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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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Friday, May 16, 2014

Take Note--
John Brown in Clouds of Glory

Yesterday's edition (May 15) of The Daily Beast featured an excerpt from Michael Korda's book, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, about the famous Confederate military leader.  The excerpt reportedly "describes how as a U.S. Army officer, Lee adroitly quelled John Brown’s 1859 insurrection at Harper’s Ferry."  The excerpt is fairly well done and Korda is fair to Brown for the most part, although the title of the article, "When Robert E. Lee Met John Brown and Saved the Union," doesn't make much historical sense.  Lee indeed met Brown as the commanding officer of the marines who defeated the abolitionist at Harper's Ferry in 1859.  Beyond that, Lee lent his considerable abilities to the slaveholders' rebellion, helping to worsen civil conflict as a military leader.
Unidentified artist's rendering
of Brown in Kansas, 1856

The excerpt from Korda's book has several errors that should be corrected:
For three years, from 1855 through 1858, a group of Free Soilers under the “command” of “Captain” Brown (or “Osawatomie Brown,” as he was called after his heavily fortified Free Soil settlement) fought pitched battles against “Border Ruffians” (as the pro-slavery forces were known by their enemies), in one of which his son Frederick was killed.

This tends to distort the basic facts of the narrative.  Brown arrived in Kansas in October 1855 and did not become involved in any militant action until the spring of 1856, when it was clear that proslavery forces would not honor the democratic process, but had increasingly turned to the use of terrorism.  Nor did Brown consistently command men for the three-year period described by Korda.  After significant crises and conflict in the field, Brown left the territory in late 1856 with the reputation of a Kansas freedom fighter.  He was absent from Kansas throughout almost the entire year of 1857, and spent only about one month there from November to December.  After his Virginia plan was nearly betrayed, he returned to Kansas in June 1858 in order to throw off any notion that he was planning his attack in Virginia.  Back in the territory, he interacted with free state leaders, sought to support free state settlers, and evaded capture.  Brown remained in the territory until rescuing eleven enslaved people in December, and escorting them across country to Canadian freedom (Dec. 1858-Mar. 1859).  Brown's son Frederick was not killed in a battle or skirmish, but was murdered near his home by some proslavery scouts in August 1856.
Harpers Ferry, Sunday, October 16, 1859
Sketch of Brown, Oct. 1859, in
Frank Leslie's Illustrated News

Shortly after eight o’clock at night, having completed his preparations and his prayers, a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, his full white beard bristling like that of Moses. . .
This is Korda's description of Brown at Harper's Ferry in October 1859.  By way of description, Brown did not wear a "broad-brimmed hat."  One witness says he was wearing a soft fur cap, probably the same cap that has been described in accounts of Brown from Kansas.   More important, Brown's beard at Harper's Ferry was closely cropped.  He had grown his famous beard long as late as the spring of 1859, as visible in his most famous daguerreotype.  But in the South, he cut his beard short, as can be seen in the contemporary newspaper sketch of Brown that was made after the raid.
Brown now had thirty-five hostages and possession of the armory, but the slave uprising on which he was counting did not take place, and during the night, one by one, things started to go wrong.
 Following conventional notions of the raid, he mistakenly writes that Brown was counting on some sort of "slave uprising" to take place.  This was the claim of slaveholders, but in actuality, Brown had no intention of sparking an uprising.  Historically, uprisings typically involved insurrectionary violence and the killing of slave masters and their families.  Brown had no such idea.  There is ample evidence that he intended to draw away enslaved people from their masters, retreat to the mountains, and fight only in self-defense when pursued or attacked.  His plan was not insurrection or uprising, but to destabilize slavery and upset the economy of slavery sufficiently to allow for enslaved people to establish a guerilla nation out of reach of slave patrols and U.S. military acting on behalf of slave holders.
[J.E.B.] Stuart got along well enough with his old opponent from Kansas— except for their difference of opinion about the legitimacy of slavery, they were     the same kind of man: courageous, active, bold, exceedingly polite, and dangerous.
Artist's rendering of the
Stuart-Brown parley at
Harper's Ferry

Korda describes how Stuart was present at Brown's defeat at Harper's Ferry and had delivered Robert E. Lee's demand for surrender.  To the contrary, Stuart did not get along with Brown.  At the time of the raid, there was no significant exchange between Brown and the future proslavery rebel leader.  After Brown's defeat and capture, Stuart proved to be a sniping, sarcastic, vindictive, and verbally abusive captor.  He insulted Brown repeatedly, rudely harangued him during an interview with Senator James Mason, and cursed him.  As the record shows, Stuart may have been courageous, but he was only polite to his ilk, and he was only valiant in the cause of preserving slavery.  Hardly John Brown's counterpart, let alone his equal in any sense.
Green took the bent weapon in both hands and beat Brown around the head with it until the old man collapsed, blood pouring from his wounds.
Marine Israel Green, who tried to kill
John Brown and later revised the
story as a "capture"
As Korda describes the role of Lieut. Israel Green, the marine who allegedly "captured" John Brown at the Harper's Ferry engine house.  It is true that Green beat Brown with his bent dress sword, but the evidence shows that he did not stop when "the old man collapsed."  The evidence shows that Green continued beating Brown after he fell to the ground.  In other words, Green tried to bludgeon Brown to death on the floor of the engine house.  Even Korda points out that Green at first thought he had killed Brown.  According to a letter from Stuart to his mother following the raid, Green afterward was upset that he had not been successful in killing Brown. Historians have relied on Green's revisionist version of his "capture" of Brown, written decades afterward.  However, at the time, it did not go unnoticed by journalists and abolitionists in the North how Green had brutalized the old man.

As noted, the excerpt overall is not bad, especially compared to many things written about Brown. Still, for the sake of the historical record, I point out these issues since there is a great deal of misinformation in popular thinking about the Harper's Ferry raid.  My forthcoming book on the last days of John Brown, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield, will address these and other hackneyed assumptions that unfortunately have become part of the popular narrative of John Brown.--LD

Some Additional Corrections from Historian Steven Lubet 

I am pleased to include input from the notable historian, Steven Lubet, author of a number of books, including John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook, and a forthcoming work on Brown's black raiders at Harper's Ferry.  Lubet writes:

As long as we are pointing out minor mistakes, here are two more:

Korda says that twelve of Brown's men died at Harper's Ferry.  The actual number was ten. Seven more were hanged and five escaped.

He also says that Colonel Washington was "delivered to Brown in his own carriage, along with a pair of pistols that Lafayette had given George Washington."  Moving now from the unimportant to the truly trivial, the Lafayette pistols were not delivered to Brown.  John E. Cook had taken only one of the pistols, which he secretly kept for himself.  The other pistol of the pair was left behind, and it was included in Washington's estate and later sold to the New York State Library.  


Jean Libby said...

Just want to note how much I enjoy and appreciate these corrections about John Brown's raid and the raiders. I look forward to reading Steven Lubet's book.

Alice Keesey Mecoy said...

Thank you Lou and Steven for taking the time and energy to point out the errors regarding "the old man." I appreciate your knowledge and research and presenting of the truth.
Alice Keesey Mecoy
GGG Grand daughter of John Brown