Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Black History Month – John Anthony Copeland

Steven Lubet

John Anthony Copeland - Harper's Ferry

Steve Lubet remembers John Anthony Copeland, a young black man who fought against slavery and gave his life for freedom.

On December 16, 1859, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Shields Green and John Anthony Copeland, two black men who had joined John Brown’s fateful attempt to free the slaves of the southern states.  Although little noted in most history books, their sacrifice should be long remembered, even as our nation continues to struggle with slavery’s legacy of racism.

Shields Green was an escaped slave from South Carolina who had been introduced to Brown by Frederick Douglass.  During the Harper’s Ferry raid – which began on Sunday, October 16 and lasted for three days – Green had been assigned to guard Brown’s white hostages, which drew the special ire of slave masters.  One plantation owner railed at Green’s “impudence” in pointing a rifle at white men, and Virginia’s governor called Green a “coward,” although in fact he had declined an opportunity to escape and had instead remained bravely at Brown’s side until they were both captured by troops under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee.

John Anthony Copeland had been born free in North Carolina, but had moved with his family Oberlin, Ohio, when he was a child.  Oberlin was the most abolitionist-minded community in the United States during the antebellum era, and Copeland had grown up in the anti-slavery movement.  He had been a leader of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, in which he had literally wrested a runaway from the clutches of slave catchers, and he had afterward escorted the fugitive to freedom in Canada.

Copeland had been recruited to the abolitionist army by John Brown, Jr., who had traveled to Oberlin the previous summer on his father’s behalf.  Arriving at Brown’s headquarters on Thursday, October 13, he scarcely had time to meet his new comrades – who numbered only 21, including Brown and three of his sons – before the historic attack on slavery began late on Sunday night.

Brown’s march into unsuspecting Harper’s Ferry was initially successful, as his men were quickly able to take control of the federal arsenal and armory.  Copeland and two others were sent to capture a nearby rifle factory, which they accomplished with ease.  Soon, however, the town awakened, as church bells rang the alarm.  Brown and his men were surrounded by the local militia, who rained fire down upon the abolitionist positions.  Ten of Brown’s men were killed in the fighting, but Brown and Green were taken alive.

Meanwhile, Copeland and his comrades staved off repeated militia attacks on their redoubt in the rifle factory.  After the seventh assault, they realized that their position was hopeless and fled through the rear entrance.  The other two men were shot and killed while attempting to cross the Shenandoah River.  Copeland, too, waded into the river, but he was cornered by the militia and surrendered when his dampened pistol would not fire.

The prisoners were brought to nearby Charlestown, to await trial before a Virginia court.  Brown was tried first and quickly convicted and condemned to death, although his inspiring speech at sentencing succeeding in stirring abolitionist sentiment across the North.  Green and Copeland were tried shortly afterward.  Their attorney, a Boston abolitionist named George Sennott, raised a remarkable defense that condemned the institution of slavery – but to no avail.  Both black men were convicted and sentenced to hang.

Brown was executed on December 2, leaving behind a prophetic note in which he predicted that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Green and Copeland faced hanging two weeks later.  Interviewed by reporters on execution day, Copeland sent word to his friends and family in the North.  “If I am dying for freedom,” he said, “I could not die in a better cause – I would rather die than be a slave.”

The two African-Americans were taken to the gallows in an open wagon.  Once on the scaffold, Copeland attempted to address the crowd.  The privilege of a final statement was routinely granted to condemned men in the nineteenth century, but the Virginians would not let Copeland deliver another denunciation of slavery.  The hangman choked off his speech, pulling a hood over his head and tightening the noose.  The trap was sprung and the two colored heroes of Harper’s Ferry were hurled into eternity.

Copeland’s family had gathered together for prayer on hanging day.  Following a Bible reading, Copeland’s mother turned toward her husband and children.  “If it could be the means of destroying slavery,” she said, “I would willingly give up all my men-folks.”

Slavery was indeed destroyed by the coming Civil War, sparked in no small part by the actions of Brown, Green, and Copeland.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should recall the brave men who, to paraphrase Lincoln, gave the last full measure of devotion in the battle for freedom.

Steven Lubet is author of The Colored Hero of Harper’s Ferry, out now.

Read an interview with Steven Lubet here.

About The Author

Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is the author of The Coloured Hero of Harper's Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery (2015). He is a leading authority on African American resistanc...

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