Crazy John Brown and the Ill-Conceived Raid

Name and Place for September 30 (’14)

Thomas Fleming has written an intriguing work on the reason America fought its Civil War.  A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War casts another -1scholarly voice into the melee of why father and sons took arms against one another.  As a born-and-raised Southern whose own family was split in combat, these discussions have never ceased to amaze me.  Moreover, as education in the United States continues to suffer as teachers lose their ability to teach thought in favor of facts, books like this are increasingly needed.  While not necessarily agreeing with everything Fleming argues, it is worth reading.  Beginning with the story of the ill-fated assault on Harpers Ferry, Flemming notes how the instability of Brown led to insane results during the assault:

The shriek of a train whistle interrupted Brown’s playacting (inside the federal armory).  A Baltimore & Ohio express from Wheeling, Virginia, was approaching the bridge.  Halted by an impromptu brigade, the engineer and conductor found an agitated man named Higgins standing beside the tracks, blood trickling from a wound in his scalp.  He was the bridge’s relief night watchman.  When Oliver Brown (John Brown’s son) and his partner on the bridge, a black named Dangerfield Newby, tried to seize him, Higgins had slugged Brown and run for it.  He got away with a bullet nick in his scalp.  The disbelieving trainmen walked toward the bridge (to investigate) and were driven off by several shots.  They backed the train out of range and decided to await developments.

Meanwhile, Shepherd Hayward, a free black who worked as a station porter, walked out on the bridge to find out what was wrong with the train.  “Halt!” shouted one of the guards on the bridge.  The confused Hayward ignored the order and tried to retreat.  A bullet thudded into his back and exited under his left nipple.  He staggered into the station crying: “I am shot.”

It would take Hayward twelve agonizing hours to die.  The first victim of John Brown’s insurrection was a free black man.  There were many ex-slaves like Hayward in The Ferry—no less than 1,251—and only 88 slaves.  One of many details that had escaped “Captain” Brown’s manic planning was the way slavery was evolving in border states such as Maryland and Virginia.

The shots awoke many people in Harpers Ferry.  Men swarmed into the streets, some carrying guns.  They dragged the bleeding Hayward into the station and summoned the town doctor to help him.  The physician sent a messenger racing to the nearest large town, Charleston, Virginia, asking for reinforcements.

Soon word of the seizure of the federal armory swirled through the crowd, followed by fear that a slave revolt was about to explode.  There was a general stampede to the heights outside town.  Most of The Ferry’s blacks fled with the whites.  As dawn reddened the eastern sky, church bells began clanging everywhere.  It was a long-prearranged signal for the farmers in the surrounding countryside to reach for their guns to repel a slave insurrection.


John Brown’s pic after he grew a beard during 1859 to go incognito while he reconnoitered Harpers Ferry. He hoped assaulting the Federal Arsenal would ignite a slave insurrection.

In the armory, John Brown did little or nothing in a military way except strap on George Washington’s sword (which he previously confiscated upon arresting Washington’s grandson at his home in the dark hours the night before).  About 3:00am, he walked out on the bridge and told the train’s conductor it could proceed.  Brown knew the train would stop at the next town on the line, Monocacy, Maryland, and telegraph news of his incursion.  This decision made no sense in the light of Brown’s previous order to cut the telegraph lines.  Apparently, only now had it dawned on him that he needed help in spreading the news of his insurrection.  He apparently did not realize that the news would also arouse white opposition throughout Maryland and Virginia.

Around 5:00am, Brown sent three men and two freed slaves armed with pikes back to the Kennedy Farm (a supply facility for Brown) with orders to shift the rifles, revolvers, and remaining pikes to a log schoolhouse on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.  This decision also made little sense.  There was no sign of an outpouring of support from the area’s slaves to use these weapons. Brown compounded his folly by telling his son Owen that everything at Harpers Ferry was going well.

The book is intriguing and is history told well.  We recommend it and hope you enjoy.


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