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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE SECOND HARPERS FERRY RAID
THE FATE OF JOHN BROWN’S MEN

by H. Scott Wolfe


PART 2
This whole matter is more a question of sentiment than one of science.”  Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, August 1, 1899

The vocation of Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was that of civil servant -- an employee of the Federal Pension Office. But his consuming passion was the intellectual pursuit of John Brown and his men. Over the years, the Doctor had assembled a premier private collection of relics and memorabilia relating to the abolitionist martyr. As a diligent scholar, he had mastered the confused and conflicting literature -- the honesty and the hyperbole -- and fully intended to compose the definitive account of the Harpers Ferry invasion.

But while the aura of John Brown burned brightly, the members of his Provisional Army, like their secluded resting place beside the Shenandoah, had flickered from the public consciousness. An idea had crystallized in the mind of Thomas Featherstonhaugh. He dreamed of finding a long neglected grave -- and providing those anonymous victims of war, a final peace.

*****

After making local inquiries, Featherstonhaugh and fellow Brown-enthusiast L.A. Brandebury found themselves at the humble abode of James Foreman. The elderly, white-mustachioed Foreman had resided on that craggy mountainside his entire life. And yes, he informed the dapper pair from Washington, he had witnessed the mass burial of John Brown’s men. Grabbing a set of shovels, and with his strapping son Lewis in tow, the old man led the party to the spongy bank of the Shenandoah. “Two sunken places in the ground” marked the spot, and the Foremans were soon at their sweaty work. It was September 16th, 1895.

At a depth of three feet, the rotted lid of a box was exposed. Wrote Featherstonhaugh: “We finally uncovered the whole top of the box and I raised the cover, to which the whole backbone of a man was adherent. This incident shows how closely the bodies had been packed in the box. The box was some six feet in length, four feet wide and three feet in depth...and was remarkably well preserved....This coffin contained the remains of four of the invaders. Portions of the clothing were still to be distinguished...There were great masses of woolen tissue surrounding each one of the dead men. These blankets or shawls were worn by the men as overcoats when they started out on the raid...One of the skulls that I picked out from the ooze was all in pieces as if it had been shattered...After becoming fully satisfied that we had the remains of the raiders before us, we replaced the cover of the box.” (20)
Brandebury and the Foremans pose at the grave
(Stutler Collection, Charleston, WV)

The refilled grave (Stutler Collection,
Charleston, WV
)
The second burial box was unmolested. The Foremans and Brandebury posed stiffly for the Doctor’s camera, before the grave was refilled and marked with crude headstones plucked from the river’s edge.  

The victims of Harpers Ferry had been found. One objective remained -- a goal echoed in the words of Ruth Brown Thompson, eldest daughter of the Commander. “Dr. Featherstonhaugh . . . If those long neglected and almost forgotten bodies which have so long slept in Virginia soil could be placed beside their loving leader, would it not be the crowning act of devotion to them? I do hope and pray it may be done.” (21)

*****

They met by chance, that summer of 1899. Orin G. Libby was visiting acquaintances in the national capital, when he was informed of Dr. Featherstonhaugh’s purpose to compile a history of the Harpers Ferry raid. His curiosity aroused, the touring professor sought out the learned Doctor. And during their succeeding conversations, he discovered unanticipated designs for another, more stirring, adventure.

Recalled Libby: “While in Washington I ran across a man who is making a study of the raid and who had discovered the burying place of the 7 or 8 men shot at Harpers Ferry. One of the graves he opened...years ago, and always planned to take all the remains up to North Elba and bury them properly near John Brown’s grave. I persuaded him to let me have a share in the matter.” (22)

Featherstonhaugh admired the energy and intelligence of the youthful scholar -- and was pleasantly surprised to learn of Libby’s familial relationship to Charles Plummer Tidd, a member of Brown’s Provisional Army. With full confidence in his visitor, the Doctor revealed his scheme to exhume the remnants of the fallen raiders from that lone forsaken grave, and to convey them to the distant Adirondacks for final rest beside their martyred Commander. Following a spirited discussion, Professor Orin Grant Libby was formally invited to assist.

The watchword for this ambitious effort was to be secrecy, for only a select few were to be made aware of Dr. Featherstonhaugh’s intentions. Should any of the particulars of the plan appear in the public press, the eventual success of the operation would be jeopardized. Undue publicity would attract unwelcome curiosity seekers and relic hunters. And even though the era of intense fraternal strife had receded into the past, it was feared that these actions would rekindle latent sectional animosities -- both in the local populace and in the nation at large. Finally, Featherstonhaugh was apprehensive that, without prior notification, State health authorities might attempt to hinder the transportation of the remains. “I want to keep the matter quiet until I get the bodies off,” wrote the Doctor, “and then the public can have the news, which will make quite a stir.” (23)

It was for the conveyance of those bodies that Orin Libby had been selected. The visiting professor was perfectly suited for the plot, for he possessed the invaluable commodity of anonymity. His public links to John Brown scholarship, or to the prior activities of Dr. Featherstonhaugh, were non-existent. He would therefore not arouse suspicion as he personally conducted the exhumed material northward.
Featherstonhaugh had already obtained encouragement from members of the Brown family, along with permission to utilize their burial plot at North Elba. He was also certain of gaining the consent of the owners of the Harpers Ferry pulp mill, upon whose property the gravesite was situated. When successfully completed, the scheme was to appear as an act of public altruism -- not private vandalism.

All seemed ready. But before arrangements were finalized, Libby was obligated to continue his academic tour. The men parted with a firm agreement to maintain communication. An excited Orin Libby, his personal research now secondary, eagerly awaited definitive instructions for what he would later call an “act of delayed historic justice” -- the “second raid of Harpers Ferry.” (24)

Final word reached Libby in Baltimore. Wrote Featherstonhaugh: “I think the best plan is to go up there boldly and accomplish our work...I now propose to go from here on Friday night and we will do our work early on Saturday morning and you can get off by some early train. I think two hours work will accomplish what we wish...Go to the Summit House, about half a mile from the depot, which will be our headquarters...If you should not be able to arrive until after we are at work, cross the Shenandoah bridge and keep up stream right by the rivers brink and you will run upon us...Let this arrangement be definite, unless you hear to the contrary from me.” The Doctor enclosed a crudely penciled map of Harpers Ferry, noting the river bridges, the gravesite and the Summit House rendezvous point. He also included a list of the slain raiders, for delivery to those at North Elba in charge of receiving the remains. (25)
Featherstonhaugh's map (Libby Collection,
Univ. of North Dakota
)
On the evening of Friday, July 28th, 1899, Orin Grant Libby stepped from a coach at the Harpers Ferry railroad station. Porters lifted a large trunk from the baggage car -- a trunk that would soon bear the members of the Provisional Army of the United States.

*****

The Saturday sun had yet to appear, when an impatient Orin Libby crossed the Shenandoah bridge. He wandered aimlessly two miles upstream, before returning to Harpers Ferry for breakfast. There he met Featherstonhaugh, this time accompanied by Captain E.P. Hall. The Doctor had tarried to enlist three local men to perform the excavation. Shortly thereafter, the entire party arrived at the riverside grave.

The two burial boxes were soon exposed. They lay end to end, in an East/West orientation. Featherstonhaugh later described the scene: “The...great boxes...from being constantly wet, were remarkably preserved. Most of the smaller bones had crumbled away, but the long bones...were recovered...There were portions of coats and vests with the buttons still in position upon them, and from one of the vest pockets dropped two short lead pencils, all sharpened for use.”

Observed Libby: “There was little remaining intact of the bodies, but not a little of the clothing was still recognizable. The rusted brass buttons (and) buckles...told the story plainly. On account of the peculiar coat worn by John Brown’s son, Oliver, we were able to identify his resting place...in the easternmost of the two graves. From the account of those who saw the burial, they were thrown in carelessly...And the arrangement of the bones when they were disinterred confirms this report fully.” (26)

The work was completed by midday. One of the laborers conducted the exhumed bones and fragments of clothing to Camp Hill, above Harpers Ferry, delivering them to a summer cottage near the Summit House. And it was there that the remains, secured with cotton and excelsior, were packed into Libby’s trunk.

Word of the exhumations sped quickly through the town. A relieved Thomas Featherstonhaugh, from his secure haven on the hilltop, could easily view the gravesite across the Shenandoah. He wrote: “In the late afternoon at Harpers Ferry we could see from Lightner’s porch the whole neighborhood at the site of the two graves. The river bank fairly swarmed with people...I do not know of anything of small moment that seems to have caused so much sensation as this thing.” (27) But Orin Grant Libby, with his precious cargo, was safely on a northbound train.
Railroad station at Harpers Ferry (National Park Service)

*****
The secret proved difficult to keep. From Harrisburg, a gloating Libby wrote Eva Cory: “Much has happened since I left Baltimore. You could never guess & I mean to tell  you but you must keep very still about it...Just outside in the hall is a trunk containing the remains of the Harpers Ferry victims killed at the famous raid 40 years ago...I fancy the newspaper men will be wild over it when they hear how we dodged them.”

In order to fully impress his lady, he purposely embellished the perils of the adventure: “If it had been known in advance a lot of the old Charleston fire eaters who hate Brown and the north would have been on hand with their Winchesters and driven us off. It is a wild land there still and not a few Washington people were prevented from being present by fear of hearing the bullets whistle.” And finally, fearing that he may have betrayed his commitment to secrecy, Libby warned: “You are the first one outside of the secret circle to know of it!...Now please don’t tell on me till you see by the papers that it is safe.” (28)

While still in Harrisburg, Libby closely examined the disinterred material and carefully repacked the trunk. He also initiated an attempt to ascertain the actual number of persons exhumed from the double grave. Local tradition and previously published reports -- some by Dr. Featherstonhaugh himself -- had claimed that the corpse of John Kagi had also been conveyed to the dissectors of Winchester.
So were seven -- or eight -- men to be reburied at North Elba? Because the skulls and smaller bones had undergone extensive decomposition, the only means of properly determining the sum of individuals was through analysis of the long bones. In short, Libby needed someone to count femurs. He dispatched a note to a New York insurance agent, seeking advice on an anatomical expert who might perform the task. And he informed Featherstonhaugh of his intention to continue his journey by way of that city. Then he was off to New Jersey. (29)

Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was a worried man. His role in the exhumations had quickly become public knowledge. Swarms of persistent newspapermen harried him incessantly. Orin Libby remained anonymous, but his apparent leisurely progress invited discovery by a press pursuing the scent of a dramatic story. A Featherstonhaugh letter overtook him in Trenton: “Of course you know by this time that the whole civilized world knows of the removal of the bodies from Harpers Ferry. The papers are full of it...Your name has not been mentioned in any account that I have seen. Reporters are after me all day and I have no recourse except to say that the bones have gone to N. Elba.”
A Featherstonhaugh postscript
(Libby Collection, Univ. of North Dakota)
The Doctor implored Libby to expedite his journey: “Don’t you see that...delay will spoil the whole matter?...I have heard nothing but hearty endorsement of our work from every quarter, and I do not want it spoiled by needless procrastination.” He also doubted the necessity of researching the remains while enroute northward. “This whole matter is more a question of sentiment than one of science,” Featherstonhaugh exclaimed, while urging Libby to critically count the femurs only after he reached his ultimate destination. And it was with extreme vexation that the Doctor learned of the New York plan: “The health authorities of New York will make it very uncomfortable for you if they get track of your movements. I advise you very earnestly to keep away from N.Y...(and) on every account deprecate delay.”

The urgency of Featherstonhaugh’s letter was recognized by Libby. New York City was bypassed in favor of Albany. From that place he wrote Eva Cory: “I got a letter from Dr. Featherstonhaugh . . . saying that the papers were full of our new Harpers Ferry raid and that I was expected to go on at once. I am here waiting for the train which will land me in Lake Placid...An episode of this kind is a rare one in my life and I intend to make full use of it.” (30)
Signature of Orin Grant Libby 
(Libby Collection, Univ. of North Dakota)



To Be Continued
*****
H. SCOTT WOLFE A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, H. Scott Wolfe is a 1971 graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in botany. He conducted graduate work at both Montana and the University of Oregon. He conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service as a plant taxonomist, assisted in the preparation of several works on algal taxonomy, and conducted independent research on snow and ice algae in the western United States and Canada. In 1975, Wolfe returned to the Midwest—settling in Galena, illinois, the home of his maternal ancestors, and a Union General named Grant A Civil War enthusiast since childhood, Wolfe has utilized this historic environment to devote himself to researching the antebellum era. His specialty soon became the militant abolitionist John Brown—and the members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States. For over two decades he has been assembling biographical materials dealing with over twenty-five of Brown’s “soldiers’—interviewing their descendants, visiting their birthplaces, locating their clandestine hideouts, and unraveling the scenes of their final tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Presently the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District—and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel), Wolfe is actively involved in both writing and speaking upon both Civil War and African-American historical topics. Wolfe and his wife Nancy, an author and expert on vintage clothing, carry on a continuing war for storage space.

Notes for Part 2

20. Featherstonhaugh, “John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry,” Publications of the Southern History Association, Volume III, Washington, D.C., (1899), pp. 300-301. 

21. Ruth Brown Thompson to Thomas Featherstonhaugh, October 6, 1896, Libby Collection. 

22. Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

23. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Katherine McClellan, July 19, 1899, Adirondack Collection, Saranac Lake Free Library, Saranac Lake, New York. 

24. “Second Raid,” University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal, November 13, 1899. 

25. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, July 25, 1899 and July 26, 1899, Libby Collection. 

26. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, “The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown,” New England Magazine, Volume XXIV, April 1901, p. 133; Orin G. Libby to the Editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, August 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

27. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin 0. Libby, August 1, 1899, Libby Collection. 

28. Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

29. William Dutcher to Orin G. Libby, August 1, 1899, Libby Collection. 

30. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, August 1, 1899, and Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, August 3, 1899, Libby Collection. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

THE SECOND HARPERS FERRY RAID:
THE FATE OF JOHN BROWN’S MEN
Part 1

by H. Scott Wolfe
---------------------------
Readers of this blog will be delighted to learn that my friendly associate and co-contributor, H. Scott Wolfe, has graciously contributed his important essay on John Brown's raiders to this blog, where it is widely published for the first time.  Recognizing Mr. Wolfe's years of travel, research, and investigation in matters great and small regarding Brown and his men, having this essay made accessible to our readers is quite a privilege.  Thank you Scott for sharing this treasure with us.--LD
--------------------------- 

Born of a challenge from Edwin Cotter, Jr., the late Superintendent of John Brown’s Farm and Gravesite in Lake Placid, New York, The Second Harpers Ferry Raid began as an attempt to determine the exact number of Brown’s soldiers, members of his “Provisional Army of the United States,” reinterred next to their leader in August of 1899. As is common with the conflicting literature of John Brown, contemporary and secondary sources varied in regard to how many of the victims of Harpers Ferry rested beside their Commander-in- Chief. But as this study progressed, the quest for mere numbers expanded to become a truly intriguing story. A story of how these anonymous victims of war achieved a final peace.

 The Second Harpers Ferry Raid introduces the ten casualties of Brown’s Provisional Army, and then relates the tale of their violent deaths...their hurried burial...their discovery, over three decades hence...their clandestine exhumation...and, finally, their reinterment amidst solemn ceremonies. It tells the story of an amateur John Brown enthusiast who had a dream...a traveling professor whose research was unexpectedly interrupted by a “harum-scarum expedition...and a female artist and authoress who made the arrangements for “a fitting climax for their sacrifice.”  Gleaned almost entirely from unpublished manuscript sources, The Second Harpers Ferry Raid provides a fascinating addition to the literature of abolitionist John Brown.

*****

PART ONE
“I am inclined to think you will not be likely to succeed well about getting away the bodies of your family; but should that be so, do not let that grieve you. It can make but little difference what is done with them.”   (John Brown, November 26, 1859)

It was the summer of 1899, and young Dr. Orin G. Libby, instructor of history at the University of Wisconsin, had eagerly anticipated his Eastern tour. He relished the opportunity to visit the old colonial towns of the Middle Atlantic and New England states, to experience the “perpetual delight” of their venerable libraries and to enjoy the recreation of, what he called, their “perfect bicycle pavements.”

Orin Grant Libby 
(Milwaukee Sentinel
5 November 1899)
But then he had met the gentleman from Washington, and his enthusiasm was suddenly focused in a new, entirely unexpected, direction. From Baltimore, with a decided mixture of masculine bravado and Tom Sawyerish intrigue, Libby wrote his future wife Eva Cory: “I expect to engage in a harum-scarum expedition which I don’t even dare tell you about till it is all done. You’ll probably read of it in the newspapers. I fancy even the country papers will have enough to tell you, even if my letter fails, what it is all about.” (1) Professor Orin Grant Libby was about to embark upon the Second Harpers Ferry Raid.

On the chill, misty night of October 16th, 1859, the Provisional Army of the United States solemnly trudged down a murky Maryland road. Their tiny column of eighteen men, white and black, was accompanied by a rude farm wagon, upon which rode their Commander-in-Chief, the militant abolitionist John Brown. The Old Testament warrior was again prepared to smite his personal ogre...slavery.

The destination of this armed band was Harpers Ferry, Virginia, that bustling oasis of industry perched astride the rock wedge at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The town, with its Federal armory, arsenal and rifle factory, sat poised at a natural entrance to the surrounding mountains. And those mountains, the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, were like sylvan swords, thrust deep into the vitals of Brown’s despised Slave Kingdom.

The Harpers Ferry Armory,
scene of the raid   (Library of Congress)
“These mountains,” said the Commander-in-Chief, “are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the negro race.” Here, from Harpers Ferry, stretched a rugged corridor from slavery to liberty...The Great Black Way...The Subterranean Passway...”and along that path were fastnesses and hiding places easily capable of becoming permanent fortified refuges for organized bands of determined armed men.” (2)

The Provisional Army would strike quickly. A brazen attack upon the government installations would electrify the nation. The soldiers would gather arms, rally the local slave population and then withdraw to the impenetrable recesses of the hills. “I know these mountains well,” said John Brown, “and could take a body of men into them and keep them there, despite of all the efforts of Virginia to dislodge them.” The Harpers Ferry raid would be “not a foray from the mountains,” but rather, “a foray to the mountains.” (3)

From their fortified enclaves, Brown’s Army would launch additional incursions...rolling down the mountain chains and their adjacent valleys...inducing more slaves to swell their ranks or, for the reluctant or infirm, providing safe passage northward to free-state Pennsylvania. The Commander called it “Rail Road business on a somewhat extended scale.” No insurrection, no “general slaughter of the slavemasters,” was proposed. Potential anarchy and confusion were to be averted through the stable influence of a formal Constitution, penned by Brown himself. “It was my object to place the slaves in a condition to defend their liberties, if they would, without any bloodshed,” he said. But Old Osawatomie “did contemplate the creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of the South.” (4)

But after initial success, the lightning strike at Harpers Ferry degenerated to a plodding, hideous conclusion. A seemingly confused Commander became passive, frozen into a bewildering inactivity. The stampede of oppressed blacks failed to materialize, for they were either unaware, or unsure, of the Liberator’s intentions. And the white militia organizations, from the surrounding communities, were promptly marshaled to confront the invaders...those specters of the worst Southern nightmare.
By the morning of October 18th, Brown, with his surviving men and their hostages, had retreated to the tiny, brick armory fire engine house. A small detachment of United States Marines stormed the building. And the grandiose scheme of slave liberation expired in two minutes of smoke and blood.
One week hence, the wounded Brown would be borne to a Charlestown courtroom to face charges of murder, treason and inciting slaves to rebel. And within two months, convicted, he would hang...his mortal remains would begin the slow journey for burial at his spartan Adirondack farm...and his ardent partisans would launch his martyrdom.

*****

Of the members of the Provisional Army of the United States, that paramilitary column of eighteen, two would escape. Six would share the fate of their Commander on a Virginia scaffold. And ten lay dead in the streets and rivers of Harpers Ferry...the victims of bullet, bayonet and Southern rage. These ten men were the human wreckage bred of passions that would soon sever the cords of Union. Some of noble ideals. Some of base ambitions. Some of blind obedience. These were the casualties of Harpers Ferry:

John Kagi
JOHN KAGI...The gifted zealot. Alias Maurice Maitland, alias John Henrie. Brown’s Secretary of War and second-in-command. His frantic calls for withdrawal were ignored by a Commander intent upon rationalizing his actions before a pitiful audience of armory workmen. “In a very few days we shall commence,” he wrote on the eve of the raid, “things could not be more cheerful and more certain of success than they are. We have worked hard and suffered much, but the hardest is down now, and a glorious success is in sight...Be cheerful. Don’t imagine dangers. All will be well.” Shot in the head and instantly killed, while fleeing into the Shenandoah River. (5)

William Leeman
WILLIAM LEEMAN...The callow shoemaker from Maine. Swagger and bluster barely concealed the boy within. “I don’t want you to worrie yourself about me,” he wrote his anxious mother, “I shall be in danger, but it is natural to me. I shall not get killed. I am in a good cause, and I am not afraid.” Pursued and viciously shot in the Potomac, his faceless corpse was propped in the rocks to test the marksmanship of undisciplined militia. Said a reporter: “His black hair may just be seen floating upon the surface of the water and waving with every ripple.” (6)

Steward Taylor
STEWARD TAYLOR...The mystical wagonmaker. The Canadien-born spiritualist who, sequestered with his comrades, confidently predicted his own death. He “was full of...cranky notions and ideas on all manner of subjects,” said the Commander’s daughter. Earlier, out of touch with the movement, he feared being left behind. “I felt as though I was deprived of my chief object in life,” he wrote, “I believe that fate has decreed me for this undertaking...It is my chief desire to add fuel to the fire.” Mortally wounded in the engine house. In his agony, he begged to be shot. “If you must die, die like a man,” said John Brown. (7)

DANGERFIELD NEWBY...The manumitted slave. Son of a Scotch master. Quiet and devoted, he took up arms to free his family from the toil of a Virginia plantation. His wife begged him to purchase her and the baby that had just “commenced to crawl...as soon as possible, for if you do not get me somebody else will.” Her plaintive words echoed in his mind: “Oh Dear Dangerfield, come this fall without fail, money or no money I want to see you so much; that is the one bright hope I have before me.” Hogs nuzzled him in a filthy gutter, his throat severed, his ears sliced off as grisly souvenirs. (8)

Watson Brown
WATSON BROWN...The loyal son of the leader. A loving and compassionate soldier in a war suddenly turned brutal. “Dear Belle,” he wrote his child-wife, “I would gladly come home and stay with you always but for the cause which brought me here -- a desire to do something for others, and not live wholly for my own happiness...I sometimes feel as if I could not make this sacrifice, but what would I not want others to do were I in their place?” Sent to parley, he was gut-shot under a white flag and managed to crawl to the engine house fortress to linger through the next day. A haughty captor asked the sufferer: “What brought you here?” The terse reply: “Duty, sir.” (9)
Jeremiah Anderson

JEREMIAH ANDERSON...The savvy Kansas veteran. “As earnest a member of the party as Brown had with him,” was this trusted aide. “There are few who dare to answer the call, and dare to answer it in a manner that will make this land of Liberty and Equality shake to the center,” he penned from the Maryland base. “We go in to win at all hazards. So if you should hear of a failure it will be after a desperate struggle.” Pinned to the wall of the engine house during the Marine bayonet assault. Dragged out, “vomiting gore,” he was kicked and spat upon by the enraged citizenry. Drawled one local farmer: “Well, it takes you a hell of a long time to die.” (10)

William Thompson
WILLIAM THOMPSON...The good-natured wit. Brown’s Adirondack neighbor and kinsman. He “would have made a successful comic actor,” said the daughter of the Commander, for “he was very lively and full of funny stories and jokes.” Early captured, a mob dragged him to the Potomac bridge, shot him repeatedly and tossed him to the rocks below. The body “could be seen lying at the bottom of the river, with his ghastly face still showing what a fearful death agony he had experienced.” With such “villainous Abolitionists,” said one of the killers, “(I) felt justified in shooting any that I could find. I felt it my duty, and I have no regrets.” (11)
Dauphin Thompson

DAUPHIN THOMPSON...The quiet innocent. The “pippin-cheeked country boy,” young brother of William. He “was much more like a girl than a warrior,” it was recalled, “with his light yellow, curly hair,...blue eyes, and face as smooth as a baby’s.” Always “affectionate and childlike with his friends,” he seemed more suited to a Sunday School than a servile war. “I suppose the folk think we are a set of fools,” he wrote from ‘Parts Unknown,’ “but they will find out we know what we are about.” Skewered by a Marine bayonet, while cowering beneath a fire engine in the final fortress. (12)

Lewis Leary
LEWIS LEARY...The educated saddler. An unindicted conspirator in the Oberlin rescue, he was a free man of color who had been named for a slaveholder of conscience. Abruptly leaving home and family, sachel of harness-making tools in hand, he sought far more serious work. “Tell no man where I have gone,” he once said, “you’ll see me again, but I’ll be marching at the top of the drum...Men must suffer for a good cause.” Caught in the crossfire in the Shenandoah, he suffered a cruel and agonizing death on the dusty floor of a Harpers Ferry cooper’s shop. His final message in the cause of freedom: “I am ready to die.” (13)

Oliver Brown
and OLIVER BROWN...The youngest son. Bright and studious, his mother thought him the most promising. “I think there is no good reason why any of us should be discouraged,” he wrote his cherishing family, “for if we have done but one good act, life is not a failure...Keep a stiff lip, a sound pluck, and believe that all will come out right in the end.” Mortally wounded near the engine house. “Oliver lived but a very few moments after he was shot,” said a survivor. “He spoke no word, but yielded calmly to his fate.” (14)

These ten lifeless soldiers of the Provisional Army were “subjected to every indignity that a wild and madly excited people could heap upon them.” A horrified reporter could only rationalize: “It may be thought that there was cruelty and barbarity in this; but the public mind had been frenzied by the outrages of these men, who, being outlaws, were regarded as food for carrion birds, and not as human creatures.”

However, once a semblance of order had been restored to Harpers Ferry, the bodies of the slain were gathered and the dilemma of their disposal was addressed. The “unsettled state of the country” and the “excitement of the people” mandated prompt interment. But the residents of Harpers Ferry would not condone the pollution of their own cemetery with the remains of these harbingers of servile insurrection. (15)

Opportunistic medical students were the first to take advantage of the confused situation, seizing the remains of Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson and carrying them to their college in Winchester...for use as dissection specimens. The callous treatment of Anderson was described by a citizen: “In order to take him away handily they procured a barrel and tried to pack him into it. Head foremost, they rammed him in, but they could not bend his legs so as to get them into the barrel with the rest of the body. In their endeavor to accomplish this feat, they strained so hard that the man’s bones or sinews fairly cracked.” (16)

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
5 November 1859
Two men, paid five dollars from the public purse, were hired to dispose of the remaining corpses. Carelessly tossed into the box of a common wagon, this gruesome freight -- witnesses recalled the welter of sprawling limbs -- rumbled over the Shenandoah bridge to the opposite bank. A burial site was selected on the margin of the river, one-half mile above the town. And there, without ceremony, the slain soldiers of the Provisional Army of the United States were committed to a shallow, common grave. But Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia, was soon to interrupt their slumber.

In November, prior to the Liberator’s execution, Mrs. John Brown had penned a touching letter to the Governor, appealing for the “mortal remains of my husband and sons.” In his response, Wise enclosed a copy of an order to Major General William Taliaferro to “deliver to your order the mortal remains...(and) to guard you sacredly in your solemn mission.” Unknown to Mrs. Brown, Watson was in the hands of the ghoulish medicos of Winchester. However, young Oliver did lie in the grave beside the Shenandoah.

Acting upon the Governor’s orders, a party of men under Alfred Barbour, Superintendent of the United States Armory, gathered at the site of the mass burial. They found “two large mounds of earth, freshly thrown up.” Digging a mere foot beneath the surface, they reached “a body which had been buried with the face down, and was then in so advanced a state of decomposition as apparently to render identification impossible.” Additional bodies were unearthed and scrutinized, but it was not until December 8th -- nearly a week after Mrs. Brown had departed with the remains of her husband -- that Barbour reported to her agent: “Upon examination, the body of one of Mrs. Brown’s sons was recognized among the disinterred invaders. The bodies of them all have been again buried properly on the right bank of the Shenandoah in the County of Jefferson, Virginia.” (17)

This time the men were placed in two large “store boxes,” and Francis Yates, Overseer of the Poor for Jefferson County, presented a bill for $55 -- along with a plea that because “these men were killed on the property of the United States, whilst they had forcible possession of said property...we submit that the Government, and not the Overseers...should pay the expenses of interment.” (18)  But the dead of Harpers Ferry were again at rest. Undisturbed by the tread of rival Civil War armies, and the succeeding spring freshets of the Shenandoah, the gravesite was for decades ignored, if not forgotten.

One victim reappeared in 1882, when the body of Watson Brown, one of those dispatched to the medical school, surfaced in the Martinsville, Indiana office of Jarvis Johnson, M.D. Once a surgeon of the 27th Indiana Regiment, Dr. Johnson had absconded with the prepared specimen during a Federal occupation of Winchester in 1862. John Brown, Junior was summoned, and what he witnessed was described to his family:
Carroll County (IL) Weekly Mirror, 4 June 1862
“I found it in a long narrow box...As soon as I could choke down my feelings I began a careful survey. The muscles of the mouth had been stretched unnaturally, probably to expose the teeth as much as possible. Two or three of the upper front teeth are broken...(and) several joints of the fingers and toes are missing. It is said they were cut off and carried away as relics by the Confederates...The body has suffered a good deal of waste from the ravages of insects...The hole corresponding to the wound as reported at the time...can be plainly seen.” (19)
His duty finally served, Watson Brown was promptly shipped to be buried alongside his father in faraway North Elba, New York. And in 1895, those interred on the lonely bank of the Shenandoah would also reappear. For a gentleman from Washington had arrived in Harpers Ferry.

--H. Scott Wolfe


BIOGRAPHICAL H. SCOTT WOLFE A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, H. Scott Wolfe is a 1971 graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in botany. He conducted graduate work at both Montana and the University of Oregon. He conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service as a plant taxonomist, assisted in the preparation of several works on algal taxonomy, and conducted independent research on snow and ice algae in the western United States and Canada. In 1975, Wolfe returned to the Midwest—settling in Galena, illinois, the home of his maternal ancestors, and a Union General named Grant A Civil War enthusiast since childhood, Wolfe has utilized this historic environment to devote himself to researching the antebellum era. His specialty soon became the militant abolitionist John Brown—and the members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States. For over two decades he has been assembling biographical materials dealing with over twenty-five of Brown’s “soldiers’—interviewing their descendants, visiting their birthplaces, locating their clandestine hideouts, and unraveling the scenes of their final tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Presently the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District—and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel), Wolfe is actively involved in both writing and speaking upon both Civil War and African-American historical topics. Wolfe and his wife Nancy, an author and expert on vintage clothing, carry on a continuing war for storage space.

To Be Continued

Notes for Part 1


1. John Brown to Mary A. Brown, November 26, 1859, in Louis Ruchames (ed.), A John Brown Reader (NY: Abelard Schuman, 1959), p. 152; Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 23, 1899, Orin Grant Libby Collection, Elwyn B. Robinson Dept. of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks (hereafter cited as the Libby Collection). 

2. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History [1881] (Avenal, NJ: Gramercy Books, 1993), p. 262; W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown [1909] (New York: International Publishers, 1962), p. 274. 

3. Douglass, Life and Times, p. 262; Du Bois, John Brown, p. 276. 

4. John Brown to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 12, 1858, in Ruchames, John Brown Reader, pp. 110-111; John Brown to Andrew Hunter, November 22, 1859, ibid., p. 144; Douglass, Life and Times, pp. 261-262. 

5. John Kagi to his family in Otoe, Nebraska, September 24, 1859, portions quoted in Richard Hinton, John Brown and His Men: With Some Account of the Roads They Traveled to Reach Harper’s Ferry (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1894), p. 465. 

6. William H. Leeman to His Mother (Sarah A. Leeman), October 2, 1859, Richard Josiah Hinton Collection, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka; Baltimore Sun, October 19, 1859. 

7. Account of John Brown’s men and life at the Kennedy Farm written by Annie Brown Adams for Richard J. Hinton, undated, Hinton Collection; Steward Taylor to Iowa Friend, —, 1859, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 533; Steward Taylor to Friend, July 3, 1859, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Volume XI (Richmond, Va., 1893), p. 301; statement of John Thomas Allstadt, April 15, 1909, quoted in Osward Garrison Villard, John Brawn: A Biography Forty Years After (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910), p. 448. 

8. Harriett Newby to Dangerfield Newby: April 11, 1859, April 22, 1859, and August 16, 1859, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Volume XI, pp. 310-311. 

9. Watson Brown to Belle Thompson Brown, September 8, 1859, quoted in Franklin B.Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891), pp. 542-543; Watson Brown to Belle Thompson Brown, September 16, 1859, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 578; C.W. Tayleure to John Brown, Jr., June 15, 1879, in Sanborn, Life and Letters, pp. 611-612. 

10. Statement of George B. Gill, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 546; Jeremiah Anderson to his brother, September 28(?), 1859, ibid., p. 547; Joseph Barry, The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, With Legends of the Surrounding Country, Thompson Bros. (Martinsburg, W. Va., 1903), p.80. 

11. Account of John Brown’s men written by Annie Brown Adams, Hinton Collection; Barry, Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, p. 60; testimony of Harry Hunter, quoted in Villard, John Brown, p. 442. 

12. Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1954), p. 29; Account of John Brown’s men written by Annie Brown Adams, Hinton Collection; Dauphin Thompson to Brother and Sister, September 4, 1859, quoted in Hinton, John Brown and His Men, p. 277. 

13. Rose Leary Love, “The Five Brave Negroes With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry,” The Negro History Bulletin (April 1964), p. 167; Nat Brandt, The Town Thai Started The Civil War (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), p. 242; Villard, John Brown, p.486. 

14. Oliver Smith (Brown) to Mother, Brother and Sisters, September 9, 1859, in Sanborn, Life and Letters, p. 547; Edwin Coppoc to Mrs. Mary A. Brown, in New York Tribune, December 12, 1859. 

15. Frederick (Md.) Herald quoted in Richard D. Webb, The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown (London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1861), pp. 156-157; Thomas J. Featherstonhaugh, “Heroes of Harper’s Ferry,” ca. 1895 article published in the Washington Post, in the Boyd Stutler Collection, West Virginia Department of Culture and History, Charleston, West Virginia. 

16. Barry, Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, p. 81. 

17. Mary A. Brown to Governor Henry A. Wise, November 21, 1859, and Governor Henry A. Wise to Mary A. Brown, n.d., quoted in Villard, John Brown, p. 549; New York Independent, December 8, 1859; Alfred Barbour to J. Miller McKim, December 8, 1859, J.M. McKim Collection, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York. 

18. Francis Yates to Alexander R. Boteler, March 21, 1860, Stutler Collection.


19. John Brown, Jr. to Wife and All, September 10, 1882, quoted in Thomas J. Featherstonhaugh, “John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry,” Publications of the Southern History Association, Volume Ill, Washington, D.C., (1899), pp. 296-297.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Battle Hymns--
Expert's Insights on "John Brown's Body" (and My "Controversial" Conclusions)

According to Tony Reid, a reporter for the Herald & Review of Decatur, Ill., a lecture was given recently on famous Civil War tunes.  The presenter was Christian McWhirter, Ph.D., the assistant editor of the Abraham Lincoln Papers project, in Springfield, Ill.  McWhirter's presentation, entitled, "Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War," did his doctoral dissertation on Civil War music.

Besides "Dixie," McWhirter discussed “John Brown's Body,” a song with "its roots in a Union Army song poking fun at a Scottish soldier called John Brown."  Its application to Brown the abolitionist, according to this report, amounted to "a joking play on words."  Whether or not McWhirter drew this conclusion, or if this is really the conclusion of the journalist, it is not exactly correct.  It is true, of course, that the original John Brown song was a spoof, a humorous soldiers' song that clearly has not an ounce of political or social intent.  But the application of the song to the abolitionist was hardly a matter of humor, but rather a meaningful and spontaneous appropriation that indicated the spirit of the times.  Almost in an instant, as it were, the original nature of the song was lost, and the chorus, "John Brown's body lies a moldering in the grave" became the northern battle hymn--more appropriately, the antislavery battle hymn of the Civil War.

McWhirter pointed out how abolitionist Julia Ward Howe heard a group of soldiers singing the tune and "decided it was time to take the lyrics up-market."  But he interestingly points out that her stylized make-over, the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic," did not actually become famous until well after the Civil War.   “[N]obody was very interested in this song during the Civil War,” said McWhirter, and despite his depth of research, the scholar says he has found almost no evidence that Union soldiers ever sang this song until after the war.

The latter point is of great interest.  McWhirter's conclusion that the Ward Howe makeover didn't quite "take" with the soldiers during the war is important to me, as it underscores my argument made elsewhere--that rather than a work of inspired brilliance, the writing of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was a well-intended abolitionist scheme to manipulate the zeitgeist and bring it in line with their nonviolent, institutionalized Unitarian New England sensibilities.  Ward Howe, following the admonition of James Freeman Clarke, wanted to "improve" history by taking control of its raw energy and processing it in a manner more palatable to their perspective.

Not only did the abolitionist establishment want a song that had the dignity of a hymn, but they did not want to celebrate a man who used "violence" despite their sympathies for him.  I'm not suggesting Ward Howe disliked Brown--far from it, considering her husband was one of Brown's supporters. But it is clear that the pacifist abolitionist elite were not entirely sure what to do with Brown despite their appreciation for him as the default martyr of the antislavery cause.  After his death, however, they wanted to move beyond Brown, wanted to take back control of the antislavery movement from this wild card abolitionist.  After all, John Brown had managed to steal their thunder, and to do what twenty years of Garrisonian wailing had not accomplished.

It is only fitting to find that despite the well-intended machinations of Ward Howe and her abolitionist friends, the glory of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is only anachronistic.  At the time, in the midst of the war, soldiers and enslaved people were full of "John Brown's Body," and they did not give up their strangely anointed ballad for Ward Howe's well-crafted replacement anthem.   It is probably the most significant aspect of the story of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" that it did not become meaningful to the nation until a different generation had arisen--a generation that had already begun to move away from the priorities of black freedom, instead celebrating the death and rebirth of the great white union, epitomized by the glorification of their preferred martyr, Abraham Lincoln. --LD
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See Tony Reid, "Civil war tunes' twists and turns noted."  Herald & Review (3 Aug. 2015)

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Legends--
That Black Baby Kiss

Time does not permit me to write at length about the legendary black baby kiss by John Brown, portrayed in text and paintings many times over since 1859.   For years, of course, scholars have known that the abolitionist kissed no black baby on the day of his execution, despite the famous artistic portrayals of the 19th century.  On the day and hour of Brown's final ride from the jail to the site of his hanging on December 2, 1859, 11:00 a.m. EST, Charlestown, Va. (now West. Va.) was so full of military personnel that it would have been impossible for anyone to come within kissing distance of the old man as he left the jail and stepped up into the furniture wagon that carried him to the gallows.  Furthermore, citizens and their enslaved people were prohibited from leaving their homes, and the execution was closed to the public in general.  Only a small number of non-military personnel were present at the hanging, such as local officials like Prosecutor Andrew Hunter and reporters.

However, in Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, I maintain that Brown did indeed kiss a black child, although not on the day of his hanging.  I will not go into detail, mainly because I'd rather you read it in the book.  But suffice it to say that the kissing of the black baby far more likely took place early in Brown's confinement in Charlestown, following his defeat at Harper's Ferry.  I do not believe the baby kiss incident was either invented or was the product of a conflation of other incidents, including the kissing of the jailer's child on the day of execution--an event that also happened by the way.   It is far more likely that the kissing of the black child, which happened in October, was overlooked by journalists and interpolated in the final scene of Brown's life in Charlestown reported in the New York Daily Tribune.

So, for those who like the fine details of history, yes, John Brown did kiss that black baby after all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cinema--
The Charlestown Jail Scene in "Prince of Players"

The IMDb website remembers the 1955 film production, "Prince of Players" as a

tragic and sentimental story that depicts the early career of the 19th century American actor, Edwin Booth with some mention of the events leading to the assassination of President Lincoln by Edwin's brother, John Wilkes Booth. In the film, Edwin's days in the spotlight dwindle shortly after his brother is caught and killed for assassinating Lincoln.

The film is largely based upon the life of Edwin Booth, and provides little dramatization of his brother's life, the infamous assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.  The screenplay for "Prince of Players" was based upon the popular (but apparently not annotated) historical narrative, Prince of Players: Edwin Booth (1953), by Eleanor Ruggles.   The film starred Richard Burton as Edwin Booth, John Derek as John Wilkes Booth, and Raymond Massey--famous for his portrayal of Lincoln and Brown in other films--as their tragic father and acting forebear, Junius Brutus Booth.  The film says little about the mounting crisis over slavery, but conveys sufficiently that Edwin was loyal to the Union, while his infamous brother became a bitter defender of the South.   The movie somewhat drags along because, mainly it's a story about a 19th century Shakespearean actor's career, his brief marriage to a wife who died in 1863, and how he overcame his personal demons as well as the shame brought upon the Booth family by his fanatical brother's assassination of Lincoln.  The film does not show or even mention that the real Edwin Booth actually saved Robert Lincoln, the eldest son of the President, from a near fatal accident at a train station in Jersey City, NJ, in 1864.  Nor does it give much detail about Edwin Booth's prestigious career in New York City, that lasted into the early 1890s.

Obviously, my interest in "Prince of Players" is the scene when Edwin Booth is urged to reach out to Wilkes Booth by their worried sister, Asia.  Without context, the film portrays the two concerned siblings in a stage coach, where Edwin stops in an unnamed town to find John.  The aberrant actor is portrayed in a bar, making some kind of a political speech about the necessity of Brown's hanging.   In the story, Edwin had excelled his ambitious brother in acting, while John Wilkes had found a new calling in political subversion.  The former, seeking to save his brother from political folly, thus offers John an opportunity to co-star with him on the London stage.  To this, John Wilkes Booth says, "I want to show you something," and leads his brother outside of the bar, where they can see the shadow of Brown pacing in jail cell through a barred window.  (In reality, the side of the jail faced a street, not a bar.)

John Wilkes:  "There he is, John Brown.  Look at him, Ned, pacing up and down his cell, dreaming of an army with banners that will come to rescue him.  But it is not coming." 
Edwin:  "Why do you hate him so, a man you have never known?" 
John Wilkes: "Hate him?  I don't hate him.  In his own way he is a great man.  But to destroy greatness is to partake of greatness.  Shakespeare knew that.  Remember, Ned, when he had Brutus say to Caesar, 'Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods'? Shakespeare never wrote drama like this.  John Brown will die tomorrow.  Not play acting at death, but to rise for the applause as the curtain falls.   Swing by his neck as the sun comes up in mortal anguish.  Listen to those voices--not supers [supernumeraries] in the wings, real men, whose voices are real.  That sound could fill this land with agony.   Ned, there must be more glory to life than bowing and smirking to an audience--more fame than a well spoken Hamlet.  There's a mortal drama beginning to be played out here that's worth a thousand Hamlets.  That's the stage to play upon, Ned.  The smell of life and blood in your nostrils.  Waiting for your cue until destiny speaks the line. . . ."
At this point, Booth is summoned back into the bar, and bids his brother farewell.


Of course the scene is fictional.  Not only did Edwin not meet his brother at Charlestown on the night before Brown's hanging (Thur., Dec. 1, 1859), but Booth had come to town under the auspices of a Richmond militia group and was in uniform.  Although he was hardly incognito, he was "acting" like a soldier in uniform.   Interestingly, however, Moss Hart's screenplay preserves something of the warped admiration that Booth later expressed for Brown.  Although the proslavery actor wanted the abolitionist to die, even risking his acting job to travel to Charlestown to observe the Old Man's death, he did feel Brown was admirable for his bravery.  Hart's script puts the words of "greatness" in Booth's mouth, insinuating that Booth's desire to destroy greatness would ultimately lead the actor to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

According to Ruggles' book, Booth’s sister, Asia, recalled that her brother John had witnessed the hanging of Brown and “felt a throb of anguish as he beheld the old eyes straining their anxious sight for the multitude he vainly thought would rise to rescue him.”  Asia later recalled that John Wilkes told her, “Brown was a brave old man; his heart must have broken when he felt himself deserted.” (Prince of Players: Edwin Booth, p. 119)   As David Reynolds has recently observed:
In a letter of December 1864, shortly after Lincoln was elected to a second term, Booth wrote bitterly of the president: “He is standing in the footprints of old John Brown, but no more fit to stand with that rugged old hero—Great God! No. John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of this century!” (Reynolds, "John Wilkes Booth and the Higher Law," The Atlantic, 15 Apr. 2015)
This is where Hart's screenplay insinuates his own view of Lincoln's greatness rather than reiterating Booth's actual sentiment.  As Reynolds would have us understand, Booth did not feel that being part of the deaths of both Brown and Lincoln was to "partake of greatness."  Quite in contrast to Brown, whom Booth recognized as fundamentally profound, the man who finally assassinated Lincoln thought his victim was coarse, vulgar, and disgraceful.

On the other hand, Booth himself misread Brown as having been disappointed in hope of rescue on the day of his hanging, and that he felt deserted.   Like so many other Virginians, Booth was fed propaganda about Brown--his supposed disappointment in the loyalty of local blacks and his last minute desire for rescue being two inventions of the Virginia press.  Neither was true--Brown was quite aware that local black people had shown great enthusiasm, and if he was disappointed in blacks, it was in the free black leadership of the North.  Nor was Brown hoping for rescue as he mounted the gallows (at eleven o'clock in the morning, not at sunrise as stated in the film).  To the contrary, if Brown entertained the possibility of being rescued, he did so only briefly at the onset of his capture. It quickly became clear that he would not be rescued, and he seized upon this hopeless situation with a surprising joy and contentment.  He consistently decried and refused any suggestion from visitors and allies of a rescue.  The man who stood on the gallows in Charlestown was actually quite calm, satisfied, and only looked upon the crowd with one stated regret: that the authorities had not permitted the general public to attend his execution.

In the end, "Prince of Players" at least put one profound truth into the mouth of John Derek's John Wilkes Booth: certainly Shakespeare never wrote drama like this.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Feature--
The Anti-Brown "Union" Meetings, December 1859

In Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, one theme that I have presented in the aftermath of the abolitionist's death is the often overlooked "Union Meetings" that took place in the North in December 1859.  These "Union Meetings" were essentially an expression of the conservative political element of the North, particularly fueled by the interests of capitalists and the propagandized working class men who supported them.
Cutaway from the "Grand Union Meeting" Program,
New York City, 17 Dec. 1859

At the heart of these meetings was economic self-interest, since slavery's stolen wealth flowed into the industrial North and energized the economy of great cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston among others.  Of course, these meetings were explicitly racist as well, since the political and economic interests of capitalism in this period were obviously tied to the continued oppression of black people under Southern bondage.
An artist for the NY Illustrated News captured
this image of the "Union Meeting" in New
York's Academy of Music, 17 Dec. 1859

Following Brown's death, Northern capitalists began to worry that the South would find its much desired excuse to secede from the Union, especially states like South Carolina and Virginia which had entertained secession for years.  Northern racism, well documented in Leon Litwack's fine book, North of Slavery, is a matter of history; but the "Union Meetings" were the fullest manifestation of the Northern white man's contempt for abolitionism, particularly focused on John Brown, and resentful of those antislavery voices that celebrated him as a martyr for freedom.

The first "Union Meeting" took place in Philadephia's Jayne Hall, referred to as the "Grand Union Mass Meeting," on Wednesday, December 7, only five days after Brown's hanging.  In this meeting, the white audience called for the hanging of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and the enslaved black population were referred to as "savage hordes." The following day, December 8, another "Union Meeting" took place in Boston's Faneuil Hall, where disunion was loudly lamented and Brown's execution was applauded.

But perhaps the most notable gathering took place in New York City, on Monday evening, December 19, in Manhattan's notable Academy of Music.  New York's "Grand Union Meeting" filled the house to overflowing, and the turn out was so strong that smaller meetings spilled out onto the streets around Union Square and 14th Street.  In 1859, the Academy of Music was the largest opera house in the world, with its peculiar horseshoe shaped seating and gas lights.  Inside, a band played patriotic songs and Union messages were posted on great signs, along with flags of the USA.  Yet the majesty of the great throng, with its distinguished guests and martial music only thinly belied the sheer racism and selfish interests of the business community, which called for unity with the South.  At best, the various speakers appealed to the "pupilage" of the black man under the white man, and the necessity of allowing the South handle black slavery and emancipation in its own way.

Outside, burning torches and barrels lit the streets as speakers harangued Brown's memory and called for solidarity with the South.  With the city's dark streets now set ablaze with lights, fireworks lit the sky as people thronged to a number of platforms to hear the anti-Brown tirades.  Periodically, the cheers and huzzahs were punctuated with cannon fire, which startled horses and in some cases led to carriage accidents on Manhattan's busy streets.

An artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper captured this scene
outside of NY's Academy of Music during the "Great Union Meeting"
As Horace Greeley, the antislavery editor of the New York Tribune, concluded afterward, the "Great Union Meeting" movement was based "chiefly, to promote Southern trade, and, as a means to that end, to denounce the Republican party and uphold the Pro-Slavery party." Greeley observed, too, that nothing was said about the interests of free labor, nor the threat of slavery's expansion as upheld by proslavery Southern leaders.

The "Union Meetings" that took place in the Northeast were symptomatic of the racist and conservative political investment in slavery that is often overlooked when Southern slavery is discussed.  John Brown and his abolitionist contemporaries were well aware of the ties of greed and prejudice that bound the wealthy men of the North and South, and that the exploitation and oppression of black people by Southern slaveholders was supported by racist greed in the North.  As prisoner Brown told the reporter, Simpson Donavin, "The North and the South will each have to share in this suffering and sacrifice. Both are guilty. The North profited most in the inauguration of the infamy and has shared largely in the profits which have arisen from slave labor."


Almost before Brown could be lowered into his grave, the wealthy white interests of the North proved his words correct by these disgraceful "Union Meetings," supporting slavery and calling for a unity of blood and greed.  However, much to the disappointment of Northern capitalists, the Southern slaveholders understood their greed, and disdained them almost as much as they did abolitionists.

With the election of the first Republican President of the United States in 1861, the South cut off its Northern partners and declared itself a nation.  John Brown would not have been surprised at the bloodletting that followed.

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If you're interested in the "Union Meetings," see Freedom's Dawn, Chapter 19--LD