Harpers Ferry–Then and Now

One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.

confluence

The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.

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However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.

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In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,

militia

yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.

St. Peters

Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),

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five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.

questioning after capture

John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

trial

Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

hanging

How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.

John Brown (2)

John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,

Appalachian Trail

…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.

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The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.

Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.

white house

And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.

As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,

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while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.

If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

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Sounds remarkably familiar.

More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.

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Southern Fortitude

It was a bad day for Col. Charles Olmstead and the Confederate Army on April 10, 1862, when Capt. Quincy Gillmore’s Union artillery attacked Fort Pulaski from the northwest beachhead of Tybee Island, forcing its surrender thirty hours later,

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and proving that a seemingly invincible coastal fortification that required 25 million bricks, 18 years, and $1 million to build could never catch up to evolving weapons technology.

Overview

Even 7½-inch-thick mortar walls were insufficient to protect the Fort’s garrison from the explosive bombardment of Gillmore’s experimental rifled cannon fire from one mile away.

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Construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829 as part of the Third System–in defense of Savannah’s 20,000 citizens and dynamic seaport–adopted by President Madison in response to the War of 1812.

Gorge Wall

With Fort Sumter under Confederate control by Christmas, 1860, Gov. Joseph Brown ordered state militia to seize Fort Pulaski–still unoccupied by Federal troops–on January 3, 1861…

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…and transferred ownership to the Confederacy following Georgia’s succession on January 19, 1861.

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It was a controversial gambit that ultimately escalated into eleven States joining the Confederacy–spiraling the South into Civil War by April 12, 1861.

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Rebel Yell

The Civil War has gotten a lot of attention lately.

Politicians, generals, and TV apostates have sought to revise history.

Glory seekers and glory hounds have wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag as a cause célèbre.

White supremacists have co-opted the Black Lives Matters movement to launch a new low in elevating hatred and racism.

Relitigating the reasons behind the Civil War, and embracing the symbols that have inevitably blurred the battle lines continue to divide a nation 150 years later, where civility and social progress seem all but forgotten.

And what of the 620,000 who gave their lives to protect their way of life–to defend the practice of slavery or the belief that freedom belongs to everyone?

Many remain lost yet honored beneath the trenches and earthwork fortifications throughout Dover, Tennessee.

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battlefield

Their sacrifice is memorialized at the Fort Donelson National Battlefield: in its monument to fallen soldiers;

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Conferate memorial

in its ramparts overlooking the Cumberland River;

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rampart cannon

and at the Dover Hotel surrender–which was an important turning point for the Union Army, and the advancing popularity of Brigadier General U.S.S. Grant.

Dover Hotel

History sheds light on the past to give us a direction toward the future. Otherwise, as Winston Churchill has stated,

“If we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future.”