AMERICA’S JOHN BROWN GOOD AND TERRORIST: HARPER’S FERRY RAID THE
◗ Charles P Poland Jr.
◗ Casemate (2020)
◗ 336 pages (hardback)
◗ ISBN: 9781612009254
‘Everyone knows’ about John Brown and his attempt to spark a slave revolt at Harpers Ferry in 1859. His motives have been generally accepted as being worthy, but opinions as to the rightness of his methods have always been polarised. The events cast a long shadow, not least since the American view of the balance between terrorists and freedom fighters changes regularly.
The author cites the 2020 death of a‘civil Rights Icon’as changing that balance in favour of‘making good trouble’. Those with longer memories will recall the sustained East Coast support for Irish Terrorism, which was only damped down after 9/11.
Here the focus is entirely on the Harpers Ferry Raid: how it was planned, how it evolved, how it ended, and how it gave the American states a hefty shove towards secession and civil war. While John Brown is the prime player, his companions are described in detail. This is valuable; for without them Brown would have been just one more (possibly not unique) armed eccentric.
He had to persuade a significant number of others to join him, and this process is well described.
The narrative takes us through the long process of preparation, including secretly obtaining funds from Northern backers, amassing his arsenal, setting up his base camp in southern Maryland under the eyes of the authorities, to the raid itself. This is as a blow-by-blow account of the 36 hours of the action, as heavily armed Virginian ‘concerned citizens’ hastened to the scene (it was then probably the most exciting event for many years in this sleepy town), until Robert E Lee arrived with Federal Forces to take charge and restore order.
We then have a full account of Brown’s time in custody awaiting trial, which turned out to be his most influential period. Journalists flocked to interview him and the Virginia authorities unaccountably allowed them regular access to Brown and his supporters. The media reports drove the polarisation of opinion; they substantially contributed to the outrage and alarm in the slave holding states and the sense of injustice in the northern states. Without this reportage the raid would most likely have been far less influential. The drive to forming militias would have been far less urgent, with less sense of outrage on all sides. It can be argued that Brown was hanged, not for what he did, but what he publicly confessed to wanting to do. Brown’s raid may not have caused the War between the States, but it certainly raised the political stakes and left little area for compromise when Lincoln took office as President.
The author draws numerous parallels with today, which are instructive. My only reservation with the book is the extent to which the author glosses over Brown’s appalling behaviour in Kansas. Those who failed to extend the rule of law into that anarchic area must carry some responsibility for allowing Brown to commit murder and then to leave Kansas with impunity.
This is an interesting and thought provoking read, which is accordingly recommended. It would make an interesting, but uncomfortable, wargame. A debate as to whether Virginia or the Federal Authorities should have had jurisdiction over Brown, and what the charges might have been, could ruin a supper party.