Friday, October 16, 2009

150 Years Ago Today: John Brown's Raid

One of America's most significant events in history happened 150 years ago today. In my mind John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry on the evening of October 16, 1859 was the spark that brought the nation to civil war 18 months later.

Many people do not realize that Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry wasn't his first assault on the institution of slavery. In 1856 he and several of his followers attacked a family of Southern settlers in Kansas, hacking five men to death with swords. Then, in 1858 he helped assist a number of Missouri slaves make their way to Canada and freedom.

So, what made Harper's Ferry so important to go down in history? Well, timing has a lot to do with it. Of course he didn't know that the nation would go to war a year and a half later, but the raid's importance is largely tied to and included in the important events preceding the Civil War. Another important fact is that the United States arsenal there made it an attractive target for Brown and his men. They hoped to capture the weapons stored there, arm area slaves with them, and then carry on a war against slavery by using the Appalachian Mountains as a stronghold. Brown's plan has received its fair share of criticism. He attacked in an area where there was not a large number of slaves. He only had a small band of committed followers to complete a mission that called for many more. In fact, some historians believe that he went into the raid wishing to be captured to become a martyr, and thereby stir the national controversy over slavery to the fever pitch it became and create the war he would not live to see.

Brown has been labeled many things over the years. Some have called him a madman, others have called him a terrorist, but I think the best labels would be "dedicated" and "earnest." He hated slavery like probably no other white man in his time. Socially he felt totally comfortable in the presence of blacks and he treated them like he did anyone else; a very rare thing in the mid-19th century. To Brown violence was the means toward ending the scourge of slavery. He believed that it had to be cut out like a cancer.

As we know Brown's mission failed to free a large number of slaves immediately. But, it could also be argued that his plan and actions eventually did accomplish his goal. By straining relations between the North and South over this most divisive of issues he did actually help bring on the war that would in effect end slavery in America.

Brown is an interesting figure that has received his fair share of historical attention; some of which are better than others. If you want to learn more about him and his mission try Stephen Oates's, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, or David S. Reynold's, John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.

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