Civil War  |  Primary Source

Testimony before the Senate Committee Investigating the Attack at Harpers Ferry

The Battle of Fort Moultrie by John Blake White, 1826

Note:  This document includes testimony from the following people:


Richard Realf (Officer with John Brown’s 
               “Provisional Government”),

Andrew Hunter (Prosecuting Attorney),

Samuel Chilton (Defense Attorney),

John Unseld (Visited John Brown in jail),

Daniel Whelan (watchman at the Federal Armory), 

John Starry (doctor at Harpers Ferry)



RICHARD REALF sworn and examined.


Question: Will you state to the committee of what country you are a native, and what your age is?


Answer: I am a native of England. I was born in the year 1834. I shall therefore be twenty-six next June.


Question: When did you first come to this country?


Answer: In 1854.


Question: Are your parents living now in England?


Answer: They are.


Question: Will you state what was the occupation in life of your father?


Answer: At the time I left England my father was filling the position which he now fills, namely, an officer of the English rural police.


Question: To what occupation had he been bred?


Answer: My father was a blacksmith at one time. That trade he learned himself. He was a peasant, which means an agricultural laborer.


Question: Will you state what brought you to the United States in 1854?


Answer: I had been a protégé of Lady Noell Byron, widow of Lord Byron. I had disagreed with Lady Noell Byron, on account of some private matters, which it is not necessary to explain here, but which rendered me desirous of finding some other place in which to dwell. Moreover, my instincts were democratic and republican, or, at least, anti-monarchical. Therefore I came to America.


Question: Had you any acquaintance in this country when you came over?


Answer: No, sir; no personal acquaintance.


Question: Will you say whether you formed the acquaintance of John Brown, who was recently executed in Virginia for murder and treason?


Answer: Yes, sir; I did form his acquaintance.


Question: When?


Answer: In the year 1857. I cannot say whether it was the last day of November or the first of December, but within two or three days of that time.


Question: Will you state what brought you to his acquaintance, and where it was?


Answer: I was residing in the city of Lawrence, Kansas, as a correspondent of the Illinois State Gazette, edited by Messrs. Bailhace & Baker. I had been, and was, a radical abolitionist. In November, 1857', John Edwin Cook, also recently executed in Virginia, came to my boarding-house, in Lawrence, bringing me an invitation from John Brown to visit him at a place called Tabor, in Iowa. There I met John Brown.


Question: You went with Cook?


Answer: I went with John E. Cook.


Question: Did Brown then make known to you the object of the invitation to come and see him?


Answer: John Brown made known to a certain, but not to any definite and detailed degree, his intentions. He stated that he purposed to make an incursion into the Southern States, somewhere in the mountainous region of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies.


Question: What was the plan and purpose of the incursion, or did he develop it?


Answer: At Tabor, in Iowa, no place was named.


Question: What were the character and object of the incursion? Did he tell that?


Answer: To liberate the slaves.


Question: Did he disclose how he proposed to effect it?


Answer: Not at that time.


Question: Did you enter into any arrangements or engagements with him in reference to it?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: State what they were.


Answer: I agreed to accompany him.


Question: Did you remain under his control or guidance? What subsequent disposition did you make of yourself, or did he make of you, after that interview at Tabor?


Answer: I will tell you. From Tabor, where I myself first met John Brown and the majority of the persons forming the white part of his company in Virginia, we passed across the State of Iowa, until we reached Cedar County, in that State. We started in December, 1857. It was about the end of December, 1857, or the beginning of January, 1858, when we reached Cedar County, the journey thus consuming about a month of time. We stopped at a village called Springdale, in that county, where, in a settlement principally composed of Quakers, we remained.


Question: Did John Brown accompany you there?


Answer: John Brown accompanied us thither, but, whilst we ourselves remained there, John Brown went on East.


Question: Now, will you state who composed the company that Brown had assembled there, distinguishing between the whites and blacks, if there were any blacks?


Answer: Myself, Mr. Kagi, Mr. Cook, Mr. Stevens, Mr. Tidd, Mr. Leeman, Mr. Moffet, and Mr. Parsons, all these being whites, and Mr. Richard Richardson, a colored man, whom I met with Brown, at Tabor. These composed our company.


Question: How long did you remain at Springdale?


Answer: From the month-whether it be, I cannot now remember, the latter part of December, 1857) or the beginning of January, 1858, but from that time up until about the last week in April) a period of nearly three months.


Question: What was your occupation while you were there?


Answer: We were being drilled a part of the time, and receiving military lessons under Mr. Stevens. A part of the time I was lecturing.


Question: Did Brown provide for the support of the company while you were there?


Answer: Brown provided for the support of the company whilst we were there in this way: upon reaching there he, finding himself unable to dispose of the mules and wagons with which he transported us across the State, and unable to get the price he desired for them, left us there to board, the property named to belong to the man who kept us, a price having been agreed upon between himself and Mr. Brown.


Question: Whom did you board with?


Answer: With a Mr. Maxom.


Question: Did he keep a tavern?


Answer: No, sir; a private farm-house.


Question: You remained there, you say, until the following April?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Will you inform the committee whether, during your residence there or at any time subsequent to Brown's inviting you to join that party, you heard of a man or made the acquaintance of a man named Forbes?


Answer: I never made the acquaintance of Colonel Forbes. I have heard of such a man.


Question: Will you say whether it was expected that he should be your military instructor? I mean anything you learned from Brown on the subject.


Answer: Yes, sir. You did not ask me the Question, but I may as well state the fact that during our passage across Iowa, Brown's plan in regard to an incursion into Virginia gradually manifested itself. It was a matter of discussion between us as to the possibility of effecting a successful insurrection in the mountains, some arguing that it was, some that it was not; myself thinking, and still thinking, that a mountainous country is a very fine country for an insurrection, in which I am borne out by historic evidence which it is not necessary to state now.


Question: Brown's plans, then, were to make an incursion somewhere into the mountainous regions of Virginia?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Did he say when he expected to effect it?


Answer: In that spring.


Question: Will you state whether the military training that he proposed for you and the company, had a reference to that incursion?


Answer: It was my belief that it had. 


Question: Did he give you, in the course of conversation; any outlines or plans as to how he proposed to effect it-the mode of doing it?


Answer: Not during our residence in Iowa.


Question: You say Brown left you there. When did he return?


Answer: Brown returned a day or two before the period at which we left, namely, the last week in April, 1858.


Question: Did he inform you or the company, in conversation, how he had been occupied during the period of his absence?


Answer: No, sir; and here I ought to say, which you have also omitted to ask in regard to Colonel Forbes, that whereas we expected Colonel Forbes to be our military instructor, yet, in consequence of a disagreement between himself and John Brown, the latter wrote us from the East that Forbes would not become our military instructor, and that we should not .expect him.


Question: Do you remember the point in the East he wrote from?


Answer: I do not. He used to write to his son Owen, one of the deceased persons, and in stating the number of persons comprising our company, I accidentally omitted his son. Owen was with us.


Question: Did Brown have much correspondence with his son while he was absent?


Answer: No, sir; the correspondence was very rare.


In stating what was said by Brown, I desire the witness, as much as possible, to give exactly what Brown himself said the words used.


Exactly. It is desirable; of course, that you should give, if you can, the exact language; or if you cannot do that, give the substance of any communication from Brown.


I will endeavor to do so.


Question: What was the next movement made by the company and Brown after his return in April?


Answer: The next movement after his arrival was an immediate departure from Iowa into Canada, via Chicago and Detroit.


Question: You remained at Springdale; you say, January, February, and March, something more than three months?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Were the objects of your assembling there made known to the people around, in any way?


Answer: Not by myself; I cannot tell whether by others.


Question: Could you not learn something of it from conversations?


Answer: I am inclined to think that the people knew nothing at all of our movements for the reason that by some we were suspected to be Mormon emissaries.


Question: Did you not divest yourselves of that suspicion.


Answer: No, sir.


Question: Can you inform the committee whether there was any person or persons in that neighborhood who did know of the object of your assembling and your future plans?


Answer: I do believe that John Brown had given a man named Townsend; I cannot remember his first name, a member of the Society of Friends, some indirect and indefinite hints of his plan. I do also think that from the nature of a conversation which a Mr. Varny, also residing in the immediate neighborhood, and being also a Quaker, held with myself, that some one must have given him some hints in regard to the same matter; but neither of those people were evidently, from the tone of their conversation, possessed of any definite information in regard to the matter.


Question: How were your military trainings conducted? Where were they conducted?


Answer: Principally in a field behind the house of Mr. Maxom; it being generally understood in the place where we were boarding, in the vicinity and round about, that we were thus studying military tactics and being thus drilled in order to return to Kansas and pro­secute our endeavors to make Kansas a free State.


Question: That was the first idea?


Answer: That was the general understanding.


Question: Had you arms?


Answer: Yes, sir. John E. Cook had his own private arms. We had our private arms. I had my pair of Colt's revolvers.


Question: Did Brown furnish you with any arms?


Answer: No, sir, not myself, ever.


Question: I mean any of his company?


Answer: Not to my knowledge, because I suppose you will remember that I met the people comprising this company gathered together at Tabor. All of these people had been engaged in Kansas warfare. Everybody at that period in Kansas went armed, and the inference is that they were well armed before they met John Brown. Indeed, I am certain of that matter, because, in a greater or less degree, all of them had been engaged in the Kansas troubles.


Question: I only wanted to know whether Brown had furnished you any arms for the purpose of training.


Answer: No, sir.


Question: What part of Canada did you stop at?


Answer: We stopped at a town called Chatham, in Canada West.


Question: What time did you get there?


Answer: It must have been about April 28 or 29, 1858, I think; or perhaps the 1st or 2d of May. I cannot remember within two or three days. I recollect it was at that time, because the convention, to which we shall come presently, was held on the 10th of May; and we were there a sufficient time to allow John Brown to write letters, about which I shall, doubtless, be asked.


Question: Will you state who of the company that you had at Springdale, accompanied John Brown to Chatham?


Answer: All of the company whom I named as having gone to Springdale and two others: a young man named George B. Gill, who resided at Springdale, who had learned of our plans, from whom I do not know, but I suppose from John Brown, inasmuch as he never manifested any desire to accompany us anywhere until the return of John Brown; and another young man, named Stewart Taylor, the latter of whom was killed at Harper's Ferry, and the former of whom, so far as I have been able to learn, was not present at the incursion.


Question: Where did Stewart Taylor come from?


Answer: I do not know.


Question: Did this man Richardson, the Negro, go with you to Chatham?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Was Brown's intercourse with the Negro of a character to show that he treated him as an equal and an associate?


Answer: It certainly was. To prove it, I will simply state that, having to wait twelve hours at Chicago, in order to make railroad con­nection from Chicago to Detroit, and to Canada, we necessarily had to breakfast and dine. We went into one of the hotels in order to break­fast. We took this colored man, Richardson, to table with us. The keeper of the hotel explained to us that it could not be allowed. We did not eat our breakfast. We went to another hotel, where we could take a colored man with us and sit down to breakfast.


Question: Where you could enjoy your rights, I suppose?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Will you state in what way the expenses of your transportation were defrayed?


Answer: They were defrayed by John Brown.


Question: What was done on your arrival at Chatham?


Answer: Upon our arrival in Chatham, Canada West, we boarded at a hotel kept by a colored man, (I do not remember his name,) whence written (not printed) circulars were sent to certain persons east and west, for Chicago is west of Canada, inviting their attendance at a quiet convention of the friends of freedom, to be held on the day named, namely, May 10, 1858.


Question: Did you remain there during the intermediate time be­tween the last of April and the 10th of May; or was the convention held earlier?


Answer: There were two conventions. The constitutional conven­tion was held two days previous to the election of the officers. The constitution had been adopted, and then the election of the officers was held. I had forgotten that before. The constitutional convention was on the 8th of May, 1858.



The CHAIRMAN here submits to the witness the papers heretofore produced by Andrew Hunter, and purporting to be the minutes or "Journal of the Provisional Constitutional Convention," and of the convention to elect officers, signed respectively by "J. H. Kagi," as "secretary of the convention," and asks the following:



Question: Do you know the handwriting of these papers?


Answer: I do; it is the handwriting of John Henry Kagi.



[The papers are identified by the chairman placing his initials thereon.]



Question: It is stated in these minutes that "on motion of Mr. Delany, Mr. Brown then proceeded to state the object of the convention at length." Did you know this" Mr. Delany?"


Answer: Yes, sir; he was a colored doctor, residing in Chatham, Canada West.


Question: Do you mean a Negro when you say “colored?"


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Who was the presiding officer of this convention?


Answer: A man named Munroe-a preacher.


Question: Where did he come from?


Answer: I believe the city of Detroit?


Question: Was he a colored man?


Answer: Yes, sir; a mulatto.


Question: Do you recollect Brown's speech, which, it is said in these minutes "developed the plan"?


Answer: I cannot remember his speech. I can remember certain salient points and leading ideas in his speech.


Question: He did make a speech?


Answer: Yes, sir.


Question: Of course you cannot remember the speech; but will you state as briefly but as exactly as you can, what he did state to be the object in view of this constitution and all that?


Answer: John Brown, on rising, stated that for twenty or thirty years the idea had possessed him like a passion of giving liberty to the slaves. He stated immediately thereafter, that he made a journey to England in 1851, in which year he took to the international exhi­bition at London, samples of wool from Ohio, during which period he made a tour upon the European continent, inspecting all fortifications, and especially all earth-work forts which he could find, with a view, as he stated, of applying the knowledge thus gained, with modifications and inventions of his own, to such a mountain warfare as he thereafter spoke upon in the United States. John Brown stated, moreover, that he had not been indebted to anybody for the sugges­tion of this plan; that it arose spontaneously in his own mind; that through a series of from twenty to thirty years it had gradually formed and developed itself into shape and plan. He stated that he had read all the books upon insurrectionary warfare which he could lay his hands upon-the Roman warfare; the successful opposition of the Spanish chieftains during the period when Spain was a Roman province; how with ten thousand men divided and subdivided into small companies, acting simultaneously, yet separately, they withstood the whole consolidated power of the Roman empire through a number of years. In addition to this, he said he had become very familiar with the successful warfare waged by Schamyl, the Circassian chief, against the Russians; he had posted himself in relation to the wars of Toussaint L'Overture; he had become thoroughly acquainted with the wars in Hayti and the islands round about; and from all these things he had drawn the conclusion, believing, as he stated there' he did believe, and as we all (if I may judge from myself) believed, that upon the first intimation of a plan formed for the liberation of the slaves, they would immediately rise all over the Southern States. He supposed that they would come into the mountains to join him, where he purposed to work, and that by flocking to his standard they would enable him (by making the line of mountains which cuts diagonally through Maryland and Virginia down through the Southern States into Tennessee and Alabama, the base of his operations) to act upon the plantations on the plains lying on each side of that range of mountains) and that we should be able to establish ,ourselves in the fastnesses, and if any hostile action (as would be) were taken against us, either by the militia of the separate States, or by the armies of the United States, we purposed to defeat first the militia, and next, if it were possible, the troops of the United States, and then organize the freed blacks under this provisional constitution, which would carve out for the locality of its jurisdiction all that mountainous region in which the blacks were to be established, and in which they were to be taught the useful and mechanical arts, and to be instructed in all the busi­ness of life. Schools were also to be established, and so on. That was it.


Question: Did he develop in that plan where he expected to get aid or assistance; who were to be his soldiers?


Answer: The Negroes were to constitute the soldiers. John Brown expected that all the free Negroes in the Northern States would imme­diately flock to his standard. He expected that all the slaves in the Southern States would do the same. He believed, too, that as many of the free Negroes in Canada as could accompany him, would do so.


Question: Was anything said in his developments of his expectations and resources after he got into the slave States of any division of sentiment between the slaveholders and non-slaveholders?


Answer: The slaveholders were to be taken as hostages) if they refused to let their slaves go. It is a mistake to suppose that they were to be killed; they were not to be. They were to be held as hostages for the safe treatment of any prisoners of John Brown's who might fall into the hands of hostile parties.


Question: As to the non-slaveholders; was there anything said about them?


Answer: All the non-slaveholders were to be protected. Those who would not join the organization of John Brown, but who would not oppose it, were to be protected; but those who did oppose it, were to be treated as the slaveholders themselves.


Question: Where did he expect in the first instance to get his resources of money and arms?


Answer: John Brown expected that­


Question:  Did he say that? We are talking now of what he said in his speech.


What he stated.


Answer: John Brown did not make any explicit or definite state­ment in his speech at all as regarded where the money was to come from.


I do not understand that the witness is limited to that speech.


No, sir.


The understanding was that he was to state to the committee any information derived from Brown himself at any time.


It was to prevent confusion of what he did derive from Brown and from other sources, that I put the question as I did.


But I suppose what he is telling us now is what Brown stated in that speech on that occasion.




 I have been stating what Brown said in that speech, all this being a part thereof.


So I understood, and that is the reason I asked the Question.




It is not yet quite all of that speech.


I did not wish to break the chain.


Go on and give us all you can recollect of Brown's exposition on that occasion.


Answer: Thus, John Brown said that he believed, a successful incursion could be made; that it could be successfully maintained; that the several slave States could be forced (from the position in which they found themselves) to recognize the freedom of those who had been slaves within the respective limits of those States; that immediately such recognitions were made, then the places of all the officers elected under this provisional constitution became vacant, and new elections were to be made. Moreover, no salaries were to be paid to the office­holders under this constitution. It was purely out of that which we supposed to be philanthropy-love for the slave. Moreover, it is a mistake to suppose, as Cook in his confession has stated-and I now get away from John Brown's speech-that at the period of that convention the people present took an oath to support that constitution. They did no such thing. This Dr. Delany of whom I have spoken, proposed, immediately the convention was organized, that an oath should be taken by all who were present, not to divulge any of the proceedings that might transpire; whereupon John Brown rose and stated his objections to such an oath. He had himself conscientious scruples against taking an oath, and all he requested was a promise that any person who should thereafter divulge any of the proceedings that might transpire, agreed to forfeit the protection which that organization could extend over him.


If the witness has concluded his recollection in relation to what Brown stated­…


The WITNESS: No, sir; I have not. John Brown stated in that convention, in the speech he made, that there were a great number of rich people all over the free States who, he doubted not, would assist 11im. He stated that he had some rich friends in the free States who had assisted him, and who had promised further to assist him, but John Brown did not disclose their names, being too profound and sagacious a man to do so.


Question: Did he say, do you recollect, that the friends to whom he referred had promised aid, or that he expected it only?


Answer: That they had assisted him in some degree; that they had promised to assist him further.


Question: Did he state that those people understood this -his plan?


Answer: No, sir; he did 110t state so explicitly, but that was the idea which he conveyed to us. In order to render that Answer intelligible, I should say that John Brown had, from the time he went to Kansas, devoted his whole being, mental, moral, and physical, all that he had and was, to the extinction of slavery. He stated that he only went to Kansas in order to gain a footing for the furtherance of this matter. He stated that explicitly and emphatically.


Question: That that was his private purpose?