THE LETTERS OF
JOHN A. COPELAND
A HERO OF THE HARPERS FERRY RAID
Charlestown, Va. Dec. 10, 1859:
MY DEAR BROTHER:- I now take my pen to write you a few lines to let you know how I am, and in answer to your kind letter of the 5th instant. Dear Brother, I am, it is true, so situated at present as scarcely to know how to commence writing; not that my mind is filled with fear or that it has become shattered in view of my near approach to death. Not that I am terrified by the gallows which I see staring me in the face, and upon which I am so soon to stand and suffer death for doing what George Washington, the so-called father of his great but slavery-cursed country, was made a hero for doing, while he lived, and when dead his name was immortalized, and his great and noble deeds in behalf of freedom taught by parents to their children. And now, brother, for having lent my [faith?] to a General no less brave, and engaged in a cause no less honorable and glorious, I am to suffer death. Washington entered the field to fight for the freedom of the American people- not for the white men alone, but for both black and white. Nor were they white men alone who fought for the freedom of this country. The blood of black men flowed as freely as that of white men. Yes, the very first blood that was spilt was that of a negro. It was the blood of that heroic man, (though black he was,) Crispus Attucks. And some of the very last blood shed was that of black men. To the truth of this, history, though prejudiced is compelled to attest. It is true that black men did an equal share of the fighting for American Independence, and they were assured by the whites that they should share equal benefits for so doing. But after having performed their part honorably, they were by the whites most treacherously deceived- they refusing to fulfill their part of the contract. But this you know as well as I do, and I will therefore make no more in reference to the claims which we, as colored men, have on the American people.
It was a sense of the wrongs which we have suffered that prompted the noble but unfortunate Captain Brown and his associates to attempt to give freedom to a small number, at least of those who are now held by cruel and unusual laws, and by no less cruel and unjust men. To this freedom they were entitled by every known principal of justice and humanity, and for the enjoyment of it God created them. And how dear brother, could I die in a more noble cause? Could I, brother die in a manner and for a cause which would induce true and honest men more to honor me and angels more readily to receive me to their happy home of everlasting joy above? I imagine that I hear you and all of you mother, father, sisters and brothers, say- "No there is not a cause for which we with less sorrow, could see you die." Believe me when I tell you, that though shut up in prison and under sentence of death, I have spent some very happy hours here. And were it not that I know that the heart of those to whom I am attached by the nearest and most endearing ties of blood relationship- yea, by the closest and strongest ties that God has instituted- will be filled with sorrow, I would almost as [unintelligible] die now as at any time, for I feel that I am now prepared to meet my Maker.
Dear brother, I want you and all of you to meet me in Heaven. Prepare your soul for death. Be ready to meet your God at any moment, and then, though we meet no more on earth, we shall meet in Heaven where parting is no more. Dear William and Fred, be good boys- mind your mother and father- love and honor them- grow up to be good men, and feat the Lord your God. Now, I want you, dear brothers, to take this advice and follow it; remember, it comes from your own brother, and is written under most peculiar circumstances. Remember it is my dying advice to you, and I hope you will, from that love you have for me, receive it.
You may think I have been treated very harshly since I have been here, but it is not so. I have been treated exceedingly well- far better than I expected to be. My jailor is a most kind-hearted man, and has done all he could, consistent with duty, to make me and the rest of the prisoners comfortable. Capt. John Avis is a gentle man who has a heart in his bosom as brave as any other. He met us at the Ferry and fought us as a brave man would do. But since we have been in his power has protected us from insults and abuse which cowards would have heaped upon us. He has done as a brave man and gentleman only would do. Also one of his aids, Mr. John Sheats, has been very kind to us and has done all he could to serve us. And now, Henry, if fortune should ever throw either of them in your way, and you can confer the least favor on them, do it for my sake.
Give my love to all my family, and now my dear brothers, one and all, I pray to God we may meet in Heaven.
Good bye. I am now, and shall remain, your affectionate brother, John Copeland
Charlestown Jail, Va., Dec. 16, '59
Dear Father, Mother, Brothers Henry, William and Freddy, and Sisters Sarah and Mary:
The last Sabbath with me on earth has passed away. The last Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that I shall ever see on this earth have now passed by God's glorious sun, which he has placed in the heavens to illuminate this earth- whose refulgent beams are watched for by this poor invalid, to enter & make as it were in heaven of the room in which he is confined- I have seen declining behind the western mountains for the last time. Last night for the last time, I beheld the soft bright moon as it rose, casting its mellow light into my felons cell, dissipating the darkness and filling it with that soft pleasant light which causes such thrills of joy to all those in like circumstance with myself. This morning for the last time, I beheld the glorious sun of yesterday rising in the far-off East, away off in the country where our Lord Jesus Christ first proclaimed salvation to man, and now as he rises higher and his bright light takes the place of the pale, soft moonlight, I will take my pen, for the last time, to write you who are bound to me by those strong ties (yea, the strongest that God ever instituted,) the ties of blood and relationship. I am well, both in body and in mind. And now, dear ones, if it were not that I know your hearts will be filled with sorrow at my fate, I could pass from this earth without a regret. Why should you sorrow? Why should your hearts be racked with grief? Have I not everything to gain and nothing to lose by the change? I fully believe that not only myself but also all three of my poor comrades who are to ascend the same scaffold- (a scaffold already made sacred to the cause of freedom, by the death of that great champion of human freedom, Capt. JOHN BROWN) are prepared to meet our God.
I am only leaving a world filled with sorrow and woe to enter one in which there is but one lasting day of happiness and bliss.
I feel that God in his mercy has spoken peace to my soul, and that all my numerous sins are now forgiven me.
Dear parents, brothers and sisters, it is true that I am now in a few hours to start on a journey from which no traveler returns. Yes, long before this reaches you, I shall as I sincerely hope, have met our brother and sister who have for years been worshiping God around his throne- singing praises to him, and thanking him that he gave his Son to die that they might have eternal life. I pray daily and hourly that I may be fitted to have my home with them, and that you, one and all, may prepare your souls to meet your God, that so, in the end, though we meet no more on earth, we shall meet in Heaven, where we shall not be parted by the demands of the cruel and unjust monster Slavery.
But think not that I am complaining, for I feel reconciled to meet my fate. I pray God that his will be done; not mine.
Let me tell you that it is not the mere act of having to meet death, which I should regret, (if I should express regret I mean,) but that such an unjust institution should exist as the one which demands my life; and not my life only, but the lives of those to whom my life bears but the relative value of zero to the infinite. I beg of you one and all that you will not grieve about me, but that you will thank God that he spared me time to make my peace with Him.
And now, dear ones, attach no blame to anyone for my coming here for not any person but myself is to blame.
I have no antipathy against anyone, I have freed my mind of all hard feelings against every living being, and I ask all who have any thing against me to do the same.
And now dear parents, Brothers and sisters, I must bid you to serve your God and meet me in heaven.
I must with a few words, close my correspondence with those who are the most near and dear to me: but I hope, in the end, we may again commune, never to cease.
Dear ones, he who writes this will, in a few hours, be in this world no longer. Yes, these fingers which hold the pen with which this is written will, before to-day's sun has reached his meridian have laid it aside forever, and this poor soul have taken its flight to meet its God.
And now dear ones I must bid you that last, long, sad farewell. Good-day, Father, Mother, Henry, William, and Freddy, Sarah and Mary, serve your God and meet me in heaven.
Your Son and Brother to eternity, John A. Copeland.
Unfortunately, the copies of the letters the EOG was able to obtain were very degraded, and thus there are some unintelligible words in the letters.