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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, October 16, 2013

154 Years Ago Today, John Brown and His Men Tried to Start the Second "American" Revolution

Brown and raiders leaving for Harper's
Ferry, Sunday night, Oct. 16, 1859
(artist unknown)
In 1859, October 16th fell on a Sunday.  That cold, rainy night was the time that Brown and his raiders left their Maryland farm, walking into the town of Harper's Ferry, Virginia [today in West Virginia, the state having been created four years after the raid].  As Brown surmised after extensive preparatory work, Harper's Ferry was completely vulnerable and taken off guard.  The two federal armories, Harper's Ferry and Springfield, Mass., were under civilian supervision, without a military presence of any kind.  This is why Brown knew that seizing the armory was a feasible strategy.

Brown left some men at the Maryland headquarters with different orders than those who went with him to seize the town and the armory.  It is often said that Brown seized the "arsenal," but the arsenal was only one part of the operation.  Properly speaking, Brown seized control of the town and the entire federal armory operation.

Although the number of raiders with him was small, Brown had sufficient men to carry out his plan, which was to make a quick strike, rally available enslaved men, gather important hostages (slaveholders) from the immediate vicinity, and withdraw to a strategically advantageous position.  From that position, he intended to barter hostages for more enslaved men before withdrawing into the mountains nearby.  There is ample witness, even from local testimony, that had Brown gone into the mountains with his men, it would have been almost impossible to get him out or stop his movement deeper into the South.  (Because I am writing on these matters now, I'm not going to give explicit citations, but it was the opinion of both a local political figure and the armory superintendent that Brown's mountain strategy was very strong.  Brown himself stated that he and his men had spent considerable time exploring the mountains surrounding Harper's Ferry, and that he knew them better than many of the locals did.  I do not think that was a vain boast.)
Brown's Plan (Jacob Lawrence)

Typically, historians immediately project failure into the raid by discussing the death of Hayward Shepherd, the black porter and "freeman" at the train depot.  None of Brown's men were pleased at the killing of Shepherd, but there is good evidence that Shepherd was deliberately killed because he was extremely difficult, refused to cooperate, and was trying to get away to warn whites in the vicinity.  Apart from some of the slaveholders who tried to fight Brown's men, Shepherd was probably the most troublesome figure at Harper's Ferry.   Shepherd was of that stripe that Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X later referred to as a "house" servant.  He may not have been enslaved on a plantation, but he was entirely bound up in the interests of the slave masters, which had become a source of income and prosperity for him.  A liberated black man, he was a token in the community, since free blacks were not allowed to stay in Virginia; the community of slaveholders loved and trusted Shepherd completely because he was thoroughly their man.  His patron was the mayor, Fontaine Beckham, his former master, and Beckham and enabled him to amass money and property in a manner impossible for his enslaved brethren.  Apparently, Shepherd did not care that his prosperity was made in spite of the plight of his brethren, and he was willing to risk his life and disdain every warning from Brown's men, even to the point of trying to sneak over to the Maryland side to warn whites.   It is no wonder that local whites whined and wept over his death.  I doubt there was any mourning in the slave quarters for Hayward Shepherd; even Osborne Anderson, the only primary witness among Brown's men to write an account of the raid, spoke of Shepherd as an unfortunate but problematic figure.
Having failed tactically, Brown withdrew to make a last
stand at the HF engine house (artist unknown)

Shepherd's death was no signal that Brown was going to fail.  It only signified that Brown's men were consistently following orders.   The real problem with Brown's own tactical failures, which were signs to his men that things might not work out.  I respectfully disagree with Tony Horwitz on this point: I fully believe Brown's testimony regarding his failure, and I think it makes sense--he failed at Harper's Ferry because he delayed; he delayed because he became overly ponderous and worried over managing his hostages.  Brown bent over backwards to assure hostages and railroad personnel that he was not going to do them harm.  Brown let a train pass through and even walked the train across the bridge himself to assure the engineer that the train was not in danger.  When the night grew cold, he then made the lethal mistake of taking the hostages into the armory facility where it was warmer; he had intended to keep the hostages at convenient points of escape on the Maryland side of the bridge.  He wasted time "parleying" (as Anderson put it) with his hostages, in part trying to get them to agree to hand over choice enslaved men, and afterward trying to get them to agree to cooperate in a safe withdrawal from the town.  He pondered and got lost in his own extreme tendency to be excessively thoughtful; he became paralyzed long enough that opposition forces gathered and cut off escape routes.  John Brown failed at Harper's Ferry because of tactics, not strategy.  This is a long misunderstood and misrepresented point.
From John Hendrix, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom

Historians' attempts to belittle Brown's overall plan, and even the entry into Harper's Ferry itself, are not well founded.  Much has been made of Frederick Douglass' warning (of which we know only from Douglass) that Harper's Ferry would prove a "steel trap" for Brown.  Perhaps Douglass actually said this to Brown prior to the raid; but if he did, Douglass was speaking from ignorance.  Like others, he probably believed the town and armory were under military supervision.  But Brown conducted advance tours incognito, studied the whole town and operation meticulously (this was his nature), and had a plan that was quite good--except that it was time sensitive.  Brown admits to all of this in the journalistic accounts taken immediately after the raid, and repeatedly states these matters in personal letters from jail.

One of the pikes Brown designed to
arm the liberated slaves
The most unfortunate point missed in conventional (and often hackneyed) accounts of the Harper's Ferry raid is that Brown's larger plan--his intention to start a south-wide liberation movement was never tested.  I believe the invasion of Harper's Ferry was a political statement, as Robert McGlone has pointed out; but I hope to provide even more persuasive evidence than he does to that end.  Regardless, the raid was not Brown's plan, and his south-wide plan ought not to be dismissed as quixotic, simply because he failed to carry out his plans in the town of Harper's Ferry.   Had Brown withdrawn into the mountains, it is doubtless that he would have drawn many enslaved people away from plantations and farms, and that he would have been able to throw the entire South into a state of panic, offset the "peculiar institution," and become an entrenched movement that the small, undeveloped U.S. army could not have stopped, nor local militia effectively prevented from spreading across slave states as far as Texas.  The problem is serious consideration is rarely given to Brown's plan, nor is his plan placed in the context of the larger situation among slaves and slaveholders in the late 1850s.  Many local slave revolts had taken place, often overlooked by conventional historians.  Brown could have found ample opportunity in various regions to build his movement even further.  This was the material of which revolutions are made.
Original sketch of Brown's hanging (Alfred Berghaus)

Unfortunately, Brown failed--John Brown failed, and is to blame for his own failure.  However, as a man of faith and purpose, he did not fail to regroup and seize upon the next possible opportunity to serve the cause he loved.  As a prisoner, he decried any vain notion of rescue and he resented northerners who sent harassing letters to Governor Wise of Virginia.  He was a realist enough to see that his hanging would still serve the cause of the enslaved African.  Every evidence is that Brown found a sense of peace and spiritual contentment in the waning days and weeks of his life in Virginia.  He knew his martyrdom ("martyr" is a Christian word in its origins, which simply means "witness") would provoke the nation in both its best and worst inclinations; perhaps he understood, too, that since whites valued white lives above black lives, then his death would move whites in the North more than the deaths of many blacks.  Even his jailer later said that Brown seemed joyful on the day of his hanging, December 2, 1859.   Of course, I attribute this much to his Christian faith and belief in the divine purpose being fulfilled, regardless of human failure.  But Brown went happily to the gallows, hoping it would in some way make amends for his failed leadership, and even more that he would prove a hinge upon which would turn the next great movement for black freedom.

History has shown that he was correct.

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