October 16, 2008

John Brown's body...

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Today--or rather this evening--marks the anniversary of John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Brown to me is one of the most fascinating figures in American history, someone who struck his time like some kind of karmic meteor.

The aim was to seize weapons at the armory there and distribute them to the slaves he believed would rally to his standard. From there, they would wage low key guerrilla warfare in the Appalachian mountains and provide a haven for runaways which would presumably deplete Virginia of its supply of slave labor. He had even drawn up a provisional constitution for the republic of former slaves that he hoped to inaugurate.

Like most of the specific things Brown attempted in his life, the raid in purely military terms was a disaster. Ironically, its first casualty was Hayward Shepherd, an African-American railroad baggage handler. It was over by Oct. 18, when he was captured by a military party that included Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.

Altogether, Brown's force consisted of 22 men, 19 of which participated in the raid. Of these, five were African-American. Of these, 10, including two of Brown's sons, died during the attack. Seven more, including Brown himself, were eventually hanged.

The thing that strikes me most about that whole episode was the fact that although he failed at everything he attempted, in the end he seemed to get what he wanted. The raid further polarized North and South and seemed to drive the situation to the point of no return.

He told the court:

Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved... in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!"

Brown remains a controversial figure to this day. People still argue about whether he was a madman, a fanatic, a killer, a martyr, or a freedom fighter. I'm leaning toward "some combination thereof."

He reminds me of some cryptic lines from Bob Dylan's song "Idiot Wind:"

There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin' every battle.

HOW'S THAT STIMULUS COMING? The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute finds that underemployment is at a 14 year high.

WATERBOARD SURFING. This item from the Washington Post reports that the Bush White House explicitly endorsed interrogation techniques that people who don't torture the English language would refer to as torture in 2003 and 2004.

GRUNTING FOR WORMS. No, I'm not going to explain what that means. You need to click here to find out.

ADVICE FOR THE NEWLY POOR can be found here.




Stephen Bess said...

I've visited Harpers Ferry. It's such a beautiful place. It's difficult to imagine what took place there long ago.

El Cabrero said...

It is beautiful there, one of my favorite places--especially the old ruins along the river.
Thanks for the comment!