Recently the state legislature in Vermont, at the request of a Woodstock High School teacher, declared October 16th to be John Brown Day. That is the anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia.
Here is a partial text of article I wrote for my local coin club:
On October 16, 1859 John Brown led a raid on the Harpers Ferry, Virginia Arsenal. Brown was a radical abolitionist who believed that violent acts were required to end slavery. His goal was to take over the arsenal and hold it until runaway slaves and other supporters came to the aid of his band of men. He also took hostages whom he would exchange for “any stout Negro.” He planned to arm his supporters with the rifles he captured from the armory and flee to the hills of Virginia. From there his guerilla force would establish a provisional government under a constitution that he had written and conduct raids against slaveholders. Brown thought that if he could conquer Virginia, the slaveholding South would collapse.
At first Brown and his men succeeded in capturing three buildings in Arsenal Square. Brown thought that the local slave population would flock to his cause, but the support he counted upon never materialized. Instead militiamen from the area surrounded his position and forced Brown and his forces to retreat to the firehouse. Brown and his men were trapped.
In the mean time Brown had allowed a Baltimore and Ohio express train safe passage though the town. Once the train reached the next station, the conductor wired Washington officials about the situation in Harpers Ferry. Fearing a wider insurrection, president James Buchanan ordered U.S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee to end the siege. Lee and his forces, with the aid of his lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, arrived on scene just before midnight on October 17. Brown attempted to bargain with Lee, but the following day Lee ordered his men to batter down the door of the engine, and Brown was forced to surrender.
Ten of Brown’s men were killed including two of his sons. Brown was severely injured, but he lived to stand trial for treason. Brown’s conviction was a foregone conclusion, and he was hanged on December 2, 1859. At the time of his execution, Brown handed a note to a supporter which read that the country would be bathed in blood for its sins over the issue of slavery.
The reactions to Brown’s actions and execution were mixed. In the South he was condemned as a dangerous traitor. In the North some intellectuals, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, hailed Brown as a hero. Author Nathanial Hawthorn, best known for the classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, said that he deserved to be hanged. Abraham Lincoln summed up the opinion of many when he stated that slavery was wrong, but that it could only be ended by lawful means and not by violence.
My take on John Brown was that he had the right cause, but the wrong methods. The man was a 19th century terrorist. I was surprised to note in an article appearing in “The Political Bandwagon” that they thought that a celebration of an end to slavery would be more appropriate that celebrating John Brown. Most of the membership of the American Political Collectors Club (APIC) are very liberal, so this was out of character.
At any rate here is a medalet that John Brown’s supporters issued just after he was hung for treason in December 1859. This is rather scarce piece, especially in brass, which is the composition of this piece.