It can be argued that the War of Northern Aggression actually started on October 16, 1859, a year and a half before the war’s official start, when the radical abolitionist John Brown and twenty-one of his followers seized the arsenal at the river-junction town of Harper’s Ferry in northern Virginia. Brown’s objective had been to secure muskets and use them to arm local slaves. He then planned to start a guerrilla war whose object was to free all 490,000 slaves in Virginia. Having accomplished that, he would then head south, replicating his success in other states. The vision was vast, apocalyptic, and, on its face, ridiculous. The raid was so poorly organized that it looked like a planned martyrdom. Brown never made it out of Harper’s Ferry, nor did he even appear to have a plan for escaping, let alone arming hundreds of thousands of slaves. His raiding party managed to kill seven townspeople and wound ten others. Then a group of eighty-six marines under colonel Robert E. Lee arrived, stormed the building where Brown and his men were barricaded, and put a fast and violent end to Brown’s gambit. Ten of the raiders were killed, Brown was captured and turned over to Virginia authorities, who brought him speedily to trial. On November 2 1859, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hanged on December 2 in nearby Charlestown.
What happened in the weeks and months after Brown’s trial and execution amounted to an almost instant revision of history, and it changed entirely the meaning of his raid in the minds of everyone in both North and South. The first perceptions of Brown and his attack were easily categorized: he may have thought he was working to abolish slavery, but in fact he was delusional, perhaps insane. And it followed that Brown and his cohorts were only a tiny splinter group of radicals and did not represent the way most abolitionists in the North actually felt. That was certainly the quickly expressed view in the North.
But at his trial Brown had surprised everyone.
“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”
Brown’s words – and his self-possession in the courtroom – changed everything. These were not the words of a madman and murderer, as Northerners now saw it, but of a principled religious man who insisted that his purpose had simply been to arm slaves for their self-defense. The change of perception swept quickly through the North in the days following the trial. The day he was executed, church bells had tolled in many Northern towns and cities; guns fired salutes; sermons were preached on the purity and correctness of his motives; and people all over the North prayed for the soul of this martyr.
The reaction of Southerners to such Northern expressions of sympathy was horror mixed with disbelief that their fellow citizens could possibly wish upon them the fate that Brown had planned. To Southerners and particularly to Virginians, whose state had been invaded, Brown was a terrifying figure, the dark avenging side of the abolitionist movement that had been on view for five years in the bloody war in Kansas – where Brown and his gang had murdered five men in 1856. He had, after all, intended to arm slaves and set them free, which presumably meant setting them upon their masters, which meant the people in the North were now endorsing the violent deaths of men, women, and children all over the South.
“This mad attempt by a handful of vulgar cutthroats,” wrote the Reverend Robert Lewis Dabney, an important Presbyterian leader in the South, “would have been a very trivial matter to the Southern people, but for the manner in which it was regarded by the people of the North. Their presses, pulpits, public meetings, and conversations disclosed such a hatred of the South , as to lead them to justify the crime, involving though it did the most aggravated robbery and murder, and to exalt the bloodthirsty fanatic who led the party.”
Those sentiments were replicated all over the South, and the complaints became more grievous as more became known about the wealthy Northern benefactors who had helped Brown finance his enterprise. Wrote Henry Kyd Douglas, a Virginian, “There is nothing in the history of fanaticism, its crimes and follies, so strange and inexplicable as that the people of New England, with all their shrewdness, should have attempted to lift up the sordid name of that old wretch, and to exalt him among the heroes of this land. Why they should have sent him money and arms to encourage him to murder the people of Virginia is beyond my comprehension.”
Though some Northern politicians tried to blunt the effect of the Northern response, the damage – and it was very deep emotional damage – had been done. The reaction to the event now loomed larger than the event. The Harper’s Ferry invasion had advanced the cause of disunion. Thousands of men who, a month earlier, had scoffed at the idea of a dissolution of the union now held the opinion that it was inevitable.