Meet Mr. Thoreau
-The Bare Facts-
On October 26, 1859, a militant abolitionist John Brown led a band of 22 men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown, who had previously fought proponents of slavery in “Bleeding Kansas,” planned to steal guns from the arsenal and take them into the Appalachian Mountains from which he planned to free slaves and, possibly, form a guerrilla army. This army, some believe, would have worked its way down the mountain chain, raiding slave plantations and helping to organize a general slave uprising.
Brown believed that slavery was a “system of brute force” which could be overturned only through the use of superior force. He was also a religious man, who believed that, in opposing slavery, he acting as an instrument of God’s will. In his opposition to slavery he was defiantly uncompromising. Some considered him a fanatic, “a religious zealot,” one who was dillusional in thinking that he had heard the voice of God.
Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry went awry from the start. Before the raiders managed to secure the arsenal, a warning bell was rung and a telegraph message was sent through to Washington. The next day a contingent of the U.S. Army, under the command of the then loyal
Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee, cornered Brown and his men in a small brick firehouse which has since become known as “John Brown’s Fort.” Before the raid was over 5 civilians from the town, ten of Brown’s men, and one soldier were killed. Among the dead were two of Brown’s sons. Brown himself was seriously wounded. Six of his men escaped.
After being captured, Brown was arrested and tried for murder and insurrection. He was found guilty and, on December 2, was hanged, along with seven of his men. John’s Brown’s raid failed in its immediate object. Most historians would agree, however, that it was one of the factors that brought north/south relations to the boiling point. It helped polarize the sectional crisis, encouraging southerners to consider secession. It helped bring on the Civil War, which in turn led Lincoln, on January 1, 1863 to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.
Brown was buried at his family farm in the Adirondacks, in New York State. His house has been preserved as well as his grave site. Somewhat incongruously, the little farm house sits huddled in the shadows of the new giant Olympic ski jumps near Lake Placid. Throughout the Civil War, union soldiers marched into battle singing the song: “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.”
All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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