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Connections with the Past:
Reflections on John Brown

Not the Alamo--Seven Points About the Harpers Ferry Raid That You Should Know

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

The Afrolumens Project is pleased to be able to publish the following essay on John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.  Historian Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., a highly respected and recognized John Brown scholar, presents the often controversial event as a first blow in a war of liberation, and places it up against a celebrated historical icon of American character: The Alamo.  DeCaro's comparison begs the question of why one event is widely celebrated over another.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. is author of two books on John Brown.  They are "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (NYU Press, 2002) and the forthcoming John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters (International Publishers, 2006).

For more articles and correspondence on John Brown, see the letters from Jean Libby.  Jean Libby has also posted a response to this essay and in an open letter to Libby, DeCaro defends it.

Today is the 147th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia, which was made a state in 1863). 1  

With a small band of men, white and black, Brown seized the federal armory--the only government armory in the South--as well as the arsenal and took prisoners while his men rounded up local enslaved men to assist them on the ground. Much of what has been otherwise said of the raid has been skewed and misrepresented by slavemasters, Democrats and Republicans, and a host of hostile and/or ignorant journalists and historians over the past century-and-a-half.

Here are 7 points about the Harper's Ferry raid you should know:

  1. It was well planned and reasonable.  Brown did his homework and knew that the armory/arsenal was not guarded by the military and hardly guarded at all. He took both the armory and town of Harper's Ferry completely by surprise by invading late at night on Oct. 16 and held an advantage throughout the night and into the early morning hours. Even Frederick Douglass was wrong when he predicted it was necessarily a "perfect steel trap." Douglass over-estimated the defense and defenders--although he may have had a prophetic sense of Brown's tragic delay, which is really what cost him the raid--and his life.
  2. The raid was not an act of terrorism and Brown was not a terrorist.  Had it been an act of terrorism, Brown would not have failed, for the reason the raid did not succeed was because he paid too much concern to his hostages, including some whining slave masters, and undermined himself in trying to negotiate with them. Would a terrorist allow his prisoners to go home and see their families under guard and send out for their breakfast? This is also what Brown did while holding Harper's Ferry under his control. Indeed the raid was designed to have symbolic and strategic value, as the jump-start of his planned mountain-based campaign to gather enslaved people from the depths of the South.
  3. Brown's actual plan was reasonable.  He intended to spread out in small groups of raiders throughout the vast mountain system of the eastern U.S. that stretches from north to south, and make (by stealth) invasions of farms and plantations to lead enslaved people off, thus swelling his forces and de-stabilizing the southern economy. His intention was to fight only in self-defense, not to make deliberate war upon slave masters and their families (insurrection). Brown explicitly and repeatedly denied that he intended an insurrection, yet historians, following the reactionary tenor of slave masters, continue to say this was his purpose. It would have been virtually impossible to stop a movement consisting of small groups of men and women working in the mountain system or to prevent large numbers of people from escaping from slavery to join them. Nor was the U.S. military equipped, trained, or prepared for a guerilla war if it came to such fighting. If initiated, Brown's movement would have at least festered and upset the South in an unprecedented manner.
  4. It is NOT true that enslaved people did not support the raid.  For the relatively small number of enslaved people in this town and vicinity of the upper south, the evidence is that a good many more enslaved men actually came into town to support John Brown. Slave masters afterward denied this in order to sustain the southern myth of the loyal slave. Since 1859, politicians, journalists, and historians have favored the testimony of southern whites and largely ignored what Brown's own men have said, particularly Osborne Anderson, a black raider who actually wrote a short history of the raid.
  5. Strategically, Brown did not want fugitives from slavery to participate in the raid on Harper's Ferry.  This puts to rest the hackneyed, erroneous notion that the "slaves did not support Brown." His intention was to rendezvous with them outside of the town after the raid, withdrawing with them to the mountains. There are at least two substantial testimonies and additional supportive evidence that many more fugitives--hundreds, perhaps more, were beginning to gather outside of town. However they had to withdraw because Brown delayed and became caught in a trap that could easily have been avoided had he left town by early morning Oct. 17.
  6. Despite a good plan, Brown defeated himself.  His overly ponderous nature and worries over the welfare of his captives (perhaps too he was seeking to negotiate the emancipation of their slaves) gave local militia enough time to gather and cut off escape routes. Yet it took another day and the help of the U.S. marines to actually capture John Brown, his raiders, and the surviving enslaved men who supported them. Had he kept to his own plan and schedule, he and his fugitive allies would have almost walked away from Harper's Ferry without facing any significant opposition, and could have easily retreated to the mountains as planned. Contrary to the notion that he was a crazy man and a killer, it seems that John Brown was actually too tender-hearted and still hoped to resolve some of the issue by negotiation. This was his greatest error.
  7. Even though Brown failed to initiate his plans and was hanged, historians like Jean Libby and Hannah Geffert have shown that the black community in Jefferson County and surrounding counties were heavily impacted by his presence.  The census of 1860 shows that slavemasters lost their "property" in great numbers following the raid--a direct result of black people's determination to make good out of Brown's death. Local enslaved people poisoned the livestock and set fires on the property of slave owners and even some of the jurors in John Brown's trial. Jean Libby has uncovered evidence that local blacks tried to communicate with Brown while he was in jail, and we can even see an imprisoned Brown conversely playing down the extent of their involvement him out of concern for their welfare (southerners historically unleashed violent fury on the enslaved community even when they successfully put down uprisings, etc.). Brown, his men, and the enslaved community were far more networked than conventional historians want to acknowledge.
In conclusion, the Harper's Ferry Raid is the exact opposite of the famous Alamo incident in Texas, yet the U.S. has largely sanctified and enshrined the latter, while misrepresenting the former as a crazy, hopeless, and desperate attempt by a criminal. The Alamo was about a small group of pro-slavery secessionists and their Mexican allies, trying to break away from an anti-slavery state for reasons of self-interest. Their heroism and nobility can only be measured in terms of 19th century white supremacy, which unfortunately is what has been so often romanticized in cinematic terms. Mexico justly suppressed these proto-Texans at the Alamo, just as the federal government would have to suppress their heirs in the Civil War. Yet in the immediate sense, the Alamo's fall only fueled a stronger movement in the U.S. to fight Mexico--a fight largely supported by pro- slavery interests. (Certainly John Brown did not support the war with Mexico).

In contrast, the Harper's Ferry raid was the effort of a small band which, to a man, involved people with unusually high principles and convictions regarding justice and human liberation. There was no self-interest in the group, except for Dangerfield Newby, who was fighting in the hopes of freeing his enslaved wife and family. The goal of the raid was not to seize territory and extend slavery but to deflate and collapse the slave economy. Brown believed that a civil war was inevitable, even imminent, and hoped to defuse it by undermining the infrastructure of the South with minimal violence. Historians have often "credited" him with the start of the Civil War, although it had been his hope of avoiding it. To suggest (as did some 20th century historians) that the War would have been avoided were it not for Brown, is ridiculous. The problem of slavery had to be dealt with, and to suggest that another half-century of "moderation" was needed is unrealistic with respect to Southern militancy. Too, to suggest that slavery should have been phased out in time is to join with many others who have temporized over doing justice for reasons of prejudice. The Harper's Ferry raid represented the best interests of our nation's founders, many of whom were stymied by their own racism and hypocrisy (like Thomas Jefferson) being both prophets of freedom and slave masters. Brown--not the floundering late-born emancipator Lincoln--represents the prophetic single-minded corrective to Washington and Jefferson's double-mindedness.

John Brown was a "bible Christian" who acted out of interest in the freedom of an oppressed and victimized people. He believed something had to be done and at least he tried. To impugn him for using "violence" is hypocrisy since our nation used violence in order to subdue, control, and "settle" this land. To condemn him for not allowing the "problem" to be resolved by governmental leadership is also a farce. First, this is precisely what Brown and many other anti-slavery people did throughout the first half of the 19th century. By 1850 things had actually gotten worse for the cause of freedom. The government was in the hands of pro-slavery forces and there was secession (and continued slavery) on the lips of powerful southerners. Furthermore the North was hardly driven by concern for free blacks, let alone enslaved black people in the South. As long as slavery was contained, people like Abe Lincoln would have been contented.

All things considered, the Harper's Ferry raid, failure and all, was exactly what was needed in the long run. There was no other way to deal with slavery except by ending it, and there was no other way to end it than by a program using a measure of violence. Brown tried a program of minimalist bloodshed and happily went to the gallows believing that his death would at least snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. "I failed," John Brown told one of his Virginia guards, "but it is only delay, for as certain as the sun shines, the negroes will soon be set free."  John Brown was prescient in his vision of slavery's end. Lincoln began his presidency by defaming Brown but ended it by doing a political imitation of him.

How one views the Alamo and Harper's Ferry is not a matter of historical trivia. It is a barometer of one's sense of justice in history and probably in the contemporary sense as well.

 Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D. 2,  3

Also to be posted on my John Brown blog at: 

1. Received in email correspondence, forwarded by Jean Libby to the Afrolumens Project, 16 October 2006.
2. Permission to publish on the Afrolumens Project website obtained 17 October 2006 from Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
3. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. is author of two books on John Brown.  They are "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (NYU Press, 2002) and the forthcoming John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters (International Publishers, 2006).

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Original material on this page copyright 2006 Afrolumens Project
Article copyright 2006 by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
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This page was updated October 25, 2006.