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Civil War Voices: Osborne Perry Anderson, Harpers Ferry raider

Tourists wander through the streets of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in this April 2011 photograph by Scott Mingus for the York Daily Record’s Cannonball blog.

Osborne Perry Anderson has a unique claim to fame as an African-American member of abolitionist firebrand John Brown’s raiding party that terrorized Harpers Ferry in mid-October 1859. He managed to escape and then spent some time in York, Pennsylvania, allegedly hid by members of the Underground Railroad movement.

Anderson was born a free black in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1830. Well educated, he attended Oberlin College in Ohio, a school noted at the time for its progressive and liberal attitudes towards blacks and women. He then moved to Canada and opened his own carpentry shop.

It was there that Anderson first met John Brown, who shared his vision of an abolitionist revolution. Anderson soon became the secretary of Brown’s meetings and a close ally and supporter.

In the fall of 1859, Brown and a band of about 20 followers moved into a rented house in Maryland not far from Harpers Ferry and its U.S. Army Arsenal and weapons factories.

The stage was set for Oswald Anderson’s trip to York, Pa.

Osborne P. Anderson’s account is just one of more than 200 stories found in a new 150th Anniversary of the Civil War book sponsored by the York Daily Record and the York County Heritage Trust.

On October 16, John Brown set his plan into action. He and most of his band entered the town, captured the armory and several civilians, and murdered a baggage handler on a passing train (ironically a free black man).

Anderson later wrote, “”Of the slaves who followed us to the Ferry, some were sent to help remove stores, and the others were drawn up in a circle around the engine-house, at one time, where they were, by Captain Brown’s order, furnished by me with pikes, mostly, and acted as a guard to the prisoners to prevent their escape, which they did. As in the war of the American Revolution, the first blood shed was a black man’s, Crispus Attuck’s, so at Harpers Ferry, the first blood shed by our party, after the arrival of the United States troops, was that of a slave. In the beginning of the encounter, and before the troops had fairly emerged from the bridge, a slave was shot. I saw him fall.”

John Brown’s vision for a slave insurrection never materialized, and on the 17th the citizens fought back. In a series of gun battles, four civilians died, along with several raiders including one of Brown’s sons. The following day Federal troops under Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart stormed the fire engine house where Brown and his survivors had barricaded themselves. Brown would later be hung.

Anderson managed to escape with one other black man (who would soon be captured and killed). After staying with a friend in Chambersburg, Anderson headed east.

Here are his words:
“At night, I set out and reached York, where a good Samaritan gave me oil, wine and raiment. From York, I wended my way to the Pennsylvania railroad. I took the train at night, at a convenient station, and went to Philadelphia, where great kindness was extended to me; and from there I came to Canada, without mishap or incident of importance. To avoid detection when making my escape, I was obliged to change my apparel three times, and my journey over the railway was at first in the night-time, I lying in concealment in the day-time.”
The identity of his “good Samaritan” in downtown York is not totally certain, although some accounts suggest it may have been William C. Goodridge, a local black businessman and an alleged leader in the town’s Underground Railroad network.

Oswald P. Anderson later joined the Union army and lived until 1872, when he died in Washington, D.C.

For more human interest stories of the Civil War, pick up a copy of Jim McClure’s and my new book Civil War Voices from York County, Pa.: Remembering the Rebellion and the Gettysburg Campaign (Colecraft Industries, 2011).