Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army

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Published by: Chicago Review Press
Release Date: June 1, 2018
Pages: 304
ISBN13: 978-1613735718


Late on the evening of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his band of 18 raiders descended on Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. In an ill-fated attempt to incite a slave insurrection, they seized the federal arsenal, took hostages and retreated to a fire engine house where they barricaded themselves until a contingent of US Marines battered their way in on October 18.

The raiders were routed, and several were captured. Soon after, they were tried, convicted and hanged. Among Brown’s raiders were five African Americans whose lives and deaths have long been overshadowed by their martyred leader and, even today, are little remembered. Two—John Copeland and Shields Green—were executed. Two others—Dangerfield Newby and Lewis Leary—died at the scene. Newby, the first to go, was shot in the neck, then dismembered by townspeople and left for the hogs. He was trying to liberate his enslaved wife and children.

Of the five, only Osborne Perry Anderson escaped and lived to publish the lone insider account of the event that, most historians agree, was a catalyst to the catastrophic Civil War that followed over the country’s original sin of slavery.

Five for Freedom is the story of these five brave men, the circumstances in which they were born and how they came together at this time and place, grew to manhood and died. Their lives and deaths affected future generations, not just of their descendants, but of us all. It is a story that continues to resonate in the present.


“I cannot recommend this book enough,” writes reviewer Barbara Gannon in the January 2020 issue of The Journal of American History. “The general reader will enjoy its accessibility, but it will also be excellent in the undergraduate classroom. Academic readers will find much to admire in Meyer’s remarkable book.  It is well written microhistoyr of these men in the raid; yet it is also an account of the lingering echoes of their life and death in the decades since…Meyer’s study highlights many critical issues related to the Civil War and its memory and legacy, a subject we still contest  260 years after the Harpers Ferry raid. Eugene L. Meyer, in FIVE FOR FREEDOM, seeks to rectify the amnesia about these men and their participation in one of the most important events in U.S:. history.”

“Meyer’s impressive research turned up never-before-revealed stories about five African American men whom history has ignored — until now.  Interviews with some of the men’s descendants is an unusual and welcome addition.”

— American Society of Journalists and Authors, comments from judges awarding FIVE FOR FREEDOM the prize for the best history/biography published in 2018.

“Well-written and intriguing…The narrative makes a wonderful read in which five African Americans, not content with just their own freedom, joined the larger March for Freedom for all.  Five for Freedom holds the potential for a film version of their lives.”

— Civil War Times, October 2018, review by  Frank J. Williams,  a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, a notable Abraham Lincoln scholar and author, and a Justice of the Military Commission Review Panel.

“Five black men [joined] Brown’s private army; their story is compellingly told in a new book, Five for Freedom, by Eugene L. Meyer.”

— Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning preeminent historian of the Civil War ear, reviewing a new biography of Frederick Douglass, in The Nation, Oct. 24, 2018

“Meyer rights a wrong older than the Civil War…The author delivers a well-researched, approachable narrative… A good book for Civil War buffs.”

— Kirkus Reviews

“Eugene Meyer has given the story of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry new meaning and relevance by restoring Brown’s black collaborators to their rightful place in historyFive for Freedom elevates the names Newby, Anderson, Copeland, Leary, and Green to stand with Brown as individuals who were willing to sacrifice their own lives to rid our country of the horror of chattel slavery.”

— Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures

“Finding fascinating stories that other writers miss has been Eugene Meyer’s calling card for decades, and he has done it again with this important and largely untold story of five men forgotten in the John Brown legend.”

— David Maraniss, Pulitzer-prize winning author and Washington Post Associate Editor

“A terrific read and an important book. Spanning nearly 175 years, Meyer’s deeply researched book shows how the lives of the courageous martyrs still influences the present day, and will likely continue to do so for generations.  You probably have never heard of Osborne Perry Anderson, John Anthony Copeland, Shields Green, Lewis Sheridan Leary and Dangerfield Newby. But after reading this book, you will never forget them.

In years past, I’d visit Harpers’ Ferry to watch a natural wonder: the powerful and turbulent confluence of the historic Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Now, Eugene Meyer takes us to a clash between slavery and freedom along the shores of that West Virginia town that makes those churning waters seem calm by comparison.

And a visit to Harpers Ferry will never be the same.”

— Courtland Milloy, Jr., Washington Post columnist

“Journalist Eugene L. Meyer uses his seasoned reportorial skills to illuminate an important tale lying in the shadows of antebellum American history. Five for Freedom provides the overdue account of the five African Americans who participated in John Brown’s storied raid on Harpers Ferry. Deftly weaving history and biography, Meyer reconstructs how these five men came to join the ill-fated attempt to spark a slave revolt. Their role will not be forgotten now that—at long last—it is contained in an engaging and memorable book.”

— James McGrath Morris, author of Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.

“Books, plays, songs, films and poems have long celebrated John Brown as a martyr to liberty, while other brave men who dared and died with him have remained in his shadow. Now, after years of fascination with what happened at Harpers Ferry, the veteran journalist Gene Meyer takes us with him as he traces the lives of those little-known heroes. Each of them emerges as a complex individual, with life and family, struggling in and out of slavery. Meyer’s book is a well-written tour de force of historical detective work.”

Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson – author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War; Chancellorsville 1863, Ashes of Glory, and Not War but Murder: Cold Harbor 1864.

“Eugene L. Meyer has brought to light the central role of the leadership in the black community at the time of the raid as represented by the “Five for Freedom.”  His book has done these freedom fighters a great service.”

— Frank Smith, Founding Director, African American Civil War Memorial Museum

Five for Freedom was reviewed by Midwest Book Review in September 2018. The full review is below.

Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army documents the true story of five black men who stood alongside John Brown’s army in 1859, willing to die during Brown’s attempt to incite a slave insurrection in Harpers Ferry. While many know of Brown’s actions as the cause of the Civil War’s opening salvo, this book rectifies a glaring omission, focusing on those who stood with John against all odds; but who have largely been forgotten by history. Having an entire book on the subject means that close inspection is possible, and this documentation of each man’s life and achievements expands the knowledge of John Brown’s army members and how their deaths affected generations to come. Vintage black and white photos and illustrations throughout enhance a well-researched, involving study recommended for civil rights, American history, and minority history holdings alike.”

From goodreads: 

“Meyer puts flesh and bones on five of the raiders who were ignored at the time and then covered over by history…  You’ll never think of John Brown’s Raid the same way again.”

“Compelling account of five men who deserve to be remembered in the fight for civil rights.”

“A new look at John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the parts of history that are often overlooked… Meyer has done a beautiful job of reporting on their individual stories in the context of the other events which transpired during the pre-Civil War struggle.”

Tim Talbott, Random Thoughts on History:

“In this book, journalist Eugene Meyer vividly gives the historical background of these men…Meyer’s journalistic talents add a nice touch…This book is important because it puts these active agents of change prominently back into the story of Harpers Ferry…I eagerly recommend it.”