Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CWL Notes: Harper’s Ferry Raid at 150: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

On Sunday night October 16 1859, nineteen men began a short five-mile march from a rented farmhouse to the U.S. factory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their goal was to seize weapons and hostages and retreat to the highest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains where a permanent trail heading northward would be established. By Monday morning most of the arms had been seized and the hostages taken. The plan was to leave at dawn but they stayed, were besieged and captured by Tuesday morning. During that time, rumors of a slave revolt spread and apprehension accompanied by fear spread outward from Harpers Ferry.

For the past 150 years, questions about Brown have plagued historians. Stephen Oates, considered by many to be Brown’s best biographer, explained Brown’s raid as an effort by a religious fanatic who relied on God for the plan and its outcome. Indeed, Brown was deeply religious and fanatical regarding the abolition of slavery. Religion in several of its varieties may be a catalyst for violence for the purpose of vengeance, and judgment.

But religion in and of it self is not an explanation for Brown’s taking his chosen path to the gallows. Rigorously pious, zealously abolitionist, and deeply egalitarian, John Brown believed that God and the U.S. was at war with slavery. Many of those who agreed with his notion of resistance to slavery did not accept, promote or call for violence.

Brown’s plan was not revealed to him by God; it was Brown’s own and it was flawed. Beginning with the arrest and through the Civil War Brown was repeatedly described with Biblical metaphors. This is similar to the eulogies of Lincoln that relied heavily on Biblical images and stories. Brown saw his war against slavery as being similar to other wars found in the Bible. Both Brown and his surviving children reported that he never wrestled with God or received revelations regarding slavery. Brown did not claim to be a prophet or martyr. The possibility of failure at Harper’s Ferry was weighted against the relentless advance of a Slave Power that could not be defeated through democratic agitation and politics. In the flow of history Brown’s raid on the Harper’s Ferry armaments was poor tactics but a successful in terms of strategy. The raid induced a crisis of fear in the South, a crisis of unity in the Democratic Party, and a crisis of a minority presidency. These crises lead to a war that included emancipation as a tactic. By the third anniversary of John Brown’s raid the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. The battle at Sharpsburg Maryland that allowed Lincoln to issue the proclamation was a day’s hike from the farmhouse that Brown had occupied until the late evening of October 16, 1859.

Notes on reading of Robert E. McGlone, John Brown’s War Against Slavery, pp. 1-9.

Image Source: Civil War History website

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