Remembering a Tar Heel in John Brown’s Raid

State and local officials unveiled a highway historical marker recognizing the life of Lewis Sheridan Leary in Fayetteville yesterday. Leary was among the 21 men who joined John Brown in the raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859. Leary was born in Fayetteville in 1835. The son of free blacks, Leary worked with his father, a saddle maker, until moving to join family in Oberlin, Ohio at age 21. In Oberlin Leary became heavily involved in the abolitionist movement, which had a large following there. Leary was recruited by John Brown Jr. to join the raid on Harpers Ferry. He and two other men, one of them Raleigh-born John A. Copeland Jr., were assigned to seize a rifle works. They did, but then were surrounded by militia. Leary was shot multiple times as he and his partners fled. He died about 10 hours later.

Little is known about the treatment of Leary’s North Carolina relatives when word of his participation in Brown’s raid reached North Carolina. Year later, during Reconstruction, his father and older brother served as Cumberland County commissioners. Another brother, Matthew, was one of the founding trustees of what would become Fayetteville State University. And Leary’s youngest brother, John Sinclair Leary, earned a law degree and was one of the first blacks admitted to the bar in North Carolina. John Sinclair Leary also served in the N.C. legislature and later founded and served as the first dean of Shaw University Law School.

The North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial website (by our friends at state Archives and History) features an informative essay on Tar Heels at Harpers Ferry. The NC Highway Historical Marker program’s essay on Lewis Leary is also a must-read (you’ll have to search for Leary among the Cumberland County markers).

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