Sunday, July 10, 2011

John Brown and Harpers Ferry

In October 1859 a zealous abolitionist named John Brown led a raid on the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to take weapons from the armory and rally the slaves there to a rebellion. It was an utter disaster; half of Brown's men were killed, and the other half were taken (by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee) and tried for treason. Of course, all were found guilty and executed.

As he lay in prison awaiting his execution, John Brown wrote to his minister, one D. R. Tilden:

Charlestown, 28 November, 1859


My Dear Sir-- Your most kind and comforting letter of the 23d inst. is received. I have no language to express the feelings of gratitude and obligation I am under for your kind interest in my behalf ever since my disaster. The great bulk of mankind estimate each other's actions and motives by the measure of success or otherwise that attends them through life. By that rule, I have been one of the worst and one of the best of men. I do not claim to have been one of the latter, and I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better for my living and dying in it. My present great anxiety is to get as near in readyness for a different field of action as I well can, since being in a good measure relieved from the fear that my poor broken-hearted wife and children would come to immediate want. May God reward a thousandfold all the kind efforts made in their behalf! I have enjoyed remarkable cheerfulness and composure of mind ever since my confinement; and it is a great comfort to feel assured that I am permitted to die for a cause, not merely to pay the debt of nature, as all must. I feel myself to be most unworthy of so great distinction. The particular manner of dying assigned to me gives me but very little uneasiness. I wish I had the time and the ability to give you, my dear friend, some little idea of what is daily, and I might almost say hourly, passing within my prison walls : and could my friends but witness only a few of these scenes, just as they occur, I think they would feel very well reconciled to my being here, just what I am, and just as I am. My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right. In this, also, I find much to reconcile me to both my present condition and my immediate prospect. I may be very insane ; and I am so, if insane at all. But if that be so, insanity is like a very pleasant dream to me. I am not in the least degree conscious of my ravings, of my fears, or of any terrible visions whatever ; but fancy myself entirely composed, and that my sleep, in particular, is as sweet as that of a healthy, joyous little infant. I pray God that he will grant me a continuance of the same calm but delightful dream, until I come to know of those realities which eyes have not seen and which ears have not heard. I have scarce realized that I am in prison or in irons at all. I certainly think I was never more cheerful in my life.

I intend to take the liberty of sending by express to your care some trifling articles for those of my family who may be in Ohio, which you can hand to my brother Jeremiah when you may see him, together with fifteen dollars I have asked him to advance to them. Please excuse me so often troubling you with my letters or any of my matters. Please also remember me most kindly to Mr. Griswold, and to all others who love their neighbors. I write Jeremiah to your care. Your friend in truth,

John Brown.

I thought it was an interesting letter; assuming he was telling the truth about his feelings, Brown seems to have felt no fear for himself, only for his family (in fact he refused to escape when a friend arrived to help him get out of prison). I wonder how they fared afterwards--I would guess that they had to leave the area quickly.

On the day of his execution, Brown wrote, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done." He was convinced that the only way to rid the country of slavery was through violence, and his actions did quite a lot to push the country toward civil war. People still argue today over whether Brown was a hero or a terrorist.

Years later, American soldiers turned a camp revival hymn known as Brothers, Will You Meet Us into a marching song called John Brown's Body. It went through several permutations (often quite vulgar ones) and settled for some time into this form:

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.
John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.
He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.
John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.
The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.
Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.
--by William Weston Patton

I'm sure that looks familiar, for a few years later Julia Ward Howe turned it into The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

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