As I’ve nearly finished reading, “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights,” one of the most important questions about the raid on Harpers Ferry remains: did enslaved blacks living in the area around the federal arsenal respond favorably or not to Brown’s plan to first, liberate slaves in the area and then have them fight alongside whites for the end of slavery in the country?
The plan, as outlined by author David K. Reynolds, was to seize control of the arsenal and its weapons, head to local plantations, free local slaves, arm them and allow them to fight for their freedom with their white supporters. The growing number of whites and blacks would seek refuge in the Appalachian mountains, where they would conduct a type of guerilla warfare against the federal forces that were sure to come. They would conduct rogue operations across the countryside to enlist more and more slaves to the cause, thus growing their numbers and their influence. Eventually, as Brown schemed, the South would grow weak-kneed, and Congress would eventually enact legislation to overthrow the peculiar institution in the States.
The main question was this: Would slaves trust Brown, a white man, and rush into an insurrection or would they recoil to the familiarity of the plantation and the comfort of their families and friends therein? They were, after all, being asked to trust a white man, probably the only white man they had met in their entire lives to have claimed to be on their side. The riddle, at least for them: was he really on their side?
The Reynolds bio is a fine contribution and has done a great deal to advance the popular misunderstandings and biases that have reigned as a result of older, biased works. On the other hand, Reynolds himself followed certain conventions in his writing that are likewise problematic, including the quotation you feature. It is absolutely not a given that enslaved people did not respond to his efforts in Virginia, or that he “misread” the black community. If Brown misread blacks, it was that segment of educated, elite leaders to whom he appealed for assistance. …
As to the enslaved people, I refer you to Osborne Anderson’s 1860 booklet, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry … He says that blacks turned out enthusiastically, and would have greatly supported Brown had he not gotten himself bogged down in gunfighting in the town.
Osborne Anderson was one of Brown’s black raiders on the Ferry, and his first-hand account seems quite important when thinking about this question. Following is a passage from his pamphlet, “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry,” in which Osborne notes that “hundreds” of slaves were ready had Brown adhered to the original plan, left the arsenal and took to the mountains (He lingered for too long inside with the prisoners).
Here’s an excerpt:
OF the various contradictory reports made by slaveholders and their satellites about the time of the Harper’s Ferry conflict, none were more untruthful than those relating to the slaves. There was seemingly a studied attempt to enforce the belief that the slaves were cowardly, and that they were really more in favor of Virginia masters and slavery, than of their freedom. As a party who had an intimate knowledge of the conduct of the colored men engaged, I am prepared to make an emphatic denial of the gross imputation against them, They were charged especially with being unreliable, with deserting Captain Brown the first opportunity, and going back to their masters; and with being so indifferent to the work of their salvation from the yoke, as to have to be forced into service by the Captain, contrary to their will.
On the Sunday evening of the outbreak, we visited the plantations and acquainted the slaves with our purpose to effect their liberation, the greatest enthusiasm was manifested by them –joy and hilarity beamed from every countenance, One old mother, white-haired from age and borne down with the labors of many years in bond, when told of the work in hand, replied: “God bless you! God bless you!” She then kissed the party at her house, and requested all to kneel, which we did, and she offered prayer to God for His blessing on the enterprise, and our success. At the slaves’ quarters, there was apparently a general jubilee, and they stepped for- ward manfully, without impressing or coaxing. In one case, only, was there any hesitation. A dark-complexioned free- born man refused to take up arms, He showed the only want of confidence in the movement, and far less courage than any slave consulted about the plan. In fact, so far as I could learn, the free blacks South are much less reliable than the slaves, and infinitely more fearful. In Washington City, a party of free colored persons offered their services to the Mayor, to aid in suppressing our movement. Of the slaves who followed us to the Ferry, some were sent to help remove stores, and the others were drawn up in a circle around the engine-house, at one time, where they were, by Captain Brown’s order, furnished by me with pikes, mostly, and acted as a guard to the prisoners to prevent their escape, which they did.
It is true then that some in the press misrepresented what had happened. As Reynolds notes, the Chambersburg (Pennsylvania) Valley Spirit, a Democratic paper at the time, had this to say:
Brown’s expectation as to the slaves rushing to him, was entirely disappointed. None seem to have come to him willingly, and in most cases were forced to desert their masters.
As a Democratic paper (Remember that Democrats in the mid-19th century were nearly, if not wholly, in favor of the continuation of slavery), it’s understandable that the paper would make such a claim.
But here is a Harper's Weekly (a politically moderate publication) columnist who witnessed John Brown answering questions after the raid. Brown
confidently expected late reinforcements from Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and several other Slave States, besides the Free States—taking it for granted that it was only necessary to seize the public arms and place them in the hands of the Negroes and nonslaveholders to recuit his forces indefinitely. In this calculation he reluctantly and indirectly admitted that he had been entirely disappointed.
Reynolds, in his analysis, does note that some blacks did join Brown’s numbers during the raid:
To be sure, there were instances of black who joined the liberators enthusiastically. Osborne Anderson [See the previous comment from DeCaro above] recalled that Lewis Washington’s coachman, Jim, fought ‘like a tiger’ and was killed in the battle against the proslavery troops. Anderson also said he met some slaves along a mountain road who joined Brown’s force when they learned of its mission.
Still, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that most of the blacks responded with indifference or fear. When Cook took some eleven freedmen with him to the schoolhouse to meet Owen and the others, it was not long before all of the blacks had fled back to their farms. In fact, the defense lawyers for Brown and his confederates cited the blacks’ fear or apathy in an effort to refute the charge of inciting insurrection. One of John Brown’s attorneys used this argument, and John Cook’s lawyer, Daniel Voorhees, made it central to his case. Far from endangering slavery, Voorhees argued, the raid supported it. Witness the outcome, he said. A supposed Moses appears and promises freedom to the slave, but “the bondsman refuses to be free; drops the implements of war from his hands; is deaf to the call of freedom; turns against his liberators, and, by instinct, obeys the injunction of Paul by returning to his master!”
To be awakened late at night by whites, in consort with blacks, who offered weapons for liberation must have been a baffling experience for many of them.
Besides the few blacks who reportedly joined Osborne Anderson on the road, none are known to have volunteered to join Brown’s group.
And in questioning after being captured, Brown was asked by Virginia congressman Alexander Boteler:
Did you expect to get assistance here from whites as well as from the blacks?
Then, you have been disappointed in not getting it from either?
Brown, with “grave emphasis,” as Reynolds notes:
Yes. I — have — been — disappointed.
Thus, while it is true that he misread black abolitionists and other white supporters in the north, it seems that by his own admission, he did not receive the support he had expected from blacks in the area either. Or to restate my response to DeCaro:
I think the point Reynolds may have been getting at what was that while some (slaves in the area) were enthusiastic supporters of Brown, Brown’s assumption that droves (i.e. “hundreds”) would turn out to fight against slavery was an overestimation on Brown’s part since most of them had been beaten down, sometimes physically, or at the least, socially and emotionally, for decades and generations by white people. It must have not been an easy thing for many of them to willy-nilly trust a white man who claimed to want to fight with them to end slavery.
So, while Anderson may have been correct in saying that hundreds from plantations were poised to rise up, it seems peculiar that, if they were so enthusiastic about the plan, why they wouldn’t have simply joined Brown at Harper’s Ferry, added to the numbers there, beat back the resistance Brown had faced, and then helped Brown and company make their escape, visit more plantations, head to the mountains and so on. Brown and company held the arsenal for a remarkably long time with such a skeleton crew. Hundreds more might have tipped the scales in their favor.