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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Harper’s Ferry Raider Osborne P. Anderson Returns in Dramatic Portrayal

Feb. 09--Osborne Perry Anderson came right from the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry to a West Virginia University classroom Tuesday.

Joseph Bundy, dressed in period costume, portrayed Anderson in front of a West Virginia University honors class. Anderson was the only survivor of John Brown's raiding party.

Osborne Perry Anderson, survived
the Harper's Ferry Raid and wrote
an account that most scholars have
overlooked and disregarded
During the hour long presentation, Bundy told the students about the raid. In 1859, Brown led others on a raid of what is now the West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry to free slaves and get weapons from the armory. The event helped show the country's emotional split over slavery. Most of the raiders were killed or captured.

"Even though the raid itself was not successful, it did a couple of things," Bundy said, while in character.

The raid, he said, showed that the slave population was able to fight. It also unified those who lived on free soil and the abolitionists, which led to Abraham Lincoln's election.

Bundy used vivid details, saying it was "cold, wet and damp" as he fled from Harpers Ferry to Canada. He spoke of using the Underground Railroad to aid in his escape.

In 1860, with the help of abolitionists Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Martin Delany, Anderson published A Voice from Harpers Ferry, the only firsthand account of the raid by an eyewitness and participant.  Although A Voice is no perfect record (no historical record is), its flaws are minor and can be reconciled to the overall facts, as Jean Libby has shown.  More importantly, by ignoring Anderson's recollections, scholars have conveniently ignored his witness as to the support and involvement of enslaved people around Harper's Ferry during the raid 
You can view and read a digital copy of the original version on Google books by clicking here, or a transcript provided by the West Virginia University Libraries by clicking here.--Ed.

1 comment:

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Hi John,

Thanks, I try, but there's a whole lifetime of study to do. I'm glad that you used Anderson's account. My sense is that Oswald Villard steered scholars away from Anderson, mainly on the claim made by Anderson that he had witnessed the marine assault on the engine house before he had escaped. Villard pointed out that he could not have seen that, since it took place on Tuesday and Anderson had escaped on Monday afternoon, so he basically trashed Anderson's reliability. Oates picked up and relays the same criticism. Jean Libby, a documentarian who did field work in HF in the '70s, pointed out to me that the engine house was stormed by a group of railroad men on Monday afternoon. They were the ones who used the ladder first to try to break in the doors, but sustained heavy fire from Brown and failed to succeed. So Anderson did see the engine house being stormed by men in uniform, and he subsequently concluded it had been the marines. Even McGlone doesn't know this and cannot explain how the marines happened to find a ladder outside of the engine house, which they then used to ram the doors. The ladder had been used the day before.

I don't know how entirely to weigh the damage done by Villard, but I think it was substantial, particularly since Oates was the standard for a generation. Given this snubbing, it's no wonder that David Reynolds' 2005 bio is essentially Villardian in its conclusions about the lack of support from the enslaved community (following Oates). Fortunately, McGlone (2009) acknowledges that Villard "privileged" Robert E. Lee's pro-slavery version of the raid, but even he does not seem to use Anderson as a critical witness. He does acknowledge a greater involvement by enslaved blacks, but he does not go far enough I think. We'll have to wait and see what Tony Horwitz is going to do with Anderson. Thanks for writing.