Aaron Dwight Stevens, Abolitionist
A Native of Lisbon, Connecticut by Tom Bosse
Ó2009 Lisbon, CT Historical Society
Aaron Dwight Stevens of Lisbon, Connecticut and his cousin Charles, both probably in or near their early teenage years, set a chair in the middle of a room in Charles’ home. Give or take a few years, this probably took place in the mid 1840s. As cousins and best friends, Aaron and Charles were close, and the contest was about to begin. The contest was between Charles Whipple and Aaron Dwight Stevens, a native son of Lisbon, Connecticut who later took part, and indeed was highly instrumental in anti-slavery activities immediately prior to the American Civil War.
Before proceeding, I would like to thank Mrs. Marcia Shafer, Mrs. Iva Arpin and Ms. Norma Glines whose effort in collecting the information for the following story was so valuable both to me and to the residents of Lisbon. Their time and effort is so greatly appreciated.
In telling the story, we will shortly digress to some of the important points about slavery in general, since that history impacts our story, but it is more fitting to start with the Native Son himself.
Aaron Dwight Stevens was born on March 15, 1831 in Lisbon and baptized into the Newent Congregational Church on July 17, 1831 by the Rev. Levi Nelson. He was the son of Aaron Stevens Jr. of Lisbon, and Lydia Meech.
The great grandfather of Dwight (as he was often called) was Moses Stevens of Lisbon,
who served in Washington’s army as a captain during the American Revolution. Concerning Moses Stevens, it is interesting to note that the Faith Trumbull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, on Rockwell Street in Norwich, identifies shoe buckles, in their museum collection, as ones that were given by Washington to Moses Stevens during an occasion when Washington stayed with Moses in his dwelling in Lisbon. Also, it was reported that Moses refused to draw pay and even sacrificed some of his own fortune, "to improve the condition of his soldiers".
To complete the background that Dwight was born into, it is clear to all of us that slavery, which is the treatment of human beings as property to be bought and sold, was already a hot issue both around the world and in this country. The slave trade itself was made illegal around the beginning of the 19th century by most of the European countries and enforced by British ships patrolling off Africa. The United States Constitution also provided for the abolition of the slave trade in 1808. Yet Slavery persisted in the United States up through the Civil War with great animosity, ignorance and hatred. For those interested in seeking further information, try looking up The Dred Scott Decision of 1857.
Getting back to cousin Charles Whipple, and Aaron Dwight Stevens, we know that Charles was as quick as a "flash" and light on his feet, and could jump and clear the chair almost without making a sound. Dwight, on the other hand was large framed, but would not be outdone by his best friend and cousin. His competitive nature took hold and he would "launch" himself over the chair and on contact with the floor, would shake the whole house causing "father" to cry out "quit that." Such ended that particular contest on that day.
Let us note, at this time, that much of the early personal information that we have about Aaron Dwight Stevens and his cousin Charles Whipple comes from a newspaper article (clipping) titled, "John Brown’s Rig[ht Hand Man] The Story of the Life of A. D. Stevens as Written for the Boston Sun[day Journal] by His Next of Kin". This next of kin is the nephew of Aaron Dwight Stevens, and is identified in the article as Mr. E. P. Stevens of Brookline, Massachusetts. The clipping has long since been removed from the remainder of the newspaper, and a recent careful search both on the internet and at the Boston Public Library itself could not reveal another copy. The article also has long since lost its date, but from the context of the article, it is clear that a close family relative wrote it probably sometime in the 1890s. Thus we are able to have access to the interesting stories about Dwight and Charles, which took place during their youth. These stories help us to understand the personal characters of the two young men. Yet, the information from this article and two other articles, as well as from genealogy sources is available and are the chief sources of information for Dwight’s formative years.
As his early childhood progressed, Dwight developed into a large and healthy child. Unfortunately, however, his family was struck by tragedy when his mother died when he was almost nine and a half years old. It is said that, by this time, he had grown into such a large child that correction could hardly be administered by a properly applied birch stick, " as was the custom at that time". Yet he was always considered to be a "good fellow", while having a mild mannerism and a keen sense of justice.
Dwight, however had a great tendency to roam, and although his father tried, it was nearly impossible to keep him at home regularly. Yet, even though he would tend to disappear at times, his friendship with his best friend and cousin, Charles Whipple, always remained, and its impact on Dwight cannot be underestimated.
Another story concerning their friendship and mutual competitiveness takes place on one particular morning. It was common in those days for boys to share a bed for the night. In this case the shared bed was adjacent to a slanting roof, and when morning came, a competition started as to who was going to be thrown out of bed first. Charles was near the roofline and put his feet on the roof to gain leverage. They both pushed each other until, with a crash, the whole bed lay broken on the floor with Dwight underneath. Dwight however, was the first to his feet, and laughed as though he were the victor. Such was the relationship between Charles and Dwight.
As far as documented events are concerned, we first begin to see Dwight’s future in military activities when he was about sixteen years of age. It was winter and Dwight went ice-skating, but it was reported that, when night fell, he failed to return, and a search was initiated since it was feared that he had fallen through the ice. Nevertheless, the next time we have any information of Dwight at home is when he knocked at the door of cousin Charles in the late evening about two years later. On answering the door Charles saw a "magnificent specimen of a man, "fairly framed" in the door.* It was Dwight himself.
An explanation of his whereabouts for two years yielded what today is an astonishing story. Dwight boarded a train to Boston (one source says that he was a stowaway), and enlisted in the army at sixteen years old. He was accepted into the army because of his "unusual size and strength", and would serve in the unit commanded by General Wool. From Boston, Dwight went to Mexico to fight in the Mexican War, where after two years with the army, he left with an honorable discharged and "bounty". It was after this that he returned home and he next appears in the 1850 census in Norwichtown with his father who took up residence there.
We can understand the character of Dwight even further if we explore his attempt to settle down with a steady job.
After Dwight’s return from the army, Charles became instrumental in trying to get Dwight to settle down by convincing him to get a job at the same machine shop where he and another cousin were working as trainees. Thus Dwight would have the opportunity to learn the same trade that cousin Charles was learning and maybe then he could settle down.
As it happened, Dwight was hired, and it is here that we see that this large-framed mild mannered individual was definitely not a pushover. The shop had its typical bully who decided to put Dwight to the test, primarily because Dwight had gained a reputation of having superior strength and especially a superior grip. It was after the day’s work, when the workers were washing their hands before going home, that the bully made his move. He lathered his hands and then proceeded to slap Dwight on the face with soapy hands. Dwight became enraged. He turned and with wet hands grabbed the bully by the neck, holding him to a wall. Dwight’s grip was so tight that, "Whipple", who felt that he needed to come to the aid of the bully, tried to loosen Dwight’s grip and, in the process, pierced the skin of Dwight’s wrist. Dwight still proceeded to slap the face of the bully with his open hand and then released him, at which time the bully fell to the floor. From that point on, the bully left Dwight alone.
The job at the machine shop however, did nothing to hold Dwight’s interest, and getting Dwight to settle down was a losing cause. One evening when Charles and Dwight were going home with their "dinner" pails in hand, they stopped at the shore of a rather large pond, where Dwight threw his "dinner" pail into the pond as far as he could. On throwing the pail into the pond he told Charles that, "[he] longed and pined for the wild life on the frontier". It was after this that Dwight went to New York and enlisted for five years in a dragoon regiment of the U.S. Army under Colonel E. V. Sumner. The year was 1851.
With the army he went west, serving in Western Kansas, Western Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and we note that, after this, there is no further evidence of Dwight ever returning home again.
In his letters home, Dwight wrote about the Apache Indians and jokingly remarked, "that they hadn’t taken his scalp yet…but if they did, it was just as good ground to be buried in as New England." He also wrote of the Mexican fandangos and the pretty Mexican ladies, while making it clear that, "The girls at home were good enough for him." He also wrote that he missed some of the good old-fashioned " pot-apple-pie" he had at home.
His service with the army this time, however, would not be marked with the same success that he met with in his first hitch during the Mexican War. And it was at this point in the life of Aaron Dwight Stevens that an incident would occur, which would cause a series of events that would bring him headlong into the battle against slavery.
In 1855, in Taos, New Mexico, while traveling with his unit back to Fort Leavenworth, Dwight, who was an enlisted man, drew his weapon on an officer, a Major George A. H. Blake, who as mentioned in one source, had heavily disciplined a member of Dwight’s company. For this action in defense of a comrade (in the same source), he was brought back to Fort Leavenworth in chains to face a trial by court-martial. But things were different in the army in 1855 than they are today, as evidenced by the fact that Dwight was found guilty and sentenced to be executed by firing squad!
What saved Dwight’s life, however, was a petition to President Franklin Pierce who commuted the sentence from one of capital punishment, to three years to be served at hard labor.
However, getting Dwight to serve three years at hard labor was like getting him to settle down with a steady job in the machine shop. Roughly a year later in 1856, Dwight somehow managed to escape his bondage and to find refuge with the Delaware Indian Tribe. From there he moved on and joined the Kansas Free State Militia under James Lane, where his dominant stature, as well as his military experience, was a valuable asset at a time and place where conflicts arose concerning whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free or a slave state. He was, therefore, given the rank of colonel in the 2nd Kansas Militia. But as an escapee from a military prison he would attract much less attention if he had an alias. Thus, it is at this time in the life of Aaron Dwight Stevens, that he becomes Colonel Charles Whipple! In different sources he is called Captain Charles Whipple, or just Charles Whipple, but it was primarily under the alias of Charles Whipple that he was cast into the national spotlight.
As is usually the case, timing is everything, and the fact that Dwight escaped from prison at about the same time that the slavery issue was becoming more and more violent was no exception. It’s also quite clear that the expression of that violence was no more manifest in the country than it was in "Bleeding" Kansas at that time, where people from both slave and free states were sending money and settlers to Kansas to assure that elections there would be favorable to their cause. These permanent settlers plus temporary gangs of "Border Ruffians" became involved in violent skirmishes and in the rigging of elections. The problem stemmed from the fact that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which made slavery illegal in what later became the state of Kansas, was replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery essentially by election of the voters.
It was while serving in the militia that he met another "free-soil" militant named John Brown, on August 7, 1856 at the Nebraska line when Lane’s Army marched into Kansas.
John Brown was another Connecticut native. He was born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, the son of a deeply religious abolitionist father who took his family to Ohio when John was five years old.
Prior to John’s activities as an abolitionist on the national stage, he lived at different times in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he was married twice and fathered twenty children. In those years he worked as a farmer, tanner and wool merchant, but was not financially successful at these endeavors, and as a middle-aged man, even filed for bankruptcy.
In 1849, Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, which was a community set up through the philanthropy of Gerrit Smith, in which land was donated to African American families who were willing to clear and work the land. John’s move to North Elba was made primarily so he could act as a mentor to those that were struggling there to make their way.
By 1855, through the urging of his sons, five of which had moved to Kansas, Brown collected weapons for the "free-soilers" there, and reluctantly moved to Kansas himself at the age of fifty-five to be with his sons and their families. Once there, his first order of business was to nurse the families of his sons, who were suffering from starvation and illness, back to health.
While there, in 1856, Brown was angered by the bloody stories of the "Border Ruffians" and by conflicts between pro-slavery and free-soil forces. His anger eventually led him to take up arms himself, as he lead a party of fewer than a dozen men during a night of terror, directed against pro-slavery families along Pottowatomie Creek. The "Pottowatomie Massacres" resulted in the murder of five pro-slavery inhabitants. This was Kansas in 1856 at about the time that Aaron Dwight Stevens met John Brown.
As a result of the Pottowatomie Massacres, and the cycle of violence that followed, including an attack on Brown and his followers at Osawatomie, Brown became famous. In fact he became famous enough to have a Broadway play called "Osawatomie Brown " named after him.
It was at this time that James Redpath, a journalist and abolitionist himself, spoke with John Brown, noting that Brown told him that, although he desired peace, it was through visions that God had ordered him to proceed in this manner.
From Late 1856 through 1858, John spent much of his time trying to obtain financing for his exploits directed against the pro-slavery forces in Kansas, but later as a more comprehensive plan was conceived, he extended his need for financial assistance to include an assault on the entire institution of slavery itself.
In July of 1859, after a diversionary action in Missouri, John Brown rented a farm in Maryland across the river from a small town. It was there that his army of twenty-one conspirators met, five African Americans and sixteen whites. Among them was one of his most loyal followers and chief lieutenants that he simply called "Captain". It was Aaron Dwight Stevens alias Charles Whipple.
On Sunday evening October 16, 1859, John Brown, with his band of conspirators, left their rented farm, and crossed the river. The town was Harper’s Ferry Virginia. The target was the federal armory there.
The plan was simple. The small army would take over the federal armory with all its weapons. This action was supposed to inspire the slaves in the area to revolt and join the insurrection. At the armory, they would then be armed with either weapons taken from the armory, or with wooden spears called "pikes" which Brown and his followers had brought with them, and which had been made in Connecticut on John Brown’s orders.
Hostilities began at about four o’clock in the morning, at which time the armory, with its weapons, was easily captured. They then proceeded to take the Harper’s Ferry firehouse and began to use it as both a command post, and as a prison for the holding of hostages.
Things went extremely bad early in the raid, when a baggage master on a train, which had stopped in Harper’s Ferry, was shot and killed. This happened in spite of the fact that John Brown had urged his army earlier to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. A fatal mistake on the part of the insurrectionists was then made. The train was allowed to proceed on its way!
Because the train was allowed to proceed, news of the attack on Harper’s Ferry easily reached Washington, D.C. Prior to this; news could not leave Harper’s Ferry because John Brown and his band of insurrectionists had cut the telegraph wires.
On hearing the news, President Buchanan quickly dispatched marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, to put down the insurrection. It would, however, take the marines one full day before they could arrive at the scene of the conflict. This resulted in the townspeople taking up arms and fighting a bloody battle with the raiders. This occurred on the first of the two days of fighting, and resulted in the deaths of townspeople and members of John Brown’s army.
On the following morning, October 18, 1859, the marines arrived and the rebellion was quickly put down when the firehouse was stormed after Brown refused to surrender his "fortress". John Brown and some surviving members of his party were thus taken prisoner.
His trusty officer, Aaron Dwight Stevens alias Charles Whipple also survived the uprising at Harper’s Ferry. However, Dwight was not so lucky since he was shot four times as he waived a flag of truce, two of the bullets hitting him near the neck and shoulders. As a result, Dwight was also taken prisoner and, along with John Brown and other surviving insurrectionists, was taken to Charlestown, Virginia for trial. Brown faced charges of treason and murder, while Dwight faced charges of treason only.
John Brown was found guilty and executed by hanging on December 2, 1859. Shortly before his walk to the gallows, Dwight had the opportunity to bid farewell to Brown and to tell him that "they would meet again in a better place". At this point in time, Dwight was also under sentence of death by hanging, but was still recovering from his bullet wounds.
So it went that Dwight recovered from the wounds received at Harper’s Ferry and went to the Gallows on the day after his birthday, March 16, 1860. Also executed with him was another insurrectionist, Albert Hazlett. Both men were religious and subscribed to a belief in spiritualism. Hence, they felt no need for the presence of clergy at their execution.
After the executions, both men were buried at the Eaglewood Cemetery in South Amboy, N.J, but in the 1890s, their bodies were moved, along with the bodies of other insurrectionists, to North Elba, N.Y. and are now buried near the body of their leader, John Brown.
In most cases, an execution of a criminal for treason in 1860 might conclude the story of the criminal’s life. Today, however, as we look at the life of Aaron Dwight Stevens, we have the benefit of many years of historical hindsight, and note that we only need to look back to 1945 when the world said that obedience to immoral orders or immoral law is in fact criminal behavior in itself. In this case, the place was Nuremberg, Germany.
Whatever one believes, Aaron Dwight Stevens sided with justice, and in the North, he along with John Brown and John Brown’s raiders were popularly hailed as heroes in what could be considered as one of the earliest battles of the American Civil War.
*Much has been published concerning the physical stature of Aaron Dwight Stevens. The height of 6 feet 3 inches tall is corroborated multiple times in the historical literature that references actual measurement; although in his Army reenlistment document (dated 1851) he is stated as having a height of 5 foot 8 inches tall. As of this time, no corroboration of the Army number has been found, and it is the contention of the author that the Army document is in error.