Research for April 3

Secondary Source – Background on John Brown’s Raid:

“[John Brown] proposed to take an armed force into Virginia, rally the slaves, place weapons in their hands, and resist by force any effort to prevent their being freed.” (p. 365)

“Harpers Ferry was in a difficult location, and it was clearly more risky to attack federal property than private property. The only thing to be gained by seizing the armory was weapons, and since Brown’s own little band already had far more guns than they needed, one can only conclude that he intended to place arms in the hands of large numbers of slaves.” (p. 368)

“By mid-October [1859] he had twenty-two followers and probably recognized that his little force never would be any stronger. On the evening of October 16, he set out with all but three of these men, marched down toward the Potomac with a wagonload of arms, cut the telegraph wires, crossed the bridge, captured the watchman guarding the bridge, and moved into Harpers Ferry. With no difficulty whatever, he seized the armory and rifle works.” (p. 369)

“At morning… Brown… sat down and waited. In his own mind, he was waiting for the slaves to rise, but in reality, he was waiting for the slow-moving forces of organized society to get into motion and to overwhelm him.” (p. 370)

“By ten o’clock that night, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, United States Cavalry, with his aide Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, had come to command all federal forces in the area… Lee, very much the professional soldier, was in no hurry… The next morning, he sent Stuart to parley with the leader of the insurrectionists… when Brown refused to surrender, Stuart stepped aside and waved in a detachment of twelve marines who charged with fixed bayonets, without firing a shot. In a few moments it was all over. One marine and two of Brown’s men were killed in the assault…. Altogether, Brown’s men had killed four people and wounded nine. Of his own small force, ten were dead or dying; five had escaped the previous day, and seven were captured.” (p. 370-371)

“He was arraigned with excessive promptness, while still suffering from his wounds, and was indicted and brought to trial on the day of the arraignment, one week after his capture. The trial lasted one week, after which he was sentenced to be hanged one month from the date of the sentence.” (p. 376)

“When John Brown was hanged at Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859, the organized expressions of sympathy in the North reached startling proportions. Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions were adopted… the death of a national hero could not have called forth a greater outpouring of grief.” (p. 378)

From The Impending Crisis by David M. Potter


Secondary Source – Newspaper Coverage of John Brown’s Raid:

“Both northern and southern newspapers referred to John Brown’s ‘Quixotic’ act. The raid on Harpers Ferry arsenal brought northerners and southerners, Republicans and Democrats, face to face with the slavery issue in new and frightening ways. The drama of the north-south conflict became more intense than ever before, and the press of both regions added greatly to that drama. Newspapers that had been urging that the slavery issue be set aside and new compromises be found became even more hard-pressed than before to win over readers. It was hard to be neutral when writing and reading about John Brown and his men and the supposed conspiracy of which they may have been a part. Southern newspapers and most northern Democratic ones tied Brown’s actions directly to abolitionists, who, in turn, were linked to Republicans. In the pages of those newspapers, what Brown did proved that, should Republicans gain political control of the country, the South could expect far more than a legislative assault on slavery. Servile insurrection, race war, and general anarchy were all part of what that segment of the press thought the Harpers Ferry raid augured for the future of the South.” (p. 73)

“The southern press offered blanket condemnation of the North in the wake of what the Richmond Enquirer dramatically labeled the ‘invasion,’ meaning to conjure up the image of an abolitionist army descending on the South. Northern Democratic newspapers were equally aggressive and passionate in their editorials, but they aimed that passion at political and press enemies in the North. They were not about to join in a blanket condemnation of all northerners.

“Until the day Brown was hanged a number of southern newspapers reported rumors of a massive abolitionist attack aimed at freeing him from prison. The southern press trumpeted the message of the Harpers Ferry raid as the most horrendous evidence of the actions of despicable white northerners and of the lengths to which they would go, the laws they would break, to end slavery. As southerners read about them, the raid and the conspiracy were portrayed as direct and serious assaults on the South and on the Republic.” (p. 78)

“In the North, questions of the raid’s purpose, and who was responsible for it, were answered in terms of predictable political partisanship. But prominent in the rhetoric that newspapers on both political sides employed was the suggestion of the danger of disunion, the undermining of republican society, and the abandonment of the heritage of the Founding Fathers. Each side accused the other of putting politics above national interest.” (p. 83)

From Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War by Ratner & Teeter


Primary Source – Newspaper Article on a Northern View of the South’s Reaction:


“We are decidedly puzzled by the Virginia demonstrations over the John Brown invasion. In common with the whole North, we have been astonished at the immense outcry raised over that wild and absurd freak of a hard-headed, strong-willed fanatic. It was natural that the affair should create some alarm at the outset,–while its extent and character were unknown:–and we accordingly defended the people of the neighborhood against the charge that they were unduly scared. But the panic seems to have spread, and the excitement to have become more and more intense, from day to day. The extracts we have made from Southern journals, with the advices of our own correspondents, show that the great body of the Southern people regard this as a most serious affair,—full of peril to their people, and calling for the most extensive and formidable preparations for defence. The public mind in Virginia seems to be in a state of extreme sensitiveness and alarm. Everything said or done concerning Slavery startles the community into instant terror. Brown in prison, guarded by armed men, and within reach almost of the scaffold, is an object of intense alarm… The whole State seems to be in a condition of frightened frenzy; and the action of its authorities, and the language of its Press, betoken a state of mind capable of any extreme of rash and perilous folly…

We can assure our Virginia friends that nothing which has occurred for twenty years has so impressed the Northern mind with a conviction of the essential weakness of Slavery as their demeanor since John Brown’s attempt at Harper’s Ferry. It has done more to stimulate the Abolitionists to fresh efforts, by convincing them of their feasibility, than any other incident of the day. And this, in our judgment, is the most dangerous and deplorable feature of the whole affair…

Much of the mischief is doubtless due to the reckless and selfish action of scheming politicians. The Disunionists of the South have been quite as prompt as the Abolitionists of the North in seeing how the Brown invasion may be used for the promotion of their common end. They have swelled the chorus of alarm and execration, and have proclaimed the complicity of the entire North in this scheme of insurrection. In Virginia, Gov. Wise has clearly regarded the incident as his stepping-stone to the Presidential nomination… It seems to be anticipated by the Southern Democrats generally, that the Harper’s Ferry affair will compel the nomination of a Southern Democratic candidate, upon a Southern platform;–and they expect the Northern Democracy to yield to them, without hesitation, on this point—not only as an act of justice, but as an indication of the soundness of their own sentiments on the Slavery question.

This is a dangerous experiment for the Democratic Party. We doubt very much whether the Democracy of the North will feel strong enough to afford to yield this important and vital point… The Republican Party has not been weakened in the least by the Harper’s Ferry affair;–and if the South persists in her present mode of treating it, she will strengthen the sectional feeling of the Northern States, and render it impossible for the Democrats to face it either at Charleston or the polls.

… The South cannot by any possibility elect a sectional Pro-Slavery candidate,–nor any man who will throw the weight of the nation into the Slavery scale. It can prevent the election of an open enemy, and secure all its just and constitutional rights;–but not by ignoring the North or attempting to ride rough-shod over its principles and its public men on the strength of such outbreaks as that of Harper’s Ferry.”

Article published in New York Times, November 21, 1859