On the Capture of a Radical

John Brown led a small insurrection against the United States in 1859 in what is now West Virginia. Brown’s intent was to raid a federal gun depository–the armory at Harper’s Ferry, in what was then Virginia–and arm slaves with guns so that they revolt against their masters. He and his fellow ultra-radical abolitionists thought that the slave population would rise to answer their call of armed insurrection against the evil of what many Americans referred to as The Peculiar Institution. Abolitionists like Brown felt that they were the hands and feet of God’s freedom and were put on earth to end slavery.

So, with a small “army” of about two dozen men, both black and white, Brown truly believed that he and his men would soon be joined by hundreds of armed newly-freed slaves. These slaves would then turn their guns on their masters, punishing the slaveowners for what Brown felt was a terrible sin in the eyes of God. But, after he and his men took the armory, he realize that he had no way to let the enslaved people know about his plan without raising an alarm that would bring state and federal militias against him and his cohorts. So, to make sure the outside world wouldn’t hear of the capture of the armory, Brown ordered the telegraph lines to be cut.

But he forgot about the train. Some of his men shot at a train that pulled through Harper’s Ferry, and the train managed to make its way down the tracks to a station that had a working telegraph. The train crew sent out word about the situation in Harper’s Ferry, and, soon, a detachment of marines were dispatched to recapture the armory and arrest the insurrectionists. Within seven hours, Brown and his men found themselves surrounded by the marines and other various militia groups who had come on their own accord.

The colonel in charge of the marines sent a message under a flag of truce into the armory, telling Brown and his fellow rebels that they would be protected if they surrendered and gave up all their arms. Brown refused the terms. That led the colonel to order a full assault on the armory. Inside the building, a short but bloody skirmish took place that saw the marines quickly regain control. Afterward, Brown lay seriously injured by a saber blow and several of his men, a few marines, and some civilians Brown had taken hostage were either hurt or killed.

Brown’s actions were first seen as being terrible and radical, especially in the south. Pro-slavery proponents pointed out that his actions were the natural result of uninhibited and dangerous abolitionist rhetoric. After the initial shock of the violence, people in the north began to speak of Brown in glowing terms, began to see him as a shining example of liberty and freedom as defined in the American founding documents. Many today see Brown’s attempted rebellion as the first shots of the American Civil War.

After Brown was finally executed by hanging for his insurrection, people began eulogizing him in literature and song. John Brown’s Body became a refrain sung by Union troops as the Civil War began two years later. In part, it said, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his truth is marching on.” Julia Ward Howe changed those words to what we now know as the Battle Hymn of the Republic–leaving out references to Brown but keeping the ideas of the ware being a blow for freedom against slavery.

Oh, and remember that colonel who led the marines in the recapture of the armory at Harper’s Ferry? The one who penned the surrender terms to Brown?

He was offered the command of the Union Army by President Lincoln as the Civil War began.

But, as we know, Robert E. Lee turned down that offer.


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