John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry was planned to be a small beginning to a large outcome. Twenty-one men–twenty-two counting Brown himself–planned to seize the Federal armory and arsenal in the town and ignite a war against slavery that, they hoped, would stamp out the institution for good in the United States.
All of Brown’s followers had a personal hatred of slavery. They witnessed its horrors but few understood what life was like as enslaved humans. Dangerfield Newby was one of those men and his motivation for joining Brown’s force was more personal than perhaps any other.
Newby was born a slave in Fauquier County, Virginia. Over time, he married another slave named Harriett. Though married, the couple was owned by two different slaveholders. They had six children together despite the difficulties of their situation. In 1858, Dangerfield’s owner moved to Ohio, making Dangerfield a free man. But his wife and children remained enslaved in Brentsville, Virginia.
Desperate to reunite with his family and for them to share in his freedom, Newby negotiated a price of $1,000 with his family’s owner to buy Harriett’s freedom and perhaps one child. He went to work raising the necessary money but it seemed that his efforts would be meaningless.
Harriett Newby was a rarity among slaves–she could read and write. While Dangerfield worked to meet the $1,000 price tag, Harriett implored him to come “monny or no monney.” “[I]t is said Master is in want of monney if so I know not what time he may sell me an then all my bright hopes of the futer are blasted,” said Harriett in a letter dated August 16, 1859.
By that time, Dangerfield had amassed over $700 but he feared that Harriett and the children would be sold out of his reach before he could raise the required sum. While working in Ohio, Newby met some of Brown’s men and learned of the desperate plan. Desperate himself, Newby joined the ranks. “He was impatient to have operations commenced,” wrote Brown’s daughter Annie, “for he was anxious” to get his family.
On the morning of October 17, less than 12 hours into Brown’s Raid, the citizens of Harpers Ferry began to realize that their town was the target of an attempt to foment a slave insurrection. In dribs and drabs, they reacted, grabbing their guns to fight the insurgents. Soon, local militias responded and hemmed in Brown’s force in an area confined around the armory gate.
Dangerfield Newby was one of Brown’s men that had to retreat towards the armory due to the changing situation. During the running fight, according to some accounts, Newby shot down two Harpers Ferry civilians: Thomas Boerly and George Turner, a man who graduated eighth in the West Point Class of 1831.
In the retreat to the armory gate, Newby ran down Shenandoah Street. As he exited the arsenal yard and passed through the gate, an armory worker by the name of Bogert leaned out the upper window of a house and took aim at Newby beneath him. When the smoke from Bogert’s firearm cleared, Newby was laying on the ground, badly wounded. He staggered but returned fire. Bogert fired again, this time using a “six-inch iron spike” as his projectile. Bogert again found his mark and the spike hit Newby in the neck.
Moments before he fell and died in the streets of Harpers Ferry, Newby was approximately 50 miles from Harriett. The letters she wrote him were found on his body at the time of his death. Sadly, they never saw each other again. Harriett was sold south but returned to Virginia after the Civil War.
John Brown became venerated by many as a man of action, as someone who was willing to do more against slavery than just publicly speak against it. Dangerfield Newby was no different. He, like Brown, died in the attempt. Newby came that close to freeing his family and was willing to sacrifice everything he had as a free man in order to ensure the same for his family. For that, he deserves to be remembered.