Abolitionist John Brown and his attempted armed overthrow of slavery met its end after his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va. was thwarted by enemy forces. After his capture and his conviction for treason against the state of Virginia, Brown was sentenced to death. Of the five Black men who joined his small army, one was killed in the raid and all others were convicted and hanged. Shields “Emperor” Green and John A. Copeland were both executed on this day in Charleston, W.Va. (then a part of Virginia).
Brown believed that the only way slaves would become free was through an armed insurrection. Brown had the support of abolitionists from the North, but struggled to get Blacks to join his cause. In fact, Brown attempted to enlist Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass to join the fight but Tubman was ill and Douglass declined. Undaunted, Brown enlisted 20 men, mostly White, and a handful of Black men all slightly trained to use weapons.
Brown’s plan was a hopeful one. He assumed that with the show of force against their captors, slaves would pick up arms and overthrow the federal forces in order to obtain freedom. Instead, Brown was betrayed by a Quaker associate who warned the government of the impending raid in order to save Brown’s life. Historians have stated that at least 80 persons knew of the Brown raid, which allowed U.S. Marines Col. Robert E. Lee and his forces to stamp out the opposition.
Brown and six other men were captured at the site of the raid. All seven men were hanged between 1859 and 1860. Green would have avoided capture, if he hadn’t gone back to assist Brown during the raid. Copeland nearly got away himself but he was captured.
Green, who was born into slavery at an unknown time, met Brown at the home of Douglass and was enamored by the abolitionists’ desire for freeing slaves. By Douglass’ own account, Green wasn’t an eloquent man, but fit Brown’s needs as a dedicated solider.
“Shields Green was not one to shrink from hardships or dangers. He was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character,” wrote Douglass of Green in his memoir.
Copeland, in contrast, was educated and a writing talent, and was enrolled for a time in Oberlin College. Copeland was also part of the 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, which led to the escape and freedom of slave John Price. Renaming in the abolitionist movement despite narrowly escaping prison or death, Copeland’s recruitment into the Brown army came by way of his uncle and fellow raider, Lewis Sheridan Leary.
Green didn’t leave any parting words to his family ahead of his death, but Copeland wrote a moving letter to his family while awaiting trial before that fateful day:
DEAR PARENTS, – my fate as far as man can seal it is sealed but let this not occasion you any misery for remember the cause in which I was engaged, remember that it was a ‘Holy Cause,’ one in which men who in every point of view better than I am have suffered and died, remember that if I must die I die in trying to liberate a few of my poor and oppress people from my condition of servitude which God in his Holy Writ has hurled his most bitter denunciations against and in which men who were by the color of their faces re- moved from the direct injurious affect, have already lost their lives and still more remain to meet the same fate which has been by man decided that I must meet.
Another letter he wrote that was reportedly dated December 16 read:
Why should you sorrow? 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) we are prepared to meet our God.
The Copeland family shared their son’s letters to the entire abolitionist community, looking to inspire hope and fearlessness into those inside the movement seeking to combat slavery and its injustices.