An Eyewitness Account of John Brown’s Raid

Reverend Michael Costello was the pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church at Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia during John Brown’s Raid. A native of County Galway, Ireland, Costello studied at All Hallows College in Dublin for the Diocese of Richmond. On arriving to Richmond in 1857 he was assigned as pastor at Harpers Ferry, arriving there in November 1857. Costello had a thriving pastorate in Harpers Ferry, the many Irish and German immigrants working in the armory and arsenal filling the 400-500 seat church for two masses each Sunday.

Rev. Michael Costello wrote a detailed account of the raid at Harpers Ferry and his interactions with John Brown…(History of Saint Peter’s Church – 1930)

On February 11, 1860, Costello wrote a letter to Reverend D.C. Harrington, a classmate from All Hallows College. In this letter Costello shares his unique observations as a witness to John Brown’s Raid. The letter was ‘rediscovered’ in the archives of the Diocese of Richmond in 1971. The pertinent content of the letter follows…

“Harper’s Ferry is chiefly remarkable for its scenery, and for an armoury where arms are manufactured for the United States. Latterly it has become famous throughout the Union as the theatre of war. I suppose you have heard about the invasion made by Northern abolitionists to liberate the slaves of Virginia, and as an account from me may not prove uninteresting to you, I shall give you a short sketch of it.

On the night of the 16th of October last, a party of abolitionists came to Harper’s Ferry, and while the citizens peacefully slept, they took possession of the United States’ Armoury, Rifle Works, and Arsenal. Next morning, when the inhabitants awoke, they were surprised to see parties of armed men patrolling the streets, and as some of them attempted to pass to their employment they were taken prisoners by the insurgents and marched in the Armoury, where they were placed under guard. As soon as the object of the insurrection became known, the citizens prepared to defend themselves and drive away the invaders. Accordingly, armed with any old guns they could find, they shot at the enemy who appeared in the streets, and the invaders returning their fire mortally wounded one of the citizens. The wounded man [Thomas Boerly] being a Catholic, I was called to attend him, and as I had to pass through the insurgents on my way, when I started I had very little hope that they would allow me to pass, as they were making prisoners of all they could catch. However, they allowed me to attend the dying man. I administered to him the last Sacraments, and he died soon after.

During the day volunteer companies came from every direction to the aid of the inhabitants, and the firing continued without intermission, several of the invaders and four of the citizens losing their lives. At night, I attended another member of my congregation who was dangerously wounded. Meantime a company of the United States’ soldiers arrived from Washington, and were immediately drawn up in front of the engine-house, into which ‘Ossawattomie’ Brown and his followers with their prisoners were finally driven.

On the morning of the 18th a white flag was dispatched to Brown with a command to surrender, which he refused to do, unless he was allowed to pass in safety to Maryland, taking with him his prisoners until he reached there, when he would give them their liberty and then the soldiers might attack him and his party if they liked. Of course those terms were not listened to, and the order was given to storm the engine house, and take all the invaders at the point of the bayonet, in order that the prisoners might be rescued in safety. Soon after, the door of the fortress was battered down, and in a few moments ‘Ossawattomie’ Brown and his deluded followers were secured. In the final attack on the insurgents two of the soldiers were wounded, one of them mortally. As both were Catholics, I was summoned to attend them. As private Luke Quin[n] fell, pierced through with a ball, his first exclamation was to Major Russel[l], of the United States Marines, who seeing him fall, went up to him. In pitiful accents he cried out: ‘Oh! Major, I am gone, for the love of God will you send for the priest.’ I administered to him the holy rites of the Church; he died that day, and was buried with military honours in the Catholic graveyard at this place.

The invaders who survived were tried at Charlestown, in this county, and were convicted of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and attempt to excite slaves to rebel. Five of them have been already executed, and two more are under sentence of death.

The abolitionists calculated, when they invaded Harper’s Ferry, that the slaves would immediately flock to their standard, and for this purpose they came provided with over 1000 pikes and 200 Sharp’s rifles, to arm the Negro population to free their coloured brethren throughout Virginia. They were, however, sadly mistaken, for they could not get a single slave in Virginia to join them, and the first man shot by them was a free Negro who refused to take arms and join their standard. I have seen the slaves, trembling with terror, hide themselves, for fire the insurgents would come and take them, though the boon offered was liberty. The fact is that the slaves are much better off than the free Negros, and they know this to be the fact, hence it is that they prefer to remain as they are, and it is better for them, I am sure.

The invasion against the rights of the south by northern abolitionists has created the greatest excitement throughout the country, and it does not require a prophet to predict that if a dissolution of the union of the States ever takes place, it will be on account of the question of slavery. I hope, however, that such a misfortune will never happen to this country, for no matter how high political excitement may be carried, I believe that there will always be found good and sound men in the north and in the south who will rally round the constitution and preserve it inviolate.

I visited ‘Old Brown,’ who was the commanding general of the invaders, some time previous to his execution, and he informed me that he was a congregationalist. He said that he would not receive the services of any minister of religion, for he believe that they as apologists of slavery, had violated the laws of nature and of God, and that they ought first to sanctify themselves by becoming abolitionists, and then they might be worthy to minister unto him. Let them follow Saint Paul’s advice, he said, and go and break the chains of the slaves, and then they may preach to others. I told him that I remembered an epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, where were are informed that he sent back the fugitive slave Onesimus from Rome to his master. I then asked him what he thought of that, and he said that he did not care what St. Paul did, but what he said, and not even what he said if it was in favour of slavery.”[i]

Perhaps most telling from this letter are Costello’s pronounced views on slavery. Having only recently arrived in the United States and having no prior experience with slavery it seems that the previous two years had shaped his opinions on the institution. Costello also accurately predicted that slavery would be cause for dissolution of the Union.

Alexander Boteler also described Costello’s experience with Brown…

“Just then a Catholic priest appeared at the door of the room. He had been administering the last consolation of religion to [Luke] Quinn, the marine who was dying the adjoining office; and the moment Brown saw him he became violently angry, and plainly showed, by the expression of his countenance, how capable he was of feeling ‘hared, malice, and all uncharitableness.’

‘Go out of here – I don’t want you about – go out!’ was the salutation he gave the priest, who, bowing gravely, immediately retired. Whereupon I rose from the floor, and bidding Brown good-morning, likewise left him.”[ii]

On December 20, 1859, Costello wrote to Bishop John McGill in Richmond…

“Things here are settled down very much since the last execution, which took place on Friday last. There are only 35 soldiers from Governors Island, U.S. troops, stationed at Harper’s Ferry to guard the Armoury and Arsenal. It is supposed that they will remain here until Spring at least. Charlestown is quiet.”[iii]

With the outbreak of the Civil War Bishop McGill offered Costello the opportunity to return home to Ireland. Costello opted to stay in Harpers Ferry to care for his parish and is credited with preserving St. Peter throughout the conflict, the only church in Harpers Ferry to escape significant damage. Wishing to remain neutral, Costello is recognized for flying the Union Jack flag from the church steeple and opened the church as a hospital, neighbor Annie Marmion describing Costello as a “doctor of souls.”[iv]

Perched on the hillside above lower town, from St. Peter Costello had an excellent view of the events that would unfold below him during John Brown’s Raid and throughout the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Costello remained at Harpers Ferry until his death on February 17, 1867. He was buried at St. Peter Cemetery in Harpers Ferry, near the gravesites of Thomas Boerly and Private Luke Quinn, whom Costello had attended to during the climactic hours of John Brown’s Raid.

Costello’s Grave at St. Peter Cemetery, Harpers Ferry (Findagrave)

[i] Costello to Harrington, 11 February 1860. Diocese of Richmond Archives

[ii] Boteler, Alexander. Recollections of the John Brown Raid by a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight” Century Magazine, July 1883

[iii] Costello to McGill, 20 December 1859. Diocese of Richmond Archives

[iv] Marmion, Anne P. Under Fire: An Experience in the Civil War. Printed by William V. Marmion. 1959

6 Responses to An Eyewitness Account of John Brown’s Raid

  1. I never understood why Brown was hanged for “treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia”
    The arsenal and armory Brown seized was FEDERAL government property. Treason is a FEDERAL crime. Just wondering.

    1. I have just enough experience, years ago, as Military Legal Officer to be dangerous, and am more than willing to give ground to someone more knowledgeable on this topic. From my reading, Treason is an ancient transgression, currently defined as “criminal disloyalty,” which has its roots in the United States (both in Federal and State law) through British Common Law. Over centuries, Treason has been applied to “the attempt to kill a head of State;” spying on one’s own military; attempting to topple a recognized government. And Treason has been used more broadly to describe “the killing of a husband by his wife,” the murder of a master by his servant, and conducting an insurrection. At the time of John Brown’s Insurrection, the Commonwealth of Virginia was operating under the Constitution of 1851 (which replaced many archaic statutes, such as “the requirement to own property to be eligible to vote.” And after 1851 judges were elected, instead of appointed.) But, the 1851 Virginia Constitution also codified many African American “requirements” (including a particularly onerous “freed slaves must leave Virginia within 12 months, or be re-enslaved.”) Paragraph One (Purpose and goals of the Constitution) and Article 4 Sections 19 – 21 (Slave restrictions) and Article 5 Section 5 (Powers of the Executive, as Commander -in-Chief of Land and Naval Forces of the State, with power to put down insurrections, and power to impose (and commute) Capital Punishment ) are most relevant to discussion of Treason.
      Although not mentioned specifically in the Virginia Constitution, Treason is included in the Code of Virginia § 18.2-481 Treason defined: how proved and punished.

  2. As a Civil War historian and published author on the war plus having visited Harpers Ferry I am fascinated by the first-person accounts which add greatly to the body of information on the prewar raid by John Brown and cohorts. I am also fully aware of Brown’s murderous rampage in Kansas. Brown and his cohorts got their just due.

    1. Agreed, Brown was nothing more then a murdering abolitionist terrorist who murdered men, women and children that did not agree with his radical views. How ironic that the first person he murdered at Harpers Ferry was a black man. I find it interesting that father Costello, having been there 2 years, stated that the slaves were better off then the free blacks and that the slaves refused to join Browns cause. You won’t find that in the history books since the victor gets to write a biased history.

  3. “Father Costello, having been there 2 years, stated that the slaves were better off then the free blacks and that the slaves refused to join Browns cause. You won’t find that in the history books since the victor gets to write a biased history.” Might we remember that this is one immigrant’s opinion?

  4. Stated his 2 yrs of observations. If you read some of the letters from slave owners, not all, but many, spoke of their slaves as family, many of whom lived better then the poor whites.

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