ferry campaign and was one of his most trusted and faithful friends. John Brown told Gerrit Smith that “Anderson was more than a friend; he was as a brother and a son.” Three days before his execution Captain Brown said: “My brother Jeremiah was fighting bravely by my side at Harper’s Ferry up to the moment when I was struck down.” When Colonel Lee’s marines broke through the barricade and charge on its five defenders, Anderson was pierced with three bayonets as his smoking rifle fell from his grasp. Mortally wounded he was dragged out by his captors, thrown down on the stone flagging and left to the mercy of the brutal crowd. He lingered there in great agony for three hours, subjected to the most fiendish tortures. A gang of Virginia “chivalry” now mustered courage to approach the disarmed and dying man, kicking his face with their heavy boots, then opening his eyes, they spat tobacco juice into them, while others forced their filthy quids into his mouth amid laughter, jeers and horrid oaths. When death finally ended his sufferings, two village doctors came and crowded his mutilated body into a salt barrel, stamping it down with their feet. They carted their prey toward their office and that was the last seen of Jeremiah G. Anderson, the close friend of John Browns and one of the bravest Iowa soldiers who ever marched to the field of death. Edwin Coppoc was born near Salem, Ohio, June 30, 1835. His father died when he was a child. He lived many years with his grandfather, going to district school and working on a farm. He is described as a studious, industrious boy of cheerful disposition. His eyes and hair were brown and his skin fair. His head was large and well formed; he was fond of athletic sports and a genial companion. As a young man he was intelligent, active, brave, loyal and the soul of honor. He had winning manners, was amiable, generous and kind. Anne Brown says of Edwin: “He was a rare young fellow, fearing nothing, yet possessed of great social traits, and no better comrade have I ever met.” His mother was a woman of unusual intelligence and force of character. She strongly opposed the determination of her sons to enlist in the desperate enterprise. She had married again and her sons were living with her at Springdale when John Brown and his men came there to prepare for the Virginia invasion. Her boys eagerly listened to the story of the wrongs and cruelties inflicted upon the helpless slaves, as eloquently told by John Brown, and longed to help them to freedom. Edwin and his younger brother, Barclay, at last determined to join the young men who were drilling at the Maxson farm and to follow wherever the old liberator should strike the next blow for emancipation. On the 15th of July a letter came from John Brown requesting them to come on the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. On the 25th they bade their mother goodby and started ostensibly for Ohio. But their mother was not deceived; she knew too well their destination and expected never to see them again. Order No. 9, made out by Captain Brown the day of the attack, details “Lieut. Albert Hazlett and Edwin Coppoc to hold the armory opposite the engine house after it is taken, remaining there until morning, when further orders will be given.” The fight began early in the forenoon and Brown was so hotly engaged that his usual good judgment failed him and he did not realize the great peril until his little band was hemmed in on all sides by overwhelming numbers and retreat to the mountains was impossible. His detachments, widely separated, stood at their posts with a courage never surpassed in the annals of warfare. One by one they fell before the volleys pouring in upon them from every side. We hear of Edwin Coppoc standing at his post at the armory gates, while balls rained around him like hailstones. Soon after he joined Brown at the engine house and the siege began. Watson and Oliver, sons of the leader, were mortally wounded, but the heroic Watson fought on to the last. John Brown, his son Watson, Jerry Anderson, Edwin Coppoc, Dauphin A. Thompson, Steward Taylor and Shields Green were now the only survivors left on the Virginia side. Escape was impossible, and they determined to die fighting, knowing that no mercy would be shown them as prisoners. Col. Robert E. Lee, who was now in command of their assailants, sent a message to Brown demanding his surrender.

“No!” said Brown, “we prefer to die here.”

Firing began again on both sides, while Lee formed a column for assault.

Few know how near the coming Southern Confederacy came to losing its greatest military leader at this moment at the hands of an Iowa boy. Edwin Coppoc saw from his port-hole the blue uniform of the commander and instantly drew a deadly bead on Lee at close range. Jesse W. Graham, one of Brown’s prisoners, who was watching Coppoc, knew Lee and saw his danger. Instantly springing forward he caught the rifle before Coppoc could fire and during the struggle Lee stepped out of range, and so lived to strike the deadliest blow against his country that it ever encountered. Had Coppoc’s bullet gone to its brilliant mark, a hundred thousand lives of American soldiers might have been spared.

When the shock of the final charge came Brown, Anderson, and Thompson went down beneath the thrusts of sabers and bayonets. Edwin Coppoc fired the last shot and he and Green alone were left unhurt to surrender. The fight was ended. Ten of the little band were slain. Brown and Stevens were desperately wounded and with Coppoc, Green and Copeland, were prisoners. William Thompson and W. H. Leeman, who had before surrendered, were butchered in cold blood by the Virginia “chivalry.” Harper’s Ferry had been held fifty-eight hours by seventeen men against the assaults of from five hundred to 1,500 armed citizens and militia from Maryland and Virginia.[1]

Nowhere in modern warfare is there recorded such an unequal contest of similar duration. Of the immortal seventeen three were Iowa boys under twenty-four years of age. On the 22d of November Edwin Coppoc wrote home an account of the battle in which he says:

“Eleven of our little band are now sleeping in their bloody garments with the cold earth above them. Braver men never lived; truer men to their plighted word never banded together. … As our comrades fell we could not minister to their wants as they deserved, for we were surrounded by troops firing volley after volley, and we had to keep up a brisk fire in return to keep them from charging upon us. Watson Brown was wounded on Monday, at the same time Stevens was, while carrying a flag of truce; but he got back to the engine house. He fought as bravely as any man. When the fight was over he got worse. He and Green and myself were put in the watch-house. Watson kept getting worse until Wednesday morning, and begged hard for a bed, but could not get one. I pulled off my coat and put it under him and placed his head in my lap, and in that position he died. … Whatever may be our fate, rest assured we shall not shame our dead companions by a shrinking fear. They lived and died like brave men; we, I trust, shall do the same.”

On the 19th Edwin Coppoc, Green and Copeland were taken to Charleston jail, which was guarded by State militia with two cannon trained on it. Edwin’s trial began on the afternoon of November 1st and ended the following day with conviction. He was sentenced to be hung on the 16th of December. He bore himself bravely through the ordeal and calmly awaited his doom. He and Cook were confined in the same cell and were very warm friends. Great sympathy was felt for Edwin Coppoc and it was not confined to his Ohio and Iowa friends. Even Governor Wise could not refrain from expressing his admiration for his noble bearing through all the trying scenes of the battle, surrender, trial and conviction. He asked no favors, made no complaints, but calmly accepted the consequences of his heroic effort to free the slaves. He asked no favors, made no complaints, but calmly accepted the consequences of his heroic effort to free the slaves. He faced his awful doom without a murmur. His grandfather and uncle from Salem, Ohio and Thomas Gwynn, of Cedar County, Iowa, went to Virginia to appeal to Governor Wise for a commutation of his sentence to imprisonment, and to his credit let it be known that the Governor made such a recommendation to the Legislature, as, in cases of treason, he had not the power to interfere. A committee of that body recommended the commutation, but the Virginia Legislature demanded his death. Shields Green, the faithful negro, managed to secrete an old knife when captured, which he now gave to Coppoc. Edwin contrived to notch the blade into a rude saw. With this he and cook sawed the shackles from their limbs and digging a hole through the brick wall of their cell the night before execution, made a bold strike for freedom. But the guards discovered them as they crept out and they were returned to their cell.

The few remaining hours of their lives were spent in writing farewell letters to their friends. The morning of their last day dawned upon Cook and Coppoc. They were as calm and brave in death as they had been through the two days of fierce battle. Their comrades, Green and Copeland, were executed at 10:30 a. m., December 16th, and at half-past twelve Cook and Coppoc were taken from their cells. They were permitted to bid Hazlett and Stevens goodby on their way to the scaffold. When the black caps were drawn over their heads they clasped each other’s hands in a last farewell and calmly met their doom. Edwin’s body was taken by his friends to his boyhood home at Salem, and there laid to rest among his kindred.

Barclay Coppoc, Edwin’s younger brother, was born January 4, 1839. He was somewhat taller than Edwin, of slender build, brown hair, bold, large eyes, and a determined expression. He was threatened with consumption from boyhood. When nineteen years of age he joined a party going to Kansas. Emigrant life improved his health and he enjoyed the stirring events of the Free-State conflict with the Missouri invaders.

Here he met Aaron D. Stevens, Richard Realf and John Brown, and enlisted in a number of their expeditions. When his old leader came to Springdale, a year later, Barclay was ready to again take up arms against slavery. As we have seen, he was not in the desperate fight at Harper’s Ferry, from the fact that he was sent with Owen Brown’s party to guard their arms on Maryland side. After all was lost and they escaped to the mountains, Owen Brown was by common consent made their leader. A large reward was offered by Governor Wise for their arrest and delivery to the jail of Jefferson County. The country was soon alive with armed men hunting for the fugitives. Governor wise described Barclay Coppoc as follows:

“He is about twenty years of age; is about five feet seven and a half inches in height, with hazel eyes and brown hair, wears a light mustache, and has a consumptive look.”

Each member of the party was as minutely described. Cook was so well known at Harper’s Ferry that a perfect description was given of him and reward of $1,000 was offered for his capture. As the men passed near Chambersburg, in the mountains, Cook could not resist the temptation to venture into town in the darkness of night to see his young wife and say goodby before going on to Canada. His companions protested most earnestly but he started on, after appointing a place to meet them before morning. They waited at the meeting place long and anxiously but never saw him again.

The story of the fearful sufferings of these men as they wandered for thirty-six days through the wilds of the Maryland and Pennsylvania mountains would fill a volume. Subsisting on unground field corn, occasional fruit, raw chicken now and then, without shelter or fire, huddling together when sleeping amid chilling rains, sleet and snow, with feet lacerated by sharp rocks and thorns, always nearly perishing from hunger, human suffering reached its limit. They were pursued by human and brute bloodhounds—the first eager for blood money and the latter thirsting for their life blood. Merriam soon gave out. He was left on a railroad track, entered an obscure station and, at a great risk, took a train and escaped.

After reaching northern Pennsylvania, starving and utterly exhausted, the others at last ventured to seek shelter at a farmhouse. Weeks had elapsed since they had escaped and not a word had reached them of the fate of their comrades. A paper was lying on the table. Tidd took it up and began to read. His face paled as he read on. Owen and Barclay were watching him intently. With a forced calmness Tidd then began to read aloud the story of the trial and death sentence of John Brown and Edwin Coppoc and the capture of Cook and Hazlett. Tears rolled down Barclay’s cheeks as the fate of his brother, the old captain and the gallant Cook was read; but not a word dared they utter. After leaving them, it seems that Cook had suddenly come to a clearing in the woods before dark, and found himself face to face with three wood choppers. Two of them were stalwart brothers named Logan, professional slave-catchers. They had seen the description of Cook and knew of the $1,000 reward. They recognized and seized him at once, and binding his arms, delivered him over to the Virginia officers and obtained the reward. One of the Logans joined the rebel army two years later and was killed by a Union bullet. The other lived many years, always suffering remorse for the infamous sale of the gallant Cook to the Virginia hangman. He was finally crushed to death beneath the wheels of a railroad train.

The three famished men traveled on, after a night’s rest for the first time in a month under a roof, and after a few days more felt reasonably safe to travel by daylight. Coppoc soon after took a train for Iowa, which he safely reached, worn almost to a skeleton by starvation and exposure. He appeared suddenly in his old home on the 17th of December and met a warm and tearful welcome. His brother Edwin and his comrade cook had died on a Virginia scaffold the day before. Barclay was so near death from his terrible sufferings that his Springdale friends determined to defend him in his own home from surrender to the Virginia hangman. Armed and drilled, the guard kept nightly watch over him for many weeks. F. C. Galbraith, of Springdale, thus describes the plans of his defenders:

“Springdale is in arms, and is prepared at a half-hour’s notice to give his pursuers a reception of two hundred shots. There are three of our number who always know his whereabouts, and nobody else knows anything of him. He is never seen at night where he was during the day, and there are men on watch at Davenport, Muscatine, Iowa City, West Liberty and Tipton. It is intended to baffle them in every possible way without bloodshed.”

  1. Hinton gives the loss of life as follows: Of Brown’s band, ten were killed and seven more executed; of the liberated slaves, seventeen were slain; of the citizens and soldiers, eight were killed and nine wounded. Total killed, forty-two.