For more than two decades I’ve been fascinated with John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. There’s so much intrigue to the story…it almost reads like a Hollywood script. More than the voluminous books, the artifacts and the sites associated with the raid, I’ve always found the photographs of Brown and his raiders to be the most haunting – they stare back at us now nearly 160 years removed from scenes of those momentous October days. Of those photos, perhaps the most affecting, at least to this author, is Dangerfield Newby.
Dangerfield Newby was born a slave in Fauquier County, Virginia circa 1815, the son of a white father and a black mother who belonged to a neighboring owner. In the late 1850s his parents would move Dangerfield and his siblings to Bridgeport, in Belmont County, Ohio. While Dangerfield there realized his freedom, he was forced to leave behind his wife Harriet and their seven children in bondage. After Harriet’s owner increased the agreed upon price to purchase her freedom, Harriet wrote to Dangerfield urging him to rescue her, money in hand or not. Newby joined John Brown’s provisional army at the Kennedy Farmhouse near Harpers Ferry in August 1859, intent on securing her freedom by any means necessary.
Newby holds the distinction of being the first of Brown’s raiders to fall in the failed raid. While retreating towards the engine house he was felled by a small iron spike that had been fired from the upper floor of a nearby building. A witness would recall that Newby’s “throat was cut literally from ear to ear,” remembering the wound as more hideous than he’d seen on any battlefield.[I]
Newby’s body likewise suffered the indignity of mutilation by vengeful townspeople and animals alike as it lay on the street for more than a day. From his corpse were recovered a set of letters from Harriet, begging Dangerfield to secure her freedom for fear of being sold further south. Her dream of reuniting with Dangerfield would never be realized though her published letters would serve to rally others to the cause of freedom, among them Dangerfield’s own family. In all four of Dangerfield’s brothers and a nephew all contributed to the Union war effort.
The closest in age to Dangerfield was his brother Gabriel, who was 29 when his brother joined Brown’s band. Dangerfield wrote to Gabriel from the Kennedy farmhouse, urging him and his younger brother James to join him there. Historian Steven Lubet surmises that in initiating his raid more than a week earlier than scheduled, Brown may have lost the services of several potential recruits.[II] Perhaps among them were Gabriel and James Newby. When word got out on Dangerfield’s involvement in the failed raid Gabriel was nearly beaten to death by three men on the streets of Bridgeport, Ohio. The three were arrested, charged with aggravated assault and sentenced to labor under a ball and chain at seventy five cents per day while working off fines ranging from $17.00 to $30.00. The local paper noted “It is true, we suppose, that Gabriel Newby…is a brother to him who was killed at Harper’s Ferry. But we do not believe that fact should operate in any degree as a license to drunken ruffians to beat his brains out.”[III]
Gabriel would go on to become camp servant for the editor of that very paper, Christian L. Poorman, on his commission as colonel of the 98th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Newby would survive the war and become something of a local celebrity before dying in May 1900.
James H. Newby, another of Dangerfield’s siblings, would enlist at Wheeling, West Virginia on February 16, 1865 as a member of Company C, 45th USCT Infantry – West Virginia’s only credited USCT regiment. James joined the regiment in the days following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and would travel with the regiment to far off Brownsville, Texas, where he served until being mustered out in November 1865.
Also serving with James in the 45th USCT was Dangerfield’s nephew, Lafayette Bywater. The son of Dangerfield’s sister, Elmira Newby, Lafayette was born in Virginia and traveled with the Newby family to Bridgeport before the war. Like James, Lafayette enlisted in February 1865, assigned to Company F with which he served until November 1865.
Two more of Dangerfield’s younger brothers, John and William, both enlisted in Company C, 5th USCT Infantry in September 1863. Both were most certainly recruited for the regiment by famed Ohio USCT recruiter O.S.B. Wall, a resident of Oberlin, Ohio and an associate of several of Brown’s raiders who had fought next to their older brother. John was present with the regiment throughout its service, participating in fighting in the trenches at Petersburg, in the deadly assaults at New Market Heights, and against mighty Fort Fisher at Wilmington. John would survive shot, shell and disease and muster out in September 1865.
William Newby would not survive his enlistment in the 5th USCT, becoming the second of the Newby clan to die for the cause of freedom. William was wounded in the trenches in front of Petersburg on July 03, 1864, shot in the left side and arm. He was transferred to far off DeCamp Hospital on Davids’ Island, New York, arriving on July 13. He would linger there until he died of blood poisoning on July 26. He is buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Dangerfield Newby was a polarizing character, canonized and villainized alike. To their credit the Newby family’s fight for freedom did not die with him at Harpers Ferry.
[I] Boteler, Alexander. “Recollections of the John Brown Raid by a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight.” Century Magazine, 26, (July, 1883): 399-411.
[II] Lubet, Steven. The “Colored Hero” of Harpers Ferry. Cambridge University Press. 2015. 142.
[III] Belmont Chronicle. 06 September, 1860. Chronicling America