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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: July 2015

18 - The War Department

Summary

JOHN BROWN BEGAN HANDING OUT MILITARY COMMISSIONS on Saturday, October 15, 1859, designating the Kennedy farm as “Head-Quarters War Department, Near Harper's Ferry,” and naming several of his most trusted men either captains or lieutenants in the battle against slavery. Both Brown and Kagi signed the documents, the former as “Commander in Chief” and the latter as “Secretary of War.” Even at that late date, however, many of the men did not realize the scope of the operation that was about to begin.

On Sunday morning, Brown finally revealed his plan in full. Rising even earlier than usual, he called the men together for a meeting at which he read aloud a Bible verse about the condition of slaves and “offered up a fervent prayer to God to assist in the liberation of the bondmen in that slaveholding land.” As Osborne Anderson later recalled, “a deep solemnity pervaded the place,” as everyone realized that the long-awaited moment was at hand.

Following breakfast, a council was convened with Anderson as chair. The position was symbolic, as Anderson was the only black man present who had signed the provisional constitution in Chatham, which Brown proceeded to read out loud. Many of the men were already familiar with the document, but others had no idea that they had enlisted in an effort to establish a permanent base of operations in the Virginia mountains. According to Anne Brown, “it seemed to be the impression of most of the men that they had come there to make another [Missouri-type] raid, only on a larger scale.” Likewise, John Cook recalled that “there were six or seven in our party who … were also ignorant of the plan of operations until the Sunday morning previous to the attack. Among this number were … John Copeland and Leary.”

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The 'Colored Hero' of Harper's Ferry
  • Online ISBN: 9781139872072
  • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139872072
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