America’s Journey: John Brown’s raid

John Brown’s raid

The single most important event that brought sectional tensions to the boil – beyond the boil, to hysteria – was the seizure of the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, by abolitionist John Brown, “Old Brown,” who had become known nationally for his involvement with “bleeding Kansas” two years earlier, which we will discuss as part of the territorial question. It would be hard to overstate the emotional importance of the raid, and the supportive Northern reaction, and the infuriated Southern reaction to both. To Southerners, the raid seemed like evidence for the accusation fire-eaters had been making for years, that Northerners were inciting a race war that would leave the whites murdered in their beds.

It wasn’t the final spark that lit off the powder – not quite – but the raid and the reaction convinced many more southerners that coexistence of the two sections in one government was no longer possible, and it made certain that the following year’s presidential campaign would be fought at fever pitch.

The facts are beyond dispute. Brown was acting on his own initiative, but at least 80 others in the North are believed to have known of his plans. He rented a farmhouse 4 miles north of Harpers Ferry in Washington County, Maryland, under the name Isaac Smith. He had with him a small group of 16 white men, 3 free blacks, 1 freed slave, 1 fugitive slave, and two women (his daughter-in-law Martha, to serve as cook and housekeeper and his daughter Annie, who served as lookout). They were carrying with them 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and 950 pikes, arms contributed by Northern abolitionist groups. Brown expected to use these, plus whatever arms he captured in the arsenal, to arm the runaway slaves he hoped to attract. His larger scheme appears to have been to begin a long-term guerrilla operation, setting up a de facto free area all along the Appalachian chain, which would then serve as a magnet for runaway slaves and eventually destabilize the entire slavery system.

On Sunday night, October 16, 1859, Brown’s men captured several watchmen and townspeople in Harpers Ferry, cut the telegraph wire and seized a train that was passing through. (And then let the train proceed! Naturally the conductor alerted the authorities down the line.) That night they captured the armory.

The next day, local militia, farmers and shopkeepers surrounded the armory and captured the bridge across the Potomac River, cutting them off from escape. During the day two of Brown’s sons were killed, one while under a white flag. The only government troops in the immediate area was a detachment of U.S. Marines. President James Buchanan ordered it to Harpers Ferry, under the command of a Brevet Colonel named Robert E. Lee, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, who was recalled from leave. The following day, the 18th, a platoon of marines stormed the engine house and within three minutes, all the raiders were dead or had been taken prisoner.

The troops searched the surrounding country for fugitives. The governor of Virginia added to the hysteria by marching militia back and forth in search of additional conspiracies. Brown was tried in nearby Charles Town and found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia and was hanged on December 2. On the day of his execution, Brown wrote, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.” He was right, and the purging was not far off.

Republican politicians including Abraham Lincoln disclaimed responsibility for Brown and condemned the raid as morally wrong and effectually futile. Even noted abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison called the raid “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” But Emerson and Thoreau, among others, defended him because he had put his life, and the lives of his sons, on the line in an attempt to overthrow an immemorial wrong. “I think that for once the Sharp’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause,” Thoreau said.

How shall we think of John Brown? It was acknowledged that he was fearless and his motives altruistic. If he helped bring on a war that would kill 600,000 men – and he did – he certainly wasn’t the only one. Yet it is a fact that slavery had lasted on the North American continent for 250 years, and a sizable and politically strategic element was determined that it should continue into the far future. The day before John Brown’s raid, probably few expected (though some hoped) to see an end to slavery in their lifetime. The day after the raid, slavery seemed no closer to extinction than ever, and yet in half a dozen years it would be gone.


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