Most Americans who have a decent awareness of our country’s history — it may be less common than we would like to think — believe the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when — as some people say (not everyone agrees) — Lt. Henry S. Farley of the 1st South Carolina Artillery fired the first cannon shot against Fort Sumter.
A case could be made that the war actually was started several years earlier, in October 1859, in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) by a man some believe to be a hero and others see as a terrorist.
The difference between heroes and terrorists depends entirely upon the perspective with which one views them.
The hero is fighting and possibly dying on your behalf; the terrorist is trying to kill you, even though you’re not fighting against him.
The underground resistance movements in Holland, France, Denmark and other countries occupied by Germany during World War II were considered terrorists by the Nazis.
To their countrymen and their descendants, and all those who have fought for freedom since that time, they are among the finest examples of heroism that humanity ever has produced.
Many gave their lives to free their homelands from one of the worst tyrannies the world ever has known.
America’s first heroes and patriots were those who by subterfuge, sabotage or direct combat won their fledgling country’s freedom from the British Empire — which considered them terrorists, criminals and traitors.
John Brown is seen by some as one of America’s worst domestic terrorists and a traitor, but others believe he is one of America’s greatest heroes and a martyr because he died in an attempt to free the slaves.
He organized and led a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, hoping to incite slaves to revolt. He planned to arm them with weapons he had liberated (or stolen, depending upon your point of view) from the armory.
Seven people were killed and at least 10 were wounded during the raid, which ended when Brown and his surviving men were captured less than 36 hours after it began. He was tried for treason — against the commonwealth of Virginia, not the United States — and convicted.
For his crimes, he was hanged by the neck until dead 160 years ago on Dec. 2, 1859. After that, America would never be the same again.
Brown’s raid may seem to have been an act of futility that resulted only in a number of needless deaths and injuries, but it galvanized America’s feelings about slavery.
There was no more denying the significance of it, nor any going back. Slavery would become the country’s defining issue and lead to the war that decided once and for all what America would become.
Until he dropped to his death on the gallows, Brown believed that God had chosen him to be the instrument by which Americans would be punished for enslaving their fellow human beings.
He wrote: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
It may be that in all of American history, there have been no more prophetic words than these. Anti-slavery sentiments in the North were inflamed and pro-slavery sentiments in the South were reinforced.
Brown’s execution marked the point of no return. Less than a year and a half later, America was being consumed by a civil war in which some estimates are that more than a million of its people died — 3% of its population (the equivalent of nearly 10 million today).
Have the crimes of this guilty land truly been purged? We’re still not sure of the answer. Many would say not. Many scars remain unhealed. Many issues remain unresolved.
Most of us know about John Brown’s raid, but we wonder how many are aware of what may be one of the greatest ironies in American history.
The Harper’s Ferry armory was recaptured by a company of United States Marines under the command of U.S. Army Col. Robert E. Lee.
Yes ... THAT Robert E. Lee.