- Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginiaby Louis DeCaro Jr.
Louis DeCaro Jr. has written an exhaustive account of the time John Brown spent in jail in Virginia following his famous 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry. Based primarily on correspondence to and from Brown, DeCaro presents an account of the last seven weeks of the great antislavery warrior’s life. DeCaro admires Brown, but he notes certain failings. According to DeCaro, Brown was “a flawed tactician” whose “tendency to be overly ponderous got the better of him” at Harpers Ferry (32). Brown also treated his wife badly, urging her not to visit him until just before his death. (He welcomed others, including other women, to visit him in jail.) With these shortcomings noted, DeCaro rejects other charges often levied against John Brown, including that he was a bad businessman, that he was a racist who opposed interracial marriages, that his actions at Pottawatomie, Kansas, were little more than cold-blooded murder, and, most importantly, that the raid at Harpers Ferry was doomed. DeCaro believes that such accusations have unfairly sullied Brown’s reputation, but I was unconvinced by several of DeCaro’s bolder claims.
In part because of the sources he mines, DeCaro often struggles to explain what happens outside the jail. He successfully recounts the story of Ned House, an undercover journalist from New England who sent Horace Greeley’s New York Tribunerevealing reports that the white Virginians found distinctly unflattering. But he does not explore the pattern of anxiety among Virginia’s whites giving way to calm, only to be followed by new rounds of panic. Although reports make it clear that there were periods of confidence—and Brown’s generally benign treatment in the jail also suggests that not all southern whites panicked—DeCaro does not use such responses as a way to discover anything about whites in Virginia. He also struggles to portray Virginia’s blacks. Using the testimony of Antony [End Page 432]Hunter, he contends that “significant numbers” of blacks were ready to join Brown’s movement. But even as DeCaro uses Hunter as a source, he contends that Hunter “was exaggerating,” perhaps when he claimed that John Brown had compiled a list of more than a thousand slaves who were ready to join his uprising (25). Instead, DeCaro accepts the testimony of Brown’s son: “We did not expect to liberate any great number of slaves immediately, not even rapidly” (24). If Owen Brown was right, though, it is unclear what Hunter’s testimony shows. A similar problem emerges after the trials, when a series of fires occurred in the region. Southern whites suspected arson, perhaps by elusive white abolitionists, but DeCaro insists, “Actually, the fires were the work of local blacks, expressing solidarity with the prisoners” (144). He cites Ned House, who wrote, “The most natural explanation of the recent fires is, that they were the work of Negroes” (144). So what begins as House’s speculation about the possible identity of some arsonists becomes the foundation for an assertion about the arsonists’ motives. Later DeCaro makes a similar move: unexplained “mysterious lights” were likely “intended as signals between blacks in the vicinity” (326).
DeCaro complains that “conventional historians” are too willing to accept that “Brown was the Don Quixote of the antebellum epoch,” but the difference between DeCaro and most academic historians has less to do with his reading of Brown and more to do with his willingness to make bold interpretations (13). When John Brown’s maps of Kentucky and Tennessee showed “not the slightest trace” of intelligence, DeCaro reads that omission as possible evidence that Brown really did have collaborators farther south (12). He reads a New York rabbi’s sermon, which contrasted New York with Russia, as “antislavery” and implicitly supporting John Brown; however, Rabbi Fischel actually said “nothing for or against John Brown” (228). DeCaro contends that the 1860 census shows more than a thousand slaves...