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History of Iowa

Volume II

Chapter II













David J. Gue


 The Eighth General Assembly met at Des Moines on the 9th of January, 1860. John Edwards was chosen Speaker of the House, and Lieutenant-Governor Oran Faville presided over the opening session of the Senate. The two houses met in joint convention on the 11th canvassed the vote for Governor and Lieutenant-Governor. Samuel J. Kirkwood was declared elected Governor and N. J. Rusch Lieutenant-Governor for the term of two years and were sworn into office by Chief Justice Wright.


Governor Lowe, in his retiring message, informed the General Assembly that during the past year a large body of hostile Indians had appeared in the northwestern part of the State, driven off stock and alarmed the settlers at Spirit Lake and along the Sioux River. Urgent appeals had come to the Governor for protection, and he had responded by sending a company of Frontier Guards under command of Captain Henry B. Martin, to the places threatened. After a service of five months, the danger passed and the Guards returned to their homes.

The report of the Auditor of State made at the close of the fiscal year 1859, shows a total indebtedness of $352,492.37. Of this $122,295 represented the indebtedness of the State to the school fund held in trust. Balance in the treasury, the delinquent taxes due and tax for 1859 amounted in the aggregate to $608,609.48. The expenses incurred in maintaining the Frontier Guards under command of Captain Henry B. Martin, to the places threatened. After a service of five months, the danger passed and the Guards returned to their homes.

 The report of the Auditor of State made at close of the fiscal year 1859, shows a total indebtedness of $352,492.37. Of this $122,295 represented the indebtedness of the State to the school fund held in trust. Balance in the treasury, the delinquent taxes due and tax for 1859 amounted in the aggregate to $608,609.48. The expenses incurred in maintaining the Frontier Guards to furnish protection to the scattered settlements in the northwestern counties during the two years past was stated by the Governor at $19,800. The defalcation of James D. Eads, late Superintendent of Public Instruction, was found to amount to $71,880,97, for which suit was instituted against his sureties. Of this amount he had loaned to the builders of the temporary State House a sum which, with interest to this date, amounted to $53,733.61. The Governor recommended the purchase of this building now used by the State but owned by private parties and the canceling of the mortgages standing against them.

 The special commission, consisting of John A. Kasson, J. M. Griffith and Thomas Seeley, appointed to examine into the affairs of the various State offices, made an elaborate report showing many defects and irregularities in the manner of transacting the public business. Their recommendations in the manner of transacting the public business. Their recommendations for radical reforms were warmly approved by the Governor and by him commended to the General Assembly.

 A large part of Governor Kirkwood's inaugural address, delivered to the Legislature on the 11th of January, was given to the consideration of issues involved in the Kansas and Nebraska struggle over slavery and John Brown's raid in Virginia. In speaking of John Brown's invasion, the Governor said:

 "Is it strange that, maddened by recollections of wrongs inflicted upon them in Kansas because of their love of freedom, should lead men to the conclusion that they should do and dare as much at home for liberty as those who have oppressed them were doing abroad for slavery? While I deeply deplore and most unqualifiedly condemn, I cannot wonder at the recent unfortunate and bloody occurrence at Harper's Ferry. While the great mass of our Northern people utterly condemn the act of John Brown, they feel and express admiration and sympathy for the disinterestedness of purpose by which they believe he was governed and for the unflinching courage and calm cheerfulness with which he met the consequences of his failure."

 The Governor attempted a solution of the troublesome negro problem and threatened dangers from American slavery by advocating a system of colonization of the negro population in some South American country. He argued that by such a plan both slavery and the negroes would, in time, be removed from our country. He expressed the conviction that the love of country and the union of the States was so strong that there was not much cause for alarm.

 On the 23d day of January, 1860, Governor Kirkwood was called upon by a Mr. Camp, sent by Governor Letcher, of Virginia, bearing a requisition for the arrest and surrender of Barclay Coppoc. Two members of the Legislature (1) who entered the Executive office while the interview was in progress give the following report of what occurred:

 "We found in conference with the Governor a pompous-looking man, who seemed to be greatly excited. Governor Kirkwood was calmly listening to the violent language of this individual, who was swinging his arms wildly in his wrath. The Governor quietly suggested to the stranger that 'he had supposed he did not want his business made public.'

 "The rude reply was: 'I don't care a d-n who knows it now, since you have refused to honor the requisition.'

 "The pompous man then proceeded to argue the case with the Governor, and we soon learned that he was an agent from Virginia bearing a requisition from Governor Letcher (2) for the surrender of Barclay Coppoc.

 "In reply to a remark by the agent that Coppoc might escape before he could get the defect in the requisition cured, the Governor, looking significantly at us, replied: 'There is a law under which you can arrest Coppoc and hold him until the requisition is granted,' and the Governor reached for the code. We waited to hear no more, but, saying to the Governor that we would call again when he was not engaged and giving him a look that was a response to his own, we walked out."

 We felt there was not a moment to lose if we would save Coppoc from the Virginia Gallows and hastily communicated with J. W. Cattell, J. B. Grinnell, David Hunt, Amos Hoag and other well-known Antislavery members of the Legislature. It was instantly decided that a special messenger must be sent to warn Coppoc and his friends of the danger. A purse was hastily made up and Isaac Brandt was delegated to find a man of nerve, who could endure a horseback ride in midwinter of a hundred and sixty-five miles without sleep or rest. He soon produced a small, wiry young man who was an experienced horseman and as tireless as a cowboy. His name was Williams. A fast horse was procured, while Williams equipped himself for a ride for life. Credentials were hastily prepared, to be presented by our messenger to the agents of the "underground railroad" on the route, to enable him to procure fresh horses at each point without delay. A note was written to a trusted friend at Springdale, of which the following is a copy:

"Des Moines, January 23, 1860

 "John H. Painter: There is an application for young Coppoc from the Governor of Virginia, and the Governor here will be compelled to surrender him. If he is in your neighborhood tell him to make his escape from the United States.

"Your Friend."

            It was not prudent to sign a name to a note, but it bore its stamp of genuineness in the well-known handwriting of Senator Cattell, with which Painter was familiar. In less than two hours from the time we left the Executive rooms, the sharp, rapid strokes of the shoes of a fast horse on the frozen ground resounded on the old stage road out by the “Prairie Queen” and on to Four Mile Ridge. The rider was enveloped in a huge buffalo over coat and fur cap, while a small leather saddle valise carried his baggage and refreshments to fortify against a piercing east wind, which he faced. His instructions were to reach Springdale as soon as horse flesh and human endurance could make it and then rest, sleep and return at his leisure.

            We confidently expected that Mr. Camp, the Virginian, would take the first stage east, which traveled day and night with frequent change of horses and arrest Coppoc before his friends could be rallied. We knew there was a drilled band of seventy-five determined young men in and about Springdale who were well armed and had declared that
Barclay Coppoc should never be surrendered to the Virginia Governor, who had a few weeks before hung John Brown, Edwin Coppoc, John E. Cook, shields Green and John Copeland. If our messenger could reach Springdale before Mr. Camp could get to Iowa City and procure a posse to make the arrest, a bloody conflict would be prevented and Coppoc would be able to reach a place of safety. On the morning of the 25th, Mr. Williams alighted from his last foaming horse at John H. Painter’s and Barclay Coppoc was saved.

            When Mr. Camp reached Iowa City, he heard of the armed guard of Coppoc’s friends at Springdale, and remembering that John Brown, with seventeen young men of the same stamp, had held Harper’s Ferry two days and three nights against a thousand armed Virginians, he had no consuming desire to lead an officer’s squad against the Sharpe’s rifles of Coppoc’s defenders. He journeyed on to Muscatine to await legal requisition papers.

            The day after our messenger started, it became known that Governor Kirkwood’s legal learning had enable d him to detect flaws in Governor Letcher’s requisition papers and that he had refused to surrender Coppoc. M. V. Bennett (a bitter Democratic partisan member of the lower house of the Legislature from Marion County), presented resolutions of inquiry, sometime after the affair became public, as follows:

            “Whereas, A requisition was made on the Governor of Iowa by the Governor of Virginia for Barclay Coppoc, an alleged participant in the difficulties at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as a fugitive from justice, and

            “Whereas, The Governor of Iowa has refused to deliver up said Coppoc under said requisition, alleging technical defects therein, therefore be it

            “Resolved, That the Governor of Iowa be requested to lay before the House a copy of the requisition directed to him by the Governor of Virginia, and all matters connected therewith; also to inform this House whether he possessed any knowledge in regard to a rumor that a special messenger was dispatched to inform Coppoc of his danger; and if so, by what authority said messenger was dispatched to inform Coppoc of his danger.”

            On motion of W. H. F. Gurley, of Scott County, the resolutions were somewhat changed and passed. In response to them Governor Kirkwood sent all the papers in the case to the House with a special message.

            The reasons Kirkwood gave for refusing to order Coppoc’s arrest were:

First—No indictment had been found against him.

Second—The affidavit was made before an alleged notary public, but was not authenticated by a notary’s seal.

Third—The affidavit did not show that Coppoc was in Virginia aiding and abetting John Brown.

Fourth—It did not legally charge him with commission of any crime.

The Governor says:

            “It is a high prerogative of official power in any case to seize a citizen of the State and send him upon an ex-parte statement without any preliminary examination, and without confronting him with a single witness, to a distant State for trial. It is a prerogative so high that the law tolerates its exercise only on certain fixed conditions, and I shall not exercise that power to the peril of any citizen of Iowa upon demand of the State of Virginia, or any other State, unless these conditions are complied with.

            “The fact that an agent of Virginia was here with a requisition for Coppoc became publicly known solely through the acts of the agent himself. After I had communicated my determination to him not to grant the warrant, he sat in my office conversing with me on the subject. During our conversation other persons came in, an to my surprise he continued the conversation in their presence. I said to him that ‘I supposed he did not wish his business made known to the public.’ He replied that as the warrant had been refused he did not care who knew it. In this manner the fact that a requisition had been made for Coppoc became known in this place. The insinuation that I had anything to do, directly or indirectly, with sending information to Coppoc, that a requisition had been sent for him, is simply and unqualifiedly untrue; nor have I any means of knowing whether such information was sent by others, or, if so, by whom sent, other than common rumor. Permit me to say in conclusion that one of the most important duties of the official position I hold is to see that no citizen of Iowa is carried beyond her border and subjected to the ignominy of imprisonment and the perils of trial for crimes in another State otherwise than by due process of law. That duty I shall perform…

Samuel J. Kirkwood.”

            These ringing words of the fearless old War Governor stand out in bold contrast to the cringing attitude of Governor Packer, of Pennsylvania, who hastened to send two of Coppoc’s companions (Cook and Hazlett) back to the Virginia gallows without even an investigation of the legality of the papers.

            Governor Letcher was in a great rage when the Iowa Governor’s refusal reached him but he understood that nothing short of a rigid compliance with all requirements of law would enable him to wrest a victim for execution from Iowa. He had the grand jury summoned and procured Coppoc’s indictment. The following is one of the counts in the famous document:

“Thirteenth Judicial Circuit of Virginia, Jefferson County.

            “The jurors of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in and for the body of the County of Jefferson, duly empanelled and attending upon said court, upon their oaths present, that Barclay Coppoc being a free person, on the Sixteenth and Seventeenth days of October, in the year 1859, and on divers other days before and after that time, in the County of Jefferson and Commonwealth of Virginia aforesaid, and within the jurisdiction of this court, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the devil, did maliciously, willfully and feloniously conspire with certain John Brown, Edwin Coppoc, John E. Cook, Shields Green, John Copeland, Aaron D. Stevens and other persons to the jurors unknown, to induce certain slaves of said County and Commonwealth aforesaid, to wit, slaves called Henry, Levi, Ben, Jerry, Phil, George and Bill, the slaves of John H. Alstead, and each of said slaves respectively to rebel and make insurrection against their said masters, and against the authority of the constitution and laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to the evil example of all others in like case offending, and against the form of the statute in that case provided and against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

            “Endorsed—“A True Bill,” February 3, 1860.

            “J. A. Lewis, Foreman.”(3)

            It was the 10th day of February before Governor Letcher’s legal requisition reached Des Moines. Then governor Kirkwood was compelled to issue his warrant for the arrest—but Coppoc was not to be found. His friends promptly received news of the last requisition. That night, with his stanch friend, Thaddeus Maxson, Barclay was conveyed in a sleigh to Mechanicsville, accompanied by a well armed guard. Coppoc and Maxson took the night train on the Northwestern road for Chicago, where they staid several days with a trusted family of colored friends. They went on to Canada and remained until the Virginia officer left for his home. Learning that his late companions, Owen Brown and F. J. Merriam, were staying in Ashtabula County, Ohio, Barclay and his friend Maxson joined them and the little party staid several weeks at the town of Dorset. They were always well armed and ready to defend themselves day or night.

            The young man who so narrowly escaped death the second time, was not to be intimidated by dangers. Barclay Coppoc never ceased his war upon slavery. Early in the summer of 1860 he went to Kansas and aided some Missouri slaves to freedom. When the Civil War began, he hastened to join the Union army and was commissioned Lieutenant in the Fourth Kansas Volunteers, commanded by the gallant Colonel Montgomery of Kansas War Fame. Lieutenant Coppoc was sent to his old home in Iowa to secure recruits. On his return with them he met his death on the 30th day of August, 1861, from the burning of a railroad bridge by Missouri guerillas, precipitating the train he was on eighty feet into the Platte River. A large number were killed and wounded. Lieutenant Coppoc’s body was taken to Leavenworth and buried in Pilot Knob Cemetery. On a soldier’s monument erected at Tipton, near his old home, by the patriotic people of Cedar County, to the memory of its citizen soldiers who gave their lives for their country in the Rebellion, is inscribed the name of Barclay Coppoc.

            The Maxson house near Springdale is still standing. Carefully preserved on the wall are the names of John Brown’s men who spent the winter of 1858 there drilling for the Harper’s Ferry campaign.

            A few days before they left in the spring each one placed his signature in pencil on the wall of the room most used by them. They were Owen Brown, John E. Cook, Aaron D. Stevens, John H. Kagi, Richard Realf, Charles P. Tidd, William H. Leeman, Charles W. Moffat, Luke F. Parsons, Richard Richardson and George B. Gill. Parsons, Realf, Moffat, Richardson and Gill failed to report at the Kennedy farm before the attack and were not in the battle.

            Of the men who were most conspicuous on the other side of John Brown’s war, Lee, Stuart, Floyd and Wise attained high rank in the war which followed for the perpetuation of human slavery, while Mason, the author of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law, was the Confederate Ambassador to England; Jefferson Davis, the confederate President; Letcher, the confederate Governor. J. Wilkes Booth, one of Virginia’s militia officers, who escorted John Brown and Edwin Coppoc to the gallows, closed his career by assassinating the great emancipator.

            On the 14th of December, 1859, after the invasion, the Senate of the United States appointed a committee to investigate and report all facts obtainable bearing upon the affair and especially to inquire whether such invasion was made under color of any organization intended to subvert the government of any of the States of the Union, and whether any citizens not present were implicated therein. The committee consisted of Senators James M. Mason of Virginia, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, G. M. Fitch of Indiana, Jacob Collamer of Vermont and J. R. Doolittle of Wisconsin. The committee had power to send for persons and papers. Its investigations were of the most rigid character, as a majority of its members sought to implicate prominent Republicans and Abolitionists of Northern States as instigators of the invasion. Among the witnesses called before that committee were such eminent Republicans as John A. Andrew, William H. Seward, Joshua r. Giddings, Henry Wilson and Charles Robinson. All efforts to connect leading citizens of the North with John Brown’s invasion failed after more than five months of persistent efforts by Mason, Davis and Fitch, of the committee.

            To their surprise and chagrin, the fact was developed that John B. Floyd, Secretary of War and a Virginian, had been informed in the August previous that such an invasion was being organized by John Brown and that he took no steps to prevent it. A letter had been mailed to a member of this committee by some unknown person purporting to have been written to Secretary Floyd from Cincinnati, Ohio, august 20th, 1859, nearly two months before the attack upon Harper’s Ferry. This letter notified the Secretary that such a raid had been organized to be led by John Brown for emancipation of the slaves and that it would enter Virginia at Harper’s Ferry, probably very soon.

            The Secretary, when called before the committee (4) and shown the letter, testified as follows:

            “I received this letter last summer in Virginia. My attention was a little more than usual attracted to it, and I laid it away in my trunk. I receive many anonymous letters and pay no attention to them. I do not know but that I should have paid attention to this, notwithstanding it was anonymous, as the wrier seemed to be particular in the details; but I knew there was no armory in Maryland, and supposed he had gone into details for the purpose of exciting alarm of the Secretary of War and have a parade. I was satisfied in my own mind that a scheme of such wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any of the citizens of the United States. I thought no more of the letter until the raid broke out. Then I instantly remembered it and believed the first intelligence that we received from Harper’s Ferry to be true, because I recollected the  contents of the letter. I had shown the letter to nobody except a member of my family, until the outbreak at Harper’s Ferry. Immediately after the outbreak the letter was hunted up and published. The object in publishing it was to show that the raid had more significance than a mere local outbreak, and that the country might be put on guard against anything like a concerted movement. I had no means of knowing who wrote the letter. A gentleman in Cincinnati, whom I knew, wrote to me for the letter believing that the handwriting might be traced. The writer was not discovered, but they had strong suspicions that a certain person somewhere in Kentucky had written it.”

            Had this letter of warning been heeded what a mighty change would have been wrought in our country’s history! For more than thirty-six years this letter has been the subject of historical controversy. The most skillful detectives were employed by government officials, assisted by experienced experts in handwriting, to hunt down and locate the author. It was believed by Floyd, Mason, Davies and Governor Wise, that if the writer of this letter could be found, he might be compelled to disclose the names of the persons from whom he learned the facts mentioned in the Floyd letter, and evidence might thus be secured to implicate prominent Abolitionists and Republicans in the conspiracy. But all efforts failed. Some have charged that it was written by Hugh Forbes, who was at one time employed by John Brown to drill his men. They had subsequently quarreled and it was thought by Brown’s friends that Forbes had betrayed them. Richard J. Hinton, the author of “John Brown and His Men,” believed the letter was written by Edmund Babb, an editorial writer on the Cincinnati Gazette, and gives his reasons, supported by some corroborating circumstances. (5)

                    F. B. Sanborn, another intimate friend and author of “Life and Letters of John Brown,” says, “It has never been ascertained who wrote this letter.” He thinks it might have been by a Cincinnati newspaper reporter, who had procured the information from a Hungarian refugee who had fought under Brown in Kansas. “Or it is possible the information came indirectly from Cook, who talked to freely.” (6)

                    The letter has been published in newspapers and magazines, in the report of the Senate Investigating Committee and in most of the numerous biographies of John Brown. Rev. J. L. Coppoc, brother of Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, thought the letter was written by Richard Realf, the poet, who was one of Brown’s associates at Springdale.

            In December, 1896, the author of this history prepared the following account of the origin of this letter, the purpose for which it was written and the manner in which its author obtained the information it contained. After the lapse of thirty-five years and the death of nearly all of the persons connected with the tragic events which inspired it, the only two persons living who had knowledge of its origin and author, decided to divulge the long kept secret and thus settle the controversy.

            (7) In August, 1859, there were living with me in our log cabin on the banks of Rock Creek in the northwest corner of Scott County, Iowa, a cousin, A. L. Smith, of Buffalo, N. Y., and my youngest brother, David J. Gue, now of New York City. On the Thirteenth they drove to Springdale to visit Moses Varney, who was an old friend of Smith. During their stay the exciting topic of conversation among the Quakers of the village was “Old John Brown” and his men. They had made warm friends among the peaceful people of the settlement and several young men had gone from their homes to join John Brown’s mysterious expedition. Enough had been told to his most trusted friends to arouse fears that the expedition he was organizing could not succeed and must end in the violent death of all engaged in it. On Sunday evening Moses Varney took Smith one side and revealed to him in confidence what he knew of Brown’s expedition. He felt that something must be done to save Brown, his followers and the young men from Springdale, who had gone to join him, from the certain and terrible fate to which they were hastening. When Varney had finished his narrative so startling and well-nigh incredible as it appeared to smith, he exclaimed, “What can we do! What must we do to save their lives?” For two hours they talked and thought of various plans, but came to no decision. When they were about to separate, Varney exclaimed:

            “Something must be done to save their lives. I cannot betray their confidence in me—consult your friends—but do something!”

            On their long ride home Mr. Smith and my brother tried to think of some plan by which the tragedy could be averted without harm to the stern old emancipator, who was willing to risk liberty and life even for the slaves. In the evening they related to me the fearful secret which had been confided to them by our Springdale friend, and Varney’s earnest appeal to us to devise some plan to save the little band from almost certain death. We consulted together long and earnestly late into the night, and determined that these young men and their fearless and immovable leader must not be left to march to inevitable defeat and destruction if it were in our power to prevent it.

            Moses Varney had informed Smith that he and several other trusted friends of Brown had used all their powers of persuasion and entreaty to induce him to abandon a scheme so hopeless and so sure to end in the violent death of scores of persons. But no impression could be made upon him. Brown had a prophetic faith that he was ordained to overthrow American slavery and that the time he had so long waited for had come at last. The preparations of a lifetime seemed to him to have culminated I this plan. He was sure that in some way, not yet clearly developed, he was now leading his heroic band to an assault which would result in the liberation of the slaves. Against such a faith and such devotion, no argument or entreaty could prevail. His youthful followers had implicit confidence in their leader and were imbued with the same spirit of martyrdom. The certainty of extreme personal danger made no impression upon these devoted men. We realized that whatever was to be done to prevent the impending tragedy must be in another direction, that if anything was to be done we must do it. We could not betray the confidence of that noble and humane Quaker, Moses Varney, who in an agony of apprehension over the fate of his friends and neighbors, looked to us to devise some way to avert it. We were young and inexperienced in public affairs but dared not consult older and wiser persons. The night was wearing away and we knew there was no time to lose. It is likely a better plan might have been devised by wiser heads, but this is what we finally determined to do.

            We would send two letters to the Secretary of War from different localities notifying him of the contemplated raid. These letters would give him enough facts to alarm him and cause prompt steps to be taken to guard the National Armory at Harper’s Ferry. This would become known to Cook, one of John Brown’s trusted officers, who was understood to be at that place quietly taking observations preliminary to the attack. He would notify his commander, who could easily lead his men to safety in that mountain region.

            It was not an easy matter to so word these letters that they should alarm the Secretary and lead to prompt action. They must be anonymous and to spur the Department to move at once we considered it necessary to give the name of the leader whose late assaults upon slavery were well known throughout the country. We must carefully conceal from the possibility of finding out the names of the writers of these letters and the place from which they were written, so that we could not be called upon to give evidence as to the sources of our information, or in any way implicate our Springdale friends with a knowledge of the raid. Neither would we give nay names or clue to persons who could be used as witnesses against John Brown or his men if any oft hem should be arrested. So, in our little log cabin, the letters were written to John B. Floyd, Secretary of War. A. L. Smith,(8) wrote one dated Philadelphia, August 18, 1859. It was inclosed in an envelope, sealed and addressed to the Secretary at Washington, D. C., and a stamp put on it. The letter was then inclosed in a larger envelope, sealed and addressed to the postmaster at Philadelphia. It was mailed at Wheatland, a village in Clinton County. David J. Gue(9) wrote the other letter, which has become historic, of which the following is a copy:

Cincinnati, August 20

Hon. Mr. Floyd, Secretary of War, Washington, D. C.:

            Sir: I have lately received information of movement of so great importance that I feel it my duty to impart it to you without delay. I have discovered the existence of a secret organization having for its object the liberation of the slaves at the South by a general insurrection. The leader of the movement is “Old John Brown,” late of Kansas. He has been in Canada during the winter drilling the negroes there, and they are only Canada during the winter drilling the negroes there, and they are only waiting his word to start for the South to assist the slaves. They have one of their leading men (a white man) in an armory in Maryland—where it is situated I have not been able to learn. As soon as everything is ready those of their number who are in small companies to their rendezvous, which is in the mountains of Virginia. They will pass down through Pennsylvania and Maryland, and enter Virginia at Harper’s Ferry. Brown left the North about three or four weeks ago, and will arm the negroes and strike the blow in a few weeks, so that whatever is done must be done must be done at once. They have a large quantity of arms at their rendezvous, and are probably distributing them already. As I am not fully in their confidence, this is all the information I can give you. I dare not sign my name to this, but trust that you will not disregard the warning on that account.

            This letter was put into an envelope addressed to John B. Floyd, Secretary of War, Washington, D. C., and marked “Private.” It was then enclosed in a larger envelope directed to the postmaster at Cincinnati, and mailed at Big Rock. We sought to convey to the Secretary the impression that the writers of the letters lived in different parts of the country, that they ad accidentally learned something of Brown’s raid, that they had no sympathy with him and his expedition and felt it a duty to warn the Government of the proposed attack. We hoped in this way to induce the Secretary to send a strong military guard to Harper’s Ferry, which would at once become known to the old emancipator and avert the dreaded tragedy. But it was not to be.

            We anxiously watched the papers for many weeks to learn whether the letters had accomplished their mission. Two months passed by and we began to hope the expedition had been abandoned. But on Monday, October 24th, the weekly mail brought our Tribune and there we read the fatal news. The blow had fallen, the second battle in the war for emancipation had been fought and lost. John Brown was desperately wounded, most of his little band were killed, wounded and captured.

            A short time before the execution of the undaunted leader and his surviving comrades, this letter of warning came to light and was published in the principal papers of the country, as related by Secretary Floyd in his testimony before the Senate committee. Whether the other letter ever reached him is unknown. But in the course of his evidence he states that he frequently received anonymous letters and gave no attention to them, among which he mentions one from Philadelphia.

            Almost half a century has passed away since the tragedy at Harper’s Ferry. As insignificant as was the affair when viewed as a Battle, the impression that it has made upon impartial, thinking people throughout the civilized world has hardly been surpassed by any great conflict of modern times. When such men as Emerson, Theodore Parker, Frederic Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Wendell Phillips, and even Governor Henry A. Wise, the great German historian Von Holst, Victor Hugo and Louis Blanc, were profoundly impressed with the life and martyrdom of John Brown, the smaller men and short-sighted politicians who have never comprehended his sublime ideals can well be left to sneer at his battles for freedom of the slaves.

            In looking back upon the Kansas War for free soil, the assault upon slavery at Harper’s Ferry, which precipitated the great Civil War a few years later, the sublime figure of John Brown, the most conspicuous leader in the armed conflicts, stands out preeminent. Denounced at the time by superficial observers and writers as a half-crazy, fanatical incendiary, cruel and relentless in his warfare, for a time his motives were misunderstood. But when the ordeal came and he faced his accusers in court, asking no favors, but justifying his mission, he calmly ascended the scaffold and serenely suffered a martyr’s death.

            On the day of his execution Victor Hugo, in exile, wrote these prophetic words: “John Brown, condemned to death is to be hanged to-day. His hangman is not Governor Wise, nor the little State of Virginia. His hangman (we shudder to think it and say it) is the whole American Republic. Politically speaking, the murder of Brown will be an irrevocable mistake. It will deal the Union a concealed wound which will finally sunder the States.” A few months later he wrote: “Slavery in all its forms will disappear. What the South slew last December was not John Brown, but slavery. The American Union must be considered dissolved. Between the North and the South stands the gallows of Brown. Union is no longer possible. Such a crime cannot be shared.”

            These words of the great French apostle of liberty attracted little attention at the time of their utterance, but two years later the great Army of the Potomac, a hundred thousand strong, was marching through Virginia singing to the stirring music of fife and drum:

            “John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,

            But his soul is marching on.”

            Harper’s Ferry was the thrice fought battle-field of the hosts of Freedom and Slavery, until at Appomattox the last remnant was forever crushed out of the American Republic by the legions of Grant and Sheridan. Victor Hugo’s prophecy was fulfilled and among the names of the most conspicuous leaders of the war against human slavery will forever stand that of the man who perished on the scaffold at Charlestown, for striking that institution one of its most deadly blows.

            One of the last utterances of the hero of Ossawattomie was: “I do not now reproach myself for my failure. I did what I could. I think I cannot better serve the cause I love so much than to die for it.”

            As a leader he inspired his followers with the same abhorrence of human slavery that he had entertained during all the mature years of his life. Every man of his Harper’s Ferry band was willing to give his life, if need be, for the overthrow of slavery. No one was more impressed with this conviction than Governor Wise. Manly fortitude under sentence of death and upon the scaffold impressed the court, the Governor and the Southern people with the unwelcome conviction that slavery was I peril, when men would die for the liberation of its helpless victims. From that hour the most sagacious of its defenders realized that the institution was doomed unless the South united under a separate government for its preservation. Secession, Civil War and Emancipation followed.

            The most important work of the Eighth General Assembly was the consideration of the report of a commission selected by the previous Legislature to revise and codify the laws of the State. Their elaborate work was carefully reviewed, and, with some amendments, enacted and published as the “Revision of 1860.” W. H. F. Gurley, of Scott County, chairman of the committee of ways and means, in the House, framed new revenue laws which with few changes, remained on the statue books for more than a quarter of a century, working a great reform in the collection of taxes.

            Under the provisions of the law for the establishment of the State Bank of Iowa there had been twelve branches organized and put in operation before the close of the second year, 1859. The branches were located at Muscatine, Dubuque, Keokuk, Mount Pleasant, Davenport, Iowa City, Des Moines, Oskaloosa, Lyons, Washington, Burlington and Fort Madison. The amount of paid-up capital was $460,450; the amount of currency issued, $563,836. Applications were pending for the establishment of four additional branches at the close of the year. The law under which the State Bank was authorized was so carefully framed that there seemed no opportunity for evading its salutary requirements. The system was popular with the people who desired a sound currency and security for deposits. No banks had been established under the “Free Banking Law,” because of its conservative requirements. There were many capitalists in the State, however, who wished a more liberal law under which they could establish banks. They came before the Eighth General Assembly and managed to convince a majority of its members that the Free Banking Law was too rigid and was keeping capital out of the State, which, under a more liberal law, would be sent here to establish banks and provide the people with an abundance of currency. The arguments were plausible and met with favor. R. G. Kellogg, of Decatur County, introduced a bill to amend the general banking law, permitting the organization of banks with a capital of $25,000 in towns of less than five hundred inhabitants and abolishing the office of Bank commissioners as provided by law. The bill was favorably received, with some amendments, passed both branches of the General Assembly. When sent to Governor Kirkwood for approval, he returned it with a veto. His objections were that it was unwise to dispense with Bank Commissioners, who were the special guardians of the depositors and bill holders, whose duty it was to make examinations of the condition of the banks to see that the laws were strictly complied with. He also regarded unfavorably the establishment of banks in small towns inaccessible to the bill holders who might wish to present the currency for redemption. He was further opposed to a large issue of paper money as dangerous and cited the heavy losses heretofore entailed upon our citizens through flooding the State with irredeemable paper money. The bill was not passed over the veto and no banks were ever established under the provisions of the General Banking Law.



1.      The two members were Ed. Wright and B. F. Gue of Scott

2.      Governor Wise’s term expired January 1, 1860, and he was succeeded by Governor Letcher.

3.      The original papers in this case, with a copy  of Virginia’s indictment of Barclay Coppoc, may be seen in the Historical Department of Iowa.

4.      See Report of Senate committee, pp. 251-252.

5.      “John Brown and His Men,” pp.253-256.

6.      pp. 543-544 of “Life and Letters of John Brown.”

7.      Published in the Midland Monthly, in February, 1897

8.      A. L. Smith was a young man from Buffalo, N. Y. He returned to that city where he became a wholesale merchant and died many years ago.

9.      D. J. Gue was about twenty-three years of age at that time. He went to New York city, where he became an artist and portrait painter.


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