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Tom Strong, Lincoln's Scout By Alfred Bishop Mason Characters: 17184

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Tom Rides in Western Maryland-Halted by Armed Men-John Brown-The Attack upon Harper's Ferry-The Fight-John Brown's Soul Goes Marching On.

On a beautiful October afternoon, a man and a boy were riding along a country road in Western Maryland. To their left lay the Potomac, its waters gleaming and sparkling beneath the rays of the setting sun. To their right, low hills, wooded to the top, bounded the view. They had left the little town of Harper's Ferry, Virginia, an hour before; had crossed to the Maryland shore of the Potomac; and now were looking for some country inn or friendly farmhouse where they and their horses could be cared for overnight.

The man was Mr. Thomas Strong, once Tom Strong, third, and the boy was his son, another Tom Strong, the fourth to bear that name. Like the three before him he was brown and strong, resolute and eager, with a smile that told of a nature of sunshine and cheer. They were looking for land. Mr. Strong had inherited much land in New York City. The growth of that great town had given him a comfortable fortune. He had decided to buy a farm somewhere and a friend had told him that Western Maryland was almost a paradise. So it was, but this Eden had its serpent. Slavery was there. It was a mild and patriarchal kind of slavery, but it had left its black mark upon the countryside. Across the nearby Mason and Dixon's line, Pennsylvania was full of little farms, tilled by their owners, and of little towns, which reflected the wealth of the neighboring farmers. Western Maryland was largely owned by absentee landlords. Its towns were tiny villages. Its farms were few and far between. The free State was briskly alive; the slave State was sleepily dead.

The two riders were splendidly mounted, the father on a big bay stallion, Billy-boy, and the son on a black Morgan mare, Jennie. Billy-boy was a descendant of the Billy-boy General Washington had given to the first Tom Strong, many years before. Jennie was a descendant of the Jennie Tom Strong, third, had ridden across the plains of the great West with John C. Fremont, "the Pathfinder," first Republican candidate for President of the United States.

"We haven't seen a house for miles, Father," said the boy.

"And we were never out of sight of a house when we were riding through Pennsylvania. There's always a reason for such things. Do you know the reason?"

"No, sir. What is it?"

"The sin of slavery. I don't believe I shall buy land in Maryland. I thought I might plant a colony of happy people here and help to make Maryland free, in the course of years, but I'm beginning to think the right kind of white people won't come where the only work is done by slaves. We must find soon a place to sleep. Perhaps there'll be a house around that next turn in the road. Billy-boy whinnies as though there were other horses near."

Billy-boy's sharp nose had not deceived him. There were other horses near. Just around the turn of the road there were three horses. Three armed men were upon them. Father and son at the same moment saw and heard them.

"You stop! Who be you?"

The sharp command was backed by uplifted pistols. The Strongs reined in their horses, with indignant surprise. Who were these three farmers who seemed to be playing bandits upon the peaceful highroad? The boy glanced at his father and tried to imitate his father's cool demeanor. He felt the shock of surprise, but his heart beat joyously with the thought: "This is an adventure!" All his young life he had longed for adventures. He had deeply enjoyed the novel experience of the week's ride with the father he loved, but he had not hoped for a thrill like this.

Mr. Strong eyed the three horsemen, who seemed both awkward and uneasy. "What does this mean?" he asked.

"Now, thar ain't goin' to be no harm done you nor done bub, thar, neither," the leader of the highwaymen answered, with a note almost of pleading in his voice. "Don't you be oneasy. But you'll have to come with us--"

"And spend Sunday with us--" broke in another man.

"Shet up, Bill. I'll do all the talkin' that's needed."

"That's what you do best," the other man grumbled.

"Well, Tom," said Mr. Strong, turning with a smile to his son, "we seem to have found that place to spend the night." He faced his captors. "This is a queer performance of yours. You don't look like highwaymen, though you act like them. Do you mean to steal our horses?" he added, sharply.

"We ain't no hoss thieves," replied the leader. "You've got to come with us, but you needn't be no way oneasy. You, Bill, ride ahead!"

Bill turned his horse and rode ahead, Mr. Strong and Tom riding behind him, the other two men behind them. It was a silent ride, but not a long one. Within a mile, they reached a rude clearing that held a couple of log huts. The sun had set; the short twilight was over. Firelight gleamed in the larger of the huts. The prisoners were taken to it. A man who was lounging outside the door had a whispered talk with the three horsemen. Then he turned rather sheepishly; said: "Come in, mister; come in, bub;" opened the door, called within: "Prisoners, Captin' Smith," and stepped aside as father and son entered.

There were a dozen men in the big room, farmers all, apparently. They were all on their feet, eyeing keenly the unexpected prisoners. Their eyes turned to a tall man, who stepped forward and held out his hand, saying:

"Sorry the boys had to take you in, but you and your hosses are safe and we won't keep you long. The day of the Lord is at hand."

There was a grim murmur of approval from the other men. The Lord's day, as Sunday is sometimes called, was at hand, for it was then the evening of Saturday, October 15, 1859. But that was not what the speaker meant. He was not what his followers called him, Captain Smith. He was John Brown, of North Elba, New York, of Kansas ("bleeding Kansas" it was called then, when slaveholders from Missouri and freedom-lovers under John Brown had turned it into a battlefield), and he was soon to be John Brown of Harper's Ferry, Virginia, first martyr in the cause of Freedom on Virginian soil. To him "the day of the Lord" was the day when he was to attack slavery in its birthplace, the Old Dominion, and that attack had been set by him for Sunday, October 16. His plan was to seize Harper's Ferry, where there was a United States arsenal, arm the slaves he thought would come to his standard from all Virginia, and so compass the fall of the Slave Power. A wild plan, an impossible plan, the plan of an almost crazy fanatic, and a splendid dream, a dream for the sake of which he was glad to give his heroic life.

He had rented this Maryland farm in July, giving his name as Smith and saying he expected to breed horses. By twos and threes his followers had joined him in this solitary spot, until now there were twenty-one of them. The few folk scattered through the countryside had begun to be suspicious of this strange gathering of men. All sorts of wild stories circulated, though none was as wild as the truth. The men themselves were tense under the strain of the long wait. They feared discovery and attack. For the three days before "the day of the Lord" they had patrolled the one road, looking out for soldiers or for spies. Tom and his father had been their sole captives.

John Brown

John Brown was one of Nature's noblemen and among his friends in Massachusetts and New York were some of the foremost men of their time, so he had learned to know a real man when he met one. He soon found out that Mr. Strong was a real man. He told him of his plans, and urged him to join in the projected foray on Harper's Ferry. But when Mr. Strong refused and tried to show him how mad his project was, the fires of the fanatic blazed within him.

"Did not Joshua bring down the walls of Jericho with a ram's horn?" he shouted. "And with twenty armed men cannot I pull down the walls of the citadel of Slavery? Are you a true man or not? Will you join me or not? Answer me yes or no."

"No," was the response, quiet but firm.

"You shall join me; you and your boy," thundered the crusader, hammering the table with his mighty fist. "Here, Jim, put these people under guard and keep them until we start."

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Tom and his father were well-treated, but they were kept under guard until the next night and were then taken along by John Brown's "army," which trudged off into the darkness afoot, while Billy-boy and Jennie and the other horses in the corral whinnied uneasily, sensing, as animals do, the stir

of a departure which is to leave them behind. In the center of the little column the two captives marched the five miles to Harper's Ferry and started across the bridge that led to that tiny town.

A brave man, one Patrick Hoggins, was night-watchman of the bridge. He heard the trampling of many feet upon the plank-flooring. He hurried towards the strange sound.

"Halt!" shouted somebody in the column.

"Now I didn't know what 'halt' mint then," Patrick testified afterwards, "anny more than a hog knows about a holiday."

But he had seen armed men and he turned to run and give an alarm. A bullet was swifter than he, but not swifter than his voice. He fell, but his shouts had alarmed the town. There were two or three watchmen at the arsenal. They came forward, only to be made prisoners. The few citizens who had been aroused could do nothing. The "army" seized the arsenal without difficulty.

Five miles from Harper's Ferry lived Col. Lewis W. Washington, gentleman-farmer and slave-owner, great-grand-nephew of another gentleman-farmer and slave-owner, George Washington. At midnight, Colonel Washington was awakened by a blow upon his bedroom door. It swung open and the light of a burning torch showed the astonished Southerner four armed men, one of them a negro, who bade him rise and dress. They were a patrol sent out by Brown. Their leader, Stevens, asked:

"Haven't you a pistol Lafayette gave George Washington and a sword Frederick the Great sent him?"


"Where are they?"


His four captors tramped downstairs with him. Pistol and sword were found.

"I'll take the pistol," said Stevens. "You hand the sword to this negro."

John Brown wore this sword during the fighting that followed. It is now in the possession of the State of New York. While its being sent George Washington by Frederick the Great is doubtful-the story runs that the Prussian king sent with it a message "From the oldest general to the best general"-its being surrendered by Lewis Washington to the negro is true.

Lewis was then on the staff of the Governor of Virginia, and had acquired in this way his title of Colonel. He was put into his own carriage. His slaves, few in number, were bundled into a four-horse farm-wagon. They were told to come and fight for their freedom. Too scared to resist, they came as they were bidden to do, but they did no fighting. At Harper's Ferry they and their fellow-slaves, seized at a neighboring plantation, escaped back to slavery at the first possible moment. Not a single negro voluntarily joined John Brown. He had expected a widespread slave insurrection. There was nothing of the sort. By Monday morning he knew he had failed, failed utterly.

Before Monday's sun set, Harper's Ferry was full of soldiers, United States regulars and State militia. Brown, his men and his white captives, eleven of the latter, were shut up in the fire-engine house of the armory. The militia refused to charge the engine-house, saying that this might cost the captives their lives. Many of them were drunk; all of them were undisciplined; their commander did not know how to command. The situation changed with the arrival of the United States Marines led by Lieut.-Col. Robert E. Lee, afterwards the famous chief of the army of the Confederate States.

By this time Tom was beginning to think he had had enough adventure. He had enjoyed that silent tramp through the darkness beside his father. He had enjoyed it the more because they were both prisoners-of-war. Being a prisoner was an amazingly thrilling thing. He was sorry when brave Patrick Hoggins was shot and glad to know the wound was slight, but sharing in the skirmish, even in the humble capacity of a captive, had excited the boy immensely. Now that there was almost constant firing back and forth, when two or three wounded men were lying on the floor, and when his father and he and Colonel Washington were perforce risking their lives in the engine-house, with nothing to gain and everything to lose, and when scanty sleep and little food had tired out even his stout little body, Tom felt quite ready to go home and have his adored mother "mother" him. His father saw the homesickness in his eyes.

"Steady, my son," said Mr. Strong. "This won't last long. No stray bullet is apt to reach this corner, where Captain Brown has put us. The only other danger is when the regulars rush in here, but unless they mistake us for the raiders, there'll be no harm done then. Steady." He looked through a bullet-hole in the boarded-up window and added: "Here comes a flag of truce. Listen."

The scattering fire died away. The hush was broken by a commanding voice, demanding surrender.

"There will be no surrender," quoth grim John Brown.

At dawn of Tuesday, two files of United States Marines, using a long ladder as a battering ram, attacked the door. It broke at the second blow. The marines poured in, shooting and striking. The battle was over. John Brown, wounded and beaten to the floor, lay there among his men. The captives were free. Their captors had changed places with them.


Colonel Washington took Mr. Strong and Tom home with him, for a rest after the strain of the captivity. He was much interested when he found out that Tom's great-grandfather had visited General Washington at Mount Vernon and Tom was intensely interested in seeing the home and home life of a rich Southern planter. The Colonel asked his guests to stay until after the trial of their recent jailer. They did so and Mr. Strong, after some hesitation, decided to take Tom to the trial and afterwards to the final scene of all. He wrote to his wife: "Life is rich, my dear, in proportion to the number of our experiences and their depth. Ordinarily, I would not dream of taking Tom to see a criminal hung. But John Brown is no ordinary criminal. He is wrong, but he is heroic. He faces his fate-for of course they will hang him-like a Roman. I think it will do Tom good to see a hero die."

Whether or no his father was right, Tom was given these experiences. He sat beside his father and Colonel Washington at the trial. He heard them testify. He noted the angry stir of the mob in the court-room when Mr. Strong made no secret of his admiration for the great criminal.

Robert E. Lee, who captured Brown, said: "I am glad we did not have to kill him, for I believe he is an honest, conscientious old man." Virginia, Lee's State, thought she did have to kill this invader of her soil and disturber of her slaves.

November 2, John Brown was sentenced to be hung December 2. The next day he added this postscript to a letter he had already written to his wife and children:

"P.S. Yesterday Nov. 2d I was sentenced to be hanged on Decem 2d next. Do not grieve on my account. I am still quite cheerful. God bless you all."

Northern friends offered to try to help him to break jail. He put aside the offer with the calm statement: "I am fully persuaded that I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose."

December 2, John Brown started on his last journey. He sat upon his coffin in a wagon and as the two horses paced slowly from jail to gallows, he looked far afield, over river and valley and hill, and said: "This is a beautiful country." He was sure he was upon the threshold of a far more beautiful country. The gallows were guarded by a militia company from Richmond, Virginia. In its ranks, rifle on shoulder, stood Wilkes Booth, a dark and sinister figure, who was to win eternal infamy by assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Beside the militia was a trim lot of cadets, the fine boys of the Virginia Military Institute. With them was their professor, Thomas J. Jackson, "Stonewall" Jackson, one of the heroic figures upon the Southern side of our Civil War.

When the end came, Stonewall Jackson's lips moved with a prayer for John Brown's soul; Colonel Washington's and Mr. Strong's eyes were wet; and Tom Strong sobbed aloud. Albany fired a hundred guns in John Brown's honor as he hung from the gallows. In 1859 United States troops captured him that he might die. In 1899 United States troops fired a volley of honor over his grave in North Elba that the memory of him might live. Victor Hugo called him "an apostle and a hero." Emerson dubbed him "saint." Oswald Garrison Villard closes his fine biography of John Brown with these words: "Wherever there is battling against injustice and oppression, the Charlestown gallows that became a cross will help men to live and die."

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