In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, October 18, 2009

150th Anniversary, Harpers Ferry Raid

“Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”

Thus declared John Brown (1800 – 1859), a local farmer and tanner, at an 1837 memorial service in Hudson, Ohio for Illinois abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was killed when a mob destroyed the offices of his newspaper. Certainly no one present when Brown stood and uttered those words could have imagined how prophetic they were, or how devastating and decisive would be their consequences for America more than 20 years later.

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most bizarre, yet important, events in American history: John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), a picturesque little town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

After sundown on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of 16 white and 5 black men (three of whom were left behind as a rear guard) across the Potomac River from Maryland, where they had been holed up in a remote farmhouse for weeks, and into the town of Harpers Ferry on the Virginia side. Their aim was to capture the thousands of weapons stored at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, distribute them to legions of runaway slaves that they expected would flock to their banner, and commence a "long march" south through the Appalachian Mountains that would lure slaves away from surrounding plantations and shatter the South's "peculiar institution" once and for all. The raiders took control of the arsenal in the dead of night, almost unopposed--but from there, their fortunes declined rapidly. Brown allowed a train to pass through town, which alerted federal authorities down the line several hours later. By Monday morning October 17, local residents and militia had organized and began a siege of the small brick engine house at the armory where Brown and his remaining party and hostages had holed up. The area became a war zone and more and more of Brown's men, including two of his sons, were shot and killed. Monday afternoon a detachment of U.S. Marines was dispatched from Washington to Harpers Ferry under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. After Brown refused a surrender demand on Tuesday morning by Lee's aide-de-camp Lt. J.E.B. Stuart, the Marines battered in the engine house door and violently overpowered the occupants, badly wounding Brown in the process. Brown was later taken to the court house in nearby Charles Town for trial, was found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, and was hanged on December 2, 1859.

The whole country was electrified by the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's subsequent trial and execution. Brown was lionized by northern abolitionists, and used his notoriety before the trial to issue a torrent of propaganda for the cause. After his execution Brown continued to inspire people in the north and was regarded by many as a prophet, a martyr, and a saint. Others, especially in the south, regarded him as a ruthless terrorist. The Harpers Ferry raid was what finally convinced many in the south that they could not remain in the Union and live secure from the depredations of abolitionists and rebellious slaves. Thus, historians now generally agree that through his raid Brown did more than any other single individual to spark the wave of secession and civil war that overtook the country less than two years later.

The whole story of John Brown and his campaign against slavery cannot be told or even summarized in a blog post. But it is among the most fascinating and momentous sagas in American history, and I highly recommend it to my readers. There are many misconceptions about Brown, mostly that he was crazy, a lifelong failure, and an obscure loner. It's probably true that he was mentally "imbalanced" to some degree; he was never able to provide his family with a secure or comfortable living (though he always tried), and he rarely let others' counsel get the better of his own. However, a careful study of his life suggests that Brown was not quite the twisted, hell-bent fanatic or loser that many people think he was. He loved and cherished his family. He was a man of sincere religious conviction who felt himself humbled by God and called by Him to a great work. He was also a man of indomitable energy, unshakable will, considerable organization and leadership skill, and great personal charisma. Several years before Harpers Ferry, he led volunteers in "Bleeding Kansas" confronting pro-slavery invaders from Missouri, and thereby helped secure the territory (and future state) for the free-soil cause (although part of that effort was his leadership of the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which five pro-slavery settlers were hacked to death). His work in Kansas propelled him to national prominence in the abolitionist movement, and he was closely acquainted with its most prominent leaders, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, George Luther Stearns, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Franklin Sanborn (excluding Douglass and Garrison, these men comprised the "Secret Six," who provided financial and material assistance to Brown in his preparations for the Harpers Ferry raid, and risked prosecution for treason as a result). He met with Harriet Tubman in Chatham, Ontario (home to 2000 free and fugitive American slaves) in 1858 and helped draft a new constitution of government for the United States that included African Americans as full members of society. For more than two years before the Raid, he criss-crossed the country raising money and recruiting men for his venture. Brown's plans may have been grandiose and unrealistic, but his work to realize them hardly reflected an irrational, incompetent, or withdrawn individual.

After his death, Brown's wife took his body for burial to the family homestead in North Elba, New York, which Brown had bought from Gerrit Smith in 1849 with the intent to assist African American farmers that Smith had helped settle in that area. Several years ago Melany and I visited the place now known simply as "John Brown's Farm." Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, it is beautiful and very peaceful. Over the years it has come to be the final resting place for many of the men who stood and fell with Brown at Harpers Ferry. At the Farm, one gets the impression that these men still stand together on the other shore.

"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. . . "

Brown wrote these words on the day of his death. How sadly prophetic they were, for the Civil War he had helped touch off would claim two-thirds of a million lives before his dream of an America without slavery was finally realized.

To learn more about John Brown and the Raid on Harpers Ferry, read Stephen Oates' excellent To Purge This Land With Blood; a Biography of John Brown.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT blog post! You've definitely given your readers a different perspective on John Brown--the man AND the symbol. I, too, have visited his North Elba farm and gravesite; it's in a lovely part of the Adirondack High Peaks (and within sight of the 1980Olympic SKI JUMPS!). The statue of Brown pointing towards the mountains at the entrance looks as if he's pointing AT the ski jumps: "Son--now that there's a ski jump"! :)