Terrorists In The Attic: Tony Horwitz Recounts John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry
If you can’t tell the Missouri Compromise from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, I would first recommend that you read Evan Carton’s “Patriotic Treason.”… If you have a basic understanding of the years leading up to the Civil War, however, Horwitz’s new book can at times make you feel as if you are right on the ground in Harpers Ferry on the night of October 16, 1859, when John Brown and his 21 companions walked into history, and demonstrated, in the words of the poet Robert Lowell, man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die.
By Stanley Rogouski
If you leave the rarified confines of Berkeley, Park Slope and other liberal ghettos, and venture into the “real America,” you may come across a gas-guzzling SUV covered with bumper stickers. Currently popular are slogans like “Where’s The Birth Certificate” or “Keep Christ In Christmas,” but one of the all time favorites goes as follows: “Freedom Isn’t Free.” If you’re brave enough, wait for the owner. Ask him what he thinks about John Brown. Wait for the inevitably negative response about how Brown was a terrorist and a religious fanatic. Then tell him this. John Brown was the author of the slogan “Freedom Isn’t Free.”
Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of the classic account of Civil War reenactors, “Confederates in the Attic” has not aimed his narrative history of the great abolitionist, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” at the novice. If you can’t tell the Missouri Compromise from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, I would first recommend that you read Evan Carton’s “Patriotic Treason,” which includes a full account of Brown’s coming of age in the abolitionist stronghold of northern Ohio, his failed business ventures, and his attempts to raise funds from the abolitionist elite in New England following the guerilla war in “Bleeding Kansas.” If you have a basic understanding of the years leading up to the Civil War, however, Horwitz’s new book can at times make you feel as if you are right on the ground in Harpers Ferry on the night of October 16, 1859, when John Brown and his 21 companions walked into history, and demonstrated, in the words of the poet Robert Lowell, man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die.
The most vivid figure in Horwitz’s account turns out not to be John Brown, but the city of Harper’s Ferry itself. The key to understanding John Brown, and, ultimately, the Civil War itself, is location. Harper’s Ferry, located in what is now West Virginia, a few miles across the border from the Maryland town of Sharpsburg, was not in 1859 the bucolic little vacation spot it is today. Rather, the fruit of George Washington’s dream that the Potomac would be the main waterway of the growing American Republic, Harper’s Ferry in 1859 was a boisterous urban setting, the site of one of the two main federal weapons manufactures, the other being Springfield, Massachusetts. Brown’s plan, strategically brilliant but tactically ill conceived, was to seize the huge store of weapons, which included thousands of the newest, most powerful rifles made in North America, for what he believed would be a coming slave insurrection. Simply put, he and companions would cart what they could carry from the 100,000 muskets and rifles stored at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers into the nearby Allegheny Mountains where they would serve as a sort of “arsenal of abolitionism” for the guerilla army of slaves he would then liberate from the surrounding plantations.
That this plan was tactically foolish is self-evident just by looking at the numbers. How many rifles can 21 men carry? Why seize a federal arsenal? Why not just rob a dry goods store? The hoped-for slave insurrection never came for the obvious reason that it was never given a chance. Brown held Harper’s Ferry for only 36 hours before he was surrounded by U.S. Marines under the command of future Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart and taken into custody.
That Brown’s plan was strategically brilliant, however, prophetic even for today, can be seen by venturing back over the Potomac River to the Kennedy Farm, the site in southern Maryland where Brown and his tiny army of 21 men trained for the better part of the summer and early fall of 1859. Three years later, on September 17 of 1862, on almost the very same spot, in one of the greatest battles ever fought on the North American continent, a very different man from John Brown, a careful, meticulous, professional soldier named George McClellan would deliver a crushing defeat to the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. This battle, known in the south as The Battle of Sharpsburg, but in the north as the Battle of Antietam, was the moment the Civil War was transformed. President Lincoln, who all through that summer had intended to issue what later became known as The Emancipation Proclamation, seized upon the victory at Antietam to declare to the world that the United States Army was now fighting not only for the preservation of the union but for the destruction of slavery.
But John Brown’s vision, sadly, would remain unfulfilled.
Brown did not intend for slavery to be destroyed by an industrial army manned by white Americans and Irish and German immigrants, commanded by professional soldiers like George McClellan and William Tecumseh Sherman. He meant for slavery to be destroyed by a guerilla army made up of the liberated slaves themselves and commanded by him, John Brown. “Give a slave a pike,” Brown said, “and you make him a man. Take away the means of resistance, and you cripple him.” What ultimately took away from the slaves the means of resistance was, ironically, the very army that destroyed slavery. The segregated Army of the Potomac included no black officers, and did not accept black recruits until well into 1863. Slavery did not survive the Civil War. White supremacy did.
This is starkly reflected in a simple contrast. Robert E. Lee, the man who led the raid to recapture Harpers Ferry from John Brown, the Confederate warlord who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans, was pardoned by the United States government, and allowed to honorably surrender to the Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. He was allowed to keep his sword and spend the last few years of his life as a college president.
John Brown his companions who failed to escape on October 18, on the other hand, were all hanged less than two months after they were captured. It is here that Horwitz, with his finely tuned sense of the grotesque and the absurd, especially shines. Brown, a white man, but a white man who attempted to incite a slave insurrection, would not be given honorable terms of surrender like those granted to Lee. While it is true that the Commonwealth of Virginia did try Brown and his companions in a civilian court, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. They would be made examples. Brown died an especially gruesome death, dangling at the end of the incompetently tied rope for over 20 minutes. The bodies of three of his band were sent to Winchester Medical College as “teaching cadavers,” a macabre act for which the college, as punishment, would later be burned to the ground by the Union Army under General Phillip Sheridan. The body of Dangerfield Newby, an African American member of Brown’s raiders, was mutilated, just as the body of an insurgent in Afghanistan in 2012 was pissed on by United States Marines. After the raid, the people of Harpers Ferry took Newby’s body, stabbed it repeatedly, and amputated his limbs. He was then left in an alley to be eaten by hogs. But the attitude of the South towards John Brown and his band was not contempt, but fear.
Horwitz, who demonstrated in “Confederates In the Attic,” how well he understands the southern mind, demonstrates in “Midnight Rising” how well the Southern mind understood John Brown. Brown terrified the South because Brown, like the South, lived by a code of violence and chivalry. Brown, like the Confederates who seceded from the Union only two years later, depended on intangibles that never came, in his case a general slave insurrection, in the case of the South, recognition by Britain and France. Chivalry, as it turned out, would not be enough to liberate the Confederate States from the United States any more than Christian idealism would be enough to end slavery. Slavery would be crushed, not by a Biblical prophet and a band of Gileadites, but by the great power of the industrial, urban North. Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, not to liberate African Americans, but to keep Britain and France out of the war.
In other words, If John Brown has been written out of American history as surely as Trotsky was once written out of Soviet history, it is not because he is irrelevant. On the contrary, it is because he is more relevant than ever. As “Midnight Rising: John Brown And The Raid That Sparked The Civil War” makes clear, that bumper sticker on the back of the SUV, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” is, in some ways, just whistling in the graveyard.
“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.” Much of that blood, only partially let on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, has yet to be spilled. Until African Americans genuinely liberate themselves, by “blood,” as Brown insisted they must, a specter will continue to haunt the United States of America. That specter is John Brown.
Stanley Rogouski is a writer and photojournalist living in New Jersey.
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