America’s Good Terrorist: John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid by Charles P. Poland Jr.
Book review by Ben Powers
Charles Poland’s analysis of the failed attack on Harpers Ferry serves as both a description of the events surrounding the raid in mid-October 1869 and as a character study of the abolitionist leader John Brown. Poland does an excellent job outlining Brown’s background and development, emphasizing the time he spent in Kansas and how it contributed to his growing anti-slavery sentiments, and balances this description with a detailed discussion of the Harper Ferry’s raid itself, and its political aftermath. The result is the well-researched, highly readable America’s Good Terrorist.
While the word terrorist may conjure a variety of imagery in readers’ minds, at its most basic level a terrorist is one who uses violence or the threat of violence to raise awareness of a political agenda or to bring about a political result. The violence of terrorism is normally illegal, or at the least extralegal. In this context the title of the book is apt. Brown’s acts, however morally justified, were treason against the legally constituted federal government of the United States, brought heightened attention to the political issue of slavery, and had deadly consequences. By any interpretation, the raid was an act of terror. However, Brown himself most likely would reject the label of terrorist. He saw himself as the commanding general of an Army of Liberation. His goal was not simply to raise awareness of the evils of slavery. The abolitionist movement in the United States had been doing so for years. Brown intended to provoke a slave revolt that resulted in an army of freed men, men who could retreat to the hills of Virginia to organize and train before sweeping southward to continue the war against slavery.
America’s Good Terrorist devotes 100 of its 288 pages to discussing the actual raid between 16 and 18 October 1859. Brown was not a professional soldier, although he was a veteran of many violent encounters on the border between Kansas and Missouri. He selected Harpers Ferry, Virginia as his objective, in part, because of the presence of a federal arsenal. Such a location would provide arms, accoutrements and ammunition for the army Brown intended to raise. Despite this justification, Brown and his small raiding force of 18 other men made no provisions to collect, inventory and evacuate any weapons once the raid commenced. Such an oversight raises the question of whether Brown ever fully intended to capture the weapons in the first place. Poland covers this question and provides contemporary testimony that Brown stated the contents of the arsenal were not his primary object, but rather to strike a psychological blow by attacking such a prominent target.
Regardless of Brown’s true intentions, Poland illustrates that the abolitionist commander lost relative superiority over the people of Harper’s Ferry and assorted militia forces that gathered to repel the attack. Had Brown moved quickly to meet a defined objective, such as securing arms, and then withdrawn along a planned route, then he had every chance of making a successful escape. Once in the town however, he lost the initiative and allowed his opponents to dictate the pace of events.
The purpose of this review is not to provide a blow-by-blow description of the Harpers Ferry action, but a general description is in order. On the evening of 16 October 1859, Brown and his raiders achieved surprise and secured the bridge leading into the town and the keys to the Federal armory. The men severed telegraph communications on both sides of the bridge. Brown dispatched a force to take hostages (among them the great grand-nephew of George Washington, Colonel Lewis Washington). In the early morning of the 17th, they detained a train heading through Harpers Ferry to Baltimore, Maryland but ultimately allowed it to proceed on its journey. As the morning passed workers began arriving at the Armory and promptly captured by Brown’s men. As the group of hostages grew, Brown’s men loitered in Harper Ferry without evacuating weapons, nor did the expected army of freed slaves materialize. The 17th passed with the people of Harpers Ferry, supported by local militia units, surrounding the buildings in which Brown’s force had established hasty defenses. The besiegers were not particularly disciplined or professional, with Poland noting that drunkenness was evident among them, but they prevented Brown and the bulk of his forces from escaping. Meanwhile, the governments of Virginia and the United States received notice of the raid and ultimately President James Buchanan dispatched a force of United States Marines and Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army to end the standoff.
Lee and his force ultimately overran Brown and the defenders on the morning of 18 October, killing two and capturing the remainder. While the raid was over, Brown’s saga was not. He received a quick trial, being charged with treason and inciting a slave revolt. A jury found him guilty, and Brown received a sentence of death by hanging on 2 November 1859. The state of Virginia carried out the sentence on 2 December 1859. Brown’s execution was a polarizing event in a nation already split on the issue of slavery and illuminated the deep fault line between northern and southern states. Within two years Abraham Lincoln held the presidency, eleven states had seceded from the Union and the American Civil War began.
Poland paints a vivid picture of the fears of slave rebellion that Brown’s raid stirred among white southerners while also recounting Brown’s appeal to Northern abolitionists. His book is well illustrated with period photographs and sketches and contains a detailed set of endnotes and a good bibliography. His use of testimony and the words of the participants wherever possible enhance the narrative.
America’s Good Terrorist is good history and an exciting read. Poland provides a decent mix of background material, narrative and analysis that not only recounts the events surrounding the raid on Harpers Ferry but places them in the larger context of the nation’s history. Highly recommended to the Civil War specialist and general reader alike.
Available from Casemate Publishers.