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From Civil War to Civil Rights

On Oct. 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of fighters in storming the town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and the federal armory there. A century and a half later, Sept. 11 has altered the context in which his actions are viewed, and more scholars debate whether a cause now viewed as righteous justified Brown's tactics.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

He had a safe house, weapons and a mole planted among unsuspecting residents.

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He had wealthy backers, a juicy military target near Washington and fanatical followers ready to die for their cause.

He was a religious zealot who hated what he saw as an evil and corrupt system. And 150 years ago this week, in what is now the quaint tourist town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he fueled the smoldering fires of the Civil War, helped doom slavery in the United States and prepared the way for the civil rights movement and beyond.

He was John Brown, an abolitionist patriarch who sired 20 children, directed his share of the bloodletting in "Bleeding Kansas" and hoped to start a slave insurrection that would spread from the mountains of Virginia to the plantations of the deep South.

On the drizzly Sunday night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown, then 59, led 19 armed soldiers of his Provisional Army from their rented farmhouse in Maryland across a covered bridge over the Potomac River to seize the huge federal arsenal and armory in Harpers Ferry, where 100,000 guns were stored.

The gang, helped by a member who had lived in the town for a year, cut telegraph wires, took hostages, seized the government complex and waited for the revolution to begin. But local militias rather than legions of fleeing slaves poured into town. Brown was surrounded in a brick firehouse, and he and his surviving men were captured after a 36-hour standoff.

Ten of his men were killed, including two of Brown's sons and a former slave, Dangerfield Newby, who had joined Brown to free his wife and six children from a Virginia farm 50 miles away, historians say. Angry onlookers cut off Newby's ears for souvenirs.

Four civilians also died, including a free black railroad baggage handler, Heyward Shepherd, who is thought to have been inadvertently shot by Brown's men.

Brown's subsequent trial was a media sensation -- he was a saint in the North, a demon in the South. He wrote more than a hundred letters from jail, sometimes three a day, arguing his cause. And his hanging two months later was one of the most celebrated executions in U.S. history, historians say.

Before he left jail for the gallows in Charles Town, W.Va., the morning of Dec. 2, 1859, Brown passed a note to an attendant: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." The war began 16 months later.

On Wednesday, a four-day academic symposium on Brown began in Harpers Ferry, covering topics such as Brown and the media, Brown and civil rights, and Brown and the Northern abolitionists, many of whom funded and then abandoned him.

Today, Brown feels coldly modern, some experts say, mirroring the fanaticism of a 21st-century terrorist. In 1856, he had led his fighters in an attack at Pottawatomie, Kan., in which they butchered six pro-slavery men with broadswords, hacking off fingers and arms. In the South of 1859, Brown "was viewed almost the same way we would view [Osama] bin Laden," Brown biographer David S. Reynolds said.


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