John Brown at Harper's Ferry

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John Brown at Harper's Ferry


The Sabbath day has passed, and night
Her sable mantle over all had spread.
The silent pavement, now deserted quite,
Gave back to mortal ear no echoing tread.
The lordly master and the trembling slave,
The poor, proud youth, who scorns his humble lot,
The virtuous maiden and the scheming knave
Had all in sleep their sins and woes forgot.
And well they might; the minister that day
Had tried his best with soothing words to please
And exorcise the weight of guilt that lay
Upon the conscience of the F. F. V's.
Of all the sins with which our earth is curst--
Intemperance, murder, theft--on land or sea,
Thou, cruel slavery, art alone the worst,
For, none can bear comparison with thee.
The hungry tiger, in his search for food,
With vicious glare the weary traveler spies,
Quickens his steps to sate his thirst for blood:
One spring, and all is o'er--his victim dies.
But thee alone, where'er thou holdest sway,
The soul as well as body--all are thine;
Thou tak'st God's image, <em>manhood</em>, quite away--
How can they sleep who worship at thy shrine?
When e'er a people have betrayed their trust,
And from their damning sins are loath to purge them,
God, who is ever merciful and just,
Sends forth his chosen instruments to scourge them.
To teach the South a lesson through this town--
To make her know the height of her offences--
His justice had commissioned old John Brown,
With scourge in hand, to whip her to her senses.
And so the old man, upon this very night,
Had gathered round himself a faithful band--
Through few in numbers, yet prepared to fight,
Or do whatever else he should command.
Now starting forth, their duty to perform,
With all their plans for action well matured,
For fear he might announce the coming storm,
The watchman on the bridge was first secured.
Next gallant Colonel Washington--not he
Who, with religious ardor, took the pains
To convert almost every branch and tree
Upon Mount Vernon into shilling canes,
Until some ladies, moved by filial fear,
Or by the lessons which the past had taught them,
That he the bones of Washington so dear
Would sell unto some button-maker, bought them;
But this another one, unknown to fame,
Was, with his slaves, by the insurgents taken,
Before he could well ask them whence they came,
Or had a single chance to save his bacon.
Thus far, they had their course in quiet shaped,
With no opposing wave their hopes to drown,
"Till, aided by the gloom, one man escaped,
And by his cries aroused the sleeping town.
"Ah, then and there was hurrying to and fro,
And cries, and tears, and tremblings of distress."
(So Byron has expressed it, but, you know,
He wrote of folks who were already drest.)
And when the news, at which they all turn'd pale,
Was heard, they all were dancing and quite merry;
So this, "though well enough for Waterloo," will fail
To describe the fright of those at Harper's Ferry.
The town was all alive. "Pray what's the matter?"
Each neighbor asked, but not a soul could tell,
While all seem'd anxious to improve the clatter,
By setting up at once a general yell.
Some had their hats forgot, some shoeless quite,
Some minus pantaloons, had gathered there;
While none had seized sufficient in their fright
To shield them from the biting midnight air.
At length, one man whose curiosity
Was great enough to overcome his fear,
Went up into the town, in hopes that he
Might meet some one from whom the news to hear.
Soon he came back, and that they should not fail
To learn from him whatever was amiss,
They gathered round him while he told his tale,
Which was, in substance, very much like this:
That all their negro slaves had rallied forth,
And on their homes with weapons keen were creeping,
Headed by twenty thousand from the North,
To cut their throats while they were sleeping;
And that the soldiers all were ordered out,
In time, they hoped, to quell this great surprise,
And that a message by this time, no doubt,
Was sent by telegraph to Governor Wise.
Virginia's ruler in his study sits,
His mouth well filled with the Virginia weed,
The juice of which he at the fire spits,
Then shakes his head, and cries: "I'm caught--I'm treed!
To think that I--so skilled in all the tricks--
I might have thought a moment and known better
Than prove myself a child in politics,
And writ to York--ah me!--that fatal letter.
And then the news the papers hourly bring,
That lucious oysters now are daily found,
Whose juicy richness well might tempt a king,
Within the depths of old Long Island Sound.
And then wild negroes, too, by slavers caught,
In Africa, wherever they can take 'em.
Are in full shiploads to our country brought,
And sold for half the price at which we make 'em.
Oh, grievous state of things to think upon!
Oh, state of things too grievous to be borne!--
Here, ruined sits thy Governor and son;
Virginia dear, 'Thy occupation's gone!'"
Oh, Wise by name, if not by nature too,
Ambition's crown you've vainly sought to clasp;
But though you've ever kept the prize in view,
You've found 'twoud always slip from out your grasp.
Just as the verdant youth, in search of fame,
Cons o'er the feats of Blondin and De Lave,
And thinks like them that he will get a name,
By walking on a tight-rope o'er the waves,
Gathers his neighbors to behold the feat,
Stretches his rope across a stagnant pool;
They come in crowds, expecting a rich treat,
Hoping to see well doused the ambitious fool.
Meanwhile, the youth, determined to proceed,
Starts trembling forth at the appointed time;
When lo! he slips, is covered well indeed,
It not with glory, still with fragrant slime.
While thus he sits, reflecting on the past,
And sees his projects all disolve in air,
He hears the sound of footsteps falling fast,
As if some one in haste was coming there.
Upon the door he hears a hurried knock--
What do those signs of haste and terror presage?
Quickly he turns the key within the lock,
When lo! a stranger stands--with him a message;
The news, as well as he could understand,
Was this--that twenty thousand Northern knaves,
And every one with rifle keen in hand,
Had come into the State to free the slaves.
"Oh, glorious news! sure fortune favors me;
No! nothing in this world could have been better;
This very thing, if handled skilfully,
Will certainly off set that foolish letter.
I'll go at once, with an all-conquering force,
Which, at my summons, will be gathered there,
Quell these presumptious wretches, and, of course,
Will gain my end--the Presidential chair."
As if it was design'd to tame his pride,
He found, alas! that he had come too late;
This little band, hemmed in on every side,
Were forced, ere this, to succomb to their fate.
Our Governor was very much enraged,
On coming there and looking round him, when
He found that the whole State had been engaged
In lengthened combat with but twenty men.
But time will not permit me to recount
The valorous deeds which were that day performed,
For certainly there was a vast amount
Of courage shown, after the place was stormed.
But justice bids me here record one name,
Distinguished from all others, and, in truth,
One which should ever be preserved to fame,
And set a pattern to our rising youth.
While Brown, the old hero, pale and gory,
Within the arsenal, in easiest posture lying,
Covered with ghastly wounds as well as glory,
And thought by most spectators to be dying,
This mighty man, valiant Lieutenant Green,
Thinking, no doubt, to give the <em>coup de grace</em>,
Drew out his sabre, and by all was seen
To strike a blow upon the old man's face!
And will Virginia slight this timely warning?--
Will she go on puffed up with foolish pride,
Although she knows her weakness, still with scorning,
The plainly uttered voice of God deride?
Oh! God avert the doom that's hanging o'er her--
Open her blinded yees that she may see,
And keep this sacred precept--o'er before her--
Break every yoke, and let the oppress'd go free.


Joseph Murry Wells


2:1, pp. 23-7




Joseph Murry Wells, “John Brown at Harper's Ferry,” Periodical Poets, accessed May 18, 2024,


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