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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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Monday, February 23, 2015

Take Note--
The Press and Misinformation on John Brown

According to an Associated Press (AP) report dated Feb. 23, the city of Charles Town and the Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority are negotiating a deal to provide transportation for the city's John Brown history tour.   If the agreement is struck, the agency will also take participants from Charles Town to Harpers Ferry. Charles Town, where John Brown was jailed, tried, and hanged in 1859, has been providing a historic tour of sites related to Brown since 2014.

The AP report concludes with the following sentences: Brown attacked a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. He had planned to seize weapons and start a revolution to end slavery. The uprising was quashed within 48 hours. He was tried and executed in Charles Town for treason.

While this brief AP report is of passing interest, it is worth noting how the concluding three sentences function to extend the errors of John Brown authors (I won't call them scholars) who in turn have functioned to yield confusion, misinformation, and error in their narratives about John Brown's raid. For but three sentences, this AP summary contains a number of errors and something of a slight that is totally misplaced.

First, John Brown did not seize the armory in order to take the armory weapons.  

This has become a virtual mantra among John Brown "experts," tour guides, historians, journalists, and anyone else with an opportunity to publish an opinion about the Harper's Ferry raid.  The trouble is, it's wrong.

As the record shows, only one or two cases of rifles were even examined throughout the whole time of Brown's occupation of the armory and town of Harper's Ferry.  None of the testimonies of Brown's captives, especially the armory employees, shows that he had an interest in the rifles.  Indeed, he posted guards at the arsenal.   For as long as he stayed (too long) in Harper's Ferry, he did not take the arms.  I address this more extensively in my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn, along with his real intention for seizing the armory, and the most plausible explanation based upon evidence.   The notion of Brown seizing the arsenal to get the weapons is based upon slave holders and Virginia politicians like Senator James Mason, who portrayed Brown as an insurrectionist and inflamed fears of an uprising allegedly attempted by Brown.  This was propaganda and fiction.   To those who insist that Brown meant to take the weapons, my challenge is clear: prove it by fact.  He did not bring wagons to load them, made no attempt to load them, and explicitly stated (repeatedly) that he did not want the Harper's Ferry weapons.

Second, Brown did not intend to start a "revolution."  

He nowhere employed such language, and was quite aware of the political significance of "revolution" as well as "insurrection."  The best language--based on interviews with him--to describe his intention is "rescue."  His strategy was to lead as many enslaved people away as possible and support them in their movement to evade capture and swell the numbers of those who would join them across the South.  Brown hoped to collapse the operations of slavery without igniting a full blown revolution or uprising; he understood what was at stake, and hoped to make his movement as fluid, defensive, and evasive as possible.

Third, as there was no "uprising," it was not "quashed within 48 hours."

The phrasing of the AP remark suggests Brown's effort was so feeble that it was crushed "within 48 hours."  This is hardly the case.  In fact, Brown afterward pointed out to Governor Henry Wise that despite having inferior numbers and being accused of taking on an impossible venture, he had held Harper's Ferry for nearly two days before the forces of Virginia had been able to stop him.  The incredible thing about the story of the raid is not that it was "quashed" so easily, but rather that Brown was able to embarrass Virginia and hold a town with only a handful of men.  This point is made notwithstanding the fact that Brown violated his own plans and tactically failed by remaining in town.  The defense of Harper's Ferry was not a battle that Brown should have engaged; but the fact that he did, it is still interesting that it took both local militia and the marines to finally "quash" his actions.   This is in part due to the fact that Brown and his men had superior weapons, another reason why he had no interest in seizing the arsenal contents of inferior rifles.

Finally, he was tried and executed in Charles Town for treason.

Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason by a jury of slave holders in a court presided over and overseen by the proslavery interests.  The facts show that the charge of murder is weak, that Brown neither authorized nor knew of any act of murder.  Further, in reaction to the raid, the people at Harper's Ferry were far more guilty of committing acts of murder.  A number of the raiders were killed in cold blood out of malice, including an execution style killing by the son of the Prosecutor Andrew Hunter.   The younger Hunter's act of homicide was revealed during testimony although he was never brought to trial.

Brown consistently denied his role as an insurrectionist and the facts bear this up.  However, slave holders made no distinctions insofar as he was endeavoring to free their enslaved "property."  Any act of armed effort to liberate enslaved people was deemed "insurrection," although the nature of insurrectionary violence is distinct, and Brown clearly wanted to avoid insurrectionary violence--that is, the categorical killing of slaveholders and their families, whether in armed conflict or not.  Brown was no Spartacus, not withstanding the famous allusion made by Victor Hugo.

Finally, the idea that Brown was guilty of treason was a device of Brown's prosecutors.  His defense sought to overturn the charge, but Hunter and the State of Virginia pushed the idea that because Brown had received legal protection, technically, as a guest of the state, then any act of subterfuge against Virginia could be called "treason."  The authority on the trial, Brian McGinty, says the point was arguably true, and conservatives in the North supported the treason conviction.  However, in the most logical sense, the charge of treason was self-serving for Virginia to kill Brown.  It signified how the State of Virginia had already endeavored to supersede the federal power, and such a charge reflects the hubris of the slaveholders that ultimately led to secession.  Indeed, Brown had broken the law to liberate men, while they would commit insurrection and treason against the government in 1861 for the most ignoble reason of keeping men and women in slavery and profiting from their labor and stolen bodies.

It is a point worth noting, that even an unidentified AP writer can continue to miseducate the public with only a few short, ill-informed and prejudiced lines.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Unsung Correspondent Who Covered John Brown's Last Days in Virginia

Over the last couple of years I have paid close attention to the reportage on John Brown's last days for my forthcoming book, Freedom's Dawn (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).  In examining press reports and narratives, I was happy to discover a young journalist named Edward H. House, who was the sole antislavery journalist to cover Brown's trial, incarceration, and last hours as an undercover correspondent of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.  House, known as "Ned," was one of the memorable "Bohemians" of the antebellum era, who came to New York City from Boston about 1854 to assume the position of drama and music critic for Greeley's paper.  A talented, self-taught writer and artist, Ned House was a strong antislavery man although he had been affiliated with the Democratic party while in Boston, and even held interests in a Democratic paper back in Beantown.  This proved extremely fortuitous in serving the Republican Tribune, since no antislavery journalist was admitted to Charlestown after the Harper's Ferry raid and throughout Brown's final days.
"Ned" House

House's fascinating story already has been wonderfully documented by the fine scholar, James Huffman, in A Yankee in Meiji Japan: The Crusading Journalist Edward H. House (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). However, Professor Huffman's focus is largely upon House's his later years as a journalist living in Asia, and thus his treatment of Ned House during the antebellum era is relatively brief.  Huffman has been most supportive and encouraging of my work, which has been singularly concerned with House's role as the unknown Tribune correspondent.  This is a story in itself, since the leadership and people of Charlestown and Virginia in general were disgusted by House's regular correspondence, which he smuggled to New York using various methods.  No wonder: House's coverage presents an honest and detailed account, not only of Brown in jail, but also of Brown's impact upon Virginians and their enslaved victims.  In one case, a Virginia officer was so enraged that he tore the Tribune with his teeth, not knowing that House was happily observing his outrage.  Of course, House promptly reported the episode, providing a virtual laugh track for Brown's antislavery friends in the North.

Indeed, House's writing is fun--witty and stinging in his observations.  But it is also insightful: House alone observes and understands the behavior of local blacks, noting their intense interest in the imprisoned Brown, as well as the subterfuge of local blacks in setting fires.  Rather than underestimate them as simple, childlike creatures, House knows they are organized, communicative, and capable of "mischief"--something that slaveholders were intent upon overlooking or denying.

During the weeks of his challenging assignment, Ned House sent page after page of detailed and sometimes revelatory reportage to the Tribune, providing information that never would have made it into the pages of history had historians had only the right-wing and proslavery New York Herald  and other proslavery reportage.  Sad to say, most writing about the raid and its aftermath has used newspaper reportage uncritically, which explains why so many fallacies have persisted in the popular narrative.

Most notable is the failure of historians to discern the long-term damage caused by depending upon the Herald, whose racist editor, James G. Bennett almost exclusively depended upon local proslavery Virginia affiliates to provide his reportage.  While it is true that the Herald is in many respects is a kind of almanac of stories and details regarding the Harper's Ferry episode, the slant of its reportage prohibited fair coverage of Brown's last days.  For instance, one of the greatest frauds that came via the Herald's Virginia reports was the unfounded claim that Brown was disappointed by the lack of response from enslaved blacks.  This is particularly true of the single, fraudulent report about Brown's final interrogation of raider John Cook on the morning of December 2.  According to this untrustworthy report, the old man complained that Cook had misinformed him about black support.   I found this dubious account in one single report, undoubtedly written by a local affiliate, with no other attesting reportage.  Indeed, this report contains a number of baseless and fraudulent details which I believe were planted in the Herald by the Virginia affiliate.
The Charlestown Jail, where Brown
spent his final days, is no longer standing

In this light, Ned House was the perfect antidote to the predominant proslavery and ultra-conservative reportage that was largely fed to the North (and to history) as a result.  Ned House, protected by an aura of Democratic and friendly profile, went almost perfectly undetected from Brown's trial in October until his hasty departure from Charlestown after Brown's execution on December 2.  Greeley had other journalists "undercover" in Virginia, including Henry Steele Olcott, but to my knowledge, Olcott only arrived in Charlestown but a couple of days prior to Brown's hanging.  House was the single source of information coming, as it were, from the very belly of the beast.  His detailed observations thus inform the narrative of Freedom's Dawn.  Taken as a whole, House's reportage has proven invaluable toward discerning the drama of Brown's actual record in Virginia.  While Freedom's Dawn is about John Brown, it is also a story about the journalists--the good, the bad, and the ugly, who figure into the story of the old man's "forty days in chains."  One of the lessons that emerge is the necessity of journalistic freedom being respected and protected, if nothing else, for the sake of history.

It has been observed that the occasion of Brown's defeat in Virginia gave birth to the first modern journalistic interview, particularly the Herald's interview with the abolitionist Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, N.Y.  This may be true, although it is also the case that John Brown himself is probably the first "modern" figure to be covered so thoroughly by the press.   On the other hand, Brown's story, skewed and dominated by proslavery journalism and censored by proslavery authorities, makes Ned House the other hero of Freedom's Dawn.  One young man, risking literal life and wellbeing, interposed himself as a source of truthful reporting, and left the free record of John Brown's last days for history, for us.

Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers this spring.  It will shortly be followed by its companion volume, John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown, also published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Friday, February 06, 2015

From the Field--
Weed Whacking For The Old Man, or Attached to a Stick in Springdale

H. Scott Wolfe

Winter is upon us, and this morning brought a fresh snowfall. . .with its associated opportunities for wielding a shovel and strengthening my aging biceps. During this frigid season, my mind (at least in regard to researching Old John Brown) becomes rather quiescent. My sole intellectual activity is devoted to devising ways to discourage the local squirrel population from absconding with my bird feeder’s supply of suet and sunflower seeds. But with a chill in the air, thoughts often meander back to the more balmy days of the summer past . . . when I conduct my regular journeys to Springdale, Iowa and the site of the farm of William Maxson.
Those readers with impeccable memories might recall a past offering to this blog, a piece entitled “Farmer Maxson’s Newel Post” [2 Jun. 2011], in which I sought to tell the story of how John Brown’s nascent Provisional Army spent the winter of 1857 - 1858, boarding at the Maxson farmhouse and receiving the rudiments of military training.
The site of the farm is today remote, accessible only by gravel roads. A drive there kicks up enough dust to remind one of Henry Fonda in the “Grapes of Wrath.” And the only marker to inform the uninitiated visitor is a bronze plaque, securely attached to a small, red granite boulder. This monument has been present since the year 1924, when a number of rather stout, totally humorless members of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed it there with solemn incantations.
Being so remote, visitation of the marker is rather infrequent. Some who do pause to read the inscription leave small offerings of respect. I have seen odd bits of pottery or china . . . a handful of coins . . . or, as someone has more recently contributed, a cluster of small American flags.
During some of my very early sojourns at the site, I believe during the late Pleistocene Period, the Maxson monument sat within the confines of the well-manicured lawn of a substantial frame farmhouse. But now, conditions are quite different. The farmhouse is gone, replaced by whispering corn stalks. And the monument reposes at the lonely roadside, nearly obscured by prairie grasses intent upon reclaiming the home of their pioneer ancestors. In a word, the monument is neglected. The present-day land owners are more concerned with agricultural chemicals than abolitionism. And the local historical society, an admirable one, concentrates upon its museum in the distant county seat of Tipton. So I feel a personal obligation to tend to the monument, and thus is my mission.

During one of my visits this past summer, the Maxson farmhouse marker was virtually invisible, surrounded by rank and sundry regiments of the family Gramineae. The roadside vista seemed to be far more attractive to a wayward heifer than to a wandering antebellum historian. And it was then that I set to work . . . for in the rear hatch of my Hyundai lay what most sane people call a weed whacker (or, for the more ribald, an idiot stick). I prefer to call this particular tool my “instrument of historical remembrance.”
The obscured Maxson monument 
(Wolfe image)
As one of the attached photographs graphically shows, this elderly disciple of John Brown scholarship still possesses admirable skill in annihilating weed patches. An occasional tractor may rumble by . . . a bemused farmer no doubt wondering whether to inform the authorities or contact the regional asylum. But I see the job through to its conclusion . . . both revealing the monument to the sun’s rays and making significant adjustments to my golf swing.
Of particular interest in the aforementioned photograph is my black t-shirt . . . an item of apparel which is now, no doubt, an exceedingly valuable collectors’ item.  It originated at the “Secret Six Tavern,” an institution on High Street in Harpers Ferry, at which I would often indulge in acts of pious libation. But alas! During my last visit to the Ferry, I found the Secret Six was no more!  It had been replaced by the rather pedestrian “Potomac Grille.” I’m sure that the food is just as filling . . . and the beer is just as cold . . . but I will sincerely miss having images of George Luther Stearns or Thomas Wentworth Higginson eying my plate of French fries. I fully intend to hold onto the shirt, and cart it to a future Antiques Roadshow.
Our hero hard at work (Wolfe image)
My task at the Maxson farmsite completed, I often continue through the microscopic community of Springdale to the Friends Cemetery, where numerous characters of the John Brown story are interred. This cemetery is normally well kept, but I will often trim about the stones of those to whom I remain historically attached. These include folks such as Ann Raley, whose insignificant marble monument is inscribed: “Mother of the Coppoc Boys.”  And Moses Varney, friend of the Old Man and privy to some of his secrets (to the extent that he was suspected as being the author of the famous “Floyd Letter”). And then there is Elza Maxson.
Elza, son of William Maxson, was eighteen years old when John Brown brought his recruits to board at the family farmhouse northeast of Springdale. He was able to witness all of the stirring events of that fateful winter . . . and, in April of 1858, saw the departure of several of his local friends, (the Coppocs, Edwin and Barclay; Stewart Taylor; and George Gill), all intent on glorious deeds with the Old Man. All evidence seems to indicate that he was a potential recruit himself:
On August 2, 1859, J. Henrie (John Kagi) wrote to Whip (Aaron Stevens): “Have also written to Elza Maxson to come here and I would give him a birth (sic) to come, even if he had to sell your mare for passage money. . . .”  The prior day, Kagi had written to Isaac Smith (John Brown himself): “They say that Elza Maxson wished to get employment and I have written him to come on.”
The lovely result of my labors
(Wolfe image)
But Elza Maxson, like several other of the Iowa recruits, did not “come on.” He remained in Springdale, only to be later involved in guarding his childhood companion, Barclay Coppoc, a fugitive of the Harpers Ferry raid. He became Coppoc’s “constant companion,” vigilant toward all who might be carrying extradition papers from the Governor of Virginia . . . and assisted him on the winter sleigh  ride to Mechanicsville to catch a train to Chicago, Canada and freedom.

An especially poignant story involves Elza and Barclay’s brother Edwin, captured at the Ferry and later hanged at Charles Town. When Edwin left Springdale, he took with him an ambrotype photograph of his friend Elza Maxson. Just prior to his execution, Edwin removed the image from its case . . . and on its back, wrote: “Dear Elza, Farewell. Edwin Coppock.” The picture was replaced and, when his personal effects were sent back to Iowa, was forgotten in an obscure corner of the Coppoc home. Twenty-six years later, the same Elza Maxson, “under some peculiar spell . . . opened the case to find the message after so many years.”
Communing with Elza
(Wolfe image)
So another of the accompanying images shows me pulling the grass blades from about the tiny stone of Elza Maxson . . . another of the little known recruits of John Brown’s Provisional Army. Please excuse my exposed legs. Numerous individuals have independently told me that they (my legs) bear a striking resemblance to those found on certain 19th century square grand pianos . . . but I will defer my personal opinion.

So I shall return to the present, where two more inches of snow have fallen and I must trade the “instrument of historical remembrance” for the standard plastic snow shovel. But come spring, when the grass begins to extend up the sides of the Maxson monument and the humble gravestone of one Elza Maxson, I, (in the words of a certain General), shall return.

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