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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, April 27, 2011

From the Field--

by Scott Wolfe *

I try to visit Harpers Ferry National Historic Park every April, and this year was no exception. Having been a student of John Brown and his associates for over three decades, I must admit that I am a rather eccentric brand of tourist. As I roam the site of Brown’s celebrated 1859 raid, my overactive imagination is filled with visions of raiders, their Sharps carbines held beneath heavy woolen shawls; and of panicked townspeople, their seemingly placid anthill poked by the unknown. Angry shots still seem to echo from the surrounding rocky heights.

But I also feel as though I am one of the few visitors cultivating such singular thoughts. So it was this year. It was a cold, damp and threatening day – much the same as it was in that long-ago October when John Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States came to seize the armory and free a people.
The lower town was eerily quiet on such an inclement day. A very few tourists sauntered aimlessly about. I was the sole person viewing the John Brown exhibit hall on Shenandoah Street. The narrated account of the raid resounded loudly as I gazed at the relics – a section of the armory fence - Brown’s Bible - the eagle-hilted broadsword, said to have been wielded on the Potawatomie. Nothing seems to have changed.

And that has been a problem for me. Nothing really seems to change at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Yes, the trinket, hot dog and ice cream establishments still endure on High and Potomac Streets. But they are outside of the park boundary. The commuter trains still stop at the renovated station, disgorging battalions of shirts and ties, fresh from their techno-offices east of South Mountain. They head for their stylish homes in the newly constructed burbs of Charles Town – the site of John Brown’s trial and execution. Charles Town has certainly changed. Even the venerable Charles Town racetrack now holds the appellation of the “Hollywood Casino.”

And then there is the Hilltop House, my long accustomed domicile while visiting Harpers Ferry. This classic old railroad hotel, perched precariously on a bluff dominating the Potomac, is in its death throes. I loved staying there. Once grand, it was the creaky archetype of the tourist/traveling salesman hostelry. Abandoned by developers of high expectations, a portion of its stone fa├žade has literally collapsed. Plastic sheeting covers the gaping hole. A chain link fence surrounds the entire property, barring the curious and the daring. The instability of the structure thwarted all plans of restoration. Perhaps it is for the better, for one may as well teach table manners to John Brown’s sheep, as gentrify that noble old pile.

Is this an anomaly? Or could it be a metaphor for Harpers Ferry?

The park itself maintains an air of underfundedness and overuse. Shiny new shuttle buses convey patrons from the now distant “Visitor’s Center,” but upon their arrival they are met with what I consider a vague sense of seediness. Scaffolding covers the occasional storefront, awaiting desultory rehabilation work. Large canvas tents cover sections of open ground, perhaps awaiting special weekend events.

The town’s aura is not that of an immensely significant historic site. It is that of a family recreational getaway – or a way station on the Appalachian Trail – or an outdoor classroom, where regiments of schoolchildren are set to drilling with wooden sticks, in lieu of muskets.

I retreated to High Street and the “Secret Six Tavern,” where one can purchase $20 t-shirts emblazoned with the bearded image of John Brown. Over fries and a tall glass of oatmeal stout (very good, by the way), I pondered my day’s impressions. This establishment is named for the New England half dozen moral/financial supporters of Brown’s antislavery cause – vicarious fighters for black freedom all. Framed images of three of them, Franklin B. Sanborn, George Luther Stearns and Samuel Gridley Howe, literally loomed over my table. A number of photographs of the “Old Man,” along with a handful of rifles, adorned other walls of the room.

Before the stout muddled my senses, I returned to the topic that always seems to concern me during my annual visits – that of historical interpretation at Harpers Ferry. The National Park Service has chosen to highlight a diverse set of topics relating to the town: gunmaking – its role as supply base for the Lewis and Clark Expedition – the Civil War – natural history -- Storer College and the Niagara Movement – and, oh yeah, John Brown’s Raid.

I have always thought that Brown’s raid is purposely minimized for unspoken reasons – be they political correctness in regard to divisive issues such as race and violence; or long outdated efforts toward sectional reconciliation.

As I twirled my beer, I was strongly tempted to scream out: “It’s John Brown, stupid!! The National Park Service might as well interpret Gettysburg, not for the battle fought there and its far-reaching implications, but rather, for peach raising or its unique geological formations! The enduring significance of Harpers Ferry is JOHN BROWN!

If I am interested in gunmaking, I will go to Springfield, Massachusetts or Ithaca, New York. Lewis and Clark? I will travel the Missouri River to its three forks in Montana, and then cross Lolo Pass to the Clearwater beyond. Civil War? Sharpsburg and Gettysburg are a short drive away. The Appalachian Trail runs from Maine to Georgia.

Scott Wolfe, pictured here at
Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pa
The Storer College/black history connection is indeed relevant – to John Brown. All is symbolic in regard to the fact that Brown’s Provisional Army marched to the Ferry on that October night in 1859. The creation of Storer – the 1881 speech of Frederick Douglass – DuBois’ 1906 Niagara meeting – must all be seen through the prism of John Brown’s raid. The destination of the intensely moving, barefoot march of the Niagarans? John Brown’s Fort, of course.

I repeat, the enduring significance of Harpers Ferry is John Brown. And this should be freely and openly stated. Interpreters need to more adequately express the supreme importance, and the far-reaching effects, of those events which transpired at Harpers Ferry – events which led directly to the spillage of so much American blood and the end to that “peculiar” stain upon our nation’s fabric.

I will be back to the Ferry next April.

*Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District.  We are pleased to introduce him as a correspondent and contributor, noting his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.  

27 April
Jacob Dinkelaker, a critic, writes in reaction:

"What makes you the authority on the significance of Harpers Ferry? NPS sites are for all Americans - they have relevance and meaning for all - it is up to the individual visitor him/herself to find their own significance. I don't know how you can 'hold' the higher ground that your significance is better than the rest."

28 April

Scott Wolfe replies:

Oh no! I am already under attack! I have taken quick action, mining my front yard and unrolling spools of razor wire in my driveway. I have also hired Edwin Coppoc and Charles Plummer Tidd as bodyguards.

I don't recollect stating that I am an "authority," nor that my humble opinions are "better than the rest." I was merely stating my personal views...which every correspondent certainly has the right to do. Harpers Ferry was also about FREEDOM.

P.S. I attach another image of myself. Heavily armed. Perhaps this will discourage the unwary.

Editor's comment: Mr. Dinkelaker's reactionary statement has little merit.  Obviously, Harper's Ferry has other historical and scenic attributes that might be of interest to tourists and local visitors, including its Civil War history.  But even a practical reading of the town would lead us to conclude that the John Brown raid made Harper's Ferry what it is today.  Mr. Dinkelaker should consider what percentage of people over the past century would even have visited Harper's Ferry had Brown not endeavored to launch his freedom movement there in 1859.  Only a fraction.  Furthermore, the argument that people will find "their own significance" is true only in the most meager sense: people like what they like.  But in reality, the significance of Harper's Ferry is defined by the political and social realities that brought it to the foreground in our nation's history.  As such, the John Brown raid--even more than the subsequent Civil War episodes there--gives Harper's Ferry its quintessential meaning and value as a historical site.  To say otherwise is to suggests sterility or ignorance of understanding--or Dinkelaker's reaction may simply be a veiled expression of prejudice against John Brown.   Lastly, Mr. Wolfe writes as an "authority" in the most obvious sense of the term: he has devoted years and miles to research and reflect upon Harper's Ferry's meaning and place in U.S. history, and his interpretation carries far more weight than the next ten thousand tourists who pass through that town--and from what I've heard, probably more weight than the hackneyed historical interpretation from NPS staff too.  

Saturday, April 23, 2011

From the NYT--
Henry Wise and the Fool's Errand of Secession

Virginia Governor Henry S. Wise,
from unidentified 19th century publication
(West Virginia State Archives
This past week (Apr. 16), The New York Times' ongoing publication of Civil War sesquicentennial stories featured an article entitled, "Henry Wise's Pistol," by William W. Freehling, a senior fellow at the Virginia Center for Humanities. Freehling is also the author of The Road to Disunion and Showdown in Virginia: The Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. In this opinion piece, Freehling refers to Henry Wise as the "ultra-thin, ultra-fiery" secessionist leader who rallied his "indecisive" state of Virginia toward secession. Armed with a long-barreled "horse pistol," Wise dared any violent opponent of secession to make his play.

Wise the Hypocrite:
He seized Harper's Ferry too,
but for all the wrong reasons
Freehling uses Wise's performance at a Virginia secession convention in April 1861 to argue that even though slavery was an issue for the seceding South, it was not the only reason because there was no single "South" at the commencement of the war. According to Freehling, one must consider that the overwhelming numbers of slaves were based in the lower South—South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, "the heart of the black belt, heavy with plantations." Freehling says this was the real "South." In contrast, the northern-most slave states—border states—remained loyal to the Union. Thus, says Freehling, the real contest for secession was centered on the Middle South—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas, where 29.2 percent of the enslaved population was located. According to Freehling, Virginia approached secession inconclusively in the spring of 1861. Virginia itself was divided like the larger, “divided South.” Virginia’s far western region had only five percent of the state’s enslaved population, whereas the far eastern region held forty percent of the state’s enslaved population. In between was the Shenandoah Valley, with sixteen percent of the state’s enslaved population. Freehling says that even after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, almost half of Virginia’s representatives preferred to have the matter of secession determined by popular vote.

Wise served as governor of Virginia from 1856-60, and his determined, belligerent role in regard to the Harper’s Ferry raid marked the end of his term. At the secession convention in April 1861, Wise boasted that despite the end of his term, he had somehow “ordered Virginia militiamen to seize the federal installations at Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Norfolk’s Gosport Naval Yards.” Wise went on to become a Confederate general and well merited the same fate that he had forced upon John Brown, except that he was spared by presidential pardon.

The "Not Only Slavery" Argument, Again

The point of Freehling’s article is found in this conclusion:
In other words, it was not only slavery that drove Virginians — many of them reluctantly — out of the Union. It was also the belief that Lincoln had no right to coerce seceding citizens or to force war on a state. We must not submit, declared one of the Virginia ex-Unionists who converted after Lincoln’s proclamation, “to a tyrannical and overbearing foe that desires to make slaves of you and me.” He spoke for many a reluctant prewar Confederate who became a passionate rebel soldier to protect his homeland (and not just black slavery) from the “invaders.”
Of course, this is just another version of the old “not only slavery” argument for secession. Freehling presents some interesting points, but his argument is superficial and his premise is unproven.

"States' Rights" in Action
Obviously, the South was no monolith and Freehling’s point is true at the most obvious level. Clearly the “black belt” of the Deep South was the area most populated by enslaved people. By all accounts, the “Lower South” was the “Africa” into which Brown intended to carry his war; a map taken from Brown’s farm headquarters after the raid illustrated in fine detail that he intended his movement to penetrate and traverse a vast amount of the Lower South with its ample populations of oppressed blacks. It is also true, as Freehling points out, that just as all Southerners were not pro-slavery, not all Southerners were zealous to secede.

On the other hand, Freehling is fudging the issue. It may be that the Deep South states led the way most zealously in secession. Yet Virginia and the other states of the Middle South were not opposed to secession, just as they were not opposed to slavery. Indeed, Freehling is least convincing in his claim that there was no single “South” at the onset of the war. Even though secession melded the Southern states in a manner unprecedented, the South was already defined by both implicit and explicit devotion to black chattel slavery’s existence, extension, and justification. Missouri was a border state with far less slaves than South Carolina, yet its role in igniting the civil war in the Kansas territory was equally as zealous. Virginians may have hesitated to immediately follow South Carolina into the abyss of secession, but this hesitance pertained to strategy, not ideology or devotion. Virginia may have had varying numbers of enslaved people, but the foundational premise of the Old Dominion was pro-slavery and white supremacist. Indeed, this was the foundational premise of the entire South that Freehling denies actually existed prior to 1861, and this is where his argument fails.

To be sure, the North was also white supremacist, but it was resentful of slavery for economic and sociological ("Negrophobia") reasons. For the most part, Northerners did not enter the Civil War to end slavery and win black freedom. But the point of contention is not the North but the South not having existed prior to the Civil War, as Freehling argues in his article. Contrary to his argument, notwithstanding Southern hesitancy, the Middle South and the Lower South were certainly unified throughout the antebellum era in their devotion to black chattel slavery. The propaganda manufactured in Virginia in defense of slavery was as passionate as from anywhere in the Lower South. Indeed, Freehling does not address the depth of pro-slavery unity that characterized the Lower, Middle, and even the Upper South. Contrary to what he argues, this unity presented a well-defined South in 1860 despite internal variations and differences among Southern states.

Only Wise in His Own Eyes

As for Henry Wise, he proved the greatest of hypocrites when he acted outside the law of the state and the nation by seizing the Harper’s Ferry armory without appropriate authority. Interestingly, by his own admission, although he was no longer acting as governor, he seized Harper’s Ferry as a citizen, and thus was qualified to bear the same penalty of hanging. Henry Wise thus personified the hubris and bellicose spirit that possessed the South and ultimately drove it in madness over the cliff of rebellion to destruction.

On the Right Side:
JB, the moral antithesis
of Henry Wise
Quite in contrast, John Brown seized the armory and invaded Virginia solely for the purpose of liberating the oppressed. This is the weighty truth that is wearing down the brazen shoulders of Confederate apologists. Those who would seek to justify the South cannot continue to hide behind empty shell game arguments about states’ rights. The South was devoted to keeping black people in chains, and this was the crux of the entire South, even as it was the heart of Southern secession. There is no way around this reality, no matter how sophisticated the argument may be presented otherwise. Regardless of Northern motivations for entering the Civil War, it is clear that the South entered the conflict with malice aforethought and no small amount of planning. Like the ancient Pharaoh, slave masters from Virginia to Georgia had hardened their hearts to the plight of their victims. They were united with one intention: to keep and expand slavery and the rights of the slave master.


A number of New York Times readers sniffed out the same error in Freehling’s essay. I have included them below because they merit attention in exposing the error of Freehling’s thesis:
The proportion of freemen to slaves was not the issue. It was the general white cultural assumption that African Americans not only were inferior to whites, but they ought to be treated as less than human. Whether free or slave, black Americans were treated as though they were slaves. The ones who were legally slaves had no way to escape that treatment, unlike freedmen. So any distinctions between the white treatment of the two classes is trivial. Bayou Houma, Boston. 
Just an observation, no scientific analysis, that is, but it seems that scholars from Southern universities, colleges, institutions, have a particular point of view that points to the reason for secession as something other than slavery. The points about the various states and their commitments to slavery are compelling. However, the people of eastern Tennessee were no less "Southern" when they had to be occupied by Confederate forces because of their opposition to the war; and one can't help but feel that this was due to their almost complete lack of involvement in the slave economy. Paul O'Cuana, Florida
Then, as now, those who embrace the thesis of a patriotic resistance to Lincoln's "despotism" allow themselves to be blinded in moral myopia to the larger and more controlling issue of slavery. History's proponents of secession, however "reluctant", deceived themselves and ignored the larger issue. Freehling's article is presumably accurate and is interesting but, whether intentional or not, it allows today's justifiers of secession, just as the argument did in history, to claim moral territory they do not deserve. J. Wes White, Sarasota
A sophisticated effort at special pleading for Virginia as seceding for reasons other than slavery. Yet the Western counties of Virginia seceded from the seceders. If anger at coercion was such a motivator, why were the lower-slaveholding counties uniquely not so angry at being coerced? It seems very strange; "let's secede because we're angry about an invasion that will only happen to us if we secede." Just obfuscation, it seems to me, by the secessionists and the writer. Celebrating Wise's illegal power grab for secession fits right in. Floyd Smith, Oakland

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Overlooked Chapter--
John Brown, Iowa, and the Underground Railroad

John Brown as he appeared in
Iowa, winter of 1858-59
(Weekly Gazette, Davenport, Ia., 1877)
TIPTON, IA — Before the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago this month, some Iowans played a significant role in helping escaped slaves on their way to freedom. The Underground Railroad, neither underground nor a railroad, was a network of safe havens provided by abolitionists willing to break the law to help slaves flee to the North or Canada. Doug Jones, an archaeologist with the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, is also the project manager the Iowa Freedom Trail Project, which is documenting activities in Iowa.

“When people talk about Underground Railroad history in Iowa, they read about Kansas and say, ‘oh yeah, they went through Iowa,’” he says. “But the details aren’t right. We want to document what we can and get that out there so people understand just what kind of role these activities in Iowa played in the story nationally and regionally.”

Iowa’s role in the Underground Railroad dates back to as early as the 1840s and 1850s, when religious sects like Quakers and Congregationalists helped runaway slaves, or freedom seekers, escaping from Missouri. Many slaves came straight north from Missouri but others traveled through Iowa via Kansas or Nebraska, also free states.

These routes generally followed the line near present-day Interstate 80, including Grinnell, Des Moines, Marengo and Iowa City.

Just east of Iowa City, Cedar County was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity. Jones, who is originally from Olin in Jones County, didn’t realize so much history played out near his hometown until he delved into his research. “We’ve had so much important history happen,” he says. “Cedar County was a very important hub of activities.”

In the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown made several trips through Iowa from his base in Kansas. He had relatives in Cedar County, including cousins who taught at the Tipton Union School, which was considered the first free school west of the Mississippi River. When the school held reunions in the late 1800s, it was discovered through the meeting minutes that the Underground Railroad made several stops in the area.  “A woman remembered when John Brown came to school,” says Sandy Harmel, director of theCedar County Historical Museum.  Minutes from five reunions were made into a bound book, “Proceedings of the Reunions of the Tipton, Iowa Union Schools, 1856-1906,” which reveals more stories from the Underground Railroad. According to the minutes, “we all knew what was going on in the barn,” referring to the barn near Dr. Maynard’s home which stood across the street from the southeast corner of the courthouse in Tipton.

The building that housed Union school still stands at the corner of Meridan and Second streets in Tipton. Now an apartment building, a plaque on a rock in the front yard recognizes its place in history. Other sites have been harder to prove as assisting escaped slaves was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act.

William Maxson
Many of the documented stories are chronicled in “Cedar County, Iowa: A Door to Freedom,” an exhibit which runs through the end of the month at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site Visitors Center in West Branch. “This was a vibrant area for the Underground Railroad,” says Bonnie Blaford, Hoover National Historic Site interpretive park ranger. “It’s mysterious because it’s secret. They couldn’t write it down because it was an act of treason.” The exhibit’s “Door” refers to an actual door from William Maxson’s house near Springdale where Brown’s anti-slavery troops spent the winter of 1857-58 training for a raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. While the raid was postponed because one of his followers had threatened to reveal the plan, Brown’s men returned to Springdale in early 1859. Although the Maxson home has been razed, a marker was put up in 1924 by the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

About a mile from the Maxson site is the North Liberty Cemetery where it is believed up to 17 runaway slaves are buried. “The Quakers thought they deserved a burial location like they did,” Harmel says. Brothers Edwin and Barclay Coppock of Springdale also played a part in pre-Civil War history. They trained with Brown’s group who eventually invaded Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859. When Barclay Coppock escaped the Harpers Ferry raid, he went back to Iowa. Although Virginia’s governor wanted him extradited, Iowa Gov. Samuel Kirkwood refused based on technical grounds.  “This infuriated people in South Carolina who already were agitated,” Jones says. “That (South Carolina’s secession) was in part how the Civil War started.”

Iowa’s participation in the Underground Railroad is an early indicator of the state’s commitment to civil rights, Jones says. He points to Iowa’s state motto as an example: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” “Until I was working on this project, that never registered with me,” Jones says. “But it became clearer and clearer.”

In 1868, Iowa was the first state outside New England to grant African-American men the right to vote, two years before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allowed all men to vote regardless of their race, was passed in 1870. “There was a high population of equal rights advocates in Iowa,” Jones says. While much of the Iowa Freedom Trail Project’s research has been completed, Jones knows there are many more stories to be told. “These stories are so compelling,” he says. “The risks these people were knowingly taking; aiding and abetting freedom seekers. A lot of these people didn’t want anybody to know what they were doing, but some didn’t care.” He credits those who didn’t care if they were caught with passing down the stories like the ones from Cedar County. “Cedar County is such a unique place in that they care so much about their history,” Jones says. “A lot of descendants are still there. That’s part of the reason they care so much; their history is still part of their lives today.

Source: Angie Holmes, "Underground Railroad Traveled Through Eastern Iowa."  Eastern Iowa Life [Cedar Rapids, Ia.], April 17, 2011.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Clergymen on John Brown--
Clarence Macartney, Civil War Enthusiast

Clarence Edward Macartney (1879-1957) was an evangelical and Reformed Presbyterian minister of Scottish background. He was on the conservative side in the "culture wars" between so-called fundamentalists and modernists and was the main spokesman in opposition to the liberal theological arguments of Harry Emerson Fosdick. A renowned preacher and scholar, Macartney pastored congregations in Paterson, N.J., Philadelphia, Pa., and Pittsburgh, Pa., and served as the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. In later years, he resided on the campus of Geneva College, a Reformed Presbyterian College with an abolitionist heritage. The Geneva College library is named for him and holds his personal library. Macartney has been referred to as an amateur historian, but among the list of his many published theological and homiletical works, he also wrote extensively on the Civil War, his favorite field of historical study. Among his Civil War titles are Highways and Byways of the Civil War (1926), Lincoln and His Generals (1926), Lincoln and His Cabinet (1931), Little Mac: The Life of General George B. McClellan (1940), Lincoln and the Bible (1949), and Grant and His Generals (1953).

Macartney's view of Brown was heroic but conservative, much like that of Boyd B. Stutler the dean of John Brown research in the 20th century.  However Macartney's main focus was Lincoln.  Although he never wrote on the theme of John Brown's life, he made numerous references to him in his sermons, which were as exegetical as they were famously topical and relevant to the times.  A number of these sermonic illustrations regarding Brown are recorded in his book, Macartney's Illustrations: Illustrations from the Sermons of Clarence Edward Macartney (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1946).  The following three references reflect Macartney's travels, which from time to time brought him on the John Brown trail in research and reflection:
One August day, touring through the Shenandoah Valley, I stopped at Charlesto[w]n [West Virginia] and visited the old courthouse where John Brown was tried, convicted, and sentenced, following his ill-timed attempt upon the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry.  Out of one of the vaults the clerk drew an enormous ledger of the year 1859 and opened it to the page on which was written the last will and testament of John Brown. 
As I read it through I was amazed at the poverty of the man.  In his will he directs what shall be done with his silver watch, his Bible, and a few Sharps rifles.  That was all he had to leave.  But when I went out again into the bright sunlight and looked off toward the mountains with their drapery of infinite blue, and with the Potomac and the Shenandoah washing their base, I could not help thinking of the contrast between the material bequest of the man and the spiritual.
All that the courts could take cognizance of was a watch and a Bible and a few old guns.  But to humanity he had left a firmer faith in virtue and in liberty; and in less than three years those same mountain-walled valleys were resounding with the song of marching men at arms: 
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,But his soul goes marching on. (pp. 409-10)
Recently I read a remarkable letter written by John Brown to his family just before he was hanged at Charles Town, [West] Virginia.  Among the many excellent things he says in that memorable letter is his statement to his children that he has found the highest joy in life in loving and in being loved.  Man is made for love.  But in the image of the earthy there are many shadows and many difficulties in the way of loving and being loved.
(p. 215)

Elijah was one of the those few men "of whom the world was not worthy." (Heb. 11:38.)  That such a man lived makes us rejoice in our common humanity.  Carmel itself was not more rugged and more majestic than that prophet when he stood upon the mountain peak, his face flushed with the splendid victory over the howling priests of Baal.  As eloquent Wendell Phillips said over the grave of John Brown, "Men will believe more firmly in virtue now that such a man has lived and died."(p. 114)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

from the New York Times--
Remembering the Start of the Slave Masters' Rebellion

Writing in yesterday's New York Times (11 Apr.) in commemoration of the start of the Civil War, Adam Goodheart, the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, made this revealing observation:
Although it is often said today that half the [U.S.] Army resigned in 1861 to join the Confederacy, this is untrue. Only 26 privates out of all 15,000 ended up defecting to the rebels – compared to more than 300 out of the 1,000 or so men in the officer corps.*
Goodheart, who directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, writes that service in the U.S. Army prior to 1861 "was considered a last resort for men who couldn’t get by otherwise in the merciless economy of 19th-century America – or the first resort of immigrants with no resources or connections." As Goodheart describes it further, the antebellum army of the U.S.A. was small, shabby, and full of immigrants who "existed in a different world than their superiors."

This raises two interesting points.

First, John Brown's plan to initiate a liberation movement in the South was premised upon the lackluster state of the antebellum U.S. army, not the gigantic military machine that grew by necessity during the Civil War. Years ago I was discussing Brown's raid with an eminent theologian who scoffed at Brown's plan to fight a mountain-based guerilla campaign in the South.  "He could never defeat the army," the theologian concluded somewhat smugly.  However, he was overlooking the fact that the U.S. army in 1859 was small and unprepared, and many of its enlisted men were immigrants with neither incentive nor skills sufficient to root out and destroy the kind of effort that Brown proposed.  Indeed, his plan was no quixotic dream.  It was a strategy that could have worked; similar struggles have worked down through history.

Second, it is significant that nearly a third of the officers corp betrayed the Union in favor of the Confederate cause.  It is quite likely that many of the three hundred traitorous officers were Southern men who represented middle and upperclass property owners--that is, they were slave owners.  Clearly, the real engine of military betrayal was based in the officers' class--men with more than "states' rights" in mind.  Indeed, we should have no doubt that the prevailing impetus behind Southern secession was the defense of chattel slavery as a southern institution.  As Goodheart shows, while an almost negligible number of poor, immigrant soldiers joined secession, a staggering number of officers proved traitors.  These numbers likely verify that secession was indeed driven by the selfish interests of the upper class slave holders.  

Many poor men died on either side of the Civil War, but the military leadership of the Confederacy themselves directly corresponded to the political leadership of secession.  As we enter into the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, let's set aside all this nonsense about "state's rights" and get to the reality of conflict.  The war was started by the South because its ruling class--the slave owners--wanted to keep their "property" and expand the horizon of chattel slavery.  This was something that John Brown foresaw in the antebellum era.  He had long and carefully observed the behavior of Southern politicians and their influence upon the military, and he rightly believed they were preparing for rebellion.  When a Republican was elected to the presidency in 1860, the South was primed and ready to follow through on its plan.  We should have no doubt that John Brown was particularly skilled in reading the signs of the times.

* See Adam Goodheart, "The Defenders," The New York Times, 11 April 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Abagond Writes--
Current Arguments about the History of U.S. Slavery

There are still white people in America who try to defend or excuse slavery - almost 150 years after the slaves were freed. Instead of simply condemning it for the evil that it was, they say stuff like this:

Weak moral excuses:

"Africans sold their own people as slaves."
"Africans are still selling slaves."
"Arab traders sold slaves too."
"Slavery goes back thousands of years."
"Most human societies have practised slavery."
"It was the times!"
"The important thing to remember is that whites stopped slavery!"

Playing down its benefits to whites:

"Slavery did not make economic sense."
"My family never owned slaves."
"That was Ancient History."
"Whites got to where they are by their own hard work."

Playing up its benefits to blacks:

"Blacks are better off in America than in Africa."
"Africans were savages."
getting people to shut up:
"You are living in the past."
"Get over it!"

I did posts on some of these, but here are some general points to keep in mind:

1. Slavery is just flat-out evil. Why excuse it?

2. Africa is not a country - Africans were not "selling their own" but their enemies. As it was, most African societies did not sell slaves.

3. Western slavery was worse than African slavery: it was based on race, it lasted for life and it was on a much bigger scale. Many were worked to death, like in Haiti and Barbados. Whites willingly sold their own children as slaves. This was not "what most human societies do".

4. You do not get credit for stopping what you should not have been doing in the first place.

5. "Everyone does it" does not make it right. Besides, since when did White Americans regard Arabs or Africans as a moral example to follow?

6. White Americans knew perfectly well it was wrong. Racism, in fact, grew out of their need to excuse their actions so they could hold onto their self-image as good people. That is why, to this day, their prejudice against blacks is so much stronger than against anyone else, even against foreigners, even against black foreigners.

7. Of course slavery made economic sense. How else could it have lasted hundreds of years? In the late 1700s, 80% of Britain's overseas trade depended on slavery. It was one of the main ways White America got so rich so fast. Working-class whites are still wealthier on average than even middle-class blacks.

So why all the excuses?

First, because part of their sense of self worth is built on being white and how whites are better than everyone else, particularly blacks. A view that does not stand up to an honest look at their past.

Second, because, as Edward Ball put it in Slaves in the Family (1998): "To live with the advantages of white skin in America is to benefit from the old slave system."

Thus the need to deny any benefit. Thus the need to morally excuse what is supposedly Ancient History.

Source: "Current Arguments about Slavery," Abagond blog, 7 April 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Brown Biographer Writes; His Latest is on Uncle Tom's Cabin

David S. Reynolds
Unbeknownst to many, Connecticut had a huge role in bringing on the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this week.

Connecticut the cradle of the Civil War? The idea goes against common wisdom. We learned in grade school that when the antislavery Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the South saw no choice but to secede from the Union, and war broke out.

What we forget is that Lincoln would never have been elected without a previous surge of antislavery sentiment in the North. That surge was created, in large part, by two people from Connecticut: John Brown, born in Torrington in 1800, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in Litchfield in 1811.

Stowe's contribution to the conflict was her massively popular antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." When it was published in 1852, the novel broke sales records and became an international sensation. Its impact was amplified by plays and tie-in products.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" caused a sea change in public opinion with its searing portrait of the suffering of enslaved blacks. Millions of readers who had previously been indifferent about slavery were deeply moved by the novel's two plots: the tragic story of the gentle, pious Uncle Tom, who is sold away from his family and taken to the Deep South, where he is whipped to death; and the thrilling escape to Canada of the fugitive slaves Eliza and George Harris.

In the North, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" generated a whole new body of antislavery literature. It also resonated in the halls of Congress, where politicians cited it in speeches.

At the same time, the novel provoked outrage in the South. Nearly 30 proslavery novels and scores of other writings appeared in response to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They presented slavery as a wonderful institution that gave shelter, food and religious instruction to ignorant barbarians brought from Africa.

As feelings on both sides of the slavery divide intensified, it became clear that the mild, nonresistant approach represented by Stowe's Uncle Tom was not going to end slavery. The antislavery warrior John Brown, who in 1859 raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in a heroic, doomed effort to liberate slaves, correctly predicted that slavery would fall only after "very much bloodshed."

Harriet Beecher Stowe and other former pacifists, notably Henry David Thoreau, were inspired by the martyred Brown, whom they compared with Jesus Christ and the Founding Fathers. Stowe hailed Brown as "the man who has done more than any man yet for the honor of the American name."

Stowe hailed Brown as "the man who has done more than any man yet for the honor of the American name."

Soon enough, Brown was widely viewed as a hero in the North and as a demon in the South. Brown created such political turmoil that Lincoln won the 1860 presidential race, with just 40 percent of the popular vote, because his opponents were divided among three parties.

As a Southerner of the time declared, Harriet Beecher Stowe had spread the antislavery kindling that John Brown lit with the torch of violence.

What was it about Connecticut that produced such powerful antislavery figures as Stowe and Brown? In a word, religion. Connecticut was home to a special brand of evangelical Christianity that equated doing good with reforming the world and reaching out to all people, regardless of color. Stowe, whose father was the Litchfield pastor Lyman Beecher and whose siblings included the minister Henry Ward Beecher and the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, was so devoted to the antislavery cause that she insisted that God, not she, wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Connecticut-bred religion also drove John Brown, who believed that God had chosen him to wipe out slavery. Small wonder that as the Union troops tramped South they sang the rhythmic words, "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on," which became the basis of Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hyman of the Republic."

After the Civil War, the author Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem describing the ghosts of Uncle Tom and John Brown having marched through the war, spreading their influence everywhere. Holmes was paying tribute to Stowe's heart-rending novel and Brown's bold actions, which, taken together, did more than anything else to fuel the passions behind the war the ended the most egregious injustice in American history.

Source: David S. Reynolds, “John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Potent Cause.” The Hartford Courant [Hartford, Conn.], 10 April 2011.

David S. Reynolds is a distinguished professor of English and American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of "John Brown, Abolitionist." His new books, "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America" and "Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Splendid Edition," will appear in June.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Harper's Ferry Prelude-
John Brown's Missouri Raid Remembered

John Brown’s preferred method of battling slavery was to free hundreds at a time in a single attack. However, the week of Christmas 1858, he made an exception and successfully rescued eleven Missouri slaves, throwing the region into a state of anxiety and adding another episode to the abolitionist movement.
On December 19th, 1858, Brown received news that a slave by the name of Daniels from close to the Kansas-Missouri border had crossed into Kansas to plead for rescue from the impending sale of his family. Though an agent of the Underground Railroad, Brown usually considered a raid to prevent a single sale not worthy of the risk. However, by the next day, a raiding party of nearly twenty abolitionists had been organized with Brown (using the alias of Shubel Morgan) at the lead.

On December 20th, the band split up into two groups in hopes of freeing neighboring blacks on the same trip. Daniels’ owner, Harvey Hicklan, was held up at gunpoint by Brown’s group which subsequently extracted the Daniels family and took some of Hicklan’s possessions to support the freed slaves. Slavery supporters claimed Brown’s raiders looted cash, pocket-watches, wagons, and oxen.

The two groups freed eleven slaves.  One slaveowner, David Cruise, was killed during the raid.  The abolitionist who killed Cruise claimed it was in self defense.  The raiding party returned to Kansas where a twelfth African American was born to one of the rescued slave women and christened John Brown. Brown then led the freed slaves 600 miles through extreme winter weather across Nebraska and into northeastern Iowa, fighting off a pro-slavery group three times its size en route.

Brown’s raid was condemned by both Missouri and Kansas newspapers which feared an all out war along the border.  The disaffection of slaves and the potential financial repercussions of further losses compelled Missouri slaveowners to move more than twenty miles away from the border or to put all their bondspeople under heavy guard. Meanwhile the governor of Missouri offered a $3000 reward for Brown’s capture immediately after the raid.

Brown led the rescued slaves across Iowa, a process which took until March 9, 1859 to complete. Anti-slavery sympathizers provided food, warm clothing, armed guards, and accommodations for the fugitives across the state. From Iowa, they were secretly put on a train to Chicago and from there a train to Detroit. A ferry to Windsor, Canada carried the twelve to freedom.  Brown however continued east and initiated a series of events which led to the Raid at Harper's Ferry on October 16-18, 1859 and his subsequent execution on December 2 of that year. 

Author's Sources:
Robert M. De Witt, The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown (New York: Robert M. De Witt, Publisher, 1859); Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (Boston and New York: The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1910); Barrie Stavis, The Sword and the Word (Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1970).

Source: Nate Christensen (Univ. of Washington, Seattle). "John Brown's Christmas Raid into Missouri 1858." Black Past.org.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Writing Home, April 7, 1859

According to Katherine Mayo's invaluable chronology,1 John Brown was absent from his family between early June 1858 and mid-April 1859. Students of Brown's story will recall that his original intention was to carry out his raid in the South in 1858, following a "quiet convention" in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, with black expatriates and border-crossers from nearby Detroit. Unfortunately, his plans were derailed when a former associate named Hugh Forbes began to threaten to expose the movement. Since most of Brown's influential supporters were panicked by the Forbes fiasco, Brown grudgingly consented to a postponement and went back to North Elba, N.Y., where he spent about two weeks with his wife Mary and family in their Adirondack home. Then he departed for the west, reaching the Kansas Territory by late June 1859.

Brown remained in the Territory until his famous raid in Missouri on December 20, when he and his men rescued eleven enslaved people and began a long, difficult trek across several states, hounded by the marshals in the dead of winter. Brown, his men, and the fugitives actually were in hiding in Kansas for about a month before setting out through Nebraska on February 1, 1859 and reaching Springdale, Iowa, on February 25, and West Liberty, Iowa on March 9. From West Liberty, the fugitives were smuggled on a train going into Chicago on March 11, and from Chicago were placed on another train going into Detroit on March 12--the same day they were ferried across the Detroit River into Canadian freedom. With his mission accomplished, Brown passed through Ohio, stopping in Cleveland, Jefferson, and Kingsville, where he wrote the following letter on April 7, 1859. From Kingsville, Brown stopped in Rochester, N.Y., to see Frederick Douglass and then was in Peterboro, N.Y. for a few days, under the roof of Gerrit Smith. He arrived in North Elba on April 19. It was his second-to-last visit home. He stopped at North Elba once more, in mid-June, before making one quick trip to Ohio and then down to Maryland.

The Letter

I have provided this overview so the reader can appreciate how precious such letters home were for the Brown family, and the prevailing circumstances in which the April 7th letter was composed. Brown mentions having written to the family on March 25. In the body of the transcript below I have provided a link to this letter in the Stutler Collection (MS02-0037). Brown also mentions having sent $150 to the family in his second memorandum book (now held by the Boston Public Library). “Wrote wife and children to write me, care of American House, Troy, N.Y.," Brown scrawled. "Enclosed draft for $150.” It is not clear whether Brown stopped at Troy before finally reaching North Elba on April 19, but the trail provided by his surviving letters does not show him at Troy, N.Y. until May 6. Brown knew Troy, N.Y. because he had traveled through New York State over the years, particularly in the fine sheep-and-wool business, and one of his firm's cases was brought to trial in Troy. I do not know why he preferred the American House Hotel over the other five leading hotels in that city; perhaps he liked the name, since likewise he favored an establishment of the same name in Boston, Mass. That Brown raised $150 (no small amount in 1859) suggests the deep pockets of supporters like Gerrit Smith or George L. Stearns.


In the letter, Brown makes a peculiar reference to being sick for more than one week "with a terible [sic] gathering in my head; & with the Ague."  We should recall that really Brown was sick for much of the last few years of his life, often struggling with that notorious malarial prairie virus known as "The Ague" or sometimes, "the fever and the Ague." The term "Ague" is obsolete now, although it was obviously prominent in 19th century U.S. vocabulary. "Ague" is based on the French, "Aigue," which first entered English usage in the 14th century. According to one medical source, "Ague" has the same etymology as "acute," from the Latin,"acutus," meaning "sharp or pointed."  Thus the "fievre aigue" was an acute fever with additional symptoms of chills and sweating.2 As to the "gathering" in his head, it is possible that Brown is describing symptoms of another condition that also afflicted him, perhaps indicative of Bell's Palsy--which probably explains why his face looks contorted in one daguerreotype. Regardless, Brown was living with sickness.

Brown mentions having seen family letters from Henry and Ruth (Brown) Thompson in North Elba, to John Brown Junior, as well as letters from Watson and Oliver, indicating that Brown had spent time with Junior and other family members in Ohio. He likewise mentions having stopped in at Hudson, Akron, and West Andover. Kingsville itself was a burgeoning villege situated on Conneaut Creek in Ashtabula County. It was less than seventy miles from Cleveland along a railroad line. It is further understandable that Brown stopped there because West Andover in Ashtabula County was the place where his Harper's Ferry weapons were stored until being shipped eastward later in the year, and it was the penultimate "headquarters" for Brown's men prior to moving into the Kennedy Farm in Maryland in the summer of 1859.

Lastly, Brown writes that his "best wish for you all is that you may truly love God; & his commandments." This is no passing religious sentimentality. From the early 1850s he was quite distraught over the fact that almost all of his children had abandoned the evangelical faith of their fathers. Perhaps the only adult children sustaining an evangelical commitment were Ruth and her husband Henry Thompson. But the rest of his children were, by his standards of confessional orthodoxy, apostate. Thus, it was his desire that they would "truly love God"--which is to say, that they would conform to the doctrines of salvation in Jesus Christ according to Scripture. Brown was the archenemy of slavery indeed. But many of his devoted admirers might find him a little less appealing in his strident devotion to evangelical Reformed faith. Contrary to what some respected scholars have written in recent years, he was not into any form of dissenting evangelicalism, spiritualism, or any sort of religious novelty. As a biblicist and old school Calvinist, Brown believed that the ability of one to love God in truth (i.e., according to Scripture) was indicative of God's love for that person, and not the other way around. Certainly, Brown's most strident, politically minded admirers tend to ignore his religious views, which they undoubtedly find difficult to handle. Yet this, too, was part of the man and his worldview.

My transcript of the letter is literal, based upon a digital image of the original, which appeared on the Swann Auction Galleries website, where it was featured with this description: "Sale 2204, Lot 23, (SLAVERY AND ABOLITION.) BROWN, JOHN OF OSOWATOMIE. Autograph Letter Signed, 7 April, 1859. Small 8vo, written on one side. Kingsville, Ohio, 1859. Estimate $2,500-3,500. Swann Auction Galleries (New York)." (Retrieved on 8 February 2010.)

Kingsville, Ohio, 7th April, 1859.

Dear Wife, & Children All I wrote
you March 25th enclosing Draft for
, saying write me Care of American
House Troy, N Y, to say what articles you
need of provisions, clothing, Shoes, &c. Have
you written? I still wish you to retain
what money you can for a few days; as
I hope soon to be at home; to advise with
you about laying it out. I have been entire
-ly laid up for more than a week with a
terible [sic] gathering in my head; & with the
Ague: but am much better now. I have [^seen]
letters sent to John from Henry & Ruth,
Watson, & Olive[r]: for all which I am very
glad. All well at Hudson, Akron,
West Andover, lately. May write again
befor[e] getting home. My best wish for you all
is that you may truly love God; & his com-
-mandments. Your Affectionate Husband & Father
John Brown


1 The chronology appears in Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After, and subsequent editions of the book. However, Villard does not appear to have done much of the actual research; he hired Mayo to do that for him, and she did far more than he actually used. Mayo constructed this chronology--the only extensive chronology of Brown's public life and activities in print--by painstakingly recording dates in her field research, especially in making transcriptions of Brown's letters. (Her transcriptions are exact and thorough.) Mayo used a series of pocket memorandum books to reconstruct Brown's movements for the chronology, and these little books are among the John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers in the Rare Books and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University.

2 See "Definition of Ague," Medicine.Net.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

"Chanted by Dusky Millions": A Poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1922)
Georgia Douglas Johnson
(c. 1877-1966)
Schomburg Center image

To John Brown

We lift a song to you across the day
Which bears through travailing the seed you spread
In terror's morning, flung with fingers red
In blood of tyrants, who debarred the way
To Freedom's dawning. Hearken to the lay
Chanted by dusky millions, soft and mellow-keyed,
In minor measure, Martyr of the Freed,
A song of memory across the day.
Truth cannot perish through the earth erase
The royal signals, leaving not a trace,
And time stil burgeoneth the fertile seed,
Though he is crucified who wrought the deed:
O Alleghanies, fold him to your breast
Until the judgment! Sentinel his rest!

Georgia Douglas Johnson was a notable figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  Her birth date is uncertain, some sources placing it at around 1877 and others at 1880.  This poem appeared in her book, Bronze (1922, p. 89), which includes a preface by Brown biographer, W. E. B. DuBois (and a poem in his honor too).  Johnson's "John Brown" was also featured the same year in The Crisis (August 1922).  My transcript is from Benjamin Quarles, Blacks on John Brown (1972), reprinted by DaCapo Press with Allies For Freedom (1974) in one volume (2001).  

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Hendrix in the (mid)West--
John Brown Artist/Author's Latest Effort is a Civil War Story

ST. LOUIS - Nurse, Soldier, Spy, a fast-moving story of the Civil War, offers a mix of history, adventure and "old-fashioned girl power," artist John Hendrix says.

Nurse tells the true tale of teenager Sarah Emma Edmonds, who dressed as a man and enlisted in the Union Army under the name Frank Thompson. Thompson rescued the wounded on battlefields, nursed their wounds and served as a spy, disguising herself as a slave to get behind Confederate lines.

After illustrating Abe Lincoln Crossing a Creek: A Tall Thin Tale in 2008 and writing and illustrating the acclaimed John Brown: His Fight for Freedom in 2009, Hendrix, of University City, Mo., was offered Nurse, Soldier, Spy just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's start. He says he was a little concerned that he was getting stereotyped as "a Civil War nut."

"My first reaction was, oh man, do I want to do another Civil War work?" he says. "But I'd just finished 'John Brown,' and I'd done a lot of research on the era - I had my head in it. I like history. I probably like the Civil War more than I'd like to admit. It worked out well."  His artwork complements Marissa Moss' story of Edmonds, one of hundreds of women who dressed as men on both sides in the war, often serving with courage and distinction. But Edmonds was the only one to receive an honorable discharge and a pension.

Hendrix found it a sympathetic story.  "She took great risks for really no personal gain, other than giving meaning to her life and her work," he says.

Hendrix, 34, is a St. Louis native who grew up in Des Peres, Mo. After graduating from the University of Kansas, he got his master's of fine arts degree and a lot of valuable experience at New York City's School of Visual Arts.

Hendrix and his wife, Andrea, whom he met in high school, have two children: Jack, 5, and Annie, 2. He does covers for magazines ranging from Sports Illustrated to Christianity Today, op-ed art for The New York Times and illustrations for publications ranging from PC World to Runner's World.

Hendrix's style is audacious and colorful. Nurse, Soldier, Spy uses the distinctive typography of the period to make its most important points: When "Frank" is asked if she'll spy, the words "I'm your man!" are as big and bold as a recruiting poster.

The figures are a little cartoonish, with disproportionately large heads. But "that's my editorial style," Hendrix says. "I try to draw expressively, not photorealistically. (Frank) will sort of change scales, depending on her role" in a given illustration.

He used the same style for "John Brown" and "Abe Lincoln."

One of his favorite jobs is doing the visual research, tracking down the details of uniforms and weaponry. In "John Brown," the abolitionist holds the rifle he actually had at the Harper's Ferry raid. Uniforms, he says, are harder. The armies "started out really regimented. As things progressed, they didn't have the resources to keep things together. By the end, the Confederates looked really awful."

Drawing Sarah/Frank was a tough assignment: She had to look like a tomboy, like a tough kid, but she needed some womanly touches. She was "a really interesting character. We only have three pictures of her from the era. In two of them, she looks like Frank. In one, she's dressed like a woman. She could pass as a young boy, which she did. She had small feet. She probably wore extra socks."

For his next book, Hendrix has left behind the Civil War, if not the 19th century. A Boy Called Dickens is due early next year. Marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, it will explore the sometimes dark boyhood of one of the most successful authors of all time.

"There's so much of his experiences in his work," says Hendrix, who's working in a heavier style to capture the grim settings of debtors prisons and factories. "I think it makes a good read."
The books are more than just good reads, though.

"Why do we value the things that we value?" he asks. "When is it a good time to make a choice that is difficult? I don't see these books as just history books. They deal with moral ambiguity."

Nurse, Soldier, Spy by Marissa Moss; illustrated by John Hendrix; Abrams (48 pages, $18.95; ages 9 to 12)

Source: Sarah Bryan Miller.  "Artist uses an expressive drawing style in book about a Union spy." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (6 April 2011)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Honors and Events--
East and West

Honors to Henry Robert Burke, Underground Railroad historian of southeastern Ohio .

April 2 marked the opening day for the season at the Belpre Historical Society’s Farmers’ Castle Museum Education Center , where a Southeastern Underground Railroad exhibit based on Henry R. Burke’s research is a permanent part of the museum’s collections. His extensive publications, which include detailed maps of his original design in the manner of William Seibert, are seen on his website Links to the Past, www.henryrobertburke.com. Henry’s recent honors include a lifetime achievement award in researching African American history from the Washington County (Ohio) Historical Society. He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Sons of Civil War Veterans.

Friends on Facebook have created an Underground Railroad group co-administrated by Henry Robert Burke, Art Thomas, and Bennie J. McRae. It is open for anyone to join.

Honors to Alice Louise Cook Hunt, the closest living relative of John and Mary Brown, on her 95th birthday, March 27, 2011. Mrs. Hunt, who lives in Oregon, recently restored the gravestone of her grandmother, Annie Brown Adams at the Old Pioneer Cemetery in Rohnerville , California . Her friend Don Bumgarner sent photographs of the honoree and the restored grave, which may be seen on www.alliesforfreedom.org/Annie_Brown_page.html. You’ll also find photographs of Alice Keesey Mecoy, who was named for her great-aunt, and is now the family historian.

Mary Brown’s birthday party at the Saratoga Community Library on April 15, 2011 will honor Mrs. Hunt’s 95th birthday with her nephew, Paul Keesey of Santa Clara . It is the 195th anniversary of the birth of Mary Brown, wife of John Brown of Harpers Ferry, who is buried at the Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga . If you would like to see a short slide show presentation by Jean Libby about Mary and Her Daughters, a documentary project being launched at the event on April 15, visit the San Jose Mercury calendar announcement: http://events.mercurynews.com/saratoga-ca/events/show/177228945-mary-browns-birthday-party. The show will disappear from the site after the event.

Congratulations to the Black Jack Battlefield & Nature Park Trust in Baldwin City, Kansas who have created an outstanding website and downloadable brochures and a splendid historical map as well as of their activities and facilities, www.blackjackbattlefield.org Their brochure is funded by the Kansas Humanities Council. Upcoming events include John Brown Day on May 7, and a major celebration and re-enactment of the Battle of Black Jack (winner: John Brown) of June 2, 1856.

Opening Event: May 7, 2011 (John Brown’s 211th birthday is May 9)
LOCATION: Black Jack Battlefield & Nature Park
TIME: 1:00 p.m.
COST: Free
Visit us opening day as the tour season kicks off when John Brown gives a guided tour of the battlefield.
Learn the history behind John Brown, the Battle of Black Jack, Bleeding Kansas, and the role that the Santa Fe Trail played in what some argue is the first battle of the American Civil War.
1 p.m. tours on Saturdays and Sundays continue until October 16th.
June 2nd, Thursday - Dawn at Black Jack Battlefield
LOCATION: Black Jack Battlefield & Nature Park
TIME: 5:00 a.m. - arrive by 4:45 a.m.
COST: Free
Walk the Black Jack Battlefield at the exact day and time of the battle, 155 years later.
The guided tour will begin at the Robert Hall Pearson farmstead home.

June 2nd, 2011 Thursday - John Brown, Martyr or Madman? Reader's Theater
LOCATION: Lumberyard Arts Center, 718 High Street, Baldwin City, KS
TIME: 7 - 9:00 p.m.
COST: Free
Refreshments provided

7-7:30 p.m.. St. Luke's AME Church Choir
Hear the choir from St. Luke's AME Church in Lawrence sing the songs that helped keep hope alive in
America 's enslaved people.
Stay for the Reader's Theater to follow.

TIME: 7:30-9 p.m. - Reader's Theater
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War and the recognition of events that occurred in Kansas and Missouri during this period in history by using reader’s theater script prepared by the Kansas Humanities Council reflecting both the Kansas and Missouri perspectives. These voices from history provide insight into how 19thcentury Americans struggled with determining the future of our nation and defining the meaning of freedom.
June 4th, Saturday - John Brown's Battle at Black Jack
.... dawn of the Civil War
LOCATION: Black Jack Battlefield & Nature Park
TIME: Gate opens at 9:00 a.m. - closes at 7:00 p.m.
COST: Adults $8 / children over 3, $1
A commemoration of the 155th Anniversary of the Battle of Black Jack.
Three professional reenactments: 11:00 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and 5:30 p.m..
live period music * historic artifacts * first-person historic presenters * children's activities
nature park walks * vendors/crafters/sutlers * period demonstrations * food & drink

Thanks to the friendly Kansas people who sent printed materials to share in California, and the many friends of Henry Robert Burke on Facebook.

Jean Libby
Allies for Freedom

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Read At Your Own Risk--
Body Slam: The Pottawatomie Killings as an Anti-Bully Episode

My wife recently showed me a You Tube video that she saw on facebook, where a kid was getting bully-punched and physically harassed until he became so fed up that he picked up the bully and body-slammed him. I never realized it, but You Tube has a bunch of such videos, some of them dramatized productions, others raw images of bullies getting knocked out and stomped. Apparently there is something deeply satisfying for many people to see a bully get his butt whipped.

Brown's Early Anti-Bullying

This got me thinking about the Old Man in Kansas, especially since I recently had a couple of days of going back and forth on Answer.com with someone who strongly objects to Brown and his role at Pottawatomie. In fact, seeing the You Tube video thus prompted me to think of the whole bloody Pottawatomie episode as an extension of John Brown’s perennial war on bullies. I’ve documented Brown’s anti-bully inclinations in John Brown—The Cost of Freedom, including two testimonies from his younger (half) siblings to the effect that Brown really disliked bullies from the time of his youth and was known to intervene on behalf of weak kids who were getting bullied by big kids. This apparently happened enough during his fitful, scanty school days to earn him the reputation of being an anti-bully. Certainly, his passion for the underdog obviously goes a long way toward understanding how Brown conducted himself throughout his life.

Nor did John Brown abandon his contempt for bullies when he became an adult. Around the time that he moved to northwestern Pennsylvania, he went to bat for settlers in that vicinity who were faced with eviction by a big land company based in Philadelphia, earning the reputation of a troublemaker by one of the firm’s agents. As a settler, he once warned some white men who were going to harass local Native Americans that he would just as soon shoot them then join them. Similarly, in the 1840s, after working among wool growers for a number of years, he concluded that these farmers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western Virginia were being victimized by rich manufacturers in New England, particularly since the latter were fixing the prices of wool to their own advantage. As a result, Brown organized a wool commission operation with the backing of Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio. The Perkins & Brown firm opened its operation in Massachusetts in 1846 with the specific intention of empowering woolgrowers. By grading and pricing the wools on their behalf, he introduced quality controls and sought to give a measure of self-determination to the growers. While the firm ultimately failed, it was probably more as a result of the unified efforts of the manufacturers to undermine its operation than Brown’s alleged poor business abilities. The point is that the New England wool manufacturers were bullies and John Brown hated bullies, whether they were big, scary thugs in the schoolyard or rich industrialists and businessmen taking advantage of settlers and farmers.

Slavery the Bully

Needless to say, John Brown fought for black people in a variety of ways, first by using every non-violent means necessary—up until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed into law. Then he organized blacks in Springfield, Mass., in a resistance group and tried to arm them. Viscerally, he was just doing what he had always done since his frontier school days. Of course there are political, social, and religious dimensions to everything Brown did in fighting slavery. But in one sense, his entire private war against slavery was one long anti-bully crusade.

When his sons and family went out to the Kansas territory in 1854 to settle, they surveyed lands given to Native Americans in an attempt to help them secure their boundaries against pro-slavery squatters from the South. In one case, Brown apparently sent his sons to remove one such squatter at gunpoint, something that the Native Americans could not have done given their politically powerless circumstances.

When John Brown went to Kansas in the fall of 1855, he did not go to settle, vote, or become a free state leader. He went to arm his sons and other free state settlers in the event of a violent assault initiated by pro-slavery thugs. In Kansas, Brown’s anti-bully inclinations were at the ready from October 1855 until the outbreak of pro-slavery terrorism took place in the spring of 1856. Until the latter took place, Brown never took any kind of action against the pro-slavery side; his correspondence shows that he was optimistic at first about the Territory entering the union as a free state based upon a fair vote. But in 1856 it increasingly became aware that the pro-slavery side was willing to turn to fraud and terror in order to defeat the free state majority and make Kansas into a slave state. When his worst fears came true, Brown went on the defensive. Five free state people were killed in various situations and pro-slavery “hordes” (as he called them) began to threaten assault upon free state communities. Brown and his sons made it clear that they would not succumb to pro-slavery bullying, either through the courts or by threats of blunt force. After facing of a pro-slavery judge with success, Brown and his family were marked as dangerous enemies by the pro-slavery side, and their pronounced pro-black politics readily distinguished them among the more conservative white free state settlers. They were soon marked for assault.


Although Pottawatomie is typically portrayed as a “massacre” of “unarmed” pro-slavery people, the reality is that Brown never bothered pro-slavery people. He was law abiding and was willing to respect the Popular Sovereignty doctrine, believing that the free state side would easily win the state by ballot. He was right, except the pro-slavery side had no intention of letting Kansas enter the union as a free state, and they were determined to use any means necessary to secure the new state as a place for slavery, even if the majority had to be suppressed with threats and terrorism.

When the free state town of Lawrence was attacked in late May 1856, five free state men had already been murdered in different episodes. Armed mobs of pro-slavery racists with banners like “The Supremacy of the White Race” were riding into the Territory and their intentions were not democratic. It was no surprise that the Browns were marked for assault and when the Old Man learned that local pro-slavery activists were involved in a conspiracy to bring these “hordes” down upon his family, Brown rose up like the quintessential anti-bully. He had not come to Kansas to settle, but to protect his family.

The Pottawatomie killings are terrible to contemplate. But most people who talk about them don’t consider that there was an unofficial civil war going on in Kansas in May 1856. Not only was their a civil war going on, but the federal government was not intervening to enforce the rights of the free state majority, since the powers of that era were in the lap of the pro-slavery politicians, including Presidents Pierce and Buchanan. The lawlessness of the hour was absolute; there was no protection from federal, territorial, or local officials. Free state people were like the proverbial fish in a barrel—easy to shoot.

With terrorism off the hook in Kansas, John Brown did not explode in rage. Based upon the names of certain men that he had received from free state associates, he conducted his own investigation and found that these men were actually determined to lead an assault upon his family and other free state associates. Based upon everything that had taken place up to that point, he had every good reason to believe that he and his sons would have been killed, and their women folk and children driven off by sheer terrorism.

Responding to Real Threats

People flinch at how horrible Brown was to conduct such a cold-blooded attack, but Brown was not the bully. He was the man who stood up to the bully. Brown attacked these men because Lawrence had fallen and he had good reason to believe that Osawatomie and the Browns in particular were next on the list of terrorist assault. There was a large group of pro-slavery thugs in the vicinity. Three of the men on his hit list were collaborating with them and Brown himself had spied on them and found this to be true. Brown did not attack on the basis of empty threats made by big, drunken pro-slavery blow bags. He knew that given the political situation, their threats were grounded in real determination to overthrow free state people, especially “those damned Browns” (as one called them), whose belief in black equality was just too much for these racist thugs to tolerate.

This was how the Pottawatomie killings came about. Brown believed something had to be done and basically no one was willing to do anything about it. Brown believed this was first a matter of his family’s well being, and he wasn’t about to let these thugs hurt his sons, daughters-in-law, and family. The pro-slavery faction had bullied and abused, destroyed and murdered, and no one had stood up to them. Free state people shuddered and prayed, refusing to use “violence” in self-defense, and naively trusting in the federal government to do the right thing. John Brown knew better.

The Pottawatomie strike was weighed, strategic, and harsh. It was not about scaring people. It was about squashing the worst kind of bullies and making sure they did not rise up again. When he took old man Doyle out of the house at gunpoint, along with his two sons, Brown was laying hold of the man who was his complete antithesis. Doyle was a Tennessean father and husband who had gone to Kansas to settle after working as a slave patrol in the South. He was not a slave holder, but he had made a living hunting black people down like dogs and forcing them back into chains. Doyle was a father, but he had no qualms about seeing John Brown and his sons killed. If he had had his way, it would have been the Brown cabins that would have been invaded with violence and murder. Salmon Brown clearly remembered Mahala Doyle, this man’s wife, tearfully scolding her husband as he went out of the door for the last time, reminding him that she had warned him about his “devilment.”

What was Doyle’s “devilment?” It was his conspiracy to bring a violent assault upon the Brown family. It was his intention to bring the force of pro-slavery terrorists upon John Brown and his sons, leaving their wives as widows.

The Bully's Mistake

After the Doyles were hacked to death with swords, it seems that old man Doyle was the one that Brown contemplated. He stood over the body of the Tennessean who had conspired to kill his family. Perhaps he looked into his face and feared that the man was still alive. Perhaps not. Whether to make sure he was dead or to signal to the others, Brown fired one shot into the head of the corpse—the only actual act of violence that he committed that dreadful night. I suspect he was also making a point in his own mind. Old man Doyle hadn’t realized it, but he had started something that John Brown had determined to finish. He was a father; he should have known better than to threaten another father's family. He should have reared his sons to be just men, not thugs. Doyle had mistakenly assumed that all free state people were going to be led like lambs to the slaughter. He hadn’t counted on what John Brown might do.

Bullies never count the cost. They assume that their “strength” and ability to use force and intimidation, even violence, will not be met with resistance. They assume the weakness of good people, and they count on fear scattering the weak like sheep without a shepherd. In their wildest imaginations, bullies never imagine that violence, like a sword, can be wielded as ruthlessly by a certain kind of well-intended man. And they never count on meeting such a man. Like Goliath overshadowing David, they simply cannot imagine just how bad things are about to get.

Body slam.