Aaron Dwight Stevens

Aaron Dwight Stevens

Aaron Dwight Stevens was born on March 15, 1831 in Lisbon CT. He was raised by his parents in a family where traditional Puritan religious ethics were emphasized including a passionate belief in social justice. While he was still a young boy his family moved to Norwich where his father had been hired as the choir director for the First Congregational Church.  As a teenager he became enamored of the written works of Thomas Paine and his interpretation of spiritualism. He adopted many of these same beliefs as a philosophical framework guiding his own actions throughout his life.

However, Stevens possessed a dual nature, spiritual and pacifistic on the one hand but also fiercely independent and adventurous with a quick temper that was not easily extinguished. In 1847 at the age of sixteen he left home and joined the First Massachusetts Regiment and was sent to Mexico as an infantryman fighting in the Mexican American War. A few years later Stevens joined the First United States Dragoons a cavalry unit led by Major George Blake based in Taos, New Mexico. Blake was a bellicose commander with a thirst for alcohol who repeatedly abused the enlisted men in the cavalry unit. In March 1855 during one abusive incident, Stevens confronted Blake and physically subdued him. As a result, of these actions, Stevens was arrested on charges of mutiny, court-martialed and sentenced to death. Soon thereafter the Secretary of War Jefferson Davis commuted his death sentence to three years of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Shortly after arriving at the military prison he managed to escape. After escaping Fort Leavenworth, Stevens adopted the alias “Charles Whipple” and soon joined the Free State forces dedicated to keeping slavery out of the Kansas Territory. Due to his military training he was elevated to the rank of colonel in the Second Kansas Militia.

 It was in early August of 1856 when Stevens met the fiery abolitionist John Brown and his life and the fate of the nation experienced a major turning point. Several months earlier Brown and his band of free-state guerillas killed five pro-slavery settlers along the Pottawattomie River in Kansas, decapitating some of them with swords. Brown’s violent form of abolitionism had made him an instant hero to abolitionists in the north and a nightmare to the slave holding states in the south.

Stevens joined John Brown’s band and quickly became his most trusted and reliable soldier. Stevens rode alongside John Brown on bloody anti-slavery forays throughout Kansas for the next several years. John Brown’s ultimate desire was to ignite a major slave uprising. He believed his plan to attack the munitions arsenal in Harper’s Ferry in Virginia would be that catalyst. On October 16, 1859, Brown along with Stevens and twenty other men captured the arsenal and barricaded themselves into an adjacent building. Unfortunately, the slave uprising that Brown had hoped for never materialized. Surrounded by local militia, Stevens and Brown’s son Watson attempted to surrender but the militia fired upon them. Stevens received two bullet wounds to his head but survived. He was taken into custody the next day and charged with conspiring with slaves to revolt by the state of Virginia. He was sentenced to death during his subsequent trial and executed by hanging on March 16, 1860, one day after his twenty-ninth birthday.

To view images of Aaron Dwight Stevens and the raid on Harper’s Ferry visit the collection of historical images on the Otis Library’s website.

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