Tuesday, October 16, 2007

October 16, 1859

The biographies either emphasize what a mild-mannered fellow he was, or how crazy he was; fire in the eyes. I would like to have met him, and seen for myself.

I assume his demeanor changed, depending on the subject at hand.

Radicals from Ohio swear he was from Ohio, as radicals from New York swear the same. In fact, he was born in Torrington, Connecticut:

During his first fifty years, John Brown moved about the country, settling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, taking along his ever-growing family. (He would father twenty children.) Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he never was financially successful -- he even filed for bankruptcy when in his forties. His lack of funds, however, did not keep him from supporting causes he believed in. He helped finance the publication of David Walker's Appeal and Henry Highland's "Call to Rebellion" speech. He gave land to fugitive slaves. He and his wife agreed to raise a black youth as one of their own. He also participated in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the League of Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped slaves from slave catchers.

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Of the meeting Douglass stated that, "though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. The community had been established thanks to the philanthropy of Gerrit Smith, who donated tracts of at least 50 acres to black families willing to clear and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own farm there as well, in order to lead the blacks by his example and to act as a "kind father to them."

Despite his contributions to the antislavery cause, Brown did not emerge as a figure of major significance until 1855 after he followed five of his sons to the Kansas territory.
And in Kansas, it got ugly.

It's important to remember that he was a violent man. He fully believed that he who lived by the sword, died by the sword.

Literally, he used swords:
In Aug. 1855 he followed 5 of his sons to Kansas to help make the state a haven for anti-slavery settlers. The following year, his hostility toward slave-staters exploded after they burned and pillaged the free-state community of Lawrence. Having organized a militia unit within his Osawatomie River colony, Brown led it on a mission of revenge. On the evening of 23 May 1856, he and 6 followers, including 4 of his sons, visited the homes of pro-slavery men along Pottawatomie Creek, dragged their unarmed inhabitants into the night, and hacked them to death with long-edged swords. At once, "Old Brown of Osawatomie" became a feared and hated target of slave-staters.
Of course, I have been to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. I have seen the armory's engine house, which isn't even as big as a typical contemporary suburban house. I remember being startled at it's wee size: Did he really think he could hold them off from there? Good lord. A suicide mission!!! Or did he really believe a mass slave rebellion would ensue? Perhaps he had reason to be optimistic, but in retrospective, such an endeavor seems like madness:
...Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black - three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve of them had been with Brown in Kansas raids.

On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 19 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 breechloading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Frederick Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, essentially wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. Thus, while violence was essential to self-defense and advancement of the movement, Brown's hope was to limit and minimize bloodshed, not ignite a slave insurrection as many have charged. From the Southern point of view, of course, any effort to arm the enslaved was perceived as a definitive threat.

Initially, the raid went well. They met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grand-nephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. The train's baggage master tried to warn the passengers. Brown's men yelled for him to halt and then opened fire. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, became the first casualty of John Brown's war against slavery. Ironically, Shepherd was a free black man. For some reason, after the shooting of Shepherd, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way. News of the raid reached Washington by late morning.

In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown's men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building at the entrance to the armory. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes were cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury. Brown sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later he was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day.

By morning (October 18) the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee of the United States Army. A young Army lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledge hammers and a make-shift battering-ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives. Altogether Brown's men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown's men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown.
We need to go back to my post on Saturday morning, and play the James Brown refrain here: I'm a bad mother. Indeed, by all accounts, Brown dazzled all the soldiers and authorities he encountered, with his utter lack of fear and total righteous attitude.

And then, his trial, which for it's day, apparently made OJ's look like a tea party. His famous final words, upon his death sentence:
I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted: of a design on my part to free slaves . . .

Had I interfered in the matter which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved . . . had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, or the so-called great . . . and suffered and sacrificed, what I have in this interference, it would have been all right. Every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

I see a book kissed which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do unto me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say that I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right.

Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked,cruel and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.
John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, virtually the eve of the Civil War. Some people blamed him for the Civil War. And certainly, his unapologetic, incendiary abolitionist presence hovered over Union troops, and they even made up a marching song about him, which they sang with enthusiasm. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was taken from the Union marching song:

John Brown's body lies a moulderin in the grave
John Brown's body lies a moulderin in the grave
John Brown's body lies a moulderin in the grave
But his soul goes marching on

Yes, I do like Julia Ward Howe's Christian rewrite, but I have always preferred the original.

The discussion of vigilante/street justice and whether it is ever warranted continues today; on the right, regarding violence against abortion clinics, doctors and employees; on the left, regarding direct-action groups like Earth First and the Animal Liberation Front. In the 70s, the Weather Underground, as well as radicals such as Karl Armstrong and David Fine, rekindled a long-standing feud between those radicals who held to pacifism at all costs, and those who thought pacifism rendered one a sitting duck.

And in every such discussion, there is his name, waved about like a bloodied banner: What about John Brown? His name is invoked as an indictment, as well as a blessing.

His soul goes marching on.


Listening to: Patti Smith Group - Till Victory
via FoxyTunes