Harper's Ferry and the Hinges of History
Montage sketch recalling Brown’s trial, Richmond Dispatch, 22 Dec. 1901
I went through his effects which were found at the old house in Maryland he occupied, and there I found a map of Virginia and the adjoining Maryland, giving the number of slaves and white men in each county and district. If John Brown had got into the mountains there is no telling how extensive that raid might have been. Unquestionably a certain proportion of the slaves would have run away.
Alexander Boteler, Virginia State Congressman (1859-62), from an 1882 interview
Because of the vast amount of misinformation, propaganda, and bias in the popular narrative on John Brown's raid, few people actually appreciate how close the nation came to experiencing a south wide liberation movement in 1859. While counterfactual history writing is speculative, it is not speculative to point out that the facts of history show
(1) that Brown could have made a retreat into the mountains with a starting group of several hundred enslaved people;
(2) that the US army was too small to have launched any kind of counter strategy;
(3) that any kind of resistance, whether from militia or federal forces would not have been able to stop Brown's movement once it began to move in the mountains since it would not have involved conventional warfare;
(4) that Brown's movement likely and easily would have grown and spread, being added to daily by more and more runaways;
(5) that such a movement would have spread through the South in a matter of months, connecting to areas where there were already incidents of uprising and underground railroad activity, attracting many enslaved people, free blacks, and other disenfranchised people of color as it moved into the southwestern slave states;
(6) that antislavery whites militants and sympathetic Southerners would have been increasingly drawn to join or support the movement as it grew and expanded; and
(7) that slaveholders across the South would have been panicked and the normal operations of the demonic "institution" would have been destabilized, and would not have been able to prevent such a movement since it was not intended primarily as an insurrectionary war as a "grand rescue."
In short, on the smallest of hinges--Brown's failure to get out of Harper's Ferry on time in the early morning of October 17, 1859--the history of the nation turned toward eventual civil war. Had he made his escape after several hours in Harper's Ferry, the outcome of history might have been quite different, and the US might have developed a far more revolutionary and egalitarian orientation, rather than a conservative and segregationist orientation. But history is made of such hinges, turning this way or that, and many a story might have easily gone in a different direction based upon one decision, action, or mistake of judgment.--LD