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Quite a Gathering

Reporter David Hunter Strother remembered that on December 2, 1859, the day of John Brown’s hanging in Charles Town, Virginia, it was unseasonably warm. “The balmy south wind was blowing which covered the landscape with a warm & dreamy haze,” Strother recalled, and it felt more like springtime in the Old Dominion than it did the cusp of deep winter.

Strother admired the well-kept farms, blue mountains and the Shenandoah and Potomac river water gap at the site of Harpers Ferry that were visible from the area of the scaffold. They would be among the last things Brown would see.

The abolitionist would also see ranks of Army troops and militiamen who had been sent to keep order at the hanging. Thomas J. Jackson, not yet known as “Stonewall,” was there as an officer commanding a detachment of artillery from the Virginia Military Institute.

Strother recalled that Brown’s demeanor remained calm and steady until he dropped to his death, which impressed Jackson. But one militiaman in the ranks, John Wilkes Booth, felt nothing but loathing for the old man who dangled at the end of the rope.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army (above right) also watched the hanging. It wasn’t his first sight of Brown, for he had commanded the Marines who attacked Brown’s beleaguered band. And a young lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart had delivered Lee’s surrender ultimatum to Brown at Harpers Ferry.

Before long, Jackson, Lee and Stuart would form the Army of Northern Virginia’s powerful triumvirate, and David Hunter Strother would wear the uniform of a Union officer. Militiaman Booth would eventually transfer his loathing to Abraham Lincoln. That “balmy south wind” had become a raging storm.


Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here