Today in History: John Brown’s Body

On the morning of December 2 in 1859, the abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Virginia for treason and for inciting a slave insurrection.

That fall, Brown led 21 men on a raid of Harpers Ferry Armory in what is now West Virginia with the hope that others would join and there would be a slave uprising. That day, a baggage master who was a free black man became the first man killed by Brown’s group in their attempt to free the nation’s slaves.

Brown was an interesting person. Assessments indicate he was part demented and part prophet, part terrorist and part patriot, part genius and part failure, part hero and part villain, part powerful and part powerless. How do you classify a man who was so right in his cause? He died for what he believed, and he was right in his goal. As for his means . . . ?

Where John Brown's Body lies a'mouldering.

The first shots fired at Harpers Ferry were the first shots of the Civil War. There were many connections between Brown and the upcoming war. At Harpers Ferry, Colonel Robert E. Lee led the U.S soldiers against Brown, and an army lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart first talked to the raiders in negotiation attempts. In the audience for Brown’s December execution were John Wilkes Booth and Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who less than two years later would earn the nickname “Stonewall” on the battlefield.

Then, there is the song. Although the Pete Seeger version is more famous, here is an older version of “John Brown’s Body” by J.W. Myers in 1913. According to some accounts, the song started out as a fun song created by soldiers singing about a comrade named “John Brown,” and when others heard the song they assumed it was about John Brown the abolitionist and added verses to that effect. Then, of course, Julia Ward Howe created new lyrics for the music to create another song for the Union that you know from school: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

John Brown’s Body by J.W. Myers

Photos: John Brown (public domain); John Brown’s Grave (by Chimesfreedom)

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    Ten Sentences: Gettysburg Address

    On an autumn day on this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that only took a few minutes and was a mere ten sentences long.  The most famous photo of the speech shows Lincoln stepping down after finishing, because the photographer had assumed the speech would last longer than it did.

    The Gettysburg ceremony took place to dedicate a new national cemetery several months after the July 1-3 battle that left around 50,000 soldiers injured or dead.  Organizers invited Lincoln to deliver a few remarks after the main oration by Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State, Governor, and Senator.  Everett spoke for two hours, while Lincoln took only a few minutes to deliver his ten sentences.  Newspaper reviews for the President’s speech at the time were mixed, often along partisan lines, but soon people recognized how his ten sentences defined the war and the nation.

    Gary Wills in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, as well as others, note historical parallels between the language of the speech and Greek sources, the Bible, etc.  One of my favorite connections was noted today by James Hume, who was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.  He wrote that when Lincoln was ten, a farmer loaned Lincoln a book, Mason Weems’ Life of George Washington.  After the book was significantly ruined by rain that had leaked into the cabin, Lincoln had to work off the book by pulling tree stumps, and then the waterlogged book became one of the boy’s few possessions.  A page that was still legible showed a picture of Washington at a Valley Forge memorial with the inscription, “That these dead shall not have died in vain.”  The 54-year-old Lincoln incorporated those words into his famous speech.

    It took me twelve sentences to tell the above background story.  Lincoln defined a nation in ten.

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    Often, Lincoln actors have deep booming voices — with one exception being Henry Fonda’s wonderful portrayal in the movie Young Mr. Lincoln.  But Lincoln actually had a high-pitched voice, so the recording below done by Jeff Daniels — where he also realistically seems to be sort of yelling as Lincoln would have had to do at the event without artificial amplification — is probably more accurate than most simulations.

    For those of you who prefer your information in Powerpoint, click here.

    Photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg via public domain. Update: In 2013, a second photo was found that featured Lincoln at Gettysburg. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Is it Safe?: Torture American-Style

    In the movie Marathon Man, there’s a famous sequence where the Nazi war criminal (played by Laurence Olivier) uses dental tools on Dustin Hoffman’s mouth to torture him into answering the code question “Is it safe?”  I remember the movie from my youth, as well as movies like The Deer Hunter, which shows America’s enemies using torture techniques on American prisoners of war — played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage.  In The Deer Hunter, the captors force the three Americans to play Russian Roulette and punish the soldiers by putting them in an underwater cage full of live rats and dead bodies.

    Watching these movies as a kid, these torture techniques were things that our enemies did.  Americans do not torture.  If we adopt the techniques of the bad guys, then there is no longer a difference between us and them.

    Torture has been in the news lately because of the release of former Pres. George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points.  In it, he describes how when the CIA asked him whether he would support waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammad, he responded, “Damn right!”  Former Vice-President Cheney has stated he is a “big supporter” of waterboarding.

    Waterboarding is torture in violation of international law.  But what about when government officials feel the country is in danger and it is necessary?

    Pres. Obama has been criticized for his failure to investigate and prosecute the Americans who used torture techniques.  I understand his aversion to opening up a partisan fight.  Some claim, though, that the failure to pursue the perpetrators leaves a precedent for future presidents that torture techniques will be tolerated.

    There’s an old joke about a man who goes to a woman and asks, “Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?”

    The woman thinks for a few minutes, and responds, “Sure.”

    Then the man asks, “Will you sleep with me for ten dollars?”

    The woman says, “Certainly not!  What kind of woman do you think I am?”

    The man responds, “We’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating on a price.”

    The joke reminds me of our attitudes about torture.  You’re either for it or against it, and then it’s just negotiating when to use it.  Nobody advocates torture for jaywalking.  If you’re for it, it’s for the extreme situations.  So you can’t rid yourself of the responsibility by saying “I only advocate it for certain situations.”  You’re pro-torture or anti-torture.  That part is simple.

    Unfortunately, the line about what my country does and tolerates is not as simple as I believed when I was a kid watching movies.

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