Eugene V. Debs

The Coppock Brothers
Heroes of Harper’s Ferry


From Eugene V. Debs, Labor & Freedom, St. Louis 1916, pp.39-51.
Originally published in Appeal to Reason, May 23, 1914.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

”O, patience, felon of the hour!
    Over thy ghastly gallows-tree
Shall climb the vine of Liberty,
    With ripened fruit and fragrant flower.”

So wrote William Dean Howells, then a rising young poet and author in Columbus, Ohio, in November, 1859, on the eve of John Brown’s execution at Charleston, Va. In the month before, on the night of October 16th, John Brown, at the head of twenty-one men, sixteen of whom were white and five black, marched on Harper’s Ferry and delivered the attack that sent his body to the gallows and his soul to immortal glory.

The heroic blood of old Brown himself flowed in the veins of all his twenty-one intrepid young followers. There was not a coward among them. Three of them were Brown’s own sons and two others were near relatives.

Brown was fifty-nine; his adjutant general twenty-four. All his followers were young men, some of them barely of age.

When Colonel Richard J. Hinton, who followed John Brown in Kansas, heard of the intended raid on Harper’s Ferry, he said to Kagi, the stripling adjutant general: “You’ll all be killed.” “Yes, I know it, Hinton,” was the ready reply, “but the result will be worth the sacrifice.”

Kagi was said to resemble “a divinity student rather than a warrior,” and when taunted by an adversary, he answered, “We will endure the shadow of dishonor, but not the stain of guilt.”

“These words of John Henry Kagi,” wrote Hinton, “expressed the spirit of John Brown’s men and, in an especial sense, the character of the young and brilliant man who fell riddled with bullets into the Shenandoah. Thirty miles below, the blood-tinged stream flowed through the lands of his father’s family.”

Spartan souls were these who marched on Harper’s Ferry that fateful night, there to strike a blow at the cost of their lives that was destined to make Harper’s Ferry more famed than Waterloo – a blow that was to emancipate a race and change abruptly the whole current of American history.

“Down the still road, dim white in the moonlight, and amid the chill of the October night, went the little band, silent and sober.”

The twenty-one young heroes who followed old John Brown on that historic night were of the exalted type that Emerson described: “When souls reach a certain clearness of perception, they accept a knowledge and motive without selfishness.”

It is related that when Garibaldi was organizing his army of liberation in Italy, he was asked what inducements he had to offer to new recruits. Promptly the rebel chieftain answered: “Poverty, hardships, battles, wounds, and – victory!”

That was all Captain Brown had to offer his devoted followers, with crushing defeat instead of victory at the end, and yet they enlisted with a zeal that could not have been surpassed if the world’s most coveted prizes had been their promised reward.

Think of the utter abnegation, unselfishness and loftiness of purpose of that valiant little band who marched deliberately into the jaws of hell that October night to break the fetters of a despised and alien race! How many of their detractors and persecutors were animated by motives so pure and exalted?

No wonder that Victor Hugo protested so eloquently, albeit in vain, against John Brown’s execution. “Think of a republic,” he indignantly exclaimed, “murdering a liberator!” and when the bloody deed was done the illustrious Frenchman flung back the prophetic challenge: “The time will come when your John Brown will be greater than your George Washington.”

Among Brown’s men in the attack on Harper’s Ferry there were two Quaker brothers, Edwin and Barclay Coppock, stalwart young abolitionists from Iowa, whose unfaltering devotion to the cause, heroic self-sacrifice and tragic death constitute one of the most thrilling and inspiring chapters in American history.

Edwin, the elder brother, was captured with his leader and shared his fate on the gallows. Barclay made good his escape with Owen Brown, to be killed later as a lieutenant, while recruiting a regiment for the war which had then actually begun.

Edwin and Barclay Coppock were born of Quaker parents near Salem, Ohio, Edwin on June 30, 1835, and Barclay on January 4, 1839, so that Edwin was 24 and Barclay not quite 21 when the attack was made on Harper’s Ferry.

Salem was at that time the center of abolitionism in that section. It was settled by Quakers and they were strongly anti-slavery in sentiment. The headquarters of the “Western Anti-Slavery Society” was located here, and here also was published the Anti-Slavery Bugle, official organ of the movement, of which Benjamin S. Jones, Oliver Johnson and Warren E. Robertson were editors They waged uncompromising warfare against slavery, attacked the United States constitution as it was then being interpreted, and denounced the churches that would not come out openly in favor of abolition. They were called “Disunion Abolitionists,” “Covenanters” and “Infidels.” But nothing daunted, they demanded the unconditional surrender of the slave power.

During one of the annual conventions held at the Hicksite Friends’ church in Salem and in the midst of a violent speech that was being delivered against the encroachments of slavery on Northern soil under the fugitive slave law, an excited man entered with a telegram in his hand and announced breathlessly that the four o’clock train, due in thirty minutes, had aboard of it a southern man and his wife and a colored slave girl as a nurse. It was at once proposed that they proceed to the depot in a body and meet the train on arrival. The meeting was hastily adjourned. Intense enthusiasm prevailed. They marched to the depot cheering as they went and when the train pulled in they boarded it, took the slave girl without protest from her master and mistress and marched back to the hall with her in triumph. The liberated girl was christened Abby Kelly Salem, in honor of Abby Kelly Foster, one of the speakers at the convention, and the city of Salem. The girl grew up to splendid womanhood and was highly esteemed by all who knew her.

The old town hall, still standing, is where many an anti-slavery meeting was held in that day. The most stirring and eloquent appeals were made in this old meeting house by such noted abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Susan B. Anthony, Parker Pillsbury, Horace Mann, John Pierpont, Gerrit Smith, Fred Douglas, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Owen Lovejoy, Abby Kelly Foster, George Thompson of England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Collyer, John P. Hale and many others.

The walls of the old town hall resounded daily and nightly with the patriotism and love of freedom of Quaker Salem.

It was in this atmosphere and under the influence of these impassioned teachings that the Coppock brothers, sons of a nearby Quaker farmer, grew up to young manhood. It had been ingrained into their very nature that all men were created equal and that slavery was a crime against God and man, and with this conviction they resolved to shoulder their muskets and go out and fight to liberate the slaves.

The family moved to Iowa in the meantime and it was here that these young Quaker enthusiasts first met John Brown, who was then waging his warfare against slavery in the free soil conflict in that state. From now on their die was cast. They would follow the grim old chief to victory or death. It proved to be death for them both and when it came they met it with a calmness and resignation possible only to the loftiest heroism.

Barclay Coppock was barely twenty years of age at the time of the attack on Harper’s Ferry. His escape was almost a miracle. A heavy reward was offered for him dead or alive. After weeks of the most intense privation and suffering, lying concealed in the brush during the day and moving chiefly by night, he picked his way back to the family home at Springdale, Iowa, The governor of Virginia issued a requisition for his return, which was not granted. The young men at Springdale and that vicinity organized to protect young Coppock and served notice on the Virginia officers who were on his track that “Springdale is in arms and is prepared at a half hour’s notice to give them a reception of 200 shots.”

In the following spring Barclay returned to Salem and here again the Virginia authorities renewed their efforts to capture him. But Barclay, now among his old neighbors and friends, defied them. He sent word to the officers in pursuit of him as to where he might be found, but they wisely refrained from attempting to take him.

It was at this time that Barclay was a guest of the Bonsall family of Salem, the elder Bonsall being one of the leading abolitionists of that day. Charles Bonsall, his son, who still lives at Salem, knew the Coppock brothers well and has a distinct recollection of Barclay’s stay at his father’s home.

“During Barclay’s sojourn at our home,” writes Charles Bonsall in a personal letter, “a detective of Salem heard of his being in our neighborhood and boasted of his intention to arrest Barclay and secure the reward there was on his head. Barclay heard of the boast and wrote a letter to the detective informing him that he might select five other men and he would meet them all single-handed and alone at any point outside the city that he might name, and they could have the privilege of capturing him and securing the reward. The detective did not undertake the job ... Barclay Coppock never knew what fear was. When a boy in his teens he often went to the woods and slept alone all night on the ground, under the trees, from the sheer love of adventure. He was the best shot with his eight-inch Colt I ever saw. On one occasion, in his uncle’s woods south of Salem, with his revolver, he shot a grey squirrel from a big oak tree and put two more balls through its body before it reached the ground. His nerves were as calm and steady in a fight as in his sleep, and while with us his trusted ‘navy’ was always strapped under his coat, while in his coat-pocket he carried a small pistol ready for any emergency at close quarters. It would have been impossible to capture him alive.”

Barclay Coppock’s escape and the execution of his brother but intensified his hatred and horror of slavery. He was now thoroughly aroused and intent upon plunging anew into the fight. Returning to Iowa, and convinced that civil war was now inevitable, he prepared actively for the conflict.

“Now comes one of those remarkable facts of super-epochal history,” continues Bonsall, “which go to show that when revolutionary periods focalize, revolutions in public sentiment are brought about in almost a twinkling. In the spring of 1861, just about one year from the time the United States Government was offering a reward of one thousand dollars for Barclay Coppock, dead or alive, the same government lifted its hat and humbly bowed to him, and begged him to accept a first lieutenant’s commission in Company C, Third Kansas volunteers. He accepted the coin mission and at once proceeded to organize his company. Captain Allen of Ashtabula of the same company., came to Salem to recruit volunteers and the writer, together with half a score of other abolition boys, enlisted in Coppock’s company ... Soon after Lieutenant Coppock was on his way from Springdale to Fort Leavenworth to join his regiment there. The rebels in Missouri, hearing of his coming, burned the railroad bridge across the Little Platte river near St. Joseph, and the train carrying the troops was precipitated into the river in the darkness of night and brave Lieutenant Coppock was killed in the wreck.”

Thus perished, still in his boyhood, as heroic a heart, as noble a soul, as ever gave up his life in the cause of freedom. Had he been spared he would without doubt have become one of the famed heroes of the war of the rebellion.

Edwin Coppock was executed from the same gallows as his old chief, but two weeks later. His trial, like that of Brown, was a farce. Conviction, sentence and execution of all of Brown’s men that were captured was a foregone conclusion.

While awaiting the execution of his sentence, Edwin wrote to Mrs. Brown, wife of his dead leader:

“I was with your sons when they fell. Oliver lived but a very few moments after he was shot. He spoke no word, but yielded calmly to his fate. Watson was shot at ten o’clock Monday morning and died about three o’clock Monday afternoon ... After we were taken prisoners he was placed in the guardhouse with me. He complained of the hardness of the bench on which he was lying. I begged hard for a bed for him, or even a blanket, but could obtain none. I took off my coat and placed it under him and held his head in my lap, in which position he died without a groan or struggle.”

In a letter to friends in Iowa, under date of November 22d, three weeks before his execution, he wrote:

“Eleven of our little band are sleeping now in their bloody garments with the cold earth above them. Braver men never lived ; truer men to their plighted word never banded together.”

Rigidly true to their convictions were all these young heroes. Not one showed the white feather in the last hour. Serenely and without a quiver each of them met his cruel fate.

John Brown had trained up his men in the strictest discipline. Not a drop of liquor was allowed in his camp. Tobacco was tabooed. Profane language was forbidden.

These men weir in deadly earnest and their asceticism attested their single-hearted fidelity to their cause. They were profoundly convinced that slavery was a national crime and that it was their patriotic duty, at whatever cost, to wipe that insufferable stigma from the land.

And who shall say that they were not right; or that they forfeited their brave lives in vain?

A few days before the gallows claimed him., John Brown wrote to his family, “I feel no consciousness of guilt and I am perfectly certain that very soon no member of the family will feel any possible disposition to blush on my account.”

The Coppock brothers were typical of all the brave young abolitionists who banded together to strike a blow that rocked this nation as if Jehovah in his wrath had laid hold on it. Quaker lads, “grave, quiet, reserved, even rustic in their ways,” they lived bravely up to their convictions and sealed their devotion to the cause of freedom with their precious young life blood.

The noble character of Edwin Coppock is revealed in the following pathetic letter written to his uncle on the eve of his execution. There is no bitterness in his heart at the last hour. Like the great Galilean who also perished for sympathizing with the lowly and oppressed, he was calm and resigned in the presence of his fate. Like all such souls he was gifted with prophetic vision, as his letter shows:

Charleston, December 13, 1859.
Joshua Coppock:
My Dear Uncle – I seat myself by the stand to write for the first and last time to thee and thy dear family. Though far from home and overtaken by misfortune, I have not forgotten you. Your generous hospitality towards me, during my short stay with you last spring, is stamped indelibly upon my heart, and also the generosity bestowed upon my brother who now wanders, an outcast from his native land. But thank God, he is free. I am thankful it is I who has to suffer instead of him.
The time may come when he will remember me. And the time may come when he may still further remember the cause in which I die. Thank God the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades. They will spread wider and wider and gather strength with each hour that passes. The voice of truth will echo through our land, bringing conviction to the erring and adding members to the glorious army who will follow its banner. The cause of everlasting truth and justice will go on conquering and to conquer until our broad and beautiful land shall rest beneath the banner of freedom. I had fondly hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized. I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land, and the libel of our boasted freedom erased, when we can say in truth that our beloved country is the land of the free and the home of the brave; but that cannot be.
I have heard my sentence passed; my doom is sealed. But two more short days remains for me to fulfill my earthly destiny. But two brief days between me and eternity. At the expiration of those two days I shall stand upon the scaffold to take by last look of earthly scenes. But that scaffold has but little dread for me, for I honestly believe I am innocent of any crime justifying such punishment. But by the taking of my life and the lives of my comrades, Virginia is but hastening on that glorious day, when the slave will rejoice in his freedom and say, “I, too, am a man, and am groaning no more under the yoke of oppression.”
But I must now close. Accept this short scrawl as a remembrance of me. Give my love to all the family. Kiss little Joey for me. Remember me to all my relatives and friends. And now farewell for the last time.
From thy nephew, EDWIN COPPOCK.

Two days later the slave state of Virginia hung Edwin Coppock by the neck until he was dead. The gallant John E. Cook went to the scaffold with him. The account says:

“After the cap had been placed on their heads, Coppock turned toward Cook and stretched forward his hand as far as possible. At the same time Cook said, ‘Stop a minute where is Edwin’s hand?’ They then shook hands cordially and Cook said, ‘God bless you.’ The calm and collected manner of both was very marked ... They both exhibited the most unflinching firmness, saying nothing, with the exception of bidding farewell to the ministers and the sheriff.”

More than half a century has passed since John Brown and his faithful followers gave up their lives to set the black men free, but history has yet to do them justice. Some day the hatred and prejudice will all have died away and then these men, summoned to the bar of enlightened judgment, will be crowned as the greatest heroes in American history.