Thursday, June 3, 2010

Personality Spotlight: John Anthony Copeland, Jr.

A few months back I found a letter in the Kentucky Gov. Beriah Magoffin Executive Papers that a Lawrence Thatcher had tried to forward to John Brown via another operative. The letter was apparently dropped by said operative and eventually forwarded to Virginia Gov. Wise. Wise in turn forwarded it to Tennessee Governor Isham Harris and Gov. Magoffin due to the contents.

The letter was dated October 3, 1859, just a couple weeks before the Harpers Ferry raid and was marked from Memphis, Tennessee. Thatcher reported to Brown that he had been on a tour through Tennessee and Arkansas and was "now on my way to Kentucky." While in Memphis Thatcher met with a man named Palmer who promised Thatcher that he could raise an army of slaves for an uprising. Thatcher was impressed with Palmer's genuineness and gave a favorable report to Brown of his earnestness. At the end of the letter Thatcher stated that, "I leave Memphis tomorrow by way of Clarksville [Tennessee] for the Mammoth Cave, where I wish to be for a number of days before anything comes off there."

What did Thatcher mean by "before anything comes off there?" Was an insurrection planned for Mammoth Cave? It certainly seems it would have made a good place for such an action. There was a significant slave population in the area, and with so many visitors form across the nation coming to see the amazing wonder of the cave, it would be easy to keep strangers incognito.

I didn't put a whole lot of thought into this possible "Kentucky conspiracy" until I read more about one of Brown's Harpers Ferry raiders: John Anthony Copeland, Jr. In an examination by Federal Marshalls for his participation in the raid, Copeland explained that Kentucky also had been a planned target.

In an article under the headline "Startling Developments," published in the Frankfort Yeoman (as well as a number of other Kentucky newspapers) on October 29, 1859. The article stated that, "He has given the names of the parties at Oberlin who induced him to go to Harper's Ferry, who furnished money for his expenses, &c. He also states that a movement of a similar character was contemplated in Kentucky about the same time." Another source of the actual questioning was, "Have you any knowledge of an attempt to raise an insurrection in any other State or region of our country?" Copeland answered, "I understood that there was an intention to attempt a movement of that kind in Kentucky about the same time." Was this the "thing to come off there" that Thatcher had referenced in his letter to Brown? Maybe, it certainly sounds like it since it was to occur "about the same time" as the Harpers Ferry raid, but we may never know for sure.

John Anthony Copeland, Jr. was born in Raleigh, North Carolina to a free mixed-race father and a free mother in 1834. Copeland's father was emancipated in 1819 and they left North Carolina as a family in 1843. They first settled in Cincinnati then moved to Oberlin, Ohio. Copeland Jr. had helped his father in his carpentry business in his youth, but had apparently received a good enough education to enter Oberlin College for the 1854-55 session.

Copeland's exposure to anti-slavery activity at Oberlin no doubt influenced his decision to join the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society. In 1858 Copeland was one of 37 men that was arrested for their role in the John Price rescue, also known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue (see my June 23, 2009 post). In 1859 Copeland was recruited to join Brown's Harpers Ferry venture by his uncle Lewis Sheridan Leary, who was later shot and killed during the raid.

Copeland was captured after things started turning bad for the raiders. He attempted to cross the Shenandoah River to escape when he was pursued by James A. Holt, a townsman. Copeland and Holt both attempted to shoot each other, but their wet weapons didn't discharge. Copeland threw down his gun and became a captive in the middle of the river. Copeland probably would have been lynched right on the back of the river if it were not for townsman Dr. John D. Starry, who exclaimed, that only cowards would "want to kill a man when disarmed and a prisoner."

In his trial Copeland was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged on December 16. On his last day of life the 25 year old wrote to his parents. "Why should you sorrow?" he asked. "Why should your hearts be racked with grief? Have I not everything to gain and nothing to lose by the change? I fully believe that not only myself but also all three of my poor comrades who are to ascend the same scaffold- (a scaffold already made sacred to the cause of freedom, by the death of that great champion of human freedom, Capt. John Brown) are prepared to meet our God."

Speaking of Copeland and his stoic nature in facing his death, the Virginia prosecuting attorney said Copeland, "behaved himself with as much firmness as any of them, and with far more dignity. If it has been possible to recommend a pardon for any of them it would have been this man Copeland as I regretted as much if not more, at seeing him executed than any other of the party."

Copeland's body, along with that of fugitive slave raider Shields Green and Brown's son Watson, were taken to the Winchester Medical School where they were used as dissecting cadavers. Watson Brown's body was eventually recovered and reinterred with his father in New York state, but Copeland and Green's remains were never reclaimed. In 1865 the African American citizens of Oberlin erected a monument to Copeland, Green and Leary. Although only Copeland and Leary had ties to Oberlin, the community chose to honor the three together.

1 comment:

  1. I love your spotlight on John Anthony Copeland jr for i am a big fan of his not only do i admire his bravery in fighting to try and free his people despite being born free himself but i also deeply admire his calm and coolness when facing his execution a very handsome man i only wish i could find more info on him again thanks for your spotlight!!!!