History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Monday, May 30, 2011

John Brown in the News--
Gods, Generals, and Civil War Military Historians

On May 21, 2011, the State of Virginia convened its "2011 Signature Conference" on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission at Virginia Tech. To no surprise, the conference centered upon military strategy, which is he overwhelming theme in discussions of the Civil War throughout the U.S. The reason for this is not too hard to discern: many Civil War buffs, North and South, are not interested in the politics of the Civil War because the politics of the Civil War are bound up with the “hard stuff” of U.S. history. To engage in a truthful investigation of the Civil War means the historian has to engage issues of racism, justice, and the actual realities of a white supremacist culture (and subcultures) that directly or indirectly profited from the literal blood, sweat, and tears of four millions of human beings reduced to chattel by law.

Civil War: Game versus Reality

The realities of the Civil War are just too hard and often too embarrassing to engage--especially for Southern scholars, not a few of which continue to evade the truth of their forebears’ injustice by claiming the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, but rather that the North had conducted a “war of aggression.” Of course, we know the North did not enter the war to “free the slaves,” and the North in large part had no more love for black people than did the South. But the reality is that the Union and the Confederacy were conflicted over slavery and how to manage it. Southerners wanted to manage slavery to their maximum economic advantage, including expansion into new territory and widening the "slave space" and its profits. Lincoln wanted to manage it by limiting it to its established domain and then hopefully phasing it out over a period of time while perhaps deporting black people altogether. These were the two contrasting political visions that entered the theater of civil war in 1861.  Black freedom was a concern only for black people and a small number of white allies, none of which had any direct impact on antebellum policies.

In contrast, most people today who claim an interest in the Civil War today are focused upon military strategy. The military narrative is always fascinating and has a worthy place in the labor of historians. Unfortunately, in the case of the Civil War, however, military history has become the means by which many can evade the political realities of the antebellum, war, and post-war chapters of U.S. history. To Status quo "Civil War military history" does not ask the hard questions about the political and moral questions behind the war, but tends to glorify and sensationalize “the blue and the gray.”

Civil War Military History often
focuses on the war as game, without
observing the principles at stake
"Surely, the Bitterness of Death is Passed"

Civil War military history enables the stylization and glorification of the Grants as well as the Lees, regardless of their political views.   As such, popular Civil War military history provides a sterile, amoral way of viewing the war.  It is sterile and amoral because it offends no one and allows everyone to sustain personal loyalties without actually revisiting the meaning of the war for the nation at the time.  By rehearsing army movements and battles and by romanticizing the troops and their leaders, Civil War history becomes a sacred football game where both sides were “the good guys.”  In this way, we can feel for both the Blue and the Gray because they were all just good soldiers fighting in the name of God and conscience for what they believed was right.  "Surely the bitterness of death is passed." In such a context, the morality of history is replaced by sentimentality: every general is a hero and every soldier is a martyr, no matter what they represented to four million enslaved Africans.  Of course, the "football" side of Civil War military history is most pronounced in the arena of Civil War re-enactors--men who delight in dressing up as soldiers and recreating the battles of the war in mock conflict on the field.  They are the most sincere and "practical" expression of what scholars and historians do in texts, roundtables, and conferences on Civil War military history year after year.  Yet when all is said and done, none of this has added light or understanding to our collective interest as a nation regarding the obscene violence and wickedness that possessed the soul of this nation under the name of chattel slavery.  No wonder so many scholars cannot understand John Brown.  They have no heart even to begin such a study.

Gods, Generals, and Park Historians

John Brown scholars who have visited Harper’s Ferry have good reason to believe that the pronounced view of the National Park staff is hostile toward the Old Man. In 2009, I spent a couple of hours (due to a glitch in my appointment schedule) waiting in the Harper’s Ferry guest center/book store, where the tour buses make regular stops to pick up and drop off tourists. While I sat, thumbing through some books and materials on display, I listened with interest to the leading voice among the Park staff as he provided orientation and information to inquiring visitors. Frankly, I was appalled at the unstudied prejudice and bias that came across that counter.  I have come to the conclusion that the Harper’s Ferry National Park people must have something of a love/hate feeling for Brown. They love him because he has given Harper’s Ferry its reason to exist. John Brown is their bread-and-butter.

Dennis E. Frye
In the case of the 2011 Signature Conference, perhaps the most likely person to be pressed into service for a talk on John Brown was Dennis E. Frye.  Mr. Frye is no small fry in the world of Civil War military history (pun intended). Most notably, Frye is the Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and he has lent his view of Brown to a number of efforts involving Brown, and has led a national battlefield preservation organization that has since become the Civil War Trust. He has authored a number of books and many articles, and his most recent book is Antietam Revealed. As a specialist on the Civil War, Frye has served as a battlefield guide for National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and has contributed to many academic and scholarly forums. He is has also been a “talking head” on television documentaries and series, most notably as the associate producer and historical consultant for the movie “Gods and Generals.”

The Southern Perspective Revisited

Artifacts versus Facts
Mr. Frye deserves every respect and salutation for his successful career and contributions, but I do take issue to some points of his presentation as reported in the May 30th edition of the Kingsport, Tennessee, Times News on line, Mr. Frye addressed the Virginia Tech conference along the lines of a Southern view of John Brown’s raid. This is a worthwhile theme, yet one wonders to what extent Mr. Frye has not only captured the sentiment of antebellum Virginians, but also manifested it in his attitude and analysis of Brown. Unfortunately, a transcript of his speech is not available, only a brief excerpt by the Times News. Citing the beginning of the war, he portrayed the Southern perception that the South “had been assaulted, the south had been invaded, the south had been raped,” and that “the worst of the worst that the United States had to offer, in the opinion of a southerner, actually came to Virginia manifested in human form. The abolitionist John Brown." After reading Brown’s famous last written words ("I John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood"), Frye declared that
For Virginians who had had their citizens murdered in the John Brown raid, who had had their property stolen in the John Brown raid, who had had their state invaded by abolitionist [sic], black and white, in the John Brown raid, armed men coming into Virginia, attacking a defenseless town in the night, on a Sunday, those words of John Brown had nothing to do with prophecy with regards to slavery. But had everything to do about rousing the blood of the south.
And again:
For a Southerner[,] the crimes were perpetrated by abolitionist[s]. For a southerner the crimes were the conspirators who supported John Brown and indeed if there was to be blood shed let it happen. “We will welcome you to our soil with bloody hands and hospitable graves,” is how James L. Kemper would report to the Virginia assembly in the aftermath of the John Brown raid. So indeed they prepared for blood, they did prepare for possible war. We today refer to it as Homeland Security. And in fact that's what southerners thought and expected. More John Brown's [sic], more abolitionist, more invaders.
I read these remarks as going beyond “objectivity” on the part of Mr. Frye, who portrays the feelings and sentiments of antebellum Southerners--especially Virginians, toward John Brown.  Evidently, he is also opining at to the meaning of John Brown.  By making an association between antebellum preparations for war and present day Homeland Security, Mr. Frye is making a problematic alignment of the pro-slavery argument (which demanded that Brown be equated with a murderous brigand) with “our way of life” (to use former President Bush’s terms).  And what was “our way of life” to antebellum Virginians?  Was it not frank white supremacy—“democracy” for white people, especially white property owners?  Was it not a "democracy" premised on the enslavement of African people—theft of their labor, possession of their bodies, and the right to do so for as long as the slave master desired?  Is this really a comparison that Mr. Frye wants to make without some kind of qualification or differentiation?   Doesn't Mr. Frye realize that to invoke terrorism and "Homeland Security" without acknowledging that slavery itself was premised on the threat of terrorism is itself an indictment of his perspective?

The Southern "War of Aggression" began in Kansas,
long before the fall of Fort Sumter
Genesis: Harper's Ferry or Kansas?

Another error of Mr. Frye’s presentation is the passing reference, “So indeed they prepared for blood, they did prepare for possible war.” The idea that Southern political leadership did not “prepare for possible war” until the John Brown raid is a fallacy. Brown himself knew what many Northerner leaders knew--namely, that the leaders of the South had been preparing for civil conflict for years prior to the Harper’s Ferry raid. Recall the early 1859 "interview" that journalist William Addison Phillips had with Brown in Kansas, as recounted in a trustworthy 1879 article in The Atlantic Monthly:

[John Brown] told me that a war was at that very moment contemplated in the cabinet of President Buchanan; that for years the army had been carefully arranged, as far as it could be, on a basis of Southern power; that arms and the best of the troops were being concentrated, so as to be under control of its interests if there was danger of having to surrender the government; that the secretary of the navy was then sending our vessels away on long cruises, so that they would not be available, and that the treasury would be beggared before it got into Northern hands. All this has a strangely prophetic look to me now; then it simply appeared incredible, or the dream and vagary of a man who had allowed one idea to carry him away. I told him he surely was mistaken, and had confounded everyday occurrences with treacherous designs.
"No," he said, and I remember this part distinctly, -- "no, the war is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth."
The "Southern" view of
Brown has long been
the conventional view
among U.S. historians
As Brown observed, the bellicose posture of the South was already quite evident in the mid-1850s, when a great deal of Southern money and manpower was poured into the Kansas Territory. In fact, the notion that the Civil War “began” at Harper’s Ferry is the Southern perspective itself, and this is the view that Mr. Frye conveys since he is evidently a retooled antebellum Southerner in heart.

Quite to the contrary of the Southern thesis as exemplified by Mr. Frye’s interpretation, the Civil War actually began in the Kansas territory in 1855-56. Likewise, the initial aggressors were Southerners, not Northerners, nor the Union itself. Militant pro-slavery forces poured in from the depths of the South, across the Missouri state line and into the Territory. This is the genesis of the Civil War in terms of military history or any history. To suggest that John Brown was a de facto terrorist whose actions merited some kind of antebellum “Homeland Security” is patently wrong.

"Principles of Right and Wrong"

Historians are human and we all bring our presuppositions to bear upon the work before us. None of us can attain to complete objectivity and none of us can escape error, just as none can escape criticism. Yet there is a difference between history that is shaped by presupposition and human error and history that is shaped by prejudice.  This was precisely the point that Brown made to Phillips in 1859, that the crisis facing the nation was a question of "principles of right and wrong," though politicians and leaders had become "besotted" with questions of power and pride, national and regional. The same applies to how historians portray that terrible epoch of slavery and war.

This is a revised version of the article originally appearing under this title.  In the original, yours truly drew some unstudied and unfair conclusions, and in this version I have endeavored not only to correct  matters of error, but to make clear my regret for any undo offense created in the process.  Although I certainly differ with Mr. Frye, he was wrongly characterized in the original article.  The Old Man would be the first to rebuke me were I to fail to make this right.  Readers may note my follow up article dated 1 June.--LD

1 comment:

Jean Libby said...

I must respond to the characterization of Dennis Frye as not a historian or of limited reading knowledge of John Brown. He works in a library in western Maryland with an extensive collection of books and primary materials on Brown, and has studied them well. As for his thesis that the white southerners were expecting more abolitionists to come, I believe he is correct. Further, that is exactly what Boyd Stutler stated about the local black southerners -- they expected that Brown would be backed up by more abolitionists. Mr. Stutler was in the American Legion and signed a certificate for a chapter in Charles Town. One of the members was Reginald Ross, an African American who escaped at the time of Brown's raid from Loudoun County, Virginia, just across the Shenandoah from Jefferson County. I heard of Ross from local African Americans in the 1970s, and found him listed as fugitive on the 1860 census. Thank you. Jean Libby