150 years later
Spirit of Harper’s Ferry raid lives
Published Oct 21, 2009 4:12 PM
For the masses of workers and oppressed people in this country—those
whose days are consumed with trying to survive and feed their families, keep a
roof over their heads and get some kind of minimal health care or
education—for the majority, that is, who grab their news in quick gulps
on TV or radio, Web sites or tabloid newspapers, Oct. 16 was just another
They never heard a word about its import. That’s not surprising, but
it is a damn shame, for Oct. 16 is one of the most important dates in U.S.
history. And this year was the 150th anniversary of the vitally
significant event that happened on that date.
That event is the raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper’s Ferry,
Va. This military assault by an armed, well-trained, united band of Black and
white militants was intended to be the opening battle in what would then
develop into a widespread guerrilla war that would topple the system of chattel
The troop had written, hashed out and agreed upon a revised, improved
Constitution guaranteeing race and sex equality. It was to be a new charter for
the new country they envisioned rising out of the ashes of the old one that had
been built on the backs of enslaved Africans and wholesale theft of Indigenous
lands. With this Constitution in hand, with a pledge to succeed or die,
with almost unimaginable courage, 23 people went to Harper’s Ferry on
Oct. 16, 1859, to take on the slaveocracy.
Their leader was John Brown. He was known as “Captain Brown”
or “Old Osawatomie” because of his heroic exploits three years
earlier, in 1856 in Kansas, where he and his troops waged a series of
victorious battles that proved decisive in bringing Kansas into the Union as a
free rather than a slave state. Brown’s tactical brilliance; his
unwavering spirit and optimism even in the face of the death of one of his sons
and disabling of another; an utter absence of the racism that tainted most of
the prominent white abolitionists; and, above all, his bone-deep commitment to
the cause to which he devoted his entire life—all this led the group that
assembled to plan and carry out the raid on Harper’s Ferry to determine
that Brown must lead the charge.
The group was unprecedented in every
way. It was made up of Black and white
together, just as the farming community
Brown had founded and led during the
preceding years in North Elba, N.Y., was
made up of Black and white families—the
first such integrated community in
U.S. history. Among the Harper’s
Ferry squad, decisions were made >
democratically, not handed down
hierarchically. Black and white combatants took part equally in every
The plan of attack was crafted based on Brown’s long years of study
of the tactics of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and other enslaved African-American
leaders of U.S. slave revolts; of the Seminole nation that had resisted
domination by colonial settlers; of the Maroons of the South and of Jamaica and
Surinam, escaped slaves who fought the settler state forces in daring raids
from bases in the hills and mountains; and of Toussaint L’Ouverture, one
of the great liberators of Haiti.
In Brown’s view, there were several African-American members of the
Harper’s Ferry troop any one of whom ought to take the leadership post
for the action. However, the group overruled him, arguing that because of his
experience in Kansas and his proven military prowess, it was Brown who must
captain their squad.
And so this small band of warriors moved in. They were self-trained. They
carried a minimal cache of smuggled weapons. The idea was to seize the arsenal,
distribute its contents to the nearby population of enslaved laborers, join
with them to liberate the region, establish a base of operations in the woods
which would swiftly expand to many bases as ever more freed slaves joined up,
and wage full-scale war until the abomination of slavery was defeated for good
and the new liberationist Constitution was instituted.
John Brown’s real
The initial steps of the plan went well. Brown and his troop had the
element of surprise on their side. They easily overwhelmed the arsenal’s
defenses, took hostages and occupied the site. After these early achievements,
however, there was a series of setbacks. The government, initially caught off
guard, was able to rally. Ultimately, through sheer strength of numbers and
with all the armed might of the state behind it, the Army—under the
command of none other than Robert E. Lee, who only a few short months later
would take the helm of the secessionist Confederate forces—beat back the
brave band of anti-racist heroes.
Commentary from bourgeois historians and military analysts fixes on various faults in the planning and execution of the raid on
Harper’s Ferry to explain why it did not succeed. Most of it blames
Brown, tagging him as some variation of insane, a crazed terrorist or the like.
This slander against one of the towering figures in the history of the struggle
against racism is clearly politically motivated. Even now, 150 years later,
racism is so integral, so crucial to the capitalist enterprise, that it is
vital to portray the willingness of this white warrior to give his life in the
effort to end it as sheer madness.
A truer image of Brown can be gleaned from the words of Frederick
Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X, all of whom praised him. Or from his
comrade and collaborator, the great Harriet Tubman, who years later said he had
been her “dearest friend.”
Factual inaccuracies also riddle the standard version. African-American
journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal offers an example in his
essay “The Neglected Voices from Harper’s Ferry” in a recent
edition of “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry” by Osborne P.
Anderson. Anderson was the only Black participant in the assault on the arsenal
who escaped and survived; so his account, Abu-Jamal points out, ought to be
regarded as definitive. Anderson’s account contradicts those who
claim that, before they arrived at Harper’s Ferry, the troop’s
attempts to rally support among slaves on nearby plantations were unsuccessful.
On the contrary, Abu-Jamal points out, “Anderson was in a perfect
position to speak to the issue of slave betrayal. Instead, he sees none. He
found the slaves supportive and overjoyed by the revolt, and counts them among
the first to fall during the armed conflict. He was among the contingent that
visited the plantations, where he found ‘the greatest enthusiasm.’
” Abu-Jamal continues, “Of the 17 revolutionaries who died at
Harper’s Ferry, nine were Black men!” This number includes not only
those who had trained and arrived together, but several who must have joined
the troop when it swept through the plantations along the route. In all,
“The majority of men who died at the Ferry were Black men; the majority
of Black men who fought and died (five of nine) were slaves fighting for their
Seven other freedom fighters, including John Brown, were captured. All
were hanged before the end of the year. Worldwide outrage and mourning
From Haiti to France to Cuba to Canada, in Detroit, Boston, Chicago and
many other U.S. cities, bells tolled, orators spoke, and thou sands upon
thousands rallied, marched and cried out in fury at the injustice.
In his jail cell, just before he was led to the gallows on Dec. 2, 1859,
the great soldier for human liberation wrote these last words: “I John
Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be
purged away but with blood.” Indeed, the Civil War began just a year and
a half later in April 1861.
As Union troops marched into battle, they sang the newly penned
“Battle Hymn of the Republic” with its famous opening words:
“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in its grave but his spirit
marches on.” The war had really begun on Oct. 16, 1859. That was the day
of the first battle, when a small troop of Black and white guerrilla fighters
took up arms against the slave state.
By any honest measure, the raid on Harper’s Ferry was a success. It
was a clarion call for freedom, and it echoes down the years.
Read Ettinger’s 2006 “Legacy of John Brown” article
in WW at http://tiny.cc/ubc5t.
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