Published in The Washington Times
America is about to commemorate one of the most important events of the 19th century. On the evening of Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown and his raiders unleashed 36 hours of terror on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va.
Brown's raid marked a cataclysmic moment of change for America and the world. It ranks up there with Sept. 11, the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the shots fired on Lexington Common and Concord Bridge during the momentous day of April 19, 1775. Each of these days marked a point when there was no turning back. Contributing events may have been prologue, but once these fateful days took place, America was forever changed.
Americans at the time knew that the raid was not the isolated work of a madman. Brown was the well financed and supported "point of the lance" for the abolition movement.
He was a major figure among the leading abolitionists and intellectuals of the time. This included Gerrit Smith, the second wealthiest man in America and business partner of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Among other ventures, Smith was a patron of Oberlin College, where Brown's father served as a trustee. Thus was born a 20-year friendship.
Through Smith, Brown moved among America's elite, conversing with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, journalists, religious leaders and politicians.
Early on, Brown deeply believed that the only way to end slavery was through armed rebellion. His vision was to create a southern portal for the Underground Railway in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The plan was to raise a small force and attack the armory in Harpers Ferry. There Brown would obtain additional weapons and then move into the Blue Ridge to establish his mountain sanctuary for escaping slaves.
Brown anticipated having escaped slaves swell his rebellious ranks and protect his sanctuary. He planned to acquire hundreds of metal tipped pikes as the weapon of choice.
The idea of openly rebelling against slavery was an extreme position in the 1840s. Abolitionist leaders felt slavery would either become economically obsolete or had faith that their editorials would shame the federal government to end the practice.
For years Brown remained the lone radical voice in the elite salons of New York and Boston. He looked destined to remain on the fringes of the anti-slavery movement when a series of events shook the activists' trust in working within the system and shifted sentiment toward Brown's solution.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced local public officials in free states to help recover escaped slaves. The federally sanctioned intrusion of slavery into the North began tipping the scales in favor of Brown's agenda.
Smith enlisted the help of several of the more active abolitionists to underwrite Brown's guerilla war against slavery in Kansas in 1856-57. This group went on to formally become the Secret Six, who pledged to help Brown with his raid.
The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857, and its striking down of Wisconsin's opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in March 1859, set the Secret Six and Brown on their collision course with Harpers Ferry.
Today, Harpers Ferry is a scenic town of 310 people, but in 1859 it was one of the largest industrial complexes south of the Mason Dixon Line. The Federal Armory and Rifle Works were global centers of industrial innovation and invention. The mass production of interchangeable parts, the foundation of the modern industrial era, was perfected along the banks of the Shenandoah River.
Brown moved into the Harpers Ferry area on July 3, 1859, establishing his base at the Kennedy Farm a few miles north in Maryland. The broader abolitionist movement remained divided about an armed struggle. During Aug. 19-21, 1859, a unique debate occurred. At a quarry outside Chambersburg, Pa., Frederick Douglass and Brown debated whether they had a moral imperative to take up arms against evil. Douglass refused to join Brown, but remained silent about the raid.
The American Civil War began the moment Brown and his men walked across the B&O railroad bridge and entered Harpers Ferry late on the evening of Oct. 16, 1859. Brown's raiders secured the bridges and the armories as planned. However, as they waited for additional wagons to remove the federal weapons, local militia units arrived and blocked their escape. Robert E. Lee and a detachment of U.S. Marines arrived on Oct. 18 and ended the raid.
Brown survived the raid. His trial became a sensation as he chose to save his cause instead of himself. Brown rejected an insanity plea in favor of placing slavery on trial. His testimony, and subsequent letters and interviews while awaiting execution on Dec. 2, 1859, created a nationwide emotional and political divide that made civil war inevitable.
Fearing that abolitionists were planning additional raids or slave revolts, communities across the South formed their own militias and readied for war. There was no going back to pre-October America.
Edmund Ruffin, one of Virginia's most vocal pro-slavery and pro-secession leaders, acquired a number of Brown's "slave pikes." He sent them to the governors of slave-holding states, each labeled "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren."
Many pikes were displayed in state capitols. On April 12, 1861, Ruffin lit the fuse on the first cannon fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, but the real fuse had been lit months earlier by Brown at Harpers Ferry.