A JOURNEY TO VIRGINIA IN DECEMBER, 1859.
A THURSDAY LECTURE
IT must have been on, or very near, Saturday morning, December 7, I859--indeed I think it was that very morning--that an incident occurred in the parlor of my house, then on South Professor Street, which has taken its place in memory as one of the most pathetic experiences of my life. A father and mother, neighbors whom I knew, came to my door and asked for an interview. They were Mr. and Mrs. John Copeland--people, in part, of African blood, of respectable standing in the community, and of amiable and Christian deportment. A son of these parents is still favorably known among us as a business partner of Mr. Charles Glenn, the builder. As I received them, I saw that they were in deep distress. The mother especially, exhibited such intense suffering--suffering so affecting both body and mind--that it was a question whether she would not sink to the floor, in utter exhaustion, before the conference could be completed. Their story is soon told. A son of the family, John A. Copeland, a young man about twenty-six years of age, had gone, some months before, to Chatham, in Canada, to visit a married sister. While there he had met an agent of John Brown, who invited him to join in the Virginia raid. Enthusiastic for the deliverance of both the races with which he was identified from the curse of slavery, and an ardent admirer of Brown, he accepted the invitation. With the result of the raid we are all acquainted. Brown was executed December 2, 1859, at Charlestown, Virginia. On the sixteenth day of December, came the execution of Copeland, at the same place. I have in my possession a letter, written by him on that day to his parents, brothers, and sisters in Oberlin, within two hours probably of the time of his ascending the scaffold, which, in its exhibition of Christian peace, of a spirit of forgiveness, of domestic affection, and of profound calm, will not compare unfavorably with any of the last utterances of apostles and martyrs. You will see that the day of his execution was the one immediately preceding that of the visit of his parents to me. I have spoken of the extreme suffering of Mrs. Copeland. It was noticeable however, that the grief which tortured her did not spring mainly from the thought of her son's execution. That, comparatively, seemed a tolerable affliction. John Brown had been executed, and so had been many of the great and good. The gallows upon which her son perished seemed irradiated by the goodly fellowship in suffering of prophets and reformers. This could be borne. The intolerable agony was caused by a report, which had come over the wires, and which appeared to be well founded, that the body of her son had been, or soon would be, taken to the medical college at Winchester, Virginia, for the purposes of dissection, About this she seemed to have a feeling akin to superstition. She had lain awake all night, turning the painful subject over in every form that a morbid imagination could suggest, until the torture had become more than brain and heart could endure; and unless some diversion--some relief--could be furnished, both brain and heart, it seemed probable, must give way. Under these circumstances, the parents had come to me to ask that I would go promptly to Winchester, and endeavor to recover the body of their son. I did not covet the undertaking, and I thought it right to explain to them that it would be likely to result in failure. Great excitement still prevailed in Virginia. Soldiers were still marching and counter-marching, military reviews were being held, and that military spirit was being awakened which was maintained from that time until the close of the war. The very presence of a Northern abolitionist in Virginia, upon such an errand in such a state of public feeling, might be regarded as, in itself, a grave offense. It was true that the body of John Brown had been returned to his widow; but special influences had been brought to bear in that case; and besides, Brown had the important advantage that he did not belong to the despised race. I did not fail to present these points to Mrs. Copeland; but they made no impression. She still entreated me to go, and I could not refuse her. I suppose I never pitied any one so much in my whole life.
Having decided to undertake the journey, I at. once made such preparation as I could. From Hiram Griswold, a prominent lawyer of Cleveland who had acted as Brown's attorney during his trial, I obtained a letter of introduction to Judge Parker of Winchester--the Judge who had sentenced both Brown and Copeland. Mr. Copeland, the father, or some friend for him, had telegraphed to Henry A. Wise, then Governor of Virginia, asking permission to send some one into the State to obtain the body of his son. A telegram came in reply which read in substance:--"You may send a man, but he must be a white man." This telegram I took with me, together with a paper from Mr. Copeland authorizing me to act as his agent in receiving the body.
I was now fairly well equipped for my journey, except that I had no money for the payment of expenses; and my friend Copeland was almost as impecunious as I was. In this exigency, James M. Fitch, who was for many years a bookseller and publisher in Oberlin, and whose memory is still held in reverence for his many good works, brought me one hundred dollars which he had somehow obtained in the town. I fear he had secured it by solicitation from door to door among business men and other citizens--a method of raising money which even to this day is something more than a tradition among us.
You will say that I now took the first train for Winchester. But this will be because you are too young to have had any experience of those times. In 1859 a man who got together a hundred dollars to go East had perhaps performed the smaller part of the needed financial operation. That was the period of the state-bank system, or rather of the state-bank systems; for there were as many of them as there were States that chose to legislate upon the subject. The result was that there was an endless variety of paper money, of all degrees of soundness except the highest. In Ohio, besides our own money, we had many kinds of bank bills from Michigan, from Indiana, and from States farther west. Upon these, even when from banks called good, there was a discount of from ten to thirty per cent when exchanged for coin. On looking over the money which I had received, I discovered that it was rich in these varieties, and that it was necessary to ascertain how much its nominal values represented in those which were real; in other words, what was the purchasing power of my hundred dollars. Fortunately for me, we had at that time in Oberlin a business man who was an expert in the quality of paper money. He received the latest counterfeit detectors, and the latest journals giving the rates of discount, at the Eastern money centers, upon all Western bank notes He was our helpful adviser in our financial troubles. To him I took my money. He went over it with me carefully, and gave me all needed information. So far as it seemed probable that he could use my Western bills in the way of business, he gave me New York and other Eastern bills in exchange for them. He very much improved the quality of my money-not, I fear, without some loss to himself.
One incident of our interview I have always thought unique. Among the bank notes which Mr. Fitch had brought me, there was a considerable number of one-dollar bills. Of these perhaps twelve or fifteen were on the Northern Bank of Kentucky. My friend smiled when he saw them. "These," said he, "are all counterfeit. See how distressed the face of old Harry Clay looks on these notes. But although they are counterfeit, you will have no trouble with them. There is such a scarcity of small bills that business men, by common consent, receive them and pay them out."
In regard to the scarcity of small bills at that time, I might add, that it was, in part, due to the decided stand taken by one of the political parties in favor of the use of coin. To promote this, they discouraged, and sometimes prohibited, through the State legislatures, the issuing of small notes, their theory being that, as a vacuum would thus be produced, and as nature abhors a vacuum, gold and silver would flow in to fill it. But gold and silver did not flow in, for it turned out that the vacuum abhorred gold and silver worse than nature abhorred the vacuum. Then, as always, no way was discovered to induce men to use the dearest money that could be found to meet their obligations. The most patriotic Whig or Democrat would not go to a broker's and buy coin at a premium to pay small debts, when, by letting them run until they were larger, he could pay them in depreciated bills of higher denomination, or, perhaps, could pay them at once, by barter.
I was somewhat startled by my friend's liberal views and what he told me of the practice under them. It was an anomaly which only the general financial disorder could have produced. I have thought this the most remarkable case of fiat money of which I have any knowledge. Here there was no government behind these bills declaring them to be money. The only fiat that gave them currency was an understanding tacitly reached by business men, and based upon a supposed public convenience. Our Populist friends would, perhaps, find fresh confirmation for their views, in a case like this.
I left Oberlin for Winchester, Monday, December 19, going by way of Wheeling and Harper's Ferry over the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. Owing to the delay of my train, caused by heavy snows in the Alleghenies, I did not reach Harper's Ferry until afternoon on Wednesday. Then I took the Winchester, Potomac, and Strasburg road, which ran by Charlestown and Winchester. As I took my seat in the car, I discovered the first evidence of the excited condition of the country. When the conductor came to receive my ticket, he said, "Excuse me, sir, but it is made my duty to ask for the name of every stranger entering the State." I gave him my name and it appeared to be entirely satisfactory. In one part of the car there was a group of ladies and gentlemen talking about John Brown. I soon discovered that among them was Captain Avis, the jailer who had charge of Brown during his imprisonment. I heard him say that Brown had spoken of the kindness with which Captain Avis had treated him as a reason why he would not attempt to escape from jail.
It was near sunset when I reached Winchester. I went directly to the Taylor House, having been told that that was the best hotel in the town. As I entered the clerk's office, I was reminded that I must register my name and address. As several rough and rather spirituous looking persons were standing about, it occurred to me, that the word Oberlin written upon the page of the register, for the inspection of such people, might produce a degree of excitement unfavorable to my object in visiting the place. Calling to mind the name of the township in which Oberlin was situated, I went promptly to the clerk's desk, the men dividing to enable me to do so, and wrote in a good bold hand, "James Monroe, Russia." I withdrew, and the crowd went up to examine the record. I left them studying upon it. The landlord told me, the next day, that when they asked him who James Monroe of Russia was, he replied that all he knew about it was I was a Russian. I have already spoken of Judge Parker as residing in Winchester; and having ascertained his address, I went at once to his house. I found him, presented my letter of introduction from Mr. Griswold, and was most courteously received. I told him my story-somewhat as I have told it to you--and explained how entirely my errand was one of humanity--of compassion for an afflicted father and mother. Very sincerely, as I believe, he expressed his sympathy with my object, his readiness to help me in it, and his opinion that it could be accomplished. He invited me to take tea with himself and his family, and proposed that, after tea, we should, together, pay a visit to the President of the Medical College, Dr. McGuire, and if it met his approval, should then send for other members of the Faculty, and have a meeting for consultation in regard to the object of my mission. I of course staid to the evening meal, and the invitation to attend a Faculty Meeting seemed so natural that it made me feel quite at home. I found Mrs. Parker a very agreeable lady, and we had a pleasant social occasion around the family table. After tea, Judge Parker went with me to Dr. McGuire's. On the way I happened to remark that I had sometimes thought that John Brown was not entirely sane. He repudiated this opinion, saying that he had observed Brown closely during the trial, and was convinced that he had a great deal of intelligent malice. The Faculty Meeting was held, and was entirely satisfactory. So far as I could judge, the best feeling existed. It was unanimously agreed that the body of Copeland should be delivered to me to be returned to the home of his parents. The college undertaker was present. He promised that he would work a portion of the night, and that by nine o'clock on the following morning, my sorrowful freight should be decently prepared for delivery at the express office. I was cautioned by one of the professors not to speak of the object of my visit at the hotel. I could readily assure them that I would not, and, within myself, I thought it much more likely that the news would get out through some one of the families of those who were present than through me. Feeling, however, no concern about the matter, I returned to the public house, and went to bed happy. I thought I saw my way clear to take back the body of the young soldier of liberty to his sorrowing family to be buried in the soil of Oberlin. I might say here, that I had already mentioned, more than once, that I bore upon my person the permission of Governor Wise to visit Virginia for the purpose I had in view, and I had perhaps exhibited his telegram. But this permission could, in any event, have only a moral weight, and that proved to be but small in Winchester, as the Governor did not appear to be popular there. In the morning a colored servant entered my room and built a great pine-wood fire in the old-fashioned fireplace. I thought it remarkable that he at once began telling me of his trials and hardships as a slave. It was evident that he thought me a Northern man, or at least one in sympathy with persons in his condition. I took an early breakfast, and was impatiently waiting for the hour at which I was to meet the undertaker, when a message was brought that some gentlemen wished to see me. I received them in the parlor of the hotel. They were a committee of students from the college--half a dozen in number--who had come to give me their view of the situation. A tall, lean, red-haired young man from Georgia acted as their chairman. I had seen committees of students before, but this one seemed rather more excited than any which I had previously met. As the chairman addressed me standing, I also stood. I cannot give an accurate, verbatim report of his speech, but I remember the sentiment and the more remarkable turns of expression. He spoke in substance as follows:--"Sah," said he, " these gentlemen and I have been appointed a committee by the medical students to explain this matter to you. It is evident to us, sah, that you don't understand the facts in the case. Sah, this nigger that you are trying to get don't belong to the Faculty. He isn't theirs to give away. They had no right to promise him to you. He belongs to us students, sah. Me and my chums nearly had to fight to get him. The Richmond medical students came to Charlestown determined to have him. I stood over the grave with a revolver in my hand while my chums dug him up. Now, sah, after risking our lives in this way, for the Faculty to attempt to take him from us, is mo' 'an we can b'ar. You must see, sah, and the Faculty must see, that if you persist in trying to carry out the arrangement you have made, it will open the do' for all sorts of trouble. We have been told that Governor Wise gave you permission to come into this State and get this nigger. Governor Wise, sah, has nothing to do with the matter. He has no authority over the affairs of our college. We repudiate any interference on his part. Now, sah, that the facts are befo' you, we trust that we can go away with your assurance that you will abandon the enterprise on which you came to our town. Such an assurance is necessary to give quiet to our people."
I replied to the gentleman from Georgia that I was glad to hear from all sides of the question; that the view taken by the students was important, and deserved and should have respectful consideration; but that, as my arrangements had been made with the approval of the Faculty, and I had, as yet, no intimation from them that their view of the matter had, in any way, been changed, I thought the young men would agree with me that the courtesy due between gentlemen required that I should not abandon my undertaking without consultation with their teachers. I closed, however, by saying that I would cheerfully promise the committee that I would at once give up my plan when advised to do so by their professors. The chairman of the committee would have been glad to have me say, at once, that I would do nothing further; but I adhered to my purpose. The committee then left, without any discourtesy of language or manner, but as I thought with some suppressed feeling.
I went at once to see Professor Smith, who had shown me much sympathy in my object, and who was on the point of coming to me. He said, "The Faculty would still be willing to make an effort to carry out their contract with you, but they suppose it to be impracticable." He then told me what I had not heard before, that during the night the students had broken into the dissecting rooms of the college, had removed the body of Copeland, and hidden it, it was reported at some place in the country. He added that if, under these circumstances we were to persist in an effort to recover the body, the whole country about us would soon be in a state of excitement. He thought it the wiser course, therefore, that my object should be given up. I believed he was right, and decided to act accordingly. The result was a great disappointment to me; but it seemed to be inevitable.
In thus recording my decision to abandon further effort, it is a satisfaction to add that time has made it more and more evident that Copeland was abundantly worthy of all the interest which we took in his case. Recently the Virginia officials who were connected with his trial, conviction and execution, have been publishing the favorable impression he made upon them. Mr. Andrew Hunter, who was the State prosecutor at the trial, in communications given to the press a few years since, says: "Copeland was the cleverest of all the prisoners. He had been educated at Oberlin. He was the son of a free negro, and behaved better than any man among them. If I had had the power and could have concluded to pardon any, he was the man I would have picked out. * * * He behaved with as much firmness as any of them, and with far more dignity." Judge Parker, in an interview published in the St. Louis "Globe Democrat" in 1888, says: "Copeland was the prisoner who impressed me best. He was a free negro. He had been educated, and there was a dignity about him that I could not help liking. He was always manly."
I was now ready to set my face towards home; but there was no train from Winchester back to Harper's Ferry until the following morning. By taking a carriage, however, in the afternoon, across the country to Martinsburg, I could catch the evening train on the Baltimore and Ohio road for Wheeling. My arrangements were made, therefore, to do this. Professor Smith advised me not to go to a hotel when I should reach Martinsburg. A general military review of all the soldiers who were present at John Brown's execution, and others also, was in progress that day in Martinsburg, and there would be many violent and half-drunken men about the public houses, whom it would be well for me to avoid. He offered to give me a letter of introduction to 'Squire Conrad, a friend of his, a lawyer of high character and standing in that town, and told me to drive directly to his house, and remain there until the hour for the train. This letter I thankfully accepted. As I had still two or three hours to wait for dinner, a young member of the Faculty--I think an associate professor--took me to the college and showed me its various apartments and appliances for instruction. We visited the dissecting rooms. The body of Copeland was not there, but I was startled to find the body of another Oberlin neighbor whom I had often met upon our streets, a colored man named Shields Greene. I had indeed known that he also had been executed at Charlestown, as one of John Brown's associates, but my warm interest in another object had banished the thought of him from my mind. It was a sad sight. I was sorry I had come to the building; and yet who was I, that I should be spared a view of what my fellow-creatures had to suffer? A fine, athletic figure, he was lying on his back--the unclosed, wistful eyes staring wildly upward, as if seeking, in a better world, for some solution of the dark problems of horror and oppression so hard to be explained in this.
After dinner and after the payment of bills, including one of considerable amount from the undertaker, who had made progress, to a certain extent, with his preparations, I was furnished by my landlord with a comfortable carriage and a colored driver, to take me to Martinsburg. The drive of perhaps twenty miles was spirited and enjoyable. It was a fine, clear December day. The sunshine was golden; there was no snow upon the ground, and the temperature was mild. The country, agreeably undulating, diversified with hill and valley, woodland and meadow, and watered by spring-fed ,streams, well deserved the epithet of "beautiful," bestowed upon it by John Brown when on his way to the scaffold on a like golden day of the same December. This region was a part of that beautiful valley of the Shenandoah--the valley of Virginia we called it during the war--which so fearfully expiated its share in the crime of slavery, by the desolation which the constant march of successive armies, Union and Confederate, left upon its fields. The soldiers of Sheridan, Banks, and Milroy, on the one side, and those of Joseph E. Johnston, Stonewall Jackson, and Early, on the other, advanced or retreated over these lands. An intelligent observer once said to me, "There wasn't a fence rail left in the valley of Virginia after the war." General Sheridan, having laid it waste, as a military necessity, wrote to Washington that '"a crow could not find rations" where he had been. Judge Parker, in a paper already quoted, says:-"I have no doubt it is true that Winchester changed hands, as is claimed, more than eighty times, during the war. These were real occupations, not merely the entrance and exit of scouting parties." Along the same road over which I was now passing, General Banks, two or three years later, marched from Winchester to Martinsburg with a portion of the fifth corps of the army of the Potomac. It was for a decision reached by him during this march, that he was charged with violating the Constitution of the United States. It was early in the war, and many people in the North were still sensitive about fine constitutional points. A slave woman came from one of the farms along his route, and climbed upon one of his gun carriages, intending to ride out of the country with "Massa Linkum's army." What was the offense which General Banks committed? He let her ride. Until a few week since, I had been in doubt as to what became of the Winchester Medical College during the war. Recently, I wrote to the postmaster of that town, making inquiry upon the subject. In reply, I received a letter from Dr. Conrad, a gentleman of high standing in Winchester, which I here quote, and which will explain itself:--
WINCHESTER, VA., Sept. 7, 1894.
DEAR SIR :--The postmaster asked me, as the oldest living graduate of the old Winchester Medical College, to answer your note. The college was burnt by General Banks' army in May, 1862. He himself regretted it, but his New England doctors and chaplains did it--applied the torch with their own hands. They proclaimed that theirs was a Campaign of education. In this manner did that thorough old school of medicine become obliterated. The ground, belonging to the State, was sold, and is now built upon. Only one of the professors now lives--Dr. Hunter McGuire, of Richmond.
I am, sir, respectfully yours, D. B. CONRAD.
I should have been glad to have had a further account of this matter from our own soldiers; but General Banks had just died when I received this note, and I knew not to whom else to write. I think it probable that the building had been used by both sides for military purposes, and this would have justified either the Union or Confederate forces in destroying it. Towards sunset, as I approached Martinsburg, I began to meet successive squads of soldiers--some on horseback, and some in wagons--returning to their homes from the review. As he saw them coming, my colored driver would turn well out upon the side of the road, and stop his horses until they had passed. They were full of Virginia patriotism, and some of them of something else. I put my head out of the carriage, and gazed at them with all the innocent curiosity I could express. They inspected me narrowly. It would have been very natural, in such a time of suspicion and scrutiny, if they had asked my name and residence, and business in the State. This might have been embarrassing, and I was thankful when I had run the gauntlet unquestioned. Having entered Martinsburg, I went, as advised, to the house of 'Squire Conrad, where the letter of Professor Smith procured me a friendly reception. Mr. Conrad introduced me to his daughter--an amiable and intelligent young lady--and to Captain Conrad, his son--a genial, ingenuous, and manly fellow--who had commanded a company at Brown's execution. I was happy, on invitation, to take my evening meal of tea and toast in this kindly social atmosphere. There was, I think, no other member of the family living, except a son who was pursuing a course of study at the Episcopal Theological Seminary at Alexandria. 'Squire Conrad, though a slave-holder, was a decided Union man; but when Virginia voted in favor of secession, the whole family, regretfully, but almost unavoidably, were drawn into the movement. I explained to him the object of my visit to the State, of which he appeared to approve; and he cordially offered me the hospitality of his house until I should wish to take a train for the North. During our conversation, he spoke of the mild character of slavery in his neighborhood, saying, that he had never known but one master who had neglected to provide for his slaves when old, and he had lost standing with his class. During the contest at Harper's Ferry, Colonel Washington, a descendant of a brother of George Washington, and several other citizens, had been held as prisoners for a time, by John Brown, in the arsenal. Referring to some question which had been raised as to whether Colonel Washington had behaved with proper courage, Mr. Conrad said he did not think the Courage of any man bearing the name of Washington could be questioned, but he did wonder how Colonel Washington could have continued to exist thirty hours without whiskey. After tea he excused himself to attend some meeting of his Church, saying, he would leave me in Charge of his son and daughter; and very pleasant young people they were to be left in charge of, as I can certify. I shall never forget the kindness of this family, which, shown to me under these peculiar circumstances, was doubly grateful. We learned that the train would not arrive until ten o'clock, and I suggested to Captain Conrad that as he might have other engagements, and as I could find my way to the train without difficulty, alone, it was not necessary that he should give me the whole evening. He replied that his time was quite at my service; and there was so much excitement among their people, that he thought it better I should not be without the presence of some gentleman who could vouch for me. We had a long talk that evening about John Brown, Governor Wise, and the growing discord between North and South. He thought it unnecessary and impolitic that the authorities should have made such a military display at the time of the execution, and laughed at the stories of abolitionists coming over the mountains to rescue Brown. He paid a striking tribute to their courage of the great fighter for freedom. The incident is a painful one, but it is instructive. An acquaintance of his who stood behind Brown on the scaffold, and who, in the discharge of official duty, had had much of that sad kind of experience, told him that, generally, however firm a condemned man might, in the main, appear, yet as his hands lay bound, one upon the other, behind his back, there was certain to be some nervous movement of the fingers, as the fatal moment drew near; but that, in the case of Brown, the fingers lay as quiet as those of a sleeping child. As the hour of ten approached, Captain Conrad accompanied me to the station, and when the train arrived, to guard against the possible effects of a hostile telegram which might be sent to some town up the road by an evil-disposed person, he went on board the sleeper with me, introduced me to the conductor as a man entitled to courteous treatment, and commended me to his protection. He then bade me good-by. That I was protected I am certain, for, after a good night's sleep, I awoke, safe and sound, the next morning, in the city of Wheeling.
This is perhaps a suitable point to add whatever I have been able to learn of the subsequent history of the Conrad family. When the war broke out both of the sons entered the Confederate army. It must have been before the close of the year 1861, that, in some paper, I accidentally came upon a paragraph, which I suppose had been copied originally from the Virginia press, to the effect that two sons of 'Squire Conrad, of Winchester, officers in the Confederate service, had both been killed in the first Battle of Bull Run; that their bodies had been recovered, had been brought home to Winchester, and buried by moonlight.
Having crossed the Ohio River at Wheeling, and experienced the satisfaction of once more setting my feet upon free soil, I took the cars for Wellsville. Being compelled to wait there an hour or two for a train to Cleveland, I sent two telegrams to Oberlin--one to my family and another to the mayor of the town. I had lost a knowledge of both of these dispatches until Mr. Copeland kindly furnished me with an old copy of the Cleveland "Leader" of December 28, 1859, which contains the telegram to the mayor. It reads as follows:--
WELLSVILLE, OHIO Dec. 23, 1859.
To MAYOR BEECHER:
Obtained consent of the Faculty of Winchester Medical College to take the body. Arrangements nearly completed. Was prevented by the students.
This telegram, I afterwards learned, afforded my friends considerable relief; as they had heard nothing of me from Monday until Friday of that week. The next day, Saturday, December 24, I reached home, and on the after-noon of Sunday, the day following--Christmas Day--there was a mass meeting in the First Church, at which I was required to give a full account of my failure. I speak of the effort as a failure. In one sense it was a failure, but in another sense it was not. As a community and as individuals, we had done what we could, according to our sense of duty; and this is always success. At first I dreaded to meet the parents; but when I did meet them, I experienced unexpected relief. They had found much comfort in the fact that, by the kind providence of God, every reasonable effort had been made in their own behalf, and in behalf of the memory of their son. They were grateful to God and grateful to their neighbors. Their satisfaction was increased by the accounts which came in of the manly bearing of their boy in the time of the terrible ordeal; and they were finally enabled to say with the great apostle, "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."