Apr 07, 2022 - Sale 2600

Sale 2600 - Lot 55

Price Realized: $ 1,375
?Final Price Realized includes Buyer’s Premium added to Hammer Price
Estimate: $ 1,000 - $ 1,500
(CIVIL WAR.) A Virginia law book owned by the Harper's Ferry mayor killed in the John Brown raid--later defaced by Union troops. xxxi, 898, [1] pages. 8vo, contemporary calf, worn; lacking front free endpaper, dampstaining and foxing to contents; inscribed by Fontaine Beckham on the spine and by 10 Union soldiers within. Richmond, VA, 1849, with inscriptions through 1864

Additional Details

This law book began its life quietly, as most law books do. An 1849 Richmond printing of "The Code of Virginia," it was purchased by Fontaine Beckham (1788-1859), the railroad station agent at Harper's Ferry, VA who doubled as a county magistrate. He inscribed his name "F. Beckham" on the spine. He was eventually elected mayor of Harper's Ferry, and was as surprised as anyone by John Brown's raid upon the town's federal armory in October 1859. While Brown's men were besieged in the famed engine house, they got off a shot at Mayor Beckham and killed him. A relative moderate on slavery by Virginia standards, Beckham had arranged to free his 5 slaves in his will. His death ironically led to the only slaves directly freed by Brown's raid.

We don't know who assumed ownership of Beckham's books after his death. The Civil War raged through Harper's Ferry several times. One unit which played a prominent role in the region was the 1st Maryland Cavalry Battalion, also known as the Potomac Home Brigade or Cole's Cavalry. They dramatically evaded capture during the siege of Harper's Ferry in September 1862, and then returned there on 6 July 1863. At some point, a member of Company D got their hands on Beckham's old Code of Virginia. They defaced the title page, crossing out the words Virginia and Richmond, and then used it as a sort of company autograph book. 10 members signed the book, on its endpapers, flyleaf, and index leaves, often adding their ranks or unit name, and one adding the year 1864. Another inscribed "Loudoun Heights, Virginia," where the battalion fought in January 1864.

The book's index shows dozens of entries which relate to "Negroes," "Emancipation," "Slaves," and "Patrols." Mayor Beckham likely knew most of those laws, but he probably never spent much time on page 722, which covers "If a free person advise or conspire with a slave to rebel or make insurrection"--and also defines another word which would become relevant shortly after his death: "Treason shall consist only in levying war against the state, or adhering to its enemies. . . . "