Frequently Asked Questions about John Brown
and the Harper’s Ferry Raid
Q. What are the particulars of John Brown’s life?
A. John Brown was born in West Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800. His parents were Owen and Ruth (Mills) Brown. Owen was a tanner by trade and an abolitionist by disposition. He served as a stationmaster on the underground railroad, hiding slaves seeking freedom in the North. Undoubtedly, he taught his son John that slavery was a great evil. When John grew to manhood, he took up the tannery business but failed to make a success of it. Then he tried land speculation, sheep herding, and opened a wholesale wool business in Springfield, Massachusetts. All these endeavors failed, leaving John and his family impoverished. But John and his family always managed to get back on their feet and start new projects. John’s last project was one involving the freeing of slaves in the upper South, hoping to move on into the lower South. This project ended in Harper’s Ferry when John and his recruits were either killed or captured. He turned it into a kind of victory when he was hanged on December 2, 1859.
Q. How many children did he have?
A. John Brown married twice and had in all 20 children, but only 11 lived to adulthood. By his first wife, Dianthe Lusk, he had seven children. She died after giving birth to a son in 1832. This son did not live long. Some time after, he married Mary Ann Day who bore him 13 children.
Q. Did John Brown hide fugitive slaves at his farm in North Elba, New York?
A. No. At that time, North Elba was a cul-de-sac in the wilderness with no clear roads to Canada. It was also far away from the main corridor for runaways going through eastern New York and western Vermont up through Vergennes to Burlington. The final stop was St. Albans, Vermont, where the fugitives would travel by boat up Lake Champlain to Canada.
Q. Why did John Brown choose Harper’s Ferry as the first target in his attempt to run off large numbers of slaves to the North?
A. Aside from the fact that the town has an arms factory with large supplies of state-of-the-art weapons, Harper’s Ferry stands at the cusp of the Virginia split, i.e. the area between the slaveholders of the tidelands and the western Virginians who were opposed to slavery. Brown fully expected that abolitionists from western Virginia would join in his raid.
Q. Why did the raid fail?
A. He went in to the Ferry with far too few men to hold the town for any length of time. Harper’s Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and is surrounded by very high hills. To the north in Maryland is Maryland Heights; to the east lies Loudon Heights; and to the west stands Bolivar Heights. During the course of the Civil War, Harper’s Ferry changed hands eight times and was thoroughly trashed by both armies. Because of the imposing heights surrounding it, neither the Confederate nor the Union Armies were able to hold out against any force of men hoping to take it. According to the best military tacticians, it would require three vast armies camped out on all three heights surrounding the town to hold it.
Q. What became of the bodies of John Brown’s sons, Watson and Oliver, after they were killed at Harper’s Ferry?
A. Watson and Oliver were eventually buried at North Elba. Oliver’s body, along with those of other raiders, arrived for burial in 1899. Watson’s arrived in 1882 by a much more circuitous route. After his death, his body was donated to a medical college in Winchester, Virginia, carefully preserved, and used as an anatomical specimen. During the Civil War, a Union army officer stationed in Winchester discovered Watson’s body at the medical college, realizing that this was the body of John Brown’s son. He removed it north where he gave it to a lodge he belonged to. For years, the lodge used the body for its secret rituals. But upon hearing that Mary Brown, who then resided in California, would be traveling through his area in 1882, the officer moved the body to a doctor’s office and arranged for Mrs. Brown’s son, John Jr., to identify it. This done, Mary took Watson’s body to North Elba for burial.
Q. Was John Brown insane?
A. Stephen Oates, in his biography of Brown, To Purge This Land with Blood, has answered that question better than I can. In essence, what he says is that the term "insane" is more a legal than a medical term, and in the nineteenth century its meaning was very broad. It was applied equally to those suffering from senile dementia, Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia, as well as those afflicted with a slight shaking of the hand or other form of chorea. In my edition of Oates’s book (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), the statement on John Brown’s mental health can be found on pages 329-334. I can tell you that someone I know who is a descendant of a cousin of John Brown suffers from a condition known as manic-depression. She claims that many of her relations are afflicted with the same condition and have to take medication for it.
Q. Did John Brown cause the Civil War?
A. He didn’t cause it entirely on his own, but he certainly helped fuel the flames of hostility between the North and South over the issue of slavery. Still, this was only one issue. There were many others such as the admission of Kansas into the Union as a free state bordering Missouri. Southerners had wanted to prevent Missouri from being surrounded by too many free states. Southern control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate had been eroding to the point where they controlled neither. The election of Lincoln, a man who had made it clear he was opposed to the extension of slavery into the unsettled western territories, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Remember that the last two presidents, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, had both been friendly to southern interests. Lincoln was not.
Q. What then did Brown’s raid really accomplish?
A. We can only guess. As I see it, one immediate affect of the raid was that southern militia companies who never took their military drill very seriously suddenly got a wake up call. They drilled with a lot more proficiency after the raid out of a perceived necessity. That being the case, it can be argued that, without the raid, when the war finally came, the southern army would have collapsed right away. But as it turned out, the better drilled southern soldiers led by officers who had experience leading men into battle in the Mexican War (northern generals had little or no such experience at the beginning of the war) were able to win many victories and keep the war going for four years. Given Lincoln’s reluctance to free the slaves, it is doubtful that Lincoln would ever have considered freeing them at all if the war had been any shorter.
Q. Was John Brown a terrorist?
A. Some of you have taken exception to the very idea that John Brown was a terrorist, as is stated in the section on Brown and Terrorism listed in the hyperlinks below. One individual claimed that the real terrorists were the slave owners and slave traders that Brown fought against. The definition of the terms "terrorist" and "terrorism" are very broad, and include anyone who governs by acts of terror or anyone who fights against a government using acts of terror. I would certainly suggest that Brown was a terrorist by definition simply by some of the acts he committed (i.e. the raid on Harper's Ferry and the massacre of slave supporters on Pottawatomie Creek). But we should also recognize the fact that the slave traders and slave owners were also certainly terrorists. And to the end of time, we will probably be debating which is worse, the bully or the person who uses violence to stop the bully. I can only suggest that the man who stops the bully, terrorist though he may be, will always be easier in his mind before his Maker than the bully who harms and uses other people for his own selfish ends.
Q. What is your final assessment of John Brown as a person?
A. I can only quote from the last page of my book on John Brown’s ghost:
Was John Brown a saint, as some insist, because he played an integral role in destroying chattel slavery in the United States? Or was he a demon whose ‘righteous violence’ caused a backlash of white anger and prejudice against African Americans? Whatever else might be said about Brown, he must be seen as a product of the violent times in which he lived. He was raised in a country committed to a contradiction: a country that espoused the idea that ‘All men are created equal,’ but also legitimized the institution of slavery in its Constitution. His Bible admonished him to ‘remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.’ His association with African Americans taught him that he was not their superior but their equal. And his conscience told him that he must take steps to end the afflictions of slavery. In the end, Brown is neither angel nor devil, only a man with a tormented soul which is still marching on.
Home | Brown's Raiders
Harper's Ferry Raid Timeline | Brown's Funeral
John Brown in Poetry | Brown and Terrorism
Copyright © 2000 by Robert Willis Allen