John Brown Execution

Cadets at execution of John Brown

VMI Participation
John Brown Hanging

Documents November 1859 - January 1860

Abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) was captured and sentenced to die following his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, [West] Virginia. Fearing the possibility of another uprising by Brown's supporters, the Governor of Virginia accepted the offer of VMI's Superintendent, Francis H. Smith, to send a part of the Corps of Cadets to provide an additional military presence at the execution, which was to take place at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Smith consulted his faculty and selected upperclassmen to prepare for duty at Charles Town. Official VMI records do not include a list of the selected cadets. The only known list was published in the Petersburg, Virginia newspaper on December 8, 1859.

Smith, by directive of the governor, was placed in charge of the execution itself. Overall command of the cadet detachment was given to VMI faculty member William Gilham, who also commanded two cadet infantry companies consisting of 64 cadets. His colleague Major Thomas J. Jackson, was placed in command of the artillery--two howitzers manned by 21 cadets. (less than two years after the duty at Charles Town, Jackson would acquire the nickname "Stonewall" and would soon thereafter achieve fame as one of the Confederacy's ablest military leaders). The VMI cadets reached Charles Town on November 26th and were relieved from duty on December 6th. They returned to Lexington via Richmond, where they were greeted by the Governor and members of the Virginia Assembly.

This list was published in the Petersburg (VA) Daily Express of December 8, 1859. The Archives staff has transcribed the list and corrected the numerous misspelled names. While researching the Petersburg, Virginia newspapers, Stephen C. Graap, great-grandnephew of Washington Franklin Sydnor (Class of 1860), "rediscovered" the names of the cadets who were present in Charles Town, over 140 years later in May 2003.  He generously shared his research with the VMI Archives.  This is the only known record of the VMI contingent who attended the hanging; the VMI Order Book does not list individual names.

List of cadets on duty at the execution of John Brown

About the Documents: These letters were written by VMI Superintendent Francis H. Smith to Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise. 

 Va. Mil. Institute. Nov. 19th 1859
His Excellency, H. A. Wise

Dear Sir-
The Adjutant General has shown me your communication to him dated Nov. 17th with reference to the propriety & expediency of ordering a detachment of the Corps of Cadets to be present at the execution of Brown & the others. When I originally tendered to your excellency the services of the Corps of Cadets for any duty which their military education might qualify them in the emergency now pressing upon the state, it was from the conviction that in all the essential elements of military defense they were better prepared than any other portion of the military of the state. More than this, I believe that the sentiment of any parent would respond to this patriotic duty on behalf of the sons, in giving protection to their own homes & firesides from the wicked assaults of incendiary & midnight marauders. My opinion in the prospect of their services being required now is unchanged. I can readily select 80 able bodied & well disciplined cadets acquainted with the Artillery drill, who will be ready to obey your excellency's order for the duty now claiming their service & I tender you my own services & those of Maj.. Gilham & any other officer for duty in connection. Thanking you for this confidence that [is] placed in the this Institution.

Va. Mil. Institute. Nov. 22d 1859
His excellency, Henry A. Wise
Charles Town, Va.

Dear Sir-
In obedience to the instructions conveyed to me by your telegraphic dispatch, I have kept a detachment of the Corps of Cadets, 80 in number, with a battery of Howitzers, ready for service at a moments call, and I beg leave to state that the command is provided with all the appliances for taking care of themselves upon the field of duty now claiming their services.

The Commissary has his cooks & cooking implements in order & we are thus in a state of preparation much more complete than that attends an ordinary militia command. In addition it gives me pleasure to state that Messrs. Harman & Co. have placed their stages & entire stock at Lexington & Staunton at my command & they will transport my detachment at a moment's call, free of charge. I mention it specially to you, as showing the patriotic spirit that actuates them. These facilities will enable me to reach Winchester in 20 hours after notice & you may therefore rely upon dispatch in our movements as soon as ordered. I am at your service for duty in advance of the Corps, should it be required.

VMI Cadets at the execution of John Brown
From the Virginia Military Institute Order Book
November 19-December 12, 1859

Head Quarters, Va Military Institute
Nov 19, 1859
Order No 237

In anticipation of orders from the Governor for the services of a portion of the Corps of Cadets on special duty at or near Charles Town, Virginia, those cadets who have been detailed for such service will hold themselves in readiness to take up the line of march at a moment's notice. The Corps of Cadets will be under the command of Major Gilham, who will have his command in readiness for the special services of infantry troops. The artillery detachment will be under the command of Major Jackson, who will be prepared specially for the use of Howitzers. Majors Preston and Colston will accompany the Superintendent as part of his special staff. The Superintendent need scarcely say to those detailed for this important service that there never was a time in the history of the State when more prudence, judgment, and fidelity were demanded than at this moment. He implicitly confides in the cadets that they will promptly discharge every duty and obey every command, that they will abstain from all thoughtless levity and from all forms of indiscretion and immorality and that they will remember that called into service for duty as men they will acquit themselves like men and as true sons of a common mother. His own word stands pledged for this. He looks to each and every one to redeem it.

It is important for the order as well as efficiency of the Institution that the regular duties may proceed with as little interruption as possible. A moment's reflection will show the necessity of this. Let no boisterous noise be heard at any time and let those who remain on duty at the Institute remember that their duty at home is a trust also, in which their fidelity may be tried at any moment. Be faithful to all duties and especially on the alert for night guard duty. The recitations will be regularly kept up, but lessons will be so regulated as to impose light burdens upon the student. Special orders have been given to the Commandant of Cadets for insuring due protection to the public property.
By order of Col. Smith

Head Quarters
Va Military Institute
Nov 23d 1859
12 1/2 p.m.
Order No 243 I. The following telegraphic dispatch has been recd from Governor Wise.

Harpers Ferry, 3 o'clock PM
Gen. W.H. Harman or J.H. Kinnier, Staunton
Dispatch message to Col. F.H. Smith Supt of Va. Military Institute that his corps of howitzers is required at Charles Town by the 1st of Dec next. He will come ahead & let his corps follow. Henry A. Wise

II. In obedience to the above order Maj Gilham will hold the detachment in readiness to leave by Monday morning next or at such other time as may be required. No cadet in the detachment will be permitted to leave the Institute except with special permission & then for a limited time.
By order of Col. Smith.

Head Quarters, Va Military Institute
Charles Town Va Nov 28th, 1859
Genl Order No 1
The detachment of cadets called into the service of the State, being now on war footing all the rules and articles of war governing an army in the field will govern this command. Maj. J.T.L. Preston is detailed on Quarter Master & Maj. R.E. Colston is adjutant of the command. Reveille will sound at 6 AM, breakfast call at 7 1/2 AM, guard mounting at 8 1/2, dinner call at 2 PM, Dress parade at 3 1/2 PM and retreat at 6.
By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt.

Head Quarters, Va. Military Institute
Charles Town, VA, Nov 28th, 1859
Order No. 2
I. Cadets are authorized to leave their Barracks between the hours of the established roll calls. But they will not pass beyond the limits of the town without special authority, and no cadet will be absent from quarters after retreat at 6 PM. It is expected that the detachment of cadets on duty here will be a model command & it is hoped that every officer and cadet will consider himself in the solemn sanctions of honor bound to abstain from impropriety which could by possibility impair the standing of the corps occupying so proud a position in the command of the state. The eye of the military of the state is turned with peculiar interest to every act a movement of the cadets. Let that criticism only tend to exhibit in their highest proportion all the elements of a true soldier.
By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt. Head Quarters, Va. Military Inst. Charles Town Va.
Nov 28th 1859
Order No 3
I. Besides the regular detail for the general guard a special detail for a quarter guard of one commissioned officer and 6 privates will be made.
II. No cadet shall at any time enter the commissary's department, or the kitchen without permission, and if necessary to prevent it a special sentinel shall be placed there at all times.
By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt. HQ, VMI
Charles Town Va, Dec 1st 1859
Order No 4
The detachment will hold themselves in readiness for immediate action tonight & tomorrow night. This morning a quarter guard of three privates from the infantry and an artillery guard with the proper non-commissioned officers will be detailed and mounted on for duty tonight. The cadets will be relieved from the picket guard tonight. Every cadet will have his musket in perfect firing order, for inspection this evening at 3 1/2 o'clock and 12 rounds of ball cartridges in good order in his cartridge box. The cadets will lie down in their clothes and accoutrements with their arms loaded by their sides to be ready at a moments warning for any emergency tonight.
By order of Col Smith/R.E. Colston Act Adjt.

HQ, VMI, [Lexington]
Dec 12th, 1859
Order No 245
The commanding officer of the detachment of cadets on duty at Charles Town deems it his duty to tender to the officers and cadets engaged in this special service his thanks for the cheerful alacrity with which they have one and all met the duties to which they were so suddenly called. It is no slight praise to receive the commendation of the Governor so publicly, and so honorably expressed in his annual message, but when this is associated with the spontaneous sentiments of the citizen soldiery collected at Charles Town, and responded to by the approbation of the public at large.
This command has real cause of honest pride, that they have been able to render the state some service, and in doing so, have demonstrated the value of the Institution as the chief dependence of the state in time of trial. The Institution has been placed in great prominence by the service thus proffered and it should be the aim of all to make it more and more worthy of confidence and support.
By order of Col. Smith

Read the letter

Maj. Thomas Jackson, (Stonewall), who in 1859 was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute, wrote this letter to his wife Mary Anna. The original letter is located in the Dabney-Jackson collection at the Library of Virginia. It has been widely reprinted; there are minor editorial variations among different published versions, though no substantive differences. For one published source, see Life and Letters of Thomas J. Jackson by Mary Anna Jackson (NY. Harper. 1892).   

John T. L. Preston portraitAbout this document:  John T. L. Preston  was one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute and one of its first faculty members. This letter, written to his wife, was published in the Lexington (VA) Gazette, December 15, 1859. 

Full Text: 

Charles Town, Dec. 2, 1859 The execution is over; we have just returned from the field and I sit down to give you some account of it. The weather was very favorable: the sky was a little overcast, with a gentle haze in the atmosphere that softened without obscuring the magnificent prospect afforded here

Between eight and nine o'clock, the troops began to put themselves in motion to occupy the positions assigned to them on the field, as designated on the plan I send you. To Col. Smith had been assigned the superintendence of the execution, and he and his staff were the only mounted officers on the ground, until the Major-General and his staff appeared. By ten o'clock all was arranged. The general effect was most imposing, and, at the same time, picturesque.

The cadets were immediately in rear of the gallows with a howitzer on the right and left, a little behind, so as to sweep the field. They were uniformed in red flannel shirts, which gave them a gay, dashing, Zouave look, and was exceedingly becoming, especially at the Battery. They were flanked obliquely by two corps, the Richmond Grays (Greys) and Company F, which if inferior in appearance to the cadets, were superior to any other company I ever saw outside of the regular army. Other companies were distributed over the field, amounting in all to about 800 men. The military force was about 1,500.

The whole enclosure was lined by cavalry troops posted as sentinels, with their officers--one on a peerless black horse, and another on a remarkable-looking white horse, continually dashing round the enclosure. Outside this enclosure were other companies acting as rangers and scouts. The jail was guarded by several companies of infantry, an pieces of artillery were put in position for its defense.

Shortly before eleven o'clock the prisoner was taken from the jail, and the funeral cortege was put in motion. First came three companies, then the criminal's wagon, drawn by two large white horses. John Brown was seated on his coffin, accompanied by the sheriff and two other persons. The wagon drove to the foot of the gallows, and Brown descended with alacrity and without assistance, and ascended the steep steps to the platform. His demeanor was intrepid, without being braggart. He made no speech; whether he desired to make one or not, I do not know. Had he desired it, it would not have been permitted. Any speech of his must, of necessity, have been unlawful, and as being directed against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth, and as such could not be allowed by those who were then engaged in the most solemn and extreme vindication of law.

His manner was without trepidation, but his countenance was not free from concern, and it seemed to me to have a little cast of wildness. He stood upon the scaffold but a short time, giving brief adieus to those about him, when he was properly pinioned, the white cap drawn over his face, the noose adjusted and attached to the hook above, and he was moved blindfold a few steps forward. It was curious to note how the instincts of nature operated to make him careful in putting his feet as if afraid he would walk off the scaffold. The man who stood unblanched on the brink of eternity was afraid of falling a few feet to the ground.

He was now all ready. The sheriff asked him if he should give him a private signal before the fatal moment. He replied in a voice that seemed to me unnaturally natural, so composed was its tone, and so distinct its articulation, that "it did not matter to him, if only they would not keep him too long waiting." He was kept waiting, however. The troops that had formed his escort had to be put into their position, and while this was going on, he stood for some ten or fifteen minutes blindfold, the rope around his neck, and his feet on the treacherous platform, expecting instantly the fatal act. But he stood for this comparatively long time upright as a soldier in position, and motionless.

I was close to him, and watched him narrowly, to see if I could perceive any signs of shrinking or trembling in his person, but there was none. Once I thought I saw his knees tremble, but it was only the wind blowing his loose trousers. His firmness was subjected to still further trial by hearing Colonel Smith announce to the sheriff, "We are all ready, Mr. Campbell." The sheriff did not hear, or did not comprehend; and in a louder tone the same announcement was made. But the culprit still stood ready until the sheriff, descending the flight of steps, with a well-directed blow of a sharp hatchet, severed the rope that held up the trap door, which instantly sank beneath him, and he fell about three feet; and the man of strong and bloody hand, of fierce passions, of iron will, of wonderful vicissitudes, the terrible partisan of Kansas, the capturer of the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, the would-be Catiline of the South, the demi-god of the abolitionists, the man execrated and lauded, damned and prayed for, the man who in his motives, his means, his plans, and his successes, must ever be a wonder, a puzzle, and a mystery---John Brown---was hanging between heaven and earth.

There was profound stillness during the time his struggles continued, growing feebler and feebler at each abortive attempt to breathe. He knees were scarcely bent, his arms were drawn up to a right angle at the elbow, with the hands clenched; but there was no writhing of the body, no violent heaving of the chest. At each feebler effort at respiration his arms sank lower, and his legs hung more relaxed, until at last, straight and lank he dangled, swayed to and fro by the wind.

It was a moment of deep solemnity, and suggestive of thoughts that make the bosom swell. The field of execution was a rising ground, and commanded the outstretching valley from mountain to mountain, and their still grandeur gave sublimity to the outline, while it so chanced that white clouds resting upon them, gave them the appearance that reminded more than one of us of the snow peaks of the Alps. Before us was the greatest array of disciplined forces ever seen in Virginia; infantry, cavalry and artillery combined, composed of the old Commonwealth's noblest sons, and commanded by her best officers; and the great canopy of the sky overarching all, came to add its sublimity ever present, but only realized when other great things are occurring beneath each.

But the moral of the scene was its grand point. A sovereign state had been assailed, and she had uttered but a hint, and her sons had hastened to show that they were ready to defend her. Law had been violated by actual murder and attempted treason, and that gibbet was erected by law, and to uphold law was this military force assembled. But, greater still---God's Holy Law and righteous Providence was vindicated, "Thou shalt not kill"--- "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." And here the gray-haired man of violence meets his fate, after he has seen his two sons cut down before him, in the same career of violence into which he had introduced them. So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race! So I felt, and so I said, with solemnity and without one shade of animosity, as I turned to break the silence, to those around me. Yet, the mystery was awful, to see the human form thus treated by men, to see life suddenly stopped in its current, and to ask one's self the question without answer--"And what then?"

In all that array there was not, I suppose, one throb of sympathy for the offender. All felt in the depths of their hearts that it was right. On the other hand, there was not one single word or gesture of exultation or of insult. From the beginning to the end, all was marked by the most absolute decorum and solemnity. There was no military music, no saluting by troops as they passed one another, nor anything done for show. The criminal hung upon the gallows for nearly forty minutes, and after being examined by a whole staff of surgeons, was deposited in a neat coffin to be delivered to his friends, and transported to Harper's Ferry, where his wife awaited it. She came in company with two persons to see her husband last night, and returned to Harper's Ferry this morning. She is described by those who saw her as a very large, masculine woman, of absolute composure of manner. The officers who witnessed their meeting in the jail said they met as if nothing unusual had taken place, and had a comfortable supper together.

Brown would not have the assistance of any Minister in jail during his last days, nor their presence with him on the scaffold. In going from prison to the place of execution, he said very little, only assuring those who were with him that he had no fear, nor had he at any time in his life, known what fear was. When he entered the gate of the enclosure, he expressed his admiration of the beauty of the surrounding country, and pointing to different residences, asked who were the owners of them.

There was a very small crowd to witness the execution. Governor Wise and General Taliaferro had both issued proclamations exhorting the citizens to remain at home and guard their property, and warned them of possible danger. The train on the Winchester Railroad had been stopped from carrying passengers; and even passengers on the Baltimore Rairoad were subjected to examination and detention. An arrangement was made to divide the expected crowed into recognized citizens, and those not recognized; to require the former to go to the right, and the latter to the left. Of the latter there was not a single one. it was told last night there were not in Charles Town ten persons besides citizens and military.

There is but one opinion as to the completeness of the arrangements made on the occasion, and the absolute success with which they were carried out. I have said something about the striking effect of the pageant as a pageant, but the excellence of it was that everything was arranged solely with the view of efficiency, and not for effect upon the eye. Had it been intended as a mere spectacle, it could not have been made more imposing, or had actual need occurred, it was the best possible arrangement.

You may be inclined to ask was all this necessary? I have not time to enter upon the question now. Governor Wise thought it necessary, and he said he had reliable information. The responsibility of calling out the force rests with him. It only remained for those under his orders to dispose the force in the best manner. That this was done is unquestionable, and, whatever credit is due for it, may fairly be claimed by those who accomplished it.

The Execution of John Brown
Francis Smith Report

 About this document: This report was submitted to the Governor Henry Wise by VMI's Superintendent, Francis H. Smith. It is dated 1860 January 16. 

Full text: 

As soon as I heard of the invasion of our rights and territory, by the gang of marauders headed by John Brown, I deemed it my duty as well as privilege to tender the services of the officers and cadets to the governor, for any duty to which he might think proper to assign them. Accordingly, I was ordered by his Excellency Governor Wise to proceed to Charles Town with an artillery detachment of 80 cadets, serving with howitzers. Taking with me on my personal staff, Major J. T. L. Preston, acting quartermaster, Major R. E. Colston, acting adjutant, Surgeon E. L. Graham and Commissary J. T. Gibbs, I detailed 64 cadets to served as infantry under the command of Major Wm. Gilham and 21 cadets with two howitzers, under the command of Major T. J. Jackson. Lieuts. J. McCausland, H. Otey, and S.Shipp accompanied the infantry detachment, and Lieut. D. Trueheart the artillery detachment. The command reached Charles Town on the 26th of November, and remained on duty there until they were relieved on the 6th December. In pursuance of orders received from the governor, the command returned to Lexington, by the way of Richmond, and I was afforded the privilege of presenting them to the governor, in the presence of the general assembly.

It gives me great pleasure to report, that the novel duty thus assigned to the corps of cadets, although at times involving much exposure and hardship, was discharged with an alacrity and fidelity which reflected the highest credit upon them, and won from all observers the plaudits of approval. I am pleased to add that my command returned to their regular duty on the 10th December without the slightest accident, or without a single case of serious sickness.

It has afforded me much gratification to know that the service thus discharged on the part of the institution was in perfect harmony with the wishes of the parents and friends of those who accompanied the detachment. One widowed mother, who had three sons under my command, thus wrote to them: "My dear boys--- only think of your being in camp, preparing for war! -- and civil war too! And yet I would not have you back, even if I could. I would not have one of my sons to be recreant to their state in this her hour of trial." Such is the spirit of the mothers of Virginia.