"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jim and Lisa Gilbert, "From Chatham to Harper's Ferry," The Chatham Daily News (Ontario, Canada), April 27, 2008

For the last few weeks, we have been looking at the events that transpired around May of 1858 when the famous abolitionist John Brown came to Chatham. These articles will hopefully serve as a bit of a primer in preparation for the commemoration of the 1858 Chatham Convention to be held locally on May 5 and 6.

Although there were 46 blacks and whites at the Chatham Convention, very few of them were prepared to take the same radical and violent approach that Brown so strongly advocated.

Reverend William King, the founder of the Buxton Settlement, as well as Archibald McKellar, the local Member of Parliament, were two of the local white community that strongly advised all involved to not join in with Brown's fanatical plot.

The most influential members of the black community in Chatham (Alfred M. Ellsworth, J.C. Grant, Alfred Whipple, Dr. Martin Delaney, Thomas Carey, Israel Shadd as well as Mary Ann Shadd) were sympathetic towards Brown's ultimate ends, but were opposed to his radical means.

Brown had originally planned to attack the Government Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, immediately after the Chatham Convention ended, in May of 1858. This was necessary, as Brown needed to secure arms for his band of followers that he had planned to lead in a series of raids on slave plantations in the Southern U.S. However, word had leaked out that Brown was planning this raid and he had to delay it until early October 1859.

In Chatham, Brown had spoken to many whites and blacks alike about his plans and according to local legend had even drilled men in Tecumseh Park. The only local black man to take part in the actual raid on Harper's Ferry was the young printer from the black newspaper, The Provincial Freeman.

According to local tradition, the staff of the newspaper were reputed to have drawn lots in order to determine which one would go as Chatham's representative and Osborne Anderson was the man who lost.

On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and only 18 other followers (four were black) attacked and captured the Government Arsenal at Harper's Ferry; however, they held the Arsenal for only a short period of time.

Ironically, on Oct. 18 Colonel Robert E. Lee (who was to later become leader of the Confederate Army) led a federal force against Brown's "army" and when the smoke cleared 10 of the revolutionaries lay dead and John Brown was seriously wounded.

The Chatham resident, Anderson, was one of the few to escape unharmed. Eventually, he arrived back in Chatham and along with the help of The Provincial Freeman staff, wrote an account of the venture entitled A Voice From Harper's Ferry.

John Brown was tried, found guilty of treason, conspiracy with slaves to rebel and of first-degree murder. He was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. A rather gruesome affair, Brown was forced to ride on top of his own coffin on the way to the gallows.

Brown's death accomplished more than anything Brown ever did in life. In the one hour that Brown's body was left hanging from the gallows in Charles Town, Virginia, he became a martyr for the cause of abolition and even those who thought he was a homicidal maniac in life began to praise him as an evangelical crusader for the good of mankind.*

In Chatham, 13 days after Brown's death, a "John Brown Meeting" was held in the Town Hall as they were all over the northern part of the United States.

With the death of Brown came the focus of anti-slavery activities. Many attribute the death of John Brown with not only having an impact upon the election of Abraham Lincoln and his anti-slavery platform in 1860 but also the beginning of the American Civil War (1861), which ultimately resulted in the freeing of all slaves.

If these arguments have any validity at all, and we believe they do, then the sad lament of the song "John Brown's Body" must have had special meaning for many residents of Chatham as they heard it through the bloody days of the U.S. Civil War.

The relevance of John Brown to history, as well as to Chatham, will be the highlight of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the John Brown Convention to be held in Chatham on May 3 and 4.

Experts on John Brown will provide a much more detailed, insightful and well-rounded analysis of this fascinating man than I was able to provide in these past few weeks, so make sure that you plan to attend at least some of these celebrations.

For more information on times and places, phone 519-352-3565.

Lisa and Jim Gilbert are local historians.

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* Editor's note: This line is hyperbolic at best. The only people who thought Brown was a "homicidal maniac" prior to his hanging were southerners. They hardly changed their assessment so favorably after his death. Many northerners became admirers of Brown after his hanging, but the prominent opinion about them was that he was a well-intended fanatic, not a murderous maniac. Furthermore, those who praised him the most were already sympathetic to him prior to his hanging.--LD

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