Aaron Dwight Stevens

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Aaron Dwight Stevens (March 15, 1831 - March 16, 1860) was an American abolitionist and chief military aide to John Brown during Brown's failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. For his role in the raid, Stevens was executed in 1860 at the age of 29.

Life[edit]

Born in Lisbon, New London County, Connecticut, March 15, 1831, Stevens ran away from home at the age of sixteen, in 1847, and enlisted in Cushing's Massachusetts regiment of volunteers, in which he served in Mexico during the Mexican War. Later, he enlisted in Company F of the First United States Dragoons, and was tried for "mutiny, engaging in a drunken riot, and assaulting Major George A. H. Blake" of the 1st U.S. Dragoons at Taos, New Mexico, on March 8, 1855. According to testimony offered at a court of inquiry, the assault on Major Blake was precipitated by Stevens's outrage over Blake's continuous abuse of enlisted soldiers. Stevens and three other mutineers were sentenced to death, but these sentences were commuted by President Pierce to imprisonment for three years at hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, from which post he escaped and joined the Free State forces. In these he became colonel of the Second Kansas Militia, under the name of Whipple. He became Colonel of the 2nd Kansas Militia and met Brown on August 7, 1856 at the Nebraska line when Lane’s Army of the North marched into “Bleeding Kansas.” He later became one of Brown's bravest and most devoted followers.

While serving under Brown in Kansas, Stevens shot and killed a slave owner named David Cruise while attempting to free a female slave. According to Stevens's own account, while entering the home, Stevens saw Cruise reaching for a weapon and shot him dead. In subsequent years, Stevens freely admitted the killing but disliked talking about it. "You might call it a case of self-defense," he recounted, "or you might say that I had no business in there, and that the old man was right." [1]

Raid on Harper's Ferry[edit]

In 1859, Stevens participated in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. According to the memoir of fellow raider Osborne Anderson, Stevens drilled Brown's men in military tactics and held "the active military position in the organization second to Captain Brown." [2] He was eventually trapped with Brown and several other raiders in the town engine house, during which time he argued heatedly with Brown over how to proceed tactically. Stevens suggested that the raiders flee while using slave-owning hostages as body shields; Brown, however, overruled Stevens and insisted that they remain inside the engine house. When Brown sent him outside along with his son Watson Brown to negotiate under a flag of truce, Stevens was shot four times and was captured by militia members. At first his captors could locate no pulse or heartbeat, yet Stevens remained awake and lucid. According to an eyewitness, when asked at this time if there was "anyone dear to him," Stevens responded "All those who are good are dear to me."

George H. Hoyt, Brown's counsel, in a letter to J. W. Le Barnes, October 31, 1859, thus recorded his first impression of Stevens:

"Stevens is in the same cell with Brown. I have frequent talks with him. He's in a most pitiable condition physically, his wounds being of the most painful and dangerous character. He has now four balls in his body, two of these being about the head and neck. He bears his sufferings with grim and silent fortitude, never complaining and absolutely without hope. He is a splendid looking young fellow. Such black and penetrating eyes! Such an expansive brow! Such a grand chest and limbs! He was the best, and in fact the only man Brown had who was a good soldier besides being reliable otherwise." [3]

Following the raid of Harper's Ferry, Stevens admitted, in a deathbed confession, to the 1858 killing of slave owner David Cruise. During his imprisonment, he never wavered from his conviction that the Harpers Ferry raid was just, writing,

"I do not feel guilty in the least, for I know, if I know, anything, that there was no evil intention in my heart. I thought I should be able to do more good for the world in this way than I could do in any other. I may have erred as to the best way, but I think every thing will turn out for the best in the end. I do not expect to be tried until next Spring, when I expect I shall be hung, as I think all the rest will. Slavery demands that we should hang for its protection, and we will meet it willingly, knowing that God is Just, and is over all. There seems to be no mercy for those who are willing to help those who have none to help them. My heart feels like bleeding to think how many thousands are worse off in this land than I am now. Oh, that I could see this country free, I would give a thousand lives if I had them to give." [4]

For his part in Brown's raid, Stevens was convicted of treason and conspiring with slaves, and was executed on March 16, 1860, in Charlestown, Virginia, one day after his 29th birthday. His last words to Brown were "Captain Brown, I'll see you in a better land."[5]

George B. Gill wrote of him in 1860:

"Stevens--how gloriously he sang! His was the noblest soul I ever knew. Though owing to his rash, hasty way, I often found occasion to quarrel with him more so than with any of the others, and though I liked Kagi better than any man I ever knew, our temperaments being adapted to each other, yet I can truly say that Stevens was the most noble man that I ever knew."

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