Excerpt from Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War
“If the arsenal had been this well guarded,” Robert E. Lee muttered, “we wouldn’t be going through this.”
The corn-field, long since harvested, was surrounded by soldiers, over a thousand of them, mostly Virginia Militia, dressed in a wide assortment of uniforms, from red to gray to blue to various combinations of them all. A scaffold waited in the center of the field, quickly and efficiently built even before the verdict had been handed down condemning John Brown.
King said nothing in response to Lee’s remark. Since the raid six weeks ago, the trial of John Brown had captivated the country, just as Lee had direly predicted. King’s failure to kill the man had been written off to the heat of battle, not cold calculation. The identity of the one-armed man he had killed, had jolted King.
Disgusted with the unfolding spectacle, Lee turned his horse and rode away, heading toward a nearby hilltop to watch from a distance. King stayed in the shadow of the scaffold.
It was a cold December day, the sun chilled and distant in the clear sky overhead. A wagon came slowly down a dirt road carrying John Brown, dressed all in black, except for red slippers, sitting on a coffin. His gaze was over the field, toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, adorned with leafless trees.
A drumbeat began to King’s left. A contingent of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute were lined up immediately around the scaffold, the drummer a young boy in their midst. They wore red shirts, grey trousers and crossed white belts. Their officer in charge came over to King right after Lee rode away.
“What’s wrong with the Colonel?”
“Nothing,” King said. “He sees no need to be close by.”
“You were in the assault?” the VMI instructor asked.
“I was,” King said.
“Thomas Jackson,” the officer introduced himself.
“This is God’s vengeance,” Jackson said as the wagon came to a halt next to the steps to the scaffold.
“It is indeed,” King agreed as the tailgate to the wagon was let down. John Brown got off his coffin and quickly leapt off the wagon as if eager for his fate. The sheriff escorted him up the stairs to the platform, where he was positioned over the trap door. His ankles were tied by deputies while others slid the coffin out of the wagon and put it just below the door.
“He bears his faith well, though,” Jackson commented.
“But on the wrong path,” King said.
“That will be for a higher power than us to decide soon,” Jackson said.
Jackson turned toward his cadets and signaled. He barked out an order and they snapped to attention as the drumbeat ceased. A heavy silence descended on the thousands of soldiers and civilians bearing witness.
A hood was place over Brown’s head and then the rope was cinched around his neck.
“Do you want to know when the trap opens?” the sheriff asked Brown, his voice carrying over the silent crowd.
Brown’s response was slightly muffled by the cloth, but audible. “No. Just be quick about it.”
Which, of course, they were not. Like MacKenzie on the Somers, the officials on the scaffold now seemed uncertain as to who was in charge of the fatal moment. Minutes passed and Brown stood still as hushed conversations went on around him.
The crowd began to grow uneasy as more minutes had passed. King looked off in the distance and he saw Lee, on his magnificent stallion, watching from a hilltop a mile away.
Finally the sheriff stepped forward, axe in hand. Without warning, he swung and cut the rope holding the trap door.
John Brown fell and jerked to a halt with a resounding crack.
Not a sound came from the crowd.
The dangling body slowly twisted and turned.
The Last Written Words of John Brown, 2 December 1859
I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.