Sunday, January 20, 2019

John Brown wanted to arm slaves with pikes. The idea failed. These 3 sites may help you decide the radical abolitionist's legacy

Original John Brown Pike (Smithsonian)
John Brown (NY State Parks)
Second of two parts
The story goes that John Brown at age 5 witnessed an enslaved boy about his own age being beaten with a shovel. From then on, Brown was determined to put an end to the system of bondage.

Years later and while in his 50s, Brown and his family moved to “Bleeding Kansas," where they became engaged in the struggle over slavery. After an attack on abolitionists in Lawrence, Brown led an 1856 raid that left five men and boys believed to be slavery proponents dead.

Brown traveled to his native New England in 1857 to raise money for the cause. He carried a captured Bowie knife and contracted with Connecticut blacksmith Charles Blair to make 950 pikes for $1 each. At some point, Brown decided to use them in the South, rather than Kansas. He hatched a scheme for the weapons to be given to freed and escaped blacks, who would use them on anyone who dared to stop their rebellion.

“Give a slave a pike and you make him a man,” Brown said. “Deprive him of the means of resistance and you keep him down.”

We, of course, know what was to come. Brown, his sons and a small band of followers aimed to take the federal arsenal and armory in Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. From there, they would fan the flames of a slave revolt.

It did not come to be. The October 1859 raid ended in failure and deaths, and Brown was convicted of murder, treason and inciting a slave insurrection, among other charges. The pikes, about 7 feet long and featuring a 10-inch blade, never saw service. There's some question whether the intended recipients would have welcomed them, given the odds against success.

Brown with slave mother and child (Library of Congress)

But Brown was resolute to the end. Upon hearing of his death sentence, Brown said: “if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments -- I submit; so let it be done!”

He was hanged that December. The Civil War would begin less than two years later.

To this day, Brown remains a controversial figure. Was he a patriot or heroic revolutionary? A terrorist? A 2011 article by historian Paul Finkelman argues that the definition of terrorism has changed over time and examines how the term may or may not be applied to Brown.

The Picket talked with officials at three Brown-associated sites about his legacy and the primitive pikes, which themselves strengthened the South’s resolve to preserve slavery.  Several of the rare items are in museums and others occasionally come up for auction.

The federal site has what are believed to be two original pikes and four replicas made for commemorative purposes.

Museum curator Michael Hosking said Brown was determined to be a martyr when he and his followers arrived in town. They brought their load of pikes and kept most at a nearby farm.

Asked why the abolitionist chose to arm slaves with pikes rather than guns, Hosking said the arsenal and armory “had guns but we didn’t necessarily have ammunition. You didn’t have to worry about ammunition if you had the pike.”

John Brown pike, other items in museum (NPS)

Brown believed the assault would be conducted quickly and that his scheme would spread among slaves in Virginia and elsewhere. “The dream was the rumor would spread through the countryside and they would see it as a chance and run for it, to safety,” Hosking said.

“He had this vision that all these slaves would come flocking to him,” said Hosking, adding the group was only able to briefly arm three or four hesitant slaves during the hostage-taking and brief clash.

Hosking told the Picket that the idea was for more slaves to obtain firearm training for weapons to be taken at Harpers Ferry. “Not having the weapons at the beginning of the raid was another reason to have the pikes.”

The discovery of the pikes whipped up anti-North sentiment across the South.

Georgia pike (Old Governor's Mansion)
Edmund Ruffin, a pro-slavery and secession extremist, obtained several pikes and sent them to governors with the message, "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren.” In response, governors across the South had thousands of pikes made for white civilians. (right)

Now, as then, there are different perspectives on Brown’s actions.

“During the time, I would consider him a terrorist,” said Hosking.

Fast forward to the early 21st century. “Most of us feel he is a patriot and did a great thing. We are talking 150 years different from the event.”

“He was a fascinating individual. Very driven, and he is one of those in modern terminology who became radicalized and used the Bible to defend his actions.”

Brown and his family lived for a time in the village of North Elba, where they supported a farming community for freed blacks, who were able to vote. Brown, two sons and a few Harpers Ferry raiders are buried on the grounds near a large rock. The home is near ski jump towers used at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. 

Site manager Brendan Mills said the residence, which does not have any pikes in its collection, was the second homestead in the area for the Browns. He told a local newspaper a few years ago, “On a nice day, (Brown) would put a chair up here and look out at the mountains, so he asked to buried up here (the rock) if possible or have his ashes spread here if it was possible.”

After failing in his wool buying business, the Connecticut-born Brown and other relatives eventually returned to Ohio and then on to Kansas. “He got word from his sons they were being harassed by pro-slavery men in Kansas.”

Interior of Brown home (New York State Parks)

In Kansas, Mills told the Picket, there is some evidence that Brown’s family might have been killed if he did not act. “It was the worst thing he could do for his reputation.”

The abolitionist, Mills said, did not favor a “violent free for all.” As his work moved toward a slave insurrection, Brown wanted an organized army with white and black officers and did not want his followers to kill unnecessarily, he said.

Mills acknowledges some portray the small park as a cheerleader for Brown. The key, he said, is for people to make up their own minds.

“There is a lot of disinformation about him.”

The Adair cabin (Courtesy of John Brown Museum)


The Rev. Samuel and Florella Adair settled near Osawatomie, an abolitionist community and center of conflict during "Bleeding Kansas." The log cabin – now surrounded by a pergola -- was a station on the Underground Railroad and Brown, Florella's half brother, used this cabin as his headquarters. 

“The Adairs were very peaceful abolitionists,” says volunteer Phyllis Sharp. “They did not believe in the harsher ways.”

The sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery activists enraged Brown, who took a band of men to Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856.

The men dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery proponents, from their homes and brutally murdered them. Afterward, Brown raided Missouri -- freeing 11 slaves and killing the slave owner,” according to the American Battlefield Trust.

Site manager Grady Atwater wrote a 2017 article that argues Brown was not as violent as he is often portrayed and that he did not seek revenge on a man who killed one of Brown’s sons in Kansas.

Cabin is covered by a protective pergola (John Brown Museum)

“John Brown did not commit random acts of violence for personal gratification, but only fought militant proslavery men who were either fighting Free State forces in Kansas or actively supplying and supporting the militant proslavery forces,” Atwater wrote in the Miami County Republic.

Sharp said the cabin has one original John Brown pike and several swords. It features Adair family furnishings and objects that tell the story of Brown, the guerrilla violence in Kansas and the Civil War.

Sharp said there were ruffians on both sides fighting over the future of slavery.

“We try to be indifferent.”


So, how to judge Brown? For one view, we’ll close with these paragraphs from Finkelman’s 2011 essay in Prologue magazine:

“In the end, we properly view Brown with mixed emotions: admiring him for his dedication to the cause of human freedom, marveling at his willingness to die for the liberty of others, yet uncertain about his methods, and certainly troubled by his incompetent tactics at Harpers Ferry.
“Perhaps we end up accepting the argument of the abolitionist lawyer and later governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, who declared ‘whether the enterprise of John Brown and his associates in Virginia was wise or foolish, right or wrong; I only know that, whether the enterprise itself was the one or the other, John Brown himself is right.’"

• Part one: Southern states made their own pikes in response

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Confederate symbols fade from NC sites

North Carolina officials don't have an official policy addressing the sale of Confederate flag merchandise at Civil War battlefield gift shops, but the products' future is unclear. The chief of staff for North Carolina's Sons of Confederate Veterans division tells The Wilson Times the group has heard the battle flag merchandise is unavailable at several state-maintained sites. • Article

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Lawmakers hope fourth time a charm in bid to expand Kennesaw battlefield, add house

The Wallis House about 13 years ago (Georgia Battlefields Association)

Federal lawmakers from Georgia are trying again to get Congress to add eight acres containing one of the oldest remaining buildings on the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield to the Civil War park.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and others announced Thursday they have launched the fourth legislative effort  to enlarge Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park near Atlanta.

“Expanding the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park to include the Wallis House and Harriston Hill will add to the historical significance of the park by giving visitors an opportunity to experience key strategies and positions of troops during the Civil War,” Isakson said in a statement. “I hope both the House and Senate will act quickly to allow this expansion.”

(Courtesy of Georgia Battlefields Association)

Park and local officials are hoping the Wallis home, a dilapidated 1853 farmhouse that at one point was in imminent danger of being demolished, will eventually be used to more fully tell the story of Union strategy in the battle and perhaps the role of African-Americans in the war. The clash was a costly, but brief setback during the Federal advance on Atlanta.

The two-bedroom home, built by Josiah Wallis, had several uses during the Kennesaw campaign in June 1864. It was first used as a Confederate hospital, then was the headquarters for Union Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard. His boss, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, was at the house during the Battle of Kolb’s Farm to the south.

“Adjacent to the Wallis house is Harriston Hill, which offers a sweeping vista of the valley leading to the Confederate line atop Kennesaw Mountain,” a National Park Service official said in 2010. “From this position, it is clear why General Howard picked this site for his headquarters and signaling position.” 

Amanda Maddox, communications director for Isakson, told the Marietta Daily Journal this week that the National Park Service would need to spend about $1 million to restore the house and $1 million over the next five years for upkeep. Maddox said lawmakers hope that $2 million will be raised by the community. She told the newspaper that the spending bill has come close to passing in previous congressional sessions.

The campaign to save the house, give it permanent protection and have it help tell the story of the battle during the Atlanta Campaign is a long one.

O.O. Howard
Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta, for years saw an incredible housing boom and development. While that was a boon for newcomers, preservationists and historians decried the loss of Civil War sites or land to development.

The county, working with the Georgia Civil War Commission and the Cobb Land Trust, spent $320,000 to buy the property in early 2004 so that 43 homes could not be built on it and adjoining parcels, park Superintendent Nancy Walther told the Picket in 2016.

The park needs congressional approval in order to expand its boundaries and accept the donation of the house and hill from the county.

Several years ago, then-Superintendent Stanley Bond helped lead a community effort to recommend ways to increase African-American visitation to the park – and tell the story of slaves, freed individuals, U.S. Colored Troops and more.

Bond told the Picket in February 2011 that he hoped the Wallis House could house an expanded exhibit on African-American soldiers and civilians. There’s a direct connection, because of the home’s association with Gen. Howard.

Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, D.C., was named for the white officer, founder of the university and commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau.

In 2016, Walther said while there were no formal plans for interpretation of the Wallis House,  the park wanted to widen interpretation of what happened on and near the battlefield.

Sword belonging to Shiloh veteran donated

A Portage County (Wisc.) sheriff came home from the Civil War and became a lawman. When he was killed trying to intervene in a feud between neighbors, his wife gave his Civil War sword to a chapter of the Freemasons. It has been more than 143 years since the widow of Sheriff Joseph H. Baker gave the sword. On Wednesday, the organization in a special ceremony handed it to the Portage County Sheriff's Department. • Article

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Jamie Brandon, archaeologist who led student excavations at Pea Ridge, is remembered for outreach, mentoring

Jamie Brandon at Pea Ridge in 2017 (University of Arkansas)

I was saddened to read about the recent passing of Dr. Jamie Chad Brandon, who was of invaluable assistance to the Picket in our coverage of ongoing archaeological investigations at Pea Ridge National Military Park.

Brandon, 47, was a professor and station archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, which has sent staffers and employees to work with the National Park Service on excavations at the site of the 1862 Civil War battle. He died on Christmas Eve after a battle with cancer.

According to his obituary, Jamie’s three decades of experience covered many topics, including Caddoan cultures in Arkansas, ethnicity and race relations. He also focused on land use through time and historical memory in the pre-industrial South.

I last communicated with Brandon in April. Over nearly three years, I would check in with he and other survey staffers doing work at Pea Ridge. Among the subjects we discussed were digs at a hamlet that endured combat and a study of artifacts and whether they could show the locations of artillery positions. Brandon also did research connected with Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, site of a December 1862 Civil War battle.

One of his colleagues, Carl Drexler, posted on social media that “no single person in archaeology has been a greater mentor, friend, and colleague."

A University of Arkansas article Thursday said: "In addition to producing an impressive record of scholarly research, Brandon is remembered for his unparalleled devotion to outreach activities to the general public about archeological discoveries and their relationship to understanding modern society. He was also a popular teacher and mentored a host of students through internships, theses and dissertation projects."

The Picket extends condolences to Jamie’s wife, Lydia Rees, and other survivors.