A Visit to Fort Warren
My original book contained a description of my journey to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor on a fact-finding mission. This was placed in a rather lengthy version of the epilog which had to be drastically reduced in size and made to focus more on John Brown in the twentieth century. Still, I felt the section was important enough to put on this website, not only because of its description of the fort, but also because of the material I added to explain how far we have come in fighting racism in America since the time of John Brown and the Civil War:
"His soul is marching on."
On the morning of Friday, May 27, 1994, I stood on the docks of Long Wharf in Boston Harbor waiting to board the Bay State Ferry which would be leaving at 10 a.m. for Fort Warren on George’s Island. The sun peeped through the high ceiling of clouds from time to time, barely warming the landing which was chilled by a breeze blowing out to sea. As I shivered in my red-plaid hunter’s jacket, I watched the antics of the English sparrows exploring the maroon deck. They were probably looking for the crusts and crumbs left behind by tourists the day before.
Around 9:30 by the clock at the Customs House, a tall, elderly man with a white cap walked toward the dock. His name was Charlie Boyd and he worked at Fort Warren as a volunteer. The day before, he invited me to come to the island and talk to the Metropolitan District Commission Rangers about John Brown. He also asked me if I knew anything about the island’s ghost, known as the Lady in Black.
According to the legend, a young Confederate soldier named Samuel Lanier was captured and brought to Fort Warren. His wife, Melanie, sailed for Hull, Massachusetts, and planned with Confederate sympathizers to free her husband. One of them gave her a pepperbox pistol.
In the manner of Beethoven’s Lenore in the opera Fidelio, Melanie dressed herself in manly garb, in this case the uniform of a Union soldier, hiding the pistol in her clothing. She sailed for George’s Island on a moonless night. On landing, she evaded the sentries and sneaked into her husband’s cell through a musket loophole.
The Confederate prisoners had endeavored to burrow their way to the armory in the middle of the parade ground and take over the fort. On the night of Melanie’s arrival, their plans were discovered and the commander of the garrison came to their cell. Mrs. Lanier took out her pepperbox pistol and attempted to shoot the commander. Unfortunately, the pistol exploded, a piece of it piercing her husband’s brain, killing him instantly.
Melanie was arrested and condemned to death. Before her execution, she asked if she could be hanged in women’s clothes. The guards made a search and found a black monk’s robe used for theatrical presentations. Melanie Lanier was hanged and buried wearing this garment.
After the hanging, soldiers reported seeing a spirit dressed in black walking the parapets and ramparts at night. Richard Cassidy of South Boston, a witness to the execution, claimed that he had an encounter with the ghost. He was walking his post one night near the site of the hanging, when suddenly he felt himself being strangled. After getting free from the deadly grip, he turned and saw the Lady in Black. The fort’s commander did not believe Cassidy’s story, and the unfortunate sentry was sentenced to 30 days solitary confinement for leaving his post.1
There is no reason to believe that this tale is true. According to fort records, a Confederate soldier named Samuel Lanier was imprisoned and died on the island, but he died of illness, not a gunshot wound. I also find the idea of anyone burrowing into the rocky soil of the island stretches credulity to the breaking point.
At quarter to ten, a rowdy group of elementary school students arrived. They were going to George’s Island for a picnic and a day of fun and frolic. Although they were still too young to understand the dynamics and subsequent fallout of the American Civil War, I could see that they were benefactors of its outcome. The African American students in the group played with their white companions as though all the horrors of racism in America had never existed.
Once at sea, we sailed slowly past Commonwealth Pier and Castle Island, home of Fort Independence. Some time after, we sighted Spectacle Island on the starboard side, currently a landfill but soon to become a city park. Then we passed between Long Island and Gallops Island. George’s Island was now visible straight ahead. After the ferry was secured to the dock on the western side of the island, uniformed park rangers helped the boat crew wrestle the gangplank into place.
Charlie Boyd introduced me to Park Ranger Mark Anderson, a man with dark hair dressed in a brown uniform and summer shorts. Anderson showed me around the crumbling fort from the demilune to the highest ramparts and parapets. I was surprised to find remnants of electrical wires on the upper walls, a souvenir of World War II when the fort was last manned.
Many famous Confederates were imprisoned at Fort Warren. Anderson mentioned Alexander Stephens, the slender, sickly man from Georgia who had served as vice president of the Confederacy. After the war and his release from the prison, Stephens was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, a job he had held before the conflict. James Mason, one of the many who had questioned John Brown after his capture and had chaired the committee on the Harper’s Ferry incident, was imprisoned here briefly with John Slidell after being removed at gunpoint from the British ship Trent on November 8, 1861. The incident caused such a buzz of hostility in England that President Lincoln had them quietly released.2
George’s Island has no need of a Lady in Black. Memories of many famous Southerners besides the ones mentioned above still haunt Warren’s decaying walls, but the ghost I sought was the one who came to life on the fort’s five acre parade ground: John Brown. From the moment that Harry Hallgreen, James Greenleaf, and other members of the Second Battalion created their song comparing Sergeant Brown to a dead abolitionist, Old Osawatomie has been marching around and haunting the conscience of a nation still afflicted by the dark shadows left behind by slavery and the horrible conflict that ended it.
People still write poems and songs about him. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote the epic poem John Brown’s Body, published in 1928. In the 1960’s, Len Chandler created a song parody of "John Brown’s Body" which defends rights for black people. It is called "Move on Over."
You conspire to keep us silent in the field and in the slum
You promise us the vote then sing us We Shall Overcome
But John Brown knew what freedom was and died to win us some
That’s why we keep marching on.3
Besides these poetical allusions, Brown also turns up in modern African American prose. Eldridge Cleaver, in his autobiography, wrote about his desire to go to the University of California at Berkeley and "look with roving eyes for a new John Brown...." Derrick Bell, a law professor who believes that racism in America is permanent, invoked the "Shades of John Brown’s body" in a short story called "Divining a Racial Realism Theory."4
Aside from this, there have been many recent attempts to compare John Brown with various contemporary Americans, among whom are David Koresh, founder of the Branch Davidian which gave the ATF and FBI so much trouble in Waco, Texas, in 1993; the controversial suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian; and Timothy McVeigh, who was sentenced to death for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
Koresh, surrounded by federal agents, fought them off, but while Brown could only hold off the law for 36 hours, Koresh and his followers held out for 51 days. Kevorkian has defied federal and state statutes to assist with suicides on the basis of what he might call a "higher law" (i.e. that it is cruel to allow people to suffer when they have no hope of recovery and will die anyway). So far, the "suicide doctor" has successfully defended his actions in court several times, a thing John Brown never hoped to do.
McVeigh, like John Brown, apparently traveled around the country using various aliases and soliciting aid to gain weapons, in this case bomb parts. And just as Brown’s raid caused a flurry of speculation about secret backers in the North, McVeigh’s case has conjured up a plethora of rumors concerning various groups and individuals who might have helped him commit what is now being called the most egregious act of terrorism ever directed against the United States government. There are even whisperings that McVeigh, assuming his numerous appeals fail, will become a martyr for economically disfranchised white males when he is executed.
But while Brown appears to have acted from a selfless desire to extend the benefits of freedom to all regardless of color, McVeigh, who has shown racist tendencies, seems to have been motivated by his personal animosity toward affirmative action. While in the U.S. Army, McVeigh supposedly told a friend, "If you’re white, you can do better on a test, show up on time every day, look perfect in your uniform, and if eight jobs are open, five will go to blacks no matter if they’re overweight, barely pass the test, and their uniform is wrinkled."5
While none of the persons mentioned above have compared themselves with John Brown, violent anti-abortionists have actually claimed Brown as one of their heroes and role models. The year before my arrival at Fort Warren, the newspapers, TV, and radio were full of reports concerning the shooting of an abortion doctor in Pensacola, Florida. Michael F. Griffin had shot Dr. David Gunn three times in the back with a .38 caliber pistol.6 Griffin has since had a number of imitators, most notably Rachelle Shannon, a housewife from Grants Pass, Oregon, who traveled all the way to Wichita, Kansas, to shoot abortion doctor George Tiller in both arms; and Paul Hill who is currently on death row at the state prison in Starke, Florida.
Michael Bray, a Lutheran minister from Maryland who was convicted in 1986 for fire bombing an abortion clinic in Dover, Delaware, has attempted to justify the bombings of clinics and the shooting of abortion doctors by citing examples of righteous violence from history. His examples include Joan of Arc; Cinque who led the slave rebellion aboard the Amistad; Nat Turner whose bloody attack on the families of slave owners in Northampton County, Virginia, resulted in increased hardships for all American slaves; and John Brown who was thought a villain for the bloody massacre at Pottawatomie and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, but achieved a measure of veneration during the Civil War.
Bray writes, "Soon after Brown’s death (with the outbreak of the Civil War) praises as to a martyr were sung; they still are." He also says that the national park at Harper’s Ferry "commemorates the attack with the preservation of the antiquities of the town and memorials to the men," and that a "ten-foot statue of John Brown with his arm protectively around a black boy" stands at the end of the road leading to the farm where he is buried in Lake Placid, New York.7 According to Bray, John Brown willingly used violence and was condemned for it in his own time, but was later hailed as a hero because he laid down his life in the pursuit of a just cause. Bray calls those actively involved in preventing abortions the "new abolitionists."
The similarities between the modern pro-life movement and nineteenth century abolitionism are certainly compelling. For example, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade bears a chilling resemblance to Dred Scott v. Sandford in the former’s denial of rights to the unborn and the latter’s denial of rights to those whose lowly lot in life was determined by the color of their skin. Some modern-day scientists have even tried to justify abortion in the first trimester by maintaining that the fetus at that stage is not yet fully human, the brain having developed only to the point of that of a fish or a salamander,8 just as northern scientists and southern slaveholders in the nineteenth century attempted to dehumanize slaves in order to justify their ill treatment, rape, and murder.
But this comparison breaks down completely when we look at the details of John Brown’s ill-begotten attempt to free slaves in Virginia on a mass scale. If Brown is a hero waging what Bray chooses to call a "Just War," why did his victims at the Ferry include Hayward Shepherd, a free black man, and Fontaine Beckham, an unarmed man who had taken on Virginia’s onerous manumission laws to legally free slaves and help them have a better life? What about Dr. John Starry who organized the townspeople against Brown’s raiders; or Christine Fouke who tried to save one of Brown’s men from being slaughtered by an angry mob; or even Captain Simms of Frederick, Maryland, who prevented the murder of Aaron Stevens, one of Brown’s principal lieutenants? Are they not heroes too, although they shared no part in Brown’s righteous war?
Bray has been criticized harshly for using historical comparisons to justify the Time to Kill Abortionists Movement. For Reverend Michael McHugh, a member of Operation Rescue who preaches at the Grace Christian Church in Essex Junction, Vermont, the Brown-at-Harper’s-Ferry analogy doesn’t hold. He has openly stated that Griffin, Hill, and the others have only bought "a stay of execution" for the unborn by killing or maiming abortion doctors. He insists that the mothers who intended to go to those doctors "still needed to be persuaded" not to abort their children.9 In other words, the real problem of abortion rights comes not from the abortion doctors but from the reasons that women are using to justify aborting their children, just as the problems of American slavery and modern racism come from the rationalizations used by whites to justify their superiority to blacks.
Any movement centered around strong moral issues usually includes supporters who fall into one of three distinct groups, each of which is defined by the way the individual groups choose to promote their agendas: 1) by moral suasion, 2) by law, and 3) by force of arms. Among anti-abortionists, Michael McHugh promotes his cause through moral suasion, while Republicans like former President George Bush seek legal measures to prevent abortions, and individuals like Michael Griffin and Paul Hill seek to accomplish the same goals using violence.
By comparison, nineteenth century abolitionists at first fell into two distinct groups. The "disunion" abolitionists scorned the U.S. Constitution, openly defied the fugitive slave law by helping runaways reach Canada or other places of safety, and promoted their views by moral suasion in the churches and community at large. "Free Soilers," on the other hand, resorted to legal tactics to end slavery or at least change the existing fugitive slave laws.
As these two groups grew more and more frustrated in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a third group emerged made up of individuals in the first two groups willing to conspire to thwart U.S. law by force. This, in turn, led to a growth in violent resistance to the fugitive slave law, to the terrible struggle in "Bleeding Kansas," and inevitably to Brown’s deadly attack on Harper’s Ferry.10
But did Brown’s raid actually cause the Civil War? Many historians agree that the raid was one of a number of events (i.e. tension over lack of enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, the Kansas conflagration, the South’s loss of power in the U.S. Senate, etc.) which set the firebrands of secession blazing. But it took the election of Lincoln to bring on the dissolution of the nation and the conflict that followed. Historians now generally acknowledge that the raid did cause Southerners to take the training of local militia companies more seriously. This being the case, it might be argued that John Brown’s raid prolonged the ultimate struggle. Given President Lincoln’s ambivalence toward the idea of freeing the slaves, one wonders if any slaves would have been freed at all by executive order if the war had only lasted a few months or years.
In any case, once the northern free state representatives and senators were liberated from the hostile interpositions and filibusters of their southern co-workers in 1861, nothing could prevent them, during the course of the war, from actively pursuing the death of slavery and granting the full rights and protections of citizenship to former slaves after the war by the rule of law. And once the door of emancipation was opened, there was nothing to stop many former abolitionists from agitating for legislation granting voting rights to women. Resistance to this idea was great, but women’s suffrage came in 1920 and was followed in 1971 by the further extension of this right to individuals 18 years old who are eligible to serve in the armed forces. When these achievements are added to the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka favoring public school integration, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we begin to see the history of the United States as a dynamic process starting with the rule of landed gentry only and ending with the extension of voting privileges to all over the age of eighteen regardless of sex or race.
But such a rosy picture is deceiving. The 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police and the more recent trial of O. J. Simpson for murder, with charges of racism again being leveled at L.A. law enforcement officials, tells us that there is a lot more work to do in the area of interracial relations, and until that work is done, John Brown’s soul will keep on marching. Guns and laws alone cannot reach into the human heart and change racist attitudes. Moral suasion is the only viable weapon left which can stop the intrusion on the modern world of deep-seated and erroneous feelings of superiority over the people of other races. There are many groups and individuals who have been involved in this process of transformation over the years. Below, I present the work of a few who have walked in the same path John Brown tried to follow toward racial harmony in America.
Many scientists have openly engaged in intellectual warfare against racist attitudes in the United States. In the early part of the century, the most prominent was Ruth Benedict who, like Margaret Mead, was a student of cultural anthropologist Franz Boas. As early as the 1940’s, Benedict had concluded that intelligence tests, then being used to prove the racial superiority of whites, were culturally biased and inaccurate in measuring the potential intelligence of individuals of a different race who had been the victims of poor schooling, poor diet, and harassment all their lives.
In 1943, she and Gene Weltfish, who were both teaching in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, published a 32-page booklet on scientific facts about race for use by churches, schools, the U.S.O., and the U.S. Army. By March of 1944, the U.S.O. had banned the book, and U.S. Representative Andrew J. May of Prestonsburg, Kentucky, had prevented distribution of 55,000 copies to American soldiers by the U.S. Army Morale Division.
The following month, a special House Military Affairs Sub-Committee accused Benedict and her colleagues, including many prominent zoologists, psychologists, and anthropologists of the day, of spreading "Communist propaganda." Well established newspapers and radio news shows across America took up the controversy. They generated so much publicity for Benedict and Weltfish that many people who might never have heard of the booklet sent in money to purchase copies.11
Many modern day scientists and social thinkers carry on Benedict’s work of fighting destructive racist behavior. Anne Wilson Schaef, who calls herself a recovering psychotherapist, is one of America’s leading experts on addiction and racist behavior. In her controversial book, Women’s Reality, Schaef postulated the existence of an addictive system which may explain the attitudes of white supremacists. She originally called this the "white male system," but now calls it the "addictive system" since it is no longer exclusively white or male. This system, as she described it, functions according to four myths or misconceptions: 1) the white male or addictive system is the only system that exists, 2) this system is superior to all other systems, 3) the system knows and understands everything, and 4) it is possible to be totally logical, rational, and objective.
For Dr. Schaef, white supremacy is fueled largely by adherence to the contradictions of the addictive system. By making people aware of this potentially lethal system, Schaef hopes to lead people toward new and less destructive ways of thinking. But she frequently encounters strong negative emotions from men during group sessions. These range from anger at the very suggestion that the client is not superior to everyone else in the room, to insistence that there is nothing wrong with the addictive system.12
"I have a lot of views about racism and what it’s related to," Schaef wrote recently. "I think it’s more than skin color or even a different culture. I think it’s much more related to the underlying assumptions of a worldview, that we’re living in a worldview with a closed system and that anything that differs from that needs to be destroyed."13
Among religions, the Bahá’í community of America has one of the longest and most consistent track records in promoting racial amity. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the early leaders of the Faith, visited America in 1912, He was utterly uncompromising in His promotion of racial unity. At a dinner in Washington, D.C., ‘Abdu’l-Bahá not only insisted that black lawyer Louis Gregory be included in the event, He also invited Gregory to sit beside Him at the dinner table.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson and successor, Shoghi Effendi, known as the Guardian of the Faith, proved as uncompromising as his illustrious Grandfather concerning racial attitudes and practices in America. Many white American Bahá’ís, embarrassed at the idea of meeting with their black co-religionists in the same room, especially in the South, requested that Shoghi Effendi allow the races to meet in separate locations for Bahá’í feasts and Holy Day celebrations, but the Guardian refused to sanction any form of segregation within the Faith. He wrote to the American believers that they should regard racial prejudice "as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá’í community at the present stage of its evolution...."14
Even in the 1990’s, Bahá’ís, working in both official and individual capacities, are still doing all they can to transform racist hate into love for all mankind. In response to the Rodney King beating in 1991, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States issued a statement to all Americans:
From the day it was born the United States embraced a set of contradictory values. The founding fathers proclaimed their devotion to the highest principles of equality and justice yet enshrined slavery in the Constitution. Slavery poisoned the mind and heart of the nation and would not be abolished without a bloody civil war that nearly destroyed the young republic. The evil consequences of slavery are still visible in this land. They continue to affect the behavior of both Black and White Americans and prevent the healing of old wounds....
The responsibility for the achievement of racial peace and unity in the United States rests upon both Black and White Americans. To build a society in which the rights of all its members are respected and guaranteed, both races must be animated with the spirit of optimism and faith in the eventual realization of their highest aspirations. Neither White nor Black Americans should assume that the responsibility for the elimination of prejudice and of its effects belongs exclusively to the other. Both must recognize that unity is essential for their common survival. Both must recognize that there is only one human species. Both must recognize that a harmoniously functioning society that permits the full expression of the potential of all persons can resolve the social and economic problems now confounding a society wracked with disunity.15
My time on George’s Island was drawing to a close. The school children had left a few hours earlier, but I decided to stay a little longer to talk more with Mark Anderson and other park rangers about the history and construction of Fort Warren. Since it was now very late in the afternoon and I had not eaten anything since breakfast, I sought out the island’s fast-food establishment near the docks. Unfortunately, the short order cook had already cleaned his grill and intended to go home on the next boat as was I. Our ship, the Commonwealth, was due any moment.
I walked with Anderson and the cook down to the dock. The ferry was now in full view on its final approach. As it pulled up to the pier, two crew mates threw sturdy lines over the side to secure it. One of the lines got inconveniently wrapped around a large stob just off the dock. There was some delay in getting it off the stob and properly in place. Only then did we attempt to move the gangplank to the ship, the rangers and Charlie Boyd pulling on the sides and I pushing on the end.
I said my good-byes. Charlie Boyd told me he intended to stay for the very last boat. I would have remained to talk with him, but I had an appointment in town with an old friend from my earlier days in Boston. The Commonwealth pulled away slowly from the pier. The sky was very cloudy now and the cold wind seemed to blow even harder. I was going back to a world still haunted by the ghost of a dead abolitionist, but I had hope now that the disease of racism could be cured and that John Brown’s weary bones would soon find rest "forever ever more."
1. My thanks to Charlie Boyd and Mark Anderson for telling me about this story and explaining its lack of authenticity.
2. For an account of the Trent Affair, see Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 156-157.
3. Wanda Willson Whitman, ed., Songs That Changed the World (New York: Crown Publishers, 1969), 36.
4. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968), 19; Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: BasicBooks, 1992), 94.
5. Dale Russakoff and Serge F. Kovaleski, "An Ordinary Boy’s Extraordinary Rage," Washington Post, Sunday, July 2, 1995.
6. New York Times, March 11, 1993, 1.
7. Michael Bray, A Time to Kill: A Study Concerning the Use of Force and Abortion (Portland, Oregon: Advocates for Life Publications, 1994), 79-82, 87-89.
8. See Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977), 208.
9. Michael McHugh, "A Time to Heal, not to Kill" (Essex Jct., Vt.: Grace Christian Church, n.d.).
10. See Chapter 8, "Sharp’s Rights of the People," in Edward J. Renehan, Jr., The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995), 79 et seq.
11. Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind (New York: The Viking Press, 1950), 167-168.
12. Anne Wilson Schaef, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society (New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1985), 10-17.
13. Letter from Anne Wilson Schaef to the author, dated September 5, 1996.
14. Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), 28.
15. National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991), 7-9.
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