John Brown's Raid On Harpers Ferry: A Brief History With Documents, Jonathan Earle, Bedford St. Martins Press, 158 pp., selected bibliography, index, 3 illustrations, 2 maps, questions for consideration, 2008, paperback, $12.95
On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and 19 others seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The actions of Brown's men brought national attention to the emotional divisions concerning slavery.
In the summer of 1859, John Brown with 21 others took up residence near Harpers Ferry on the Kennedy farm a few miles northeast of Harpers Ferry in Maryland. He trained a group of twenty-two men, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson, in military maneuvers. On the night of Sunday, October 16, Brown and all but three of the men seized the armory, Halls Rifle Works and hostages from nearby farms. The first Harpers Ferry citizen to confront the raiders was Hayward Shepard, an African-American railroad baggage handler.
In general, the plan was to seize weapons and to add African-Americans to the party. Within 12 hours from the beginning of the raid, authorities in Washington ordered Colonel Robert E. Lee and an infantry detachment to Harpers Ferry. At 6:30a on the morning of Tuesday, October 18, Lee ordered a group of men to storm the engine house. In the brief but dramatic assault, Brown was received a serious head wound. Brown was taken to the Jefferson County seat of Charles Town for trial.
In his brief history of Brown and his raid, Jonathan Earle sketches the key elements of Brown's life, the political condition of the nation, the raid and the immediate responses to it. One historian has describe the responses to John Brown as being being in one of two categories. Brown was incompetent and a sociopath or Brown was martyred by slaveholders.
Earle's work is among the best concise introductions to the event of 150 years ago. Brown receives a new biography about every 20 years. Recently, Stephen Oates' To Purge This Land With Blood and David Reynolds John Brown have done much to redeem Brown's reputation. Those biographies from the 1920s through the 1960 focus on the irrationality and religious fundamentalism of the man. As justice and race issues came to the fore beginning in the 1950s through the present day, Brown's life and crimes have been reinterpeted in the light of the issues of the 1850s and 1860s.
Additionally, terroristic acts motivated by religion are more common today than Americans wish. Brown's understanding was that America was at war in the 1850s. The enslavement of about four million Africans was warfare against the Judeo-Christian God's desire for complete equality among all humans. Most abolitionists did not see Blacks, enslaved or free, to be equal. Abolitionists for the most part wished to do away with slavery but not inequality. Brown wished to do away with both slavery and inequality.
By offering a brief history, 16 relevant documents, a chronology, a list of relevant participants, and 2 maps, Jonathan Earle's book is an approachable introduction that will probably generate an interest for further study and possibly a visit to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.