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Forgotten Surrender: John Brown's Raid and the Cult of Martial Virtues Robert E. McGlone For generations historians have recognized the divisive consequences of the Harpers Ferry raid yet celebrated the heroism of its bloody climax. That paradox betrays much about the cultural context of the raid and the legacy of its survivors. As John Brown's contemporaries remembered the last moments , "Old Osawatomie's" determination to fight to the death compelled CoI. Robert E. Lee to order the daring assault that led to Brown's capture. Among historians that heroic version of the final moments of the famous raid has gained almost universal acceptance.1 But the story is erroneous. Despite his audacity and courage, Brown was not prepared to sacrifice the lives of those in his charge in a futile display of the martial heroism to which he, like the Virginians, paid homage. After an exchange of fire with Lee's storming party, Brown and his four remaining volunteers made a tardy effort to surrender. Our mistaken memory of the John Brown raid, I shall argue, is a This paper was originally presented at the 1987 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, DC. The author wishes to thank his commentators, Catherine Clinton and Ron Walters, for valuable suggestions. Paul and Byrgen Finkelman, John Hubbell, Idus Newby, Fritz Rehbock, and Bertram Wyatt-Brown have helped to clarify the essay. National Park Service historian Dennis Frye provided an invaluable tour of Harpers Ferry. 1 See, for example, Stephen B. Oates's now-standard biography of Brown, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography ofJohn Brown (New York: Harper, 1970), 299-300. All modern accounts are indebted to the research of Oswald Garrison Villard, who, though a pacifist, nonetheless celebrated Brown's "bravery at the supreme moment" and the self-possession and "bearing " of the marines. Villard, John Brown. 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965), 562, 717, 452-53· Popular accounts invariably emphasize that Brown "stood cool and fearless." See Allan Keller, Thunder at Harper's Ferry (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1958), 150; Albert Fried, John Brawn's Journey: Notes and Reflections on His America and Mine (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978), 10910 ; Truman Nelson, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper's Ferry (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973), 147-50. At least one early sympathizer credited Brown's claim to have surrendered. See John Newton's in some respects mistaken version. Captain John Brown of Harper's Ferry (New York: A. Wessels, 1902), 162. Civil War History, Vol. XL, No. 3, © 1994 by The Kent State University Press l86CIVIL WAR HISTORY construct born chiefly of a perennial but hitherto unrecognized veneration of martial virtues. The primary problem in interpreting the raid has not been a dearth of evidence . Hundreds witnessed its climax, and Brown's hostages survived to testify at his trial. But the traditional story has been grounded in the interests and values that Brown's biographers and many historians of the Civil War era have brought to their data. They have been preoccupied with assessing the performance of the protagonists, not with the motives, preconceptions, and predispositions that informed and help explain their conduct. That emphasis is not surprising. The raid was a protracted skirmish in which seventeen people died. But if performance under pressure tells us something of the character of men and women, pressures must finally be understood in terms of the purposes and perceptions of individuals. If John Brown saw himself as doing the Lord's work in freeing slaves, he was also a soldier bound by a code that condemned surrender as cowardly and unmanly. In the final moments, he struggled to reconcile these conflicting images of himself. For Virginia authorities , too, the "invasion" quickly became a test of "manhood" and political will. Historians, more interested in Brown the inspired prisoner than Brown the failed "revolutionary," have often overlooked cultural and private dimensions of the raid. A preoccupation with heroism—a tacit tribute to the martial qualities displayed during the raid—has contributed to a fundamental misreading of Old John Brown and has fostered the traditional...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 185-201
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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