Advance Praise for Marching On!
So far, I have three major endorsements. The first is from Ed Bearss who served for many years as head of the national park at Vicksburg and wrote a three volume work on Grant's siege of the town. The second is from Deborah Pickman Clifford, a relative though not a direct descendant of Julia Ward Howe. Clifford taught history for many years at Middlebury College in Vermont and is now retired. She is the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Biography of Julia Ward Howe. The last one is by Vermont Civil War author Howard Coffin whose books, Full Duty and Nine Months to Gettysburg, can still be found in local stores. Keep your eye on this space for further endorsements.
My first recollections of singing "John Brown’s Body" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" go back nearly 65 years to a one-room rural school in Montana. Both songs were popular with the students and at least once a week were sung lustily. Since then, except for my years in the Marine Corps during World War II, the Civil War and the people and events of the 1850s and 60s have been a consuming interest.
In 1990 my best recognized words in Ken Burns’ "The Civil War" were associated with John Brown. It will therefore come as no surprise that I welcome the opportunity to comment on Robert Willis Allen’s Marching On! John Brown’s Ghost from the Civil War to Civil Rights. Allen’s book is a tour-de-force. As such it far exceeds my criteria of a worthwhile book. Besides being informative, the author’s graceful style entertains, and what more can a reader ask.
Deborah Pickman Clifford
Like other compelling stories about America’s past, John Brown’s violent and abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 has assumed the power of myth. And this particular myth, as Robert Willis Allen demonstrates in Marching On!, is one that has continued to transform human lives long after the actual people and events at its source have passed into history.
Most accounts of this ill-fated attempt to provoke a slave insurrection end with John Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859, in Charlestown, Virginia, and his burial several days later in North Elba, New York. For Allen, however, this is just the beginning of the story. His purpose in these pages is to explore the impact Brown’s martyrdom has had, not only on the coming of the Civil War but on people North and South in the years that followed.
Great myths continue to weave their spell because they deal with issues which remain as vital in the present as they were in the past. In this case the issue is the legacy of slavery in a nation dedicated in principal to liberty and equality for all. As Allen himself points out early in the book, in one sense his narrative "is the ghostly tale of a dead abolitionist, who, through the medium of song, comes back to life to haunt the Confederacy." In another, it is the story of how the lives of many individuals, North and South, were transformed by the movement Brown had started.
This is a story too about the power of song as a transmitter of myth. Allen demonstrates how the dead John Brown was reborn as the conscience of the nation through the medium of song and its first cousin, poetry. "John Brown’s Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave" is a leitmotif that keeps sounding through the pages of this book. We hear of the words first in their original form as a jest dreamed up by some soldiers at work cleaning up a fort in Boston Harbor. Then later we learn of its transformation into that patriotic anthem, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Both versions, along with countless variations, keep cropping up in unexpected places. For example, in a chapter on Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, we are given a tantalizing glimpse of the sober wartime governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, so ecstatic at the news of the president’s decision to free the slaves, that he marches around a council chamber in the Boston State House singing "John Brown’s Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave."
Indeed, Marching On! has a full and fascinating cast of characters hailing from the South as well as the North, and the various strands of their stories are here deftly woven together. Some, like John Brown, are well known. Julia Ward Howe, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," figures prominently, as does her husband Samuel Gridley Howe, one of John Brown’s supporters and the director of Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind. Another important figure is Henry Wise, the man who was governor of Virginia at the time of Brown’s raid. We get a glimpse too of Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave and old friend of John Brown’s who regretted not having participated in his raid. [NOTE: This section was removed from the book but is found in the book out-takes section on Harriet Tubman.]
Others are less familiar to twentieth century readers, such as Charles McCabe, the man chiefly responsible for popularizing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." We see him teaching it to the Union soldiers confined in Libby Prison, and later singing it for President Lincoln who, when McCabe was finished, called out "Sing it again!" And there is also Almera Hawley Canfield, a housewife with abolitionist sympathies who persuaded a group of boys in Arlington, Vermont, to ring the St. James Episcopal Church bell for John Brown on the day of his execution.
Marching On! carries the story of the myth of John Brown right into the twentieth century. To this day, poems and songs continue to be written in praise of this man who gave his life in defense of the rights of black people. But, as Allen warns in the Epilogue, there is danger in following too closely the example of men like Brown who see violence as a justifiable weapon to eradicate evil. To bring about moral good we need weapons that change people’s hearts, not weapons that kill. And it is the spirit, not the actions of John Brown, that will help us to accomplish this. As long as enmity between black and white people in this country exists, the soul of John Brown will keep Marching On.
Develop even a passing interest in Civil War history and you must, sooner or later, come to terms with John Brown. The encounter is never simple. Ralph Waldo Emerson likened him to Christ and Brown, himself, believed he was doing the Lord’s work. Nathaniel Hawthorne, however, felt that no man was ever more justly hanged. Yet Henry Wise, the pre-Civil War governor of Virginia who pressed for Brown’s trial on charges of treason, said after the South was defeated that Old Osawatomie was "a great man." Coming to terms with John Brown, even seven score years after he swung from a Virginia gallows on a blue sky Shenandoah Valley autumn day, is not easy.
I first encountered the John Brown legend in 1960 during a high school art history course in Woodstock, Vt., when I was introduced to artist John Steuart Curry’s remarkable image of Brown. Curry, born in the Kansas once made bloody by conflict over slavery, gave us a John Brown of immense power. On his canvas a man far larger than life, feet firmly planted on the prairie earth, wields a rifle that he is, clearly, ready to use. Behind him a wagon train makes its way across the great plains, carrying not only the American dream, but the curse of American democracy—human bondage. Brown’s fiery eyes are fixed on something above the earth as a prairie gale blows his hair and beard. He is shouting, surely some "battle cry of freedom," and a tornado funnel advances across the landscape, as if called forth by Brown in his rage against the enslavement of fellow human beings. A young black man kneels beside the abolitionist, his face betraying both hope and fear. Brown has sounded forth the trumpet and a mighty Civil War is about to be visited on the American landscape.
Another encounter with the legend came in 1999 at Harper’s Ferry, in the little engine-house become a fort, hearing blow by blow from historian Dennis Frye of Brown’s final battle against federal troops under Robert E. Lee. It became clear that when Brown rode in the night into that sleepy hamlet at the juncture of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, he never had a chance. Brown had come there to offer up his life to free slaves.
On a below zero winter night in North Elba, N.Y., I visited the quiet farmhouse where Brown lived for a decade before departing for Harper’s Ferry. His famous body lies in a grave by an immense boulder in the front yard. I paused by the bronze statue of Brown in the company of a young black lad. On that clear and starry night the big dipper shone brilliantly to the north, the old drinking gourd escaped slaves were taught to follow on their perilous way toward freedom.
And I recall my friend Edwin Cole Bearss, who probably carries more Civil War knowledge in his head than any living human being, speaking of Brown early on in Ken Burns’s monumental video The Civil War. Bearss leans close to the camera. "John Brown," he growls, then repeats the name for emphasis, "John Brown. A very important person in history…. He becomes the single most important factor in bringing on the war." Bearss read Robert Allen’s Marching On!: John Brown’s Ghost from the Civil War to Civil Rights and gave it praise. So do I.
We learn from Allen that the song "John Brown’s Body" was, most appropriately, born in Boston, that hotbed of abolitionism. Soldiers garrisoning a military fort in Boston harbor composed it and the marching song was first sung publicly on Boston Common by a Massachusetts regiment bound for war in Virginia. The lively tribute to Old Osawatomie became an immensely popular marching song during the Civil War. I well recall my joy on discovering that the Vermont Brigade had sung the old song when, in 1864, it marched through Charles Town, West Virginia, the scene of Brown’s trial and hanging. Less than three years earlier, Julia Ward Howe, inspired by witnessing the Army of the Potomac on review, awoke in a Washington hotel room and penned new words. "John Brown’s Body" became the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Indeed, a case has been made for the inspiring song one day becoming the American national anthem, replacing the nearly unsingable "Star Spangled Banner." And we discover a verse of the "Battle Hymn" that Howe altered in the published version. It began:
In the whiteness of the lilies he was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that shines out in you and me.
Allen brings back to light some nearly-forgotten figures of the Civil War era. Among them are Vermont’s distinguished Senator Jacob Collamer, the Green Mountain Socrates, who sought to get at the facts of Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Raid. We meet the Reverend Young, of Burlington, Vt., and experience the miraculous parting of the weather that allowed him to reach North Elba and preside at Brown’s funeral. There’s the noble Francis Pierpont who fought successfully to keep western Virginia out of the Confederacy and to make it the state of West Virginia. There’s Brown’s brave wife, and a daughter who ventured into the occupied Confederacy to teach freed slaves. And there’s some of the mighty figures of the day, Lincoln, Howe, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and others, all in some way touched by Brown’s deeds, or the music he inspired.
This book is a treasure trove of information, much of it previously obscure, that, skillfully assembled by Allen, becomes a book of history that has the remarkable coincidence of good fiction. It’s a book almost impossible to put down.
In the end, what do I now make of this John Brown? Convinced that "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood," he willingly gave his life to bring on a conflict that would send 620,000 Americans to premature graves. Brown, indeed, gave his life to free slaves. Yet in the back of my mind there is ever the troubling thought of that dark night in Bloody Kansas when Brown and his boys hacked to death with swords five farmers. It was cold blooded murder. I wish he hadn’t done it.
Of course the cost of ridding America of slavery was four astonishingly bloody years of civil war. Did that have to happen? Turn to Edmund Wilson’s dated, but still impressive, Patriotic Gore, and after some one thousand pages you may agree with the author that the slave states would have collapsed, without war, failing under the weight of an unworkable, outdated economic system based on human bondage. Coming to terms with John Brown is never simple. But we all know that the trumpet was sounded, and retreat was never called until the Confederacy was bludgeoned into submission. John Brown, perhaps more than any other man, loosed the fateful lightning and changed the course of world history, one man, as Allen writes, "with a tormented soul which is still marching on."
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