The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: John Brown’s Raid: Harpers Ferry and the Coming of the Civil War

Writing John Brown

“Brown was an inept businessman who failed twenty times in six states and defaulted on his debts.” – David McCullough

“John Brown…John Brown. A very important person in history. Important though for only one episode. Failure in everything in life.” – Ed Bearss

And The War Came

For some 40 million people in 1990–including me–this was their first introduction to John Brown. This portrait of Brown became (and remains) something of a fad. We pile on Brown as a failed businessman. A poor strategist. A lunatic. A terrorist. How could someone seemingly fail so spectacularly on so many fronts and still command this kind of attention 130 years after his death? I had to know more.

I spent the next three decades digesting everything I could find relating to Brown. I made countless trips to Harpers Ferry, even proposing to my wife on Maryland Heights. I found neighborhood and even familial connections to the raid. When I began my association with ECW some six years ago and the opportunity arose to contribute a book to the Emerging Civil War Series, I knew right away what it would be. I was lucky and remain thankful for having an outstanding coauthor and friend in Kevin Pawlak who helped to shepherd our book through the publishing process.

John Brown Pawlak GilotOur fearless editor, Chris Mackowski, recently asked that I consider a blog post here unpacking my experience as a first-time author. Among the questions he posed were what challenges I ran into while writing the book. This one stuck out.

We started writing in early 2020, only weeks before the world shut down during the COVID pandemic. My office closed, as did my children’s school. While my wife continued working throughout the pandemic, I had to adjust to a “new normal” of navigating virtual schoolwork and entertaining two young children who didn’t understand why they couldn’t go see their friends at school or go to the playground. As someone who thrives on schedules, work, and activities, I suddenly had a lot of downtime—but that downtime didn’t always equate to writing time.

I began to wake up early to get in a few hours of writing before my girls woke up, or stayed up late after their bedtime, trying to knock out several hundred words here and there. I had to find windows of time in which I could operate. I’d feel good about myself if I was seated at my desk to start writing at 5:00 a.m., only to open our shared documents and find that Kevin had been up working since 4:00 a.m. His time management skills and work ethic are unmatched.

It was also challenging locating or accessing sources during the pandemic. COVID had indefinitely closed many research repositories. Archivists (like me!) and vendors were staying home, leaving me unsure when the new sources I ordered would arrive on my doorstep. Thankfully, we still had access to a wealth of digitized resources ranging from Google Books to West Virginia Archives & History’s Boyd B. Stutler database. While it took some patience, we were eventually able to find what we needed.

Finally, as I imagine many first-time authors struggle with, it was challenging for me to not insert myself into this book. After all, it’s not just my name on the cover. I imagine my ideas and opinions of John Brown vary from many of our readers, perhaps even from my coauthor. Instead, I sought to frame Brown within his own times. It’s easy for us to attach labels like “failure” and “terrorist” because it’s terminology we’re familiar with in our own world. But no matter how many books we’ve read, we’re less familiar with John Brown’s world than we are with our own.

When you look at the panics and volatile financial uncertainty of the mid-19th century –a period fraught with peril for both debtors and creditors–it helps us understand why people like Abraham Lincoln, Matthew Brady, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, and John Brown all struggled with personal finances and bankruptcy. When you look at the violence inflicted on both sides of the Kansas conflict, as well as on Brown’s own family, it helps to frame (read: “not condone”) his actions against the savage backdrop of Bleeding Kansas. And when you look at the varying assaults on federal installations in the run-up to the Civil War–including the 1855 proslavery sacking of a Federal arsenal in Missouri–we realize that perhaps Brown’s capture of the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry wasn’t quite as unprecedented as we may have thought.

While others may have appropriated John Brown over the years to fit their own narratives, I didn’t seek to change any hearts or minds. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wants to call Brown a murderer, a terrorist, or a saint. He was and he remains open for interpretation. But placing Brown within his own times and experiences may help to better understand such a complex and polarizing figure. And if our book is the first one you read on John Brown, I earnestly hope it’s not the last. There’s so much more to discover…

And here’s hoping that a global pandemic doesn’t disrupt my second book….

5 Responses to The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: John Brown’s Raid: Harpers Ferry and the Coming of the Civil War

  1. Sorry, but bland, back handed generalizations about numerous other historians having “appropriated” Brown to fit their “narratives”, and then seeking to contextualize away Brown’s monomania don’t cut it with me.

    1. Hi John…to each his own! Beyond quoting from the Ken Burns Series I wasn’t making ‘back-handed generalizations’ about any (or for that matter ‘numerous’) historians. Brown has been used to fit many narratives, as early as the antislavery and proslavery factions to later film (Raymond Massey, Ethan Hawke, etc.), literature (Cloudsplitter, Fire on the Mountain, Good Lord Bird, etc.), and popular media. He’s used by protagonist and antagonist alike. Whereas so many of our Civil War personalities seem to only live through a historian’s pen, Brown is one of those who has found a home in popular culture. I think that’s why he still generates such visceral reactions.

    2. I’ve taught on occasional course on Journalism in the Civil War, and as part of the class, I’ve use John Brown as a case study for the way partisan press used specific events to fit specific narratives. As you can imagine, northern papers (particularly pro-abolition papers) tended to frame Brown’s actions as positive or, at the very least, excusable. Southern papers generally framed Brown’s actions as negative or, at worst, apocalyptic. So Jon-Erik isn’t making broad generalizations: the evidence is in the journalism of the day. That’s just the first wave of several where various writers framed Brown’s action to fit specific agendas.

      That said, the point of Jon-Erik’s post is not to discuss that as a thesis, so he has no need to defend his “generalizations.” As a researcher, he has immersed himself in the literature enough to know the trends, which in turn affected his approach to writing the book. The purpose of his post was to talk about that approach and how that wider context informed him. I think you’re criticizing him for not writing the post you expected to read rather than for writing the post he actually wrote.

      1. No, I had no expectations either way. Brown is not a simple figure, in large part because the cause he came to champion is so enmeshed in the way he sought to achieve it. As Buckley has said, he was trying to “immanentize the eschaton” , the promised land of egalitarianism. And the tragedy was the means he chose, his “insurrection”, was antithetical to the consensual mores of the fragile democratic republic. As Bully Brooks pulled out one nail, so did Brown, by giving the fears of the ultras substance. In all probability the rupture would have eventually come, but I tend to think that much of the chaos at the 1860 Democratic Conventions was fueled by the belief that the time was NOW.

        That being said, I think Nevins’ analysis of that strange, driven man was correct, regardless of the “uses” his supporters and enemies made of him.

  2. Looking forward to reading this one Kevin and Jon-Erik. I had discussions with Kevin last year about Brown for a boo project I am working on. There are many questions that may never be answered to our satisfaction; particularly, what was Brown’s state of mind in general and at the time of the raid and had he convinced himself that this foolhardy raid would succeed, or did he intend to become a martyr? To John Pryor’s point above, I want to explore some of the ethical questions with Brown sacrificing not only his own life, but the lives of his acolytes. What responsibility do members of the Secret Six and abolitionist politicians bear for Brown’s death? Was Brown merely a tool for disunionists North and South to accelerate the race to a civil war?

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!