The American Civil War The Road To War (Part II)
John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry On November 2nd of 1859 John Brown made a bold claim stating, “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 submit; so let it be done!" Six months earlier he was heard interrupting a meeting of the New England Antislavery Society when he shouted out“Talk! Talk! Talk! That will never free the slaves…what is needed is action!…action!”Action indeed was what John Brown gave the nation when a little more than a month after that he took matters into his own hands and led a raid on a federal arsenal located in Harper’s Ferry Virginia. It was here that Brown took a fatal leap from angry talk to revolutionary action. If contradictions within the national structure regarding slavery and democratic principles co-existing amid some awkward unspoken peace agreement, those contradictions that were nearly tangible weren’t enough, on their own right, to bring the country to war as it were. Before John Brown, the economic, social and political system had proved sufficiently coherent to hold the nation together. After his revolutionary raid on Harper’s Ferry, the United States was thrust into the fast lane that led only to war. Although John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal was a complete tactical, strategical and any other conceivable means a total defeat militarily, he gained what is all too common a theme in history by winning a moral victory for his cause. Isn’t it interesting how often these moral victories spurned from a military defeat come to alter the history of nations so often? John Brown’s moral victory amid military disaster was certainly no different. Brown’s idea that led to the eventual action was a fairly simple idea to begin with. He had long held the belief that was common of that day that slaves were not only capable but eager for violent insurrection and Brown took it upon himself to make sure that outcome happened. He was so optimistic in his plan that he commissioned the forging of one thousand pikes which he would supplement with the stands of rifles he would seize later at the arsenal. Why one thousand pikes? He certainly didn’t have that many men in his band of marauders; Brown assumed that when word of his raid spread and the slaves heard of his daring initiative, they would rush to him at the arsenal and then, protected by mountains, travel south where slaves existed in far greater numbers. His idea was that he was going to start the slave insurrection by raiding Harper’s Ferry and causing a “spontaneous”, chain reaction type revolution. Brown had 21 men who joined his cause, three of them were his own sons and those men marched to and managed to seize the arsenal while taking thirty hostages, among those hostages where ten “quite bewildered” slaves. This was the end of the success portion of his raid as not a single slave came to join Brown and his men at Harpers Ferry. As a man of Brown’s demeanor would be expected to do he refused to admit his cause, his noble mission as he saw it, was not only staring at defeat but it had already failed. He and his men barricaded themselves inside the nearby brick walled building of a fire engine house and were quickly surrounded by local citizens at first followed shortly by a company of United States Marines commanded by none other than Col. Robert E. Lee. The following day the marines stormed the building killing several of Brown’s gang and severely wounding Brown as well. On a military level this raid was a disaster, which Brown later would concede to. He was imprisoned, tried, and hanged within six weeks. Where Brown was able to pull a surprise victory however was during his trial and execution and rather than a weapon found in an arsenal, his greatest weapon was his eloquence with the english language. Brown had a “come to Jesus” moment that seems to be mostly an act of an observant man than an honest one. Brown held the prisoners at Harpers Ferry but did not kill them, he later admitted he“should have gone away, but I had thirty-odd prisoners whose wives and daughters were in tears for their safety, and I felt for them. Besides I wanted to allay the fears of those who believed we came here to burn and kill.”This won over the sentiment of the public of a man surrendered to his cause with the noblest virtue and as he said himself,“I never did intend murder or treason or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion or to make insurrection.”This was a lie obviously but a genius defense plea that shows the mans understanding of the human nature to root for the underdog while also showing his own deep sympathy. The reality that on May 24, 1856 just three years prior in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas a group of men were led by none other than John Brown when they encountered five pro-slavery settlers and proceeded to hack all five of the men into pieces and mangle their bodies. But that mattered little now because Brown had played the game perfectly with the cards he was presented with. He had secured himself as the martyr that would spark the fire of freedom for slaves, one way or another. Brown’s defense attempted a plea of insanity (something not far from the truth as insanity ran in his family) but Brown would hear none of it; any plan to break him free would have been even more insane as the military guard surrounding Brown had swollen to 1,500 men on the day of his execution. Before Brown was hung he made his last statement that ultimately ignited the nation over the issue of slavery when he said“I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here, not any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the eyes of God.”He was able to secure himself as the spark that set the fire of the debate that consumed the nation for the next two years. As he walked towards his scaffold that would hang him until he died he handed a note to one of his captors, in what was ultimately his moment of prophetic wisdom because the note stated that the type of insurrection he had attempted wouldn’t be sufficient to free slaves and that only a vast, civil war was capable of ending the violent slave system. It read: “I John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of the guilty land; will never be purged away; but with blood." The Desire for War John Brown had successfully started the insurrection in America he had dreamt of, although not in the way that he had thought or hoped it would occur. Instead of inciting slaves to rebel and take up arms, he sparked the fire of the American people themselves and the country was on a track not only for eventual war, but a track that saw the people adopt a view of the necessity to wage war. What John Brown had just accomplished, that most didn’t realize at the time although they certainly would realize it in the days ahead, is he had altered the very mindset of the national argument. He took the entire radical anti-slavery movement and shifted their view to one that saw them clamoring for national redemption through the absolute necessity for war. History is full of some truly incredible things for us today to be able to understand and this certainly makes the list for one of the more wild instances in the past. Now I’m one of those History guys who thinks that although History is typically considered the past, I believe history is an inevitability of sorts. That inevitability, or the natural order of the world in a way dictates that things are going to happen regardless of what certain people decide to do. This is one of those occurrences where the inevitable is tremendously sped up through the actions of just one man. One man was able to speak a few well placed words that essentially changed the future of the country, well for that matter the world really, in a way he never could have conceived to be possible. But that’s the beautiful part about history, that speculation is essentially meaningless because history deals with facts and it doesn’t matter how much we decide to speculate and debate, it happened the way it did. The result of the actions of John Brown obviously wasn’t an immediate armament or immediate conflict breaking out but it absolutely was the last real piece of the puzzle that ensured there was no other alternative to war even though the people at the time thought otherwise. What’s interesting about all of this is the somewhat awkward position that politicians were finding themselves in while watching reactions from the public and the world to the remarks and actions of John Brown. The Republicans of the day, though they were far more conservative than the radical abolitionist, found themselves attempting to navigate a seemingly impossible situation in which they were forced to pick their own political poison. If they denounced Brown too strongly they would come across as a pro-slavery advocate and surely would lose the coming election; but the failure to admonish him at all would ensure they lose the vote of any pro-slavery voter. Perhaps the most talented at avoiding this political poison pill was the famously moderate and cautious Republican from the state of Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. He calculated the effect of Brown politically and was able to navigate those treacherous waters by embracing them head on. He spoke frequently about Brown and when doing so he always called him wrong, sometimes even insane noting that “an enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he feels commissioned by Heaven to liberate them…which ends in little else than his own execution.” The difference in the mass of republicans who succumbed to political death in the John Brown fallout versus the overwhelming success that Lincoln experienced was his ability to anticipate the attacks of the democrats before they were able to be launched at all. Lincoln denied that either he or even a single republican had supported brown and on December 5th 1859 during a speech in Kansas he told his audience that “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking that slavery [is] wrong. That alone cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail [Brown] nothing that he might think himself right.” Lincoln was able to find that delicate balance that so many others sought after, and that was obviously something he was eventually known for, giving some of the greatest speeches in history. Unlike others who were uncomfortable with how to handle their political plight, Lincoln embraced it. He used John Brown to his own political gains by speaking about him very often, using him almost as a kind of warning should the nation take a turn against his advice. In his famous Cooper Union address on February 27, 1860 he successfully predicted that if the Democrats should try and succeed (which they eventually did) in using Brown to break up the Republican party, that the majority of antislavery proponents would turn away from what he called “the peaceful channel of the ballot box” and instead would embrace the very same violent means embraced by John Brown and his men in the first place. Lincoln was able to avoid utterly disavowing someone who was willing to go to the gallows due to his hatred of slavery, which was a feeling Lincoln and Brown shared; but was also able to use Brown as a warning to voters about the consequences should they not follow Republican moderation and instead embrace the un-thinkable. Ultimately though, Lincoln could not disassociate Brown from his own feelings of hatred for slavery as well as his larger antislavery political goals. Lincoln certainly wasn’t alone in that mindset as it wouldn’t be very long at all when men from all over the north, with an array of backgrounds would be marching together in the south while singing “John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave, but his truth goes marching on!” It’s an interesting look at the inability of humanity at times, obviously nothing is 100% consistent, to excuse actions that are wrong when commited in the name of a cause they agree with. The National Identity The nation reacted to the raid from John Brown in a way that would further the national divide of “north” vs. “south” so much so that each further action made it impossible to go back to the way things were without the inevitable conclusion of war in America. This section of the podcast goes over some of the details about changing American life in the nineteenth century in order to further assist the listener in understanding the perceived and the actual differences between the north and south in the United States as well as how those differences came to fruition. As well as the description and detail of nineteenth century life in America, this last section of the episode touches on two crucial portions that led the nation to war with itself. The Missouri Compromise and the Nullification Crisis; both are events in the history of the country that aren’t exactly “riveting” stories in their own right but to tell the story of the civil war in America without these two events is to tell the story in an incomplete way. They are both events that helped cement the issue of slavery as the central issue in all debates as well as the issue that leads to the first threat of a state to secede from the Union; the civil war nearly began thirty years before it did had it not been for the political wisdom of America’s oldest politicians and some cautious maneuvering from representatives. Part III of the story picks up amid the “action” as the nation votes on the new president during the election of 1860, which is also an election for war in a way that the nation would soon find out for themselves. Works Cited: Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Vintage Books, 2000. Winik, Jay. April 1865 the month that saved America. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008. Blight, David W. Race and reunion: the Civil War in American memory. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. Fellman, Michael, Lesley J. Gordon, and Daniel E. Sutherland. This terrible war: the Civil War and its aftermath. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008. Coski, John M. The Confederate battle flag: Americas most embattled emblem. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. Taylor, Michael W. The Cry is War, War, War. Dayton, OH: Morningside Press, 1994. Geer, Walter. Campaigns of the Civil War. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2009.