Sunday, November 21, 2010

Looking for Historical Nuggets-Benjamin Mills Part II

This particular roll of microfilm was in pretty bad condition. I was unable to make digital copies as I normally do for my records, and also to save time, so I transcribed it. By taking a significant amount of time I was able to make out almost all of the article, with the exception of only about three words where the original edition appeared to have been torn when the microfilm image was made.

After I found the issue I was looking for, I grew a bit anxious as I scanned through page after page unable to locate the article. Finally, I came across the title; JOHN BROWN'S RAID: Related By a Kentucky Gunsmith Who Was Master Armor-HOW THE OLD MAN SURRENDERED. I found Courier-Journal's choice of the last part of the title interesting since Brown was certainly forced to capitulate rather than just surrender as it seems to imply.

By the time the interview was conducted in 1881 by the Courier-Journal correspondent Mills had moved from Harrodsburg to Lexington, Kentucky where he operated a gun shop with his son, Charles, who interestingly had served in John Hunt Morgan's Confederate cavalry during the Civil War. Mills had apparently continued to operate his gun shop in Harrodsburg during the war, as records indicate that he made gun repairs during the war years. A historical highway marker in Harrodsburg explains that Mills served at the Palmetto Arsenal during the war, but that appears to be erroneous, and was possibly a different Benjamin Mills.

The correspondent began the article by providing a short biography of Mills; much of which I have related in Part I. At the time of the interview Mills was "seventy one years of age," and as was reported, "is still hale and hearty and works daily at his trade of gunmaking."

Mills began his story to the reporter by explaining that although Mills had not observed him, Brown had, "on several occasions...visited the armory." Mills had learned this through the foreman at the barrel department. But, apparently no suspicions were aroused by Brown as, many people came to the armory "through curiosity to see the work and process of gun-making by machinery."

Mills then gave an account of what he understood as the entrance of Brown and his men into Harpers Ferry on the night of October 16, 1859. Although Mills admitted he knew "nothing of the affair until the next morning," he explained how Brown and his men crossed the bridges and shot free black Hayward Shepherd (Mills called him Haywood). Mills also related the capture of George Washington's great-grand nephew Colonel Lewis Washington, as well as neighbor John Alstadt, and that slaves of Washington and Alstad were "impressed" and "compelled to join the party."

Mills's direct observations of the raid came the following morning at about sunrise, when the son of the armory chief clerk Kitzmiller came to Mills's house and reported, "Major, pa' wants you to come down immediately, a mob has taken the armory." Mills followed the boy and on the way met master machinist Armistead Ball. When Mills asked, "Gentlemen, what is the matter?" Kitzmiller responded, "A mob has taken the armory, and I think they are abolitionists."

Mills explained that he thought it must be "a lot of Irish who had been at work on the dam, and getting on a spree had committed to capture the works." Kitzmiller thought Mills was wrong in his suggestion. As they continued toward the armory the party saw a white man and a "mulatto" both armed. When the black man explained that Kitzmiller was his prisoner, the chief clerk advised, "to keep his hands off." The armed raider raised his rifle at Kitzmiller and said, "make another motion and I will blow you through." When asked who the raiders' commander was, the party was brought to Brown and explained, "that is the man."

Brown asked the armory staff, "You have heard of John Brown of Kansas?" to which Ball responded, "I have." "I am that man," said Brown. "I have come to free the negroes-peacefully if I can forcibly if I must."

Mills and his party had been followed to the armory by Ms. Mills and daughter Lizzie. Ms. Mills coolly asked Brown's permission to send Mills his breakfast. Brown responded "Certainly...if you want to, but I am going to furnish breakfast for all the prisoners."

At this point in the article Mills gave a physical description of Brown. "He was an old looking man, fifty nine years of age and stood about, five feet nine or ten inches. He had no teeth, and his hair was rather long. He had a piercing hazel eye, and the whole countenance was expressive of great determination. He was rather thin and slender of build, with quite long legs. He stooped forward from the hips while walking. He wore a heavy beard; dressing in a light colored frock coat. An otter skin cap adorned his head..."

The three men of the armory entered an office and was soon followed by Brown who proposed that if was able to keep the armory he would free all the prisoners. Kitzmiller agreed and started writing out the demands, while Ball said nothing and Mills objected. One of Brown's sons took the document outside to get some signatures when he was shot in the chest with buckshot by a Harpers Ferry citizen. When Brown found out his son was wounded he advised him, "stand it as long as you can. I hope you may get well; if you die, you die honorably."

Firing from the citizens started to pick up and Brown and his hostages went to the small brick fire engine house nearby for protection. Mills explained that Brown's men "seemed but little excited, and appeared to be under fine discipline. They seemed to have a wonderful confidence in Brown." Once inside the engine house the Harpers Ferry citizens "kept up a regular fusillade" on the doors." Mills explained that, "the door, which was one and a quarter inch plank, was soon riddled, hundreds of balls having passed through it." Brown advised his prisoners to find, "the safest place you can I don't wish to hurt you, as you are the only breast-works I have. Without you I would not last two minutes. I know my fate, my life would not be worth a straw." While in the engine house another of Brown's sons was shot. Mills mentioned that Brown again took his son's wounding stoically and that Brown "did not exhibit the least fear during the whole engagement."
Harpers Ferry citizen Colonel Baylor at this point began a parlay with Brown in attempt to free the hostages. Brown said, "Let me take my men and the prisoners as far as the second lock on the Baltimore and Ohio canal. There I will release the prisoners..." Baylor refused and Brown said, "very well.' As evening came on Mills said he "hugged the corner of the engine house very affectionately," and explained, "I amused myself-if it could be called amusement-watching the balls strike the wall after punching through the door."

During the night a cease-fire was agreed to by Colonel Baylor and a militia captain from Frederick, Maryland named Simms. Mills observed during the night that Brown "conversed in low tones with his men, as if trying to inspire them with renewed courage," and that "he also talked with us prisoners..." Mills said, during these conversations, "when the subject of slavery was mentioned he [Brown] lost all patience, declaring that the Southern people were making slaves of their brothers and kinsmen." Mills and the prisoners concluded among themselves that Brown "was crazy on that subject [of slavery]..."

The following morning, "Capt. J.E.B. Stewart [sic-Stuart], of the United States army...arrived from Washington with a letter form Col. Robert E. Lee, demanding the surrender of Brown and his men." Mills predicted that there were about 500 militia and regular troops in Harpers Ferry by this point. Stuart brought the demand letter to Brown at the door of the engine house, but Brown explained that, "I have no glasses, and can not read it; will you read it?" This Stuart did and advised Brown to surrender, which Brown refused. After Stuart left the door Mills explained Brown said, "If they get hold of me my life would not be worth a straw. I know just what they would do with me. They would kill me like a dog." Brown and his men then barricaded the door with the two fire engines.

After informing Brown that Col. Lee would not modify his demands, Stuart again left the door and prepared to storm the engine house. After trying to sledge hammer open the doors the marines retreated, one of which was killed and one was shot in the mouth. One of Brown's men yelled out that he surrendered, but Brown then exclaimed that "Only one man surrenders." After battering down the door with a ladder, the marines entered the engine house. A Lieutenant Green knocked Brown to the floor and "chopped Brown twice on the head. The thick otter-skin cap saved Brown's life, but he was left senseless." Mills said that "Green thought he had killed him, and I also thought the first lunge had gone through Brown's body. But he only struck him on the hip bone, knocking him down." Mills explained that "the fight terminated about 9 o'clock. Brown soon recovered and was taken into my office, where he was questioned by Gov. Wise publicly."

During Wise's interrogation, Brown said, "The freedom of the slaves will all be brought about inside of ten years," to which Wise predictably responded, "I don't want to hear such talk." Brown was asked if he had taken an inventory (census) of African Americans in Jefferson County. Brown replied that, "I did not, but it was taken." Others tried to ask questions of Brown, but Wise said, "Let me do the talking." Concluding the interview, Mills said that Wise told Brown, "I have a much better opinion of you than I expected I would have. I only regret that a man so brave, open and free should be engaged in such a thing as this." Brown retorted, "There's where we differ."

Mills said that a search of the area "found 200 Sharp's rifles, 200 revolvers and 1,000 long pikes. I have now in my possession a rifle and a pike. I also had one of the pistols, but during the late war the Michigan soldiers broke into my gunshop at Harrodsburg and stole it."

Mills concluded his story that, "what I have related came from my own experience and observation." And, his final sentence got to the heart of the matter, and to a certain degree held what I have been searching for; Kentuckians' thoughts on Brown. Mills closed, "I felt sorry for Brown's fate, regarding him as a crazy man on the subject of slavery."

It must be noted again that Mills was reporting what had happened over twenty years after the fact. He probably related some of what he not only observed during his hours of captivity by Brown, but also what he had read of the event in the intervening years and what he had heard during Brown's court case. Years gone by can often cloud one's memory, but Mills's story matches up well with what I have read from other eyewitnesses that were there and I have little reason to doubt this retelling of his experience.

Mills sold his Lexington gunsmith business in 1883 and returned to Harrodsburg. He died five year later and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery.

It goes without saying that I was happy to find this little historical nugget. To locate an account from a direct eyewitness that was also a Kentuckian is, simply put, extraordinary and fortunate. I think Mills's account will only enhance my project and add to its strength and significance.

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