Over the past several months I have become extremely interested in John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid, particularly as it relates to the wide array of repercussions across the North and South. I suppose part of that interest is because this coming October will mark the 150th anniversary of this very significant event in American history. But, I think it is also partly because of the participant individuals and their varied background stories.
One of those individuals involved in the raid was Osborne P. Anderson. Anderson was born free in West Fallowfield, (Chester County) Pennsylvania in 1830. Anderson attended integrated Oberlin College in Ohio and afterward moved to Chatham, Canada to work on abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd's newspaper, The Provincial Freeman.
In 1858, while still in Canada, Anderson met John Brown at the so-called Chatham Convention. Anderson was moved by Brown's commitment to freedom and equality for all black people and committed himself immediately to Brown's cause.
Anderson was one of five African American men that Brown brought to Harper's Ferry, and he would be the only black raider to escape alive. At the start of the raid, the marauders captured local resident slaveholder and great-grandson of George Washington, Colonel Lewis Washington while trying to round up slaves to participate in the raid. Brown symbolically ordered that Washington surrender a sword that George Washington had owned to Anderson. One can only imagine what must have been going through Lewis Washington's mind at that moment. During the raid Anderson was stationed with white raider Albert Hazlett at the armory while Brown and the other raiders took the hostages to a nearby fire engine house to use as their fort. While attention was on Brown and the large party at the fire engine house, Anderson and Hazlett laid low and did not attempt to draw the town's fury toward themselves.
As darkness fell Anderson and Hazlett escaped across the Potomac River into Maryland, but soon split up in southern Pennsylvania when Hazlett became incapacitated due to blistered feet. Hazlett was soon caught, taken back to Virginia, and eventually executed on March 16, 1860. Anderson used his quick wit to avoid escape while in Pennsylvania and moved on to Canada.
In 1861, Anderson's eyewitness account of the raid, A Voice From Harper's Ferry, was published with the help of his former boss Mary Ann Shadd. In it he explained that the slaves that ran away on their own or were persuaded to run away by Brown and his raiders did not get the proper recognition they deserved for their role in the raid's aftermath. He wrote, "Of the slaves who followed us to the Ferry, some were sent to help remove stores, and the others were drawn up in a circle around the engine-house, at one time, where they were, by Captain Brown's order, furnished by me with pikes, mostly, and acted as a guard to the prisoners to prevent their escape, which they did. As in the war of the American Revolution, the first blood shed was a black man's, Crispus Attuck's, so at Harpers Ferry, the first blood shed by our party, after the arrival of the United States troops, was that of a slave. In the beginning of the encounter, and before the troops had fairly emerged from the bridge, a slave was shot. I saw him fall. Phil, the slave who died in prison, with fear, as it was reported, was wounded at the Ferry, and died from the effects of it."
In 1864 Anderson enlisted in the United Stated Colored Troops (USCT). He was made a recruiting officer and assisted Governor Oliver P. Morton in enlisting black troops in Indiana, and later he also recruited in Arkansas. After the war Anderson remained active in the fight for black citizenship and equality where he attended "Colored Conventions" during the Reconstruction years.
In 1872, at age 42, Anderson passed away from consumption while in Washington D.C.
Over the next couple of months I hope to bring more of John Brown's raiders into the "Personality Spotlight."