THE RAID ON HARPER’S FERRY: BY TREASON OR REASON?

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave…

       He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!

 …Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, His soul’s marching on!

(From “John Brown’s Body,” circa 1861, authorship disputed)

 

As a child, I recall many little jingles which helped me to remember significant events.  But, I never fully appreciated singing “John Brown’s Body,” until we decided to expose our kids to nearly 3-weeks of an “Underground Railroad” “tour”- which we designed- during the historic summer of 1988.  We toured several states from colonial times before our stay in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 4.  That’s when Rev. Jesse Jackson made his useless pitch to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, over their famous clam chowder-and-salmon dinner, saying that he wanted to be his vice presidential running mate. Three months earlier, in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, Dukakis had spanked Jackson’s behind, knocking him out of the running for the party nomination, for President of the United States. Less known, about 15 minutes away, in Cambridge, an unheralded 26-year old African-American, named Barack Obama, returning from his first-ever hookup with his African side, in Kenya’s bush, was preparing to join the Harvard Law School aristocracy.  Twenty years later, he commandeered the dream that Jackson had!

But, that’s another story.  The big story that summer was sticking to our trip’s grueling schedule, carrying us hundreds of miles and four full centuries from Richmond, Virginia to Washington D.C., over to mountainous West Virginia via scenic Maryland, then up to the Pennsylvania battlefields of Gettysburg and Valley Forge.  After hunting down more Underground Railroad “stations,” in “Old Town” Philadelphia, we headed over to New York and Springfield, Massachusetts, winding up in Boston for Independence Day Celebrations. Following a three-day stay, with a focus on Beacon Hill and the African Meeting House, we journeyed to Plymouth Rock and Salem, later snaking down the New Jersey shoreline for the Cape May Ferry trip across Delaware Bay.  Rolling onto the great Coastal Highway through Chicoteague Bay, we picked up scenic Rt. 13 south, passing Wallops Island and Hog Island Bay, down to the man-made-marvelous Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  Crossing the soothing waters of the Chesapeake Bay, we finally began to relax as we charted our course home, leisurely touring Virginia Beach and Norfolk, as well as Colonial Jamestown and Yorktown, along the way.  But, most appropriate, the 18th Century sights, sounds and smells of Colonial Williamsburg punctuated the entire 3-week venture.  The 50-minute, 400-year jaunt from the Colonial Capital to our home in Richmond was a breeze.

It was the start of our pilgrimage that was hectic.  It was mid-June, after area kids charged screaming into another summer break.  Our eldest son, a rising high school senior, wanted no part of being cooped up with our family of five, packed inside a sweltering vehicle with a sporadic air conditioner.  So, we simply left him behind.  First, for perspective’s sake, we headed straight for the Frederick Douglass Home, in Washington D.C.  Our second stop was Harper’s Ferry, WVA.  Nestled within the tri-state junction of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, Harper’s Ferry allowed me to fill in the blanks and read further between the lines of the “John Brown’s Body” lyrics.  As a child, I mostly recalled John Brown as some wild-eyed white guy who was hanged for inciting slave rebellion.  According to the picture the history books painted, his actions were “patriotic treason.”  President Abraham Lincoln was said to have called him a “misguided fanatic.”  Others called him crazy and insane.  Interestingly, many called him a “visionary.” But, on leaving Harper’s Ferry, I had a better picture of this religious-activist as an abolitionist-patriot.

John Brown’s target in the startling 1859 raid was the Federal Armory.  But, it was not the reactionary scheme of a fool which some accounts would have your to believe.  On the contrary, the October 16 assault was carried out with military-like advanced planning, stemming from his study of European military tactics.  Its downfall stemmed from an 11th-hour failure to correctly gauge the temperament of local residents, white and black, as well as miscalculating when the outside world would discover the plot, following their cutting area telegraph lines.  Townspeople did not join the raid, as expected.  Slaves did not rise up against their masters in great numbers as hoped.  And, word about the raid reached Washington D.C. before Brown’s group had time to capture weapons and escape to the mountains.

It was three years earlier, in Kansas, when the planning started. That’s when Brown and his three sons began raising funds to establish a runaway slave community, to further advance the anti-slavery movement.  In 1856, after killing three white supporters of slavery, Brown and his sons decided that raiding the United States Armory, at Harper’s Ferry, would yield much needed rifles and ammunition, as well as stir up the growing anti-slavery sentiments, according to historical accounts.  During the summer of 1859, using an assumed name, Brown faked settling down on a nearby Harper’s Ferry farm, while training 22 others in military assault tactics.  His goal was to launch guerilla warfare on the institution of slavery from the Alleghany Mountains and beef up the list of passengers heading to Canada on the “Underground Railroad.”  He was motivated by the sights of the various atrocities of slavery, he witnessed, which were inflicted upon people he knew.  He was also guided by his Christian beliefs.

Although the raid was eventually unsuccessful, a few things stood out for me, long after our departure from Harper’s Ferry.  They included:  (1) several pre-Civil War leaders playing a role in the raid, (2) the first victim of the raid being an African-American railroad baggage handler, Hayward Shepherd, who was killed after confronting the raiding party, (3) seeing for the first time a preserved Underground Railroad “station,” inside a white home, and (4) learning that nearby HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) Storer College later became the heralded meeting site of the “2nd Niagra Movement,” a forerunner of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

During the failed raid, then-Colonel Robert E. Lee commanded the force of U.S. Marines that captured Brown.  And, when signaled by Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, Lieutenant Israel Green stormed the door to the armory’s small fire engine house, dubbed “John Brown’s Fort.” Half of the 22 raiders were killed and prisoners were taken, including a wounded Brown.  Brown’s sons (Oliver and Watson) and two free African-Americans (Lewis S. Leary and Dangerfield Newby) were killed.  Arguably, records show that residents claimed that no slaves took part in the raid.  And, white townspeople took up arms against the riders, not with them.  On October 26, Brown stood trial at the Jefferson County Courthouse.  He was found “guilty” of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia (Harper’s Ferry was originally chartered by Virginia) and sentenced to death.  On December 2, 1859, he was hanged in Charles Town, WVA (then, Virginia). 

Historical accounts say that, while walking to the gallows, Brown forecasted a national civil conflict, saying “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”  The “War Between the States” (a.k.a., “American Civil War”) began two years later when shots were fired as Confederate soldiers attacked a federal military post at Fort Sumter, near Charleston, SC.  The rest is history…

WHAT ABOUT YOU?   What role do you think John Brown played in the approaching Civil War?  Was he a patriot or a terrorist?  Was he a lunatic- or, just crazy like a fox?  Let us know in the ‘comments’ section below.

Thanks!

“Backstreet Djeli”  (w.d.s.)

(Previously posted on August 6th, 2010 at “rizingcubenterprises.com”  

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.