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The United States in the first half of the 19th century was a nation divided on the issue of slavery. In the American South, slaves were the primary labor force on large plantations growing cotton, tobacco and other lucrative cash crops. But a growing chorus of voices was calling for an end to slavery. One of those voices belonged to abolitionist John Brown, who decided, in October 1859, to take matters into his own hands. His actions still stir controversy 150 years later.
Today, Harper's Ferry is a quaint little town of tourist shops and restaurants, and a National Historical Park, located on a scenic bank of the Potomac River in West Virginia. Many of the buildings in Harper's Ferry have been standing here for more than 150 years.
But the town was much different in 1859. "It was a noisy, dirty, polluted, industrial city in what was then Virginia, the largest slave state in America," says Park Ranger David Fox
Armory target of raid
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It was also home to one of only two federal armories in the United States, where weapons were not only stored, but manufactured. Late on October 16th, abolitionist John Brown led an armed band of 21 men - 16 white and five black -- into Harper's Ferry. Their goal was to seize the armory and use its cache of weapons to arm an anti-slavery rebellion. "Their intention was to set up a provisional government for the United States, where slavery would be outlawed," Fox says.
Brown and his men seized the arsenal and its 100,000 weapons, the nearby arms factory and a railroad bridge, and held 60 townspeople as hostages. In the ensuing battle, involving first local militias and then federal troops, eighteen people lost their lives, including ten of Brown's fighters.
After 36 hours, Brown himself was captured in the brick building that served as the armory's fire engine and guard house. It is the only armory building still standing. Harper's Ferry Park ranger David Fox says its bricks have different meanings to different people. "To some people this building is the scene of a crime, where a murderer and a traitor was captured and brought to justice. To others, this monument is nothing less than a monument to freedom on a battlefield."
John Brown was tried and found guilty of treason and murder and executed on December 2, 1859. The raid, the trial and the execution were all closely followed in the media. "The Associated Press had just been formed and the word got out on the wires quickly," says William Rasmussen, curator of "The Portent: John Brown's Raid in American Memory" at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. He says the two leading newspapers in the United States in 1859 sent both reporters and artists to cover events in Harpers Ferry.
Mad man or martyr?
"One of the interesting things about studying John Brown is that it seems like everybody in the Western World had something to say about him," Rasmussen says.
The popular French writer, Victor Hugo, was among those weighing in from across the Atlantic on the John Brown case. Rasmussen says Hugo called Brown a "fighter for Christ" and said he "recoiled with horror" at the thought of Brown's execution.
Here in the United States, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson actually compared Brown to Christ, saying "he would make the gallows as glorious as the cross." Others took sharply different views. Nathaniel Hawthorne, another writer from Massachusetts, said Brown was a lunatic and his actions justified his hanging.
During the American Civil War, which erupted less than two years after the Harpers Ferry raid, Union soldiers sang of John Brown. He became an inspiration, says National Park Ranger David Fox, to those fighting for the end of slavery not only in this country, but elsewhere in the world. "Serfs in Russia, peasants across Europe, they all seemed to react to John Brown," Fox says, "perhaps as a champion for the downtrodden and for freedom everywhere."
Among African Americans, "He is seen as a heroic figure who is willing to make personal sacrifices," says George Mason University professor Spencer Crew, a specialist in black history. Crew saysBrown iwas unusual not only in his willingness to give his life to the anti-slavery cause, but in his beliefs regarding race. "[Brown] not only believed in the abolition of slavery, but also believed in equality." That was not true of al abolitionists.
But John Brown's willingness to kill so that others could live free makes him a controversial figure even today, says Park Ranger David Fox. "Every generation must come to terms with John Brown and what he represents. When is it right to use violence? As one biographer put it, 'How far can force and violence go toward peace and goodwill?'"
Those questions are being considered again, 150 years after John Brown's raid.