Monday, January 10, 2011

Point of Contention

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity the write the following article which ran on Sunday, January 9, 2011 in the Frankfort State Journal.

Since the close of the Civil War, historians have debated where the first shots of that terrible conflict occurred. A number of scholars claim that fights between pro-slavery forces and free-soil settlers in “Bleeding Kansas” were the first fired; others credit Fort Sumter as officially being the first; still others claim that what happened at Harpers Ferry, Va. in October 1859 was the opening round of our nation’s worst tragedy.

On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown, a militant abolitionist who had participated in several “Bleeding Kansas” events, led an integrated group of men to the national arsenal at Harpers Ferry, (now West) Virginia in order to capture arms and instigate a slave rebellion.

Brown’s careful plans quickly fell apart as first town citizens, then local militias and finally United States Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee, fired on Brown and his remaining men and then surrounded them in a fire engine house on the arsenal grounds. Brown’s refusal to surrender on the morning of Oct. 18 led to an assault on the engine house by the marines (in which one was killed) and brought the capture of Brown and his remnant of followers.

Brown’s subsequent trial was of short duration but was well covered in the media. After receiving a guilty verdict, Brown was executed on Dec. 2. Immediately following his death, he was considered a hero by some and a villain by others.

Two items that have a strong connection to both the Harpers Ferry events and Kentucky’s history are in the collections of the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS).

At Harpers Ferry, Brown had quite a collection of weapons at his disposal. Along with about 200 Sharp’s rifles and a like number of Maynard revolvers, Brown had almost 1,000 long spears called pikes that he intended to distribute to slaves who he assumed did not know how to operate firearms. One of these weapons housed in the KHS collections has recently been positively identified as being a John Brown pike.

Brown contracted with Connecticut blacksmith Charles Blair in 1857 to make 1,000 pikes at a cost of $1 each. The pike blade was modeled after a bowie knife Brown had captured from pro-slavery fighter Henry Clay Pate while in Kansas. At the time, Brown claimed the pikes were to be used against pro-slavery forces in Kansas, but the order was put on hold after Brown was unable to collect funds to pay for the weapons.

Finally, in the summer of 1859, Brown returned to Blair with payment. Under an alias, Brown had 954 of the pikes first shipped to Chambersburg, Pa. and then forwarded to the farmhouse he rented in Maryland, about six miles from Harpers Ferry. Brown and his men brought a number of the pikes to the arsenal on the night of the raid, while others were moved to a school house closer to Harpers Ferry, which the raiders used as a ready storage facility.

Pike sent to Kentucky

After Brown was captured, Virginian and vehement secessionist Edmund Ruffin collected some of the pikes and sent them to the governors of each slaveholding state with a label attached: “Sample of the favors designed for us by our northern brethren.” A pike was sent to Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin. It is believed that the one currently in the KHS collections is this pike. Some historical evidence supports this belief.

On the night of Jan. 10, 1860, barely a month after the execution of John Brown, emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay made a speech on the steps of the (Old) State Capitol. The Cincinnati Gazette had a reporter on hand to cover the speech, and as a lead to the story he wrote that, “The halter with which Brown was hung, the bloody lance [pike] which he used in battle – a present from [Virginia] Gov. Wise to Gov. Magoffin – was freely handed about and shown in Frankfort.”

In an edition of the Hartford, Ky. Herald from 1890, the pike is referenced as being at the (Old) State Arsenal in Frankfort. “In a stack of muskets near the front entrance is the pike used by John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, and was captured with him in the engine house by Col. Robert E. Lee.”

The article also provides a description of the pike, which closely matches the pike in the KHS collections. “The point of the steel lance is badly turned, as if it had missed its aim and struck a wall of mason-work or some other hard substance.”

This pike had apparently been entered into the KHS records early in the 20th century as a “Confederate pike,” and had not been properly identified for its unique historical significance until recently. Measurements and photographs of the pike were taken and its serial number recorded and sent to a curator at the Kansas State Historical Society, who verified it as being a John Brown pike.

Kentucky as border state

In the wake of the failed Harper’s Ferry raid, and as the North and South grew further polarized over the issue of slavery, Kentucky, a border state, found itself in a unique and unenviable position. Kentucky had reaffirmed its commitment to slavery in its 1850 state constitution and the institution was one that a majority of white Kentuckians viewed as the best possible for both races at the time.

But, being a border state, Kentuckians felt particularly vulnerable to a John Brown-style raid from their free-state neighbors to the north: Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In the weeks and months after the Harpers Ferry raid, efforts were made to expel known abolitionists from the state.

Only 10 days after Harpers Ferry, Newport, Ky. newspaper editor William Shreve Bailey witnessed his Free South office and printing press destroyed by an angry mob. In late December 1859, in Madison County, Ky., abolitionist and native Kentuckian John G. Fee and his Berea settlement brethren and their families were compelled to move out of the state after a committee of citizens informed them they were no longer wanted in the commonwealth because of their sentiments and teachings.

In addition, the Harper’s Ferry affair set off a firestorm of complaints by the state’s citizens that the Kentucky militia system was an outdated force and provided no practical protection against potential invaders. During the fall and winter of 1859, editors of newspapers in almost every town, along with Gov. Magoffin, called on the state legislature to order a reorganization of the state’s military force.

In March 1860, the Kentucky State Guard was created to meet this demand. From November 1859 and into 1860, rumors of slave uprisings – especially in the Bluegrass Region and in Western Kentucky – graced the newspapers and spread quickly among the citizens. Travelers and strangers were accosted in numerous communities and questioned when any suspicion of abolitionist sentiment was aroused.

Across the state, Kentuckians increasingly disregarded previously cherished constitutional principles such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech in effort to secure better assurances for their safety.

Portrait of Brown

Kentucky’s commitment to slavery is one reason that another John Brown item in the KHS collections appears to be so unique. It is a portrait of Brown painted by Kentucky native Patrick Henry Davenport.

Davenport was born in Danville in 1803, and as a young man worked as an itinerant portraitist, largely in Central Kentucky counties. In the late 1830s, Davenport purchased the Crab Orchard Springs resort in Lincoln County, where along with running the business, he created the majority of his works. After a number of years operating the spa, Davenport sold it in 1853 and moved to Lawrence County, Ill.

Apparently, in 1860, one of John Brown’s sons commissioned Davenport to paint a portrait of Brown based upon a popular image of the abolitionist. Davenport completed the image the same year and inscribed it on the back with, “A Martyr to the Cause of Freedom John Brown, who was hung at Harper’s Ferry, Va. Dec. 2, 1859 aged 63 (59) years.”

For unknown reasons, the Brown family did not accept the portrait. It eventually ended up in the possession of Sarah Bryan, who donated it to KHS in1982.

To the inquisitive historian, Davenport’s circumstances and the inscription on the back of the painting brings up a wealth of questions.

Did slavery have anything to do with Davenport’s move to Illinois in 1853? As a former Kentucky slaveholder, was Davenport conflicted over painting a dignified image of Brown the abolitionist?

Was Davenport just assuaging his customers (the Brown family) with the inscription on the back of the painting or had his ideas on slavery changed by 1860? The answer to these questions may never be known, but the historical significance of the painting and its association with Kentucky’s history makes the portrait worthy of note and justifies its inclusion with other treasures in the KHS collections.


  1. May we add this information to our project about Lawrence County, Il and its residents during the Civil War? Donna Burton, Director Lawrence County Historical Society (