Friday, 18 December 2015

John Brown leaves his body to folklore, 1859

2nd December 1859 was the day on which John Brown was hanged and his body consigned to the grave, “but his soul goes marching on”.

John Brown was a drifter who tried his hand at various occupations but failed in everything apart from producing a large family who followed him across several American states as he sought work to support them.

One thing that John Brown was passionate about was his opposition to slavery, and he had few reservations about using violence to promote his cause. In the Kansas Territory he led a night raid against a slave-holding community in which five men were beaten to death.

The culmination of Brown’s campaign was an armed raid, by a band of sixteen white and five black men, on the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. After an initial exchange of fire in which two non-combatants were killed, Brown’s men took about 60 hostages and waited in the armoury for what they hoped would be a slave uprising.

However, all that happened was that first the state militia and then the US Marines (led by Colonel Robert E Lee) stormed the armoury, killed ten of Brown’s troops including two of his sons and captured John Brown himself.

Not surprisingly, John Brown was sentenced to death for offences including treason and murder, and he was hanged at Charleston before a crowd of around 1,000 people. He was aged 59 at the time of his death.

The cause that John Brown had supported in his own brutal and unsuccessful fashion was not a lost one, and within 18 months of his death the American Civil War had broken out between the “slave” and “free” states. People in the northern states chose to ignore the methods that Brown had used and instead elevated him to the status of folk hero, hence the composition of the famous song to which Northern troops were happy to march.

© John Welford