Weapon of Last Resort

“John Brown” Pike, ca. 1857–1859

AT FIRST GLANCE, IT LOOKS LIKE A WEAPON DATING TO THE MIDDLE Ages, not to the modern antebellum battle against American slavery. But this long, sharp wood-and-steel pike was specifically designed and manufactured to arm what some called a heroic assault for freedom—and what others branded a mad act of lawless terrorism.

With its protagonists so armed, “John Brown’s effort was peculiar.” So said Abraham Lincoln when he delivered his Cooper Union address in New York City on February 27, 1860—an oration many contemporaries (including Lincoln himself) believed responsible for catapulting him to the presidency. In an otherwise elaborate, even belabored, two-hour defense of the federal government’s power to intervene against the spread of slavery, Lincoln spent at most two minutes on the most explosive news story of the time: the John Brown raid. The famous Cooper Union speech is seldom associated with the even more famous and controversial Harpers Ferry incident, but the fact is that John Brown’s raid—and Brown’s swift execution—occurred only a few months before Lincoln traveled to speak in New York. To say the affair was still very much on the minds of most Americans in February 1860 would be an understatement.

But Lincoln barely mentioned it. Mainstream Republicans like the Illinois Republican—battling for the party’s center without violating antislavery principles that had inspired formation of the new party in the first place—had ample reason to minimize, or even dismiss, the John Brown controversy. Determined to halt the spread of slavery into the new western territories, they were careful to disassociate themselves from radical abolitionists who wanted to end slavery everywhere, and immediately, even at the cost of blood. That kind of advocacy, however humane it may seem to modern Americans, alarmed moderate Northerners and struck terror in the hearts of white Southerners, who believed that if abolitionists succeeded in liberating their slaves, blacks would overwhelm, murder, or, worst of all, intermarry with them. Their incurable racial paranoia was in one sense understandable: in South Carolina, for example, the black population—slave and free—actually outnumbered the white. Unsuccessful as John Brown’s raid proved, except as a symbolic act, it confirmed the worst fears of slaveholders, who reacted to the insurgency by further tightening their already brutal grip on human beings they regarded as their “property.”


By the end of the decade preceding the Civil War, the Connecticut-born John Brown (1800–1859) was no stranger to the tactic of armed resistance to slavery. Once a struggling cattle farmer and leather tanner, he had been converted to the abolitionist cause in 1837, when he learned that a mob had murdered the antislavery editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. That year, Brown took a public vow: “Here, before God, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”

For most of the next two decades, Brown worked in Massachusetts organizing antislavery rallies and constructing an Underground Railroad system to speed the safe escape of runaways. As the nation otherwise tilted more decidedly toward the slave power, Brown became increasingly radicalized. When he learned that the Compromise of 1850 would include a federal law mandating the capture and return of fugitive slaves, he formed what he called the League of Gileadites to shield escapees who reached his vicinity, and he pledged to use force when necessary to protect them. Eventually, Brown received a generous grant from the wealthy abolitionist leader Gerrit Smith to resettle near Lake Placid in upstate New York, where he continued his passionate advocacy for freedom. In 1855, Brown attended an antislavery convention in Albany, most of whose delegates cautioned against resorting to violent means to advance the cause of abolition. Brown vehemently disagreed. At the time, western settlers were locked in furious combat over the slavery issue in so-called Bleeding Kansas, a territory roiling in an acrimonious dispute over the future status of slavery there. In response to an outbreak of violence by pro-slavery “Border Ruffians,” who attempted to menace settlers into supporting a constitution that consecrated slavery, Brown hit upon the idea of leading an expedition of his own to Kansas to do battle with pro-slavery forces. Enraged upon learning that the Border Ruffians had attacked the antislavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, in May 1856 and burned the local newspaper office and hotel, he vowed revenge. On May 24, he orchestrated a bloody massacre of pro-slavery settlers along the banks of Pottawatomie Creek. Brown’s followers dragged five men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords.

From that point, the violence in Kansas only escalated. In early June, Missourians under General John W. Reid marched a well-armed force into the territory to defend slavery interests, burning out antislavery settlers, sacking the town of Lawrence, and killing one of Brown’s sons at Osawatomie. Though vastly outnumbered, Brown’s force somehow regrouped in the nearby woods, set up a stout line of defense, and engaged in battle with the Missourians, killing or wounding forty soldiers and losing only one more man on their side. Brown eventually agreed to a truce and prisoner exchange and was allowed to leave Kansas unmolested to regroup and plan his next move. By then, “Osawatomie Brown” had become a messianic hero to abolitionists in the North and a symbol of Northern agitation and terror to outraged Southerners. The nation “had reached a point,” Brown maintained, “where nothing but war can settle the question.”

For the next two and a half years, Brown labored to raise money to finance another dramatic thrust against slavery: this time, an actual armed invasion of Virginia. By now, he was fully converted to armed insurrection and, according to some, unbalanced by zealotry, family losses, and megalomania. That did not inhibit wealthy New Englanders from contributing to his latest plot. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, became one of the most prominent funders. John A. Andrew, who went on to serve as governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War, donated twenty-five dollars. Frederick Douglass provided both advice and moral support, although he later advised Brown not to launch an armed attack into slave territory.

In March 1858, Brown commissioned a Collinsville, Connecticut, metal maker named Charles Blair to forge 950 pikes—spear-like weapons shaped like bowie knives at their tips. When he took his small band of followers into Virginia, he expected hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves to flock to him. When they did, he planned to supply them with these pikes, which required little or no training to use. Each pike was individually stamped with a number; the Society’s example is marked “101.” With these he intended to arm Southern slaves unaccustomed to firearms in a bid to foment a region-wide revolt. As Brown confidently told Douglass, “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm.” His initial target would be western Virginia. Brown planned his raid carefully, going so far as to chart the outlines of a provisional government he hoped to establish once he conquered Southern territory and liberated and empowered enslaved blacks. He continued working to raise money to finance his planned armed revolt. Meanwhile—almost as if to stay in practice—he joined raiding parties on a mission in the slave state of Missouri and in one bold move freed eleven enslaved people and helped spirit them off to freedom in Canada.

In the fall of 1859, an unusually large group of out-of-town visitors quietly took rooms at a modest inn in Hagerstown, Maryland. The bearded old gentleman with the cold eyes who checked in with his boys registered the party as “I. Smith and Sons.” If the boarders aroused suspicion there, it went unreported. By July, the mysterious “Smith” had moved his entire group to a nearby rented farm. Here “Mr. Smith”—none other than John Brown, of course—gathered a force of sixteen white and five black men and hatched his final plan to cross into Virginia and capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The armory along the river there housed some 100,000 weapons, and Brown believed a stealth attack would not only arouse a slave revolt but provide sufficient weapons to equip the revolutionaries for a long march farther into the South. Once they expanded their movement, Brown had convinced himself, slaves would get word of the insurrection, abandon their plantations en masse, and join his crusade, effectively destroying the institution of forced labor in Virginia and, eventually, the entire South. If he could hold the arsenal for just two days, he believed, the slave population would flock to his cause. Once the pikes with which he planned to arm slaves arrived from Connecticut in late September, he was ready. This is one of the original weapons.

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown led eighteen of his men in a daring sunrise raid against the Harpers Ferry arsenal. There they easily overcame the sole watchman who guarded the facility, Brown proclaiming to the frightened guard: “I came here from Kansas and this is a slave state. I have possession of the United States armory and if the citizens interfere with me, I must burn the town and I will have blood.” In quick order Brown’s force secured a nearby bridge and captured a number of hostages, including a major prize: Lewis Washington, a great-grandnephew of the first president, whom they menaced and robbed at his home, liberating his slaves—who numbered only three. News of the occupation spread quickly when Brown’s men attacked, briefly halted, but then inexplicably freed an eastbound train, which sounded the alarm once it steamed out of town. At 7:05 a.m., its conductor frantically wired the railroad: “Express train bound east, under my charge, was stopped this morning at Harper’s Ferry by armed abolitionists. They have possession of the bridge and the arms and armory of the United States. Myself and Baggage Master have been fired at, and Hayward, the colored porter, is wounded very severely, being shot through the body.” Ironically, the first casualty of John Brown’s Raid thus turned out to be a free black man.

Within hours, telegraph operators confirmed early reports and spread the alarm all the way to Washington that Osawatomie Brown had invaded Virginia. Meanwhile, white residents of the community took up arms of their own, organized into an impromptu militia, and aimed gunfire at the arsenal from the surrounding hills, effectively keeping Brown pinned down. Brown then ordered his men to collect inside the facility’s secure-looking brick engine house. Here the raiders barricaded themselves inside, trapped, for a last stand. Within thirty-six hours, a company of U.S. Marines arrived on the scene, commanded by a remarkably handsome, mustached colonel named Robert E. Lee. The future Civil War general ordered one of his lieutenants—J. E. B. Stuart, another officer destined for later fame—to approach the engine house bearing a white flag to offer Brown safety if he surrendered immediately. “No,” came the reply, “I prefer to die here.” Lee’s forces promptly opened fire, then rammed open the heavy doors with a large wooden ladder and easily overpowered the insurgents after a brief but bloody struggle inside. Another Lee lieutenant, Israel Greene, leaped at Brown from one of the fire engines and struck at him with his saber, making a deep cut on the back of his neck. “Instantly, as Brown fell,” Greene later recalled, “I gave him a saber thrust in his left breast.” The thin blade struck something hard and bent in two, saving Brown’s life—at least temporarily. When the smoke cleared, ten of the raiders lay dead or dying, including two more of Brown’s sons. Lee quickly established control of the strategically and symbolically crucial federal facility and held Brown for questioning inside the engine house before hauling him off to jail in nearby Charles Town.

Amid the debris of the brief but bloody encounter at Harpers Ferry—reports of whose suppression were now spreading throughout the nation—soldiers found Brown’s cache of modern rifles and confiscated them. They discovered as well clusters of primitive-looking pikes. Ironically, none of the handful of African Americans who had joined John Brown’s raid had known how to use the curious weapons.

Some of the marines on the scene picked up individual spears and hauled them off as souvenirs. John Brown’s personal arsenal of freedom was dispersed, and in John Greenleaf Whittier’s words, “Nevermore may yon Blue Ridges the Northern rifle hear, / Nor see the light of blazing homes flash on the negro’s spear.” But John Brown’s cause was gathering attention and momentum. The Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis may have branded it “a startling revelation of…hatred and fanaticism.” But insisting to critics and skeptics that Brown was not insane, Frederick Douglass pointed out: “Moral considerations have long since been exhausted upon slaveholders. It is in vain to reason with them. One might as well hunt bears with ethics and political economy for weapons, as to seek to ‘pluck the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor’ by the mere force of moral law. Slavery is a system of brute force. It shields itself behind might, rather than right. It must be met with its own weapons….

“Like Samson,” Douglass insisted, Brown had “laid his hands upon the pillars of this great national temple of cruelty and blood, and when he falls, that temple will speedily crumble to its final doom, burying its denizens in its ruins.” But like the proverbial hunter chasing bears with ethics, John Brown had tried to launch a modern revolution with spears.

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