Terrorist or Martyr?

Kansas State House, Topeka
John Steuart Curry: Tragic Prelude, a mural showing John Brown and the clash of pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in 1850s Kansas, 1937–1942


On a train from Washington in March 1862, Nathaniel Hawthorne looked toward the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, occupied by Union troops, and “beheld the little town of Harper’s Ferry, gathered about the base of a round hill and climbing up its steep acclivity.” Hawthorne had returned two years earlier from diplomatic postings in Europe—he was in London at the time of John Brown’s midnight raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859—and he detected an unexpected resemblance between the picturesque town perched on the Virginia hillside and “the Etruscan cities which I have seen among the Apennines.”

Hawthorne glanced at the ruins of the federal armory, where Brown—who had hoped to inspire a slave uprising across the South—had barricaded himself with eighteen armed followers, almost all of them in their twenties, including five African-Americans and two of his own sons, before US Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart stormed the premises. Brown was wounded in that fray and both of his sons were killed, along with eight other raiders. Brown’s band killed four civilians and one soldier; the first casualty was a free black baggage handler, shot in the back by one of Brown’s skittish men as they took control of the town. Brown and four of his followers were hanged in December, and two others in March 1860.

“He won his martyrdom fairly, and took it firmly,” Hawthorne remarked, as he contemplated the scene of a violent and chaotic affair that some, including his friend Herman Melville, considered the primary “portent” of the Civil War, which broke out just over a year later. As though working up the setting for one of his Gothic tales, Hawthorne amused himself with a fantasy of how the desolation at Harpers Ferry might be relieved:

The brightest sunshine could not have made the scene cheerful, nor have taken away the gloom from the dilapidated town; for, besides the natural shabbiness, and decayed, unthrifty look of a Virginian village, it has an inexpressible forlornness resulting from the devastations of war and its occupation by both armies alternately. Yet there would be a less striking contrast between Southern and New-England villages, if the former were as much in the habit of using white paint as we are. It is prodigiously efficacious in putting a bright face upon a bad matter.

Although he had been commissioned to write an article about his journey south for the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine known for its abolitionist leanings, Hawthorne signed his anonymous musings “a Peaceable Man,” and allowed as how he could not “pretend to be an admirer of old John Brown, any farther than sympathy with Whittier’s excellent ballad about him may go.” A…

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