John Brown and the Raid on Harper’s Ferry

Secretary of War, John Floyd had the task of giving a detailed report of John Brown’s raid to President Buchannan shortly after the raid was put down by General Robert E. Lee. In his report Floyd described the raid as: a conspiracy, an insurrection, and an overall attack on the history of the United States of America. Floyd called John Brown; a fanatic, reckless, desperate, and a treasonable enthusiast. This was not only an attack on the United States, but the very legacy and history of the United States. John Brown looked to change the course of history, a change in history that was not in agreement with the current administration. [1]

This report is important to note because the terms in which Brown and his actions were described are common throughout history. Many came to see him as a madman, a menace, and an insurgent. He was also seen as a martyr, a hero, and a revolutionary. John Brown is the perfect example of what happens when two sides see the same event differently, creating a battle of historiography. Academics, past and present have tried to untangle the web that is John Brown. They have approached him from a; political, racial, social (sociology), and even musical narrative. All of these approaches are impetrative to understand in order to truly grasp the legacy of John Brown.

One aspect of the raid that is very well covered by historians is the political violence aspect. Gary Fine, a history professor at Northwestern (at the time of publication), covered this topic beautifully in John Brown’s Body; Elites, Heroic Embodiment and the Legitimation of Political Violence. Fine, asks a very important question; when is political violence embraced? [2]

John Brown led an attack on law abiding citizens of a country in which he was a citizen. It would be obvious that this was a form of domestic terrorism, which is how many of the pro-slavery population saw him. This was an attack against an institution supported by the federal government and protected by the Constitution. The raid on Harper’s Ferry was not John Brown’s first act of violence in the name of abolitionism. He was involved, although not confirmed as the murderer of five pro-slavery men in Pottawatomi Creek, Kansas in 1856.[3]

It was this violence and John Brown’s willingness to die for what he believed in that gave abolitionists, not only the radical types, a hero to hang their hat on. [4]  Not only was he a hero, but he became a source of sympathy, which was the intricate portion of legitimizing his political violence.[5] Fine cites a sociological study done by Lang and Lang (Chicago University), that says for reputations to be solidified, there must be gatekeepers to shape and mold the narrative. [6] Although Brown’s life, according to Fine was stricken with a string of personal failures, it is through a collective national memory that we remember John Brown through the six weeks between the raid and his hanging.[7]

Like all radical events, the immediate aftermath did not produce the outpouring of support that we have come to associate with John Brown. Only a select few of radical abolitionists gave Brown their unwavering support. Many, North and South, saw Brown as insane or a criminal. Fine, gives two reasons on how and why, Brown’s image shifted from criminally insane madman to martyr for abolitionists.

A major source of the legend of John Brown is a Scottish journalist, James Redpath who was a supporter not only of Brown, but his tactics. [8]  Redpath, would go on to write a biography on John Brown which was published in 1860 titled, The Public Life of John Brown. With his personal knowledge of John Brown, support of Brown’s family, and a career in writing; The Public Life of John Brown would go on to sell 75,000 copies.[9]

Another event, which may be more fictional than factual, appeared in the New York Tribune, on the day of Brown’s hanging. Written by Edwin House and expanded on by Repath in his book, House tells the story of how on the way to the gallows, a Black woman with a small child stood in the crowd. Brown, walked over to them and kissed the child.[10] House and Redpath are two of the early gatekeepers of the John Brown legacy, but certainly not the only ones.

In the end, it was moral principles, social consensus, and historical precedent, according to Fine, that rehabilitated the status of John Brown.[11] As the gatekeepers of the legend of John Brown, they reminded people that George Washington too attacked a legal government. It would only be a few years later when the United States of the Confederacy would wage war on a legal government.  There was another way in which political violence was justified and that was through music and religion, such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Franny Nudelman writes for the American Literary History journal and interprets John Brown and the raid through the literary tradition.  Nudelman, an English professor at Carleton University, admits that Brown was a known as a pariah, a fanatic, and even a “blunder of enormous proportions,” at the time of his capture. [12] By 1861, Brown had reach postmortem celebrity status as he became a symbol of patriotism and bravery. In fact, his name was sung by the Union Army, as the Battle Hymn of the Republic was echoed from battlefield to battlefield. The lyrics, according to Nudelman are a “secular rendition of Christ’s burial and resurrection.” [13] With lyrics that tell of a John Brown that is in the grave moldering, but with his soul marching on, Jefferson Davis hanging from a sour apple tree, and of an army of the Lord with John Brown at the helm.

Nudelman does make a poignant observation that the song, omits any mention of slavery which was the cause that Brown died for and in public fashion. Abolitionism, especially the extreme Republican narrative, was stripped from the song, as it was strictly a chant about defeating the Confederacy.  Brown himself welcomed death as he wrote from jail that, “no part of my life has been more happily spent.” [14] Nudelman also makes it a point to remind us exactly what Brown was convicted of; treason, conspiring to rebel, and first-degree murder. When Brown was allowed to address the courtroom after sentencing, he said he was willing to die in the cause of justice. Not only that, but he was proud to die for the blood of the millions of the enslaved.[15]

Lydia Marie Child wrote to Governor of Virginia, Henry Wise, for permission to visit John Brown in prison. In the letter to Governor Wise she expressed that although she does not approve of the raid, she among “thousands of others,” have sympathy for this “brave and suffering” man. She also added that it was a natural impulse to feel sympathy for someone such as Brown.[16] With the lack of slavery in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the oversaturation of John Brown imagery it is important to remember that the raid was very unpopular in the North and South. Brown’s raid, according to Nudelman, introduced a “flurry of political organization” in the North. [17] By and large, people identified with the sacrifice of violence and not the act of violence.

The focus of the Battle Hymn of the Republic is on the death of John Brown, not the legacy of John Brown, which was the complete and total annihilation of slavery through violence. If John Brown’s raid energized the North, his death was the sense of sacrifice they needed. The day of John Brown’s execution federal troops used a graveyard as camp grounds and they their meals of headstones. Locals would gather to watch the scaffold in which Brown would hang, constructed. 1,500 soldiers surrounded the scaffolding as to keep anyone from getting too close to the condemned man. [18]

In the end, Brown was hung for his crimes against the state. His crimes, were then celebrated as his actions were sung by Union soldiers across the country. The gatekeepers of his legacy, thought it more suitable to omit his cause but celebrate his sacrifice. Nudelman calls John Brown’s Body nothing more than war time nationalism.[19]

The first two academics provided a narrative of a John Brown that was brave, fighting the establishment, and above all confident in his plan. Craig Simpson in John Brown and Governor Wise: A New Perspective, paints a different picture of John Brown. Simpson tells the tale of a John Brown that is anxious, ill-prepared, and above all not a revolutionary. Simpson looks to avoid the common glorification of John Brown. It is time, in Simpson’s words, to “transcend” the historiography of conservatives, the heroic literature of radicals, and the vagueness of liberals. [20] Above all, Simpson looks to understand why many historians and consumers of history, chose to ignore John Brown’s attack in Kansas in where he was accused of killing five pro-slave people.

As the title suggests, Simpson is mainly interested in the relationship between John Brown and Governor Wise of Virginia. Simpson tells the story of a Governor Wise who was pro-slavery for political survival, not personal conviction. In fact, Wise held deep doubts on the morality of slavery, but through and through, was duty bound to enforce the law. [21] Simpson, from the onset of his research, casts doubt if John Brown was truly serious about succeeding. He points out that, slavery in Harper’s Ferry was dying, the slave population was declining, and the slaves who were there rejecting Brown’s raid.[22] In continuing with questioning Brown’s intentions, Simpson, makes a point to remind us that Brown did not want to arm the Black slaves in Harper’s Ferry. Brown, according to Simpson, did not feel Black people had the competence to use guns.[23]

During the seven weeks between Brown’s capture and execution, Wise made sure to make a show of force and establish the rule of law. At a cost of, $250,000, troops marched into and around Harper’s Ferry. [24] This was not out of fear or anxiety because of Brown’s public attack on slavery. Harper’s Ferry was full of northern born working families, who simply wanted to be able to live free from attack. The troops had little to do with protecting slavery as more to do with public safety in general. [25]

The questions raised by Simpson as to the overall intentions Brown are very warranted.  Simpson questions the historical narrative that has been John Brown for generations. Simpson suggests Brown knew that Wise was sympathetic to slavery if only slightly. Simpson, says that it was Wise’s “nagging and occasionally ambivalent,” stance on slavery is why Wise admired Brown. [26]  Brown never wanted to succeed, says Simpson, his hesitations and ill planning was proof enough for Simpson. [27]Craig Simpson paints a picture of a hesitant Brown who at best was a liberal racist and narcissist. Although his motives unclear, what was clear is that Black people, free and enslaved were not an intricate part of his plan.

In John Brown and His Black Allies: An Ignored Alliance, political scientist Hannah Geffert makes the claim that not only were Black people front and center in the planning, but it was a plan that spanned into Canada. Geffert, starts her analysis with the Dred Scott case in 1857 as the point of radicalization for free Blacks which John Brown capitalized on. [28] Brown not only wanted the assistance of Black people, but actively sought it out. Brown would travel to Baltimore, Cleveland, and eventually, Canada for support from the Black community. [29]

Brown was also a student of Black history, not simply a lost soul looking for support for his own personal gains. Brown sought advice, from the likes of Frederick Douglas, Frank Guards, and Fred Revels. He studied Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey as well as the history of Haiti and Jamaica.[30] Although, many abolitionists believed slaves to be submissive and unwilling to fight, Geffert says Brown believed the complete opposite. Brown, had no qualms in giving Black people arms, as he supported and formed Black militia groups. [31]

Geffert, does an amazing job in proving her point with a fact that I have only read in her work throughout my research. She discusses the May 1858 convention in Ontario where a group of forty-six people, only twelve whites gathered for a meeting. The main order of business was for the convention to adopt Brown’s “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States.”[32] It was also at this meeting where the original plan for Harper’s Ferry was designed, a plan that has been lost to history, but important to note.

The initial plan was for Harper’s Ferry to be seized not held. After Harper’s Ferry was raided, local Blacks and Blacks from North Carolina and Canada would join them by taking the “Great Black Way.” Brown and his army would march into the mountains, but men would be sent to Tennessee, North and South Carolina.[33] John Brown, even though he did fail, had every intention of success. The amount of planning and preparation is evidence enough for that.

Keeping in mind that John Brown had every intention of marching into North Carolina, Victor Howard, a professor of history at Morehead University, has written in detail the impact of John Brown and the raid on North Carolina. In John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina, Howard explains how Brown’s failed attempt to overthrow slavery shook North Carolina to the point of secession.

Howard begins by claiming that the raid caused a national trauma deeper than any ever experienced by America. Not only that, this was the event that split America in to two nations. This event, which was reported in newspapers all across the South, spurred wide spread anxiety of a local slave insurrection.[34]   Howard gives the Southern slave owner/sympathizer narrative, reminding the reader that as far as the South was concerned, Virginia had been raided by a “Northern horde.” Although this horde was defeated, the panic reached across Virginia’s neighboring state, North Carolina.

Howard, does a spectacular job at using North Carolina newspaper headlines to convey the panic that had overrun North Carolina. He quotes the North Carolina Whig which reprinted a story from the New York Harold that said a more violent rebellion was being planned. The Times of Greensboro, reprinted an article from the New York Journal of Commerce, which stated John Brown was waiting for reinforcements from North Carolina. The Murfreesboro Citizen urged people to “unmask these dodging and flitting scoundrels.” [35] Howard goes on to quote three more newspapers, which all urge citizens to protect themselves against the threat to their constitutional rights.

Howard also tries to convey the impact that the raid had on North Carolina, more specifically the citizens. It is important to remember that many saw Brown as nothing more than a lone mad man who bumbled a bad plan. Howard tells the story of abolitionists who lived in North Carolina. Alexander Tate, a Scottish native living in North Carolina was; shaved, tared, and feathered for publically supporting John Brown. In early 1860, a railroad worked who expressed sympathy for Brown escaped lynching twice. [36]

According to Howard, it was Daniel Worth who was the principal causality in the North Carolina’s war abolitionism. Howard notes that Worth was allowed to distribute anti-slavery pamphlets in the state, preach from the pulpit about freedom for slaves, and conduct abolitionist meetings.  It was not until December 1859, mere months after the raid, Worth was arrested for violating slave laws from 1830.[37]

White abolitionists were not the only ones to carry the burden of John Brown’s raid; free Blacks living in North Carolina faced a renewed offensive from the state. The North Carolina General Assembly had been mulling over the idea of removing all free Blacks from the state, but the measure of defeated in 1858. The bill was renewed in 1860, as citizens of Currituck County called for free Blacks to be expelled from the state or force them into slavery. The moderate stance was, pass tighter laws on enslaved Blacks which would make free Blacks afraid of being sent to slavery.[38] In the end, North Carolina would leave the Union, and be the last state to join the Confederacy.

Virginia, home of the future Confederate capital was a hotbed of Confederate action. Avery Craven a historian, wrote for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. In Lee’s Dilemma, Craven paints the narrative of a John Brown who was childlike with misguided ambition, although serious in his intention. Craven, beings in reminding the reader that Robert E. Lee took the hard road in supporting the Confederacy, but he still had a deep love for the United States of America. [39]  Lee, saw the raid on Harper’s Ferry as an attack on public property and claimed Brown was nothing more than a mad-man.[40]

Although Lee, thinks of Brown as a mad-man, Craven thinks of Brown and the raid as “absurd.”[41]  As absurd and childlike Craven says the raid is, he makes a good claim in saying that Brown was serious about the raid, and uses the 1858 Convention in Canada as proof. Craven, uses minutes from the meeting in which, the convention claimed that a new government must be established that protected all citizens.[42]  John Brown’s aims according to the 1858 Convention were not simply taking over Harper’s Ferry, but establishing a racially equal government that also took over the court system. [43]Craven goes on to say that there was no actual praise for Brown as a person, but for his blow to slavery. Brown, himself means many things to many people, but his stance on slavery was universal to people who supported his actions, even if only in spirit.[44]

Charles J. G. Griffin in John Brown’s Madness, attempts to define the antebellum definition of “madness,” and how it was used in regard to John Brown. Griffin discusses three different aspects of John Brown’s “madness,” within the context of the public discourse of the time. John Brown as a; pariah, a prophet, and a pawn, are all discussed in John Brown’s “Madness.

Griffin begins with the narrative of John Brown as a pariah as he reminds the reader that “madness” was typically known to be the result of weakness of one’s mental character when subjected to extreme stress.[45]  It was important for anyone who wanted to distance themselves from Brown to give him the label of “mad” for a few reasons. The label of mad, first and foremost discredited Brown and his actions. Also, there was suddenly no negotiating with him because he was mad.[46] Brown’s behavior was irrational and violent, condemned by North and South, slave owners and abolitionists alike.

Where Griffin stands out in his research is in his work in discussing Brown’s legal defense. The media, politicians, and citizens all believed that John Brown was mad, the natural action for his lawyers was to mount an insanity defense in court. The narrative of Brown as a madman was common, his lawyers tried to claim that Brown had been mad for years.[47]  In the end, the insanity plea did not work, Brown was tried, convicted, and executed. Calling Brown, a madman was simply to alienate him.

As a pawn, the question was simple, who was to blame for Brown’s actions? If madness was an individual weakness brought on by stress, what were the stressors? Defenders of slavery blamed radical republicans, radical republicans blamed the defenders of slavery. There was, as Griffin states, “bitterly partisan rhetoric,” that went deeper than politics, but struck a nerve with “equilibrium of the public sphere.”[48]  Both sides tried to pawn Brown off to the other, but what is also true, many saw Brown as a prophet. Both sides of the slavery debate, wanted to avoid war over slavery, but were willing to defend or defeat it with war. John Brown was a precursor to the pending Civil War that gripped the nation for five years. Some saw Brown’s madness as divinely inspired, as Brown himself saw himself as sent from God to destroy the evil institution of slavery.[49]

What John Brown’s raid on Harper’s did and continues to do, as described by Anne Kretsinger-Harries in Commemoration Controversy, how do we memorialize John Brown or if we should at all. 1959 was a turning point for African American civil rights, as the movement gained momentum heading into a new decade.  1959 was only the 100 year anniversary of John Brown’s Raid. The battle for historical narratives arose as African Americans wanted to commemorate John Brown.  Krestsinger-Harris, makes the claim that the Civil Rights movement and John Brown’s raid or intrinsically linked.[50] She makes the claim that by commemorating John Brown, it forces Southern institutions to rethink their narratives on the Civil War. The public has seemingly forgotten what John Brown stood and died for which was abolitionism.[51]

The Civil Rights Movement just like the raid on Harper’s Ferry, forced America to face a reality that was ignored or suppressed, are we exceptional if this is how we treat people? The Civil Rights Movement and John Brown’s raid made white supremacy visible to the public, which forced America to “rethink its history and failures.”[52]

John Brown, has been demonized, mystified, vilified, and memorialized. Brown, like many figures in history, can be whoever the consumer of his history wants him to be. If one is a Confederate sympathizer, Brown can be an enemy of the state. If one is a civil rights activist, Brown can be a selfless martyr. Understanding Brown throughout history involves wading through muddy wars, intense narratives, and deep passions.

It is also important to understand John Brown separate from Harper’s Ferry. The title is not, John Brown’s Raid but John Brown and the Raid on Harper’s Ferry. History has given Brown too much credit for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Harper’s Ferry, according to the convention in Canada, was part of a much larger plan.  As one continues reading through the songs about his life, the depictions of his trail, and the words of those who knew him, one thing is certain: John Brown was a man willing to die for what he believed in.







[1] John Floyd, Official Report of the John Brown’s Raid Upon Harper’s Ferry, (October 1859.)

[2] Gary Fine, John Brown’s Body: Elites, Heroic Embodiment, and the Legitimation of Political Violence, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, May 1999), 226.

[3] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 228.

[4] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 228.

[5] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 227.

[6] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 228.

[7] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 230.

[8] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 231.

[9] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 231.

[10] Fine, John Brown’s Body, 232.

[11] Fine, John Brown’s Body. 233.

[12] Franny Nudelman, The Blood of Millions: John Brown’s Body, Public Violence, and Political Community, (Oxford, Oxford Press, 2001), 640.

[13] Nudelman, The Blood of Millions, 640.

[14] Nudelman, Blood of Millions, 643.

[15] Nudelman, Blood of Millions, 643.

[16] Nudelman, Blood of Millions, 649.

[17] Nudelman, Blood of Millions, 651.

[18] Nudelman, Blood of Millions, 651.

[19] Nudelman, Blood of Millions, 664.

[20] Craig Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise: A New Perspective on Harpe’rs Ferry, (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1978), 16.

[21] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 16.

[22] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 18.

[23] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 19.

[24] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 22.

[25] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 21.

[26] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 27

[27] Simpson, John Brown and Governor Wise, 29.

[28] Hannah Geffert, John Brown and His Black Allies: An Ignored Alliance, (Philadelphia, University Press, 2002), 591.

[29] Geffert, John Brown and His Black Allies, 592-595.

[30] Geffert, John Brown and His Black Allies, 593.

[31] Geffert, John Brown and His Black Allies, 593.

[32] Gaffert, John Brown and His Black Allies, 598.

[33] Gaffert, John Brown’s Raid, 598.

[34]  Victor Howard, John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina, (The North Carolina Historical Review, 1978), 396.

[35] Howard, John Brown’s Raid and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina, 397.

[36] Howard, John Brown’s Raid and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina, 400.

[37]Howard, John Brown’s Raid and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina, 406.

[38] Howard, John Brown’s Raid and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina, 410.

[39] Avery Craven, Lee’s Dilemma, (Richmond, Virginia Historical Society, 1961), 132.

[40] Craven, Avery, Lee’s Dilemma, 135.

[41] Craven, Lee’s Dilemma, 138.

[42] Craven, Lee’s Dilemma, 135.  

[43] Craven, Lee’s Dilemma, 135.

[44] Craven, Lee’s Dilemma, 140.

[45] Charles J.G Griffin, John Brown’s “Madness”, (Ann Arbor, Michigan State Press, 2009) 375.

[46] Griffin, John Brown’s Madness, 377,

[47] Griffin, John Brown’s Madness, 377.

[48] Griffin, John Brown’s Madness, 378.

[49] Griffin, John Brown’s Madness, 378.

[50] Anne C. Krestsinger-Harris, The Harper’s Ferry Raid Centennial as a Challenge to Dominate Public Memories of the U.S. Civil War, (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2014), 70.

[51] Krestsinger-Harris, The Harper’s Ferry Raid Centennial as a Challenge to Dominate Public Memories of the U.S. Civil War,70.

[52] Krestsinger-Harris, The Harper’s Ferry Raid Centennial as a Challenge to Dominate Public Memories of the U.S. Civil War, 76.


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