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A Calvinist who believed that earthly life was a time of testing and trial, Brown accepted reversals with courage and renewed hope. Even after the failure of speculative enterprises he entered into with his father or his neighbors, Brown was resilient. After a variety of disappointments, Brown faced starting over in collaboration with his adult sons with fortitude and optimism. The dissenters all remained close to their father despite their rejection of his biblical Christianity. His habits were not rigid, and he adapted easily to conditions in the field.

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Brown clearly possessed a sense of humor; in fact, he once tried to win the open support of the Rev. Theodore Parker by writing to him in a comic Irish brogue! Yet even when he had to travel prone in the bed of a wagon, his energy drained by the illness, he never despaired of his project.


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Even after staying awake two nights in succession during the raid, Brown was able to respond for more than an hour to questions from authorities. With Senator Mason and Governor Wise leading this questioning, he knew his raid had not altogether failed to win an audience.


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  • He also managed to fashion brief speeches for the assembled correspondents. He too did not receive treatment, and for more than a year his illness resulted in symptoms like those we associate today with post-traumatic stress disorder. John Jr. Altogether, these illnesses suggest that perhaps either John or Dianthe carried a hereditary predisposition to affective disorder. To be sure, Brown became excited when acquaintances in Ohio made light of slavery or suggested that time would eventually eradicate it.

    He was pledged to destroy slavery, and indifference to it deeply offended him. He had recently left Kansas, where he had fought in a number of skirmishes and won celebrity as a champion of the free-state cause. In that context, much of what the affiants attested lost its punch. If Brown suffered from undiagnosed mental illness in that era before the rise of psychiatry, he displayed few signs or symptoms that modern psychiatrists could identify as being linked to mental disorder. The men who petitioned the Virginia court to have Brown committed insisted he must be mad to have been raising a force to resume the fighting that had torn up Kansas.

    If Brown was perfectly sane, conscientious men and women had to consider and perhaps reassess their own values. Was the perpetual bondage of millions of greater importance than the lives of slave owners and their allies? Harpers Ferry answered that question in the affirmative. Implicitly it presupposed a hierarchy of values that, if widely adopted, would threaten the end of the slave regime.

    Robert E. McGlone, an associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii, has studied John Brown for decades. On a chill foggy autumn evening in , abolitionist John Brown and a rough gang of 21 men with guns and pikes and revolt in their hearts quietly hiked five miles from a farm in Western Maryland to the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. Their ambitions were outrageous: surprise the guards at the armory, capture wagonloads of rifles and then flee, distributing the guns among slaves.

    Brown hoped for nothing less than a full uprising of servant against master.

    He had spent four months living on the farm simply trying to fit in. The hike to Harpers Ferry had become routine. A new beard and a shock of Lyle Lovett hair kept.

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    Soon the disguise would be irrelevant. Roads that were dirt are now paved, the bridge Brown used to cross the Potomac River has been replaced, and buildings in Harpers Ferry throw off electric light. But most of the route remains pitch-black after sunset; trees that witnessed that night are still there, and woodstoves continue to scent the air. Civil War buffs have been making this pilgrimage for better than three decades. They read from s newspapers to get into character.


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    Perhaps the most memorable part of the trek occurred midway, when an approaching car flashed its high beams and slowed. Staying in character, the soldiers sauntered on—there were no squad cars in Once past, the deputy turned around and re-approached at the same slow speed, high beams blazing. Instead, the deputy drew even with the procession, took one last gander, and then peeled out at full speed, apparently wanting no part of the apparition. Organizers expect hundreds of enthusiasts. The path is mostly downhill to the Potomac and flat after that, as the road hugs the riverbank on its way downstream to the confluence with the Shenandoah River.

    The relative ease of the hike will not diminish the experience. I disagree with that. John Brown invoked a fear that communities had not experienced before. Brown intended to raid the federal armory and use the weapons to establish a series of forts where fleeing slaves could join his army of marauders. Further, Brown hoped that a slave rebellion in the midst of the harvest season would damage plantations even more. The Maryland staging area for this ambitious plan was a small, two-story farmhouse that Brown rented under the name of Isaac Smith.

    The most notable feature is a small attic where 20 men lived in a room the size of a garage. Staying out of sight was essential. Brown pretended to be a humble prospector. The prospector story was good cover for crates of pikes and guns that could be explained away as mining tools.

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    Brown used his daughter and daughter-in-law to add to the delusion. To all eyes, Brown was what he said he was: a good family man scratching out a living from the land. It remains unbelievably scenic, carved out of cliffs that put the squeeze on the gushing Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today, people from Baltimore and Washington, D. The fire engine house Brown used as a refuge during his raid, now in its fourth location, is neatly preserved, mostly. One of the many floods that have ravaged Harpers Ferry since the raid washed away the bridge John Brown crossed to enter the town.

    In its place today is a high pedestrian bridge that accommodates Appalachian Trail hikers. Fifteen decades ago, Harpers Ferry had one of two national armories, yet there was no militia garrisoned on site because no one anticipated a raid, much less a war. The night Brown arrived, weapons were guarded only by a snoozing night watchman. When Shepherd saw a band of armed men trundling across the bridge into town at a.

    Shepherd hustled up the tracks to flag it down. They leveled their guns and fired. A century and a half later, some historians speculate that Shepherd was in on the raid but got cold feet. And some suggest he was asked to join in, but refused. In the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a monument to Shepherd, celebrating him as a black man who did not flee or take up arms against whites. But purported racists objected that blacks deserved no recognition in history, let alone a monument.

    For decades, however, prominent African-Americans—including W. DuBois—have objected to the notion that Shepherd be revered for an ambivalence, real or imagined, toward slavery. The monument was removed from display during a park construction project in the mids. It was returned to its location in , but was covered up until , when the park service added a plaque to explain everything. Back on the bridge, Brown and his men stopped the train, then let it steam off down the tracks. Perhaps Brown was truly daft.

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    Perhaps he wanted to be captured, despite the obvious penalties. Frye believes Brown must have realized that if he held the train, people at the next station would come to investigate. Whether he held the train or not made no difference…word would get out either way. So he stayed put, the consequences be damned.

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    Gunshots had awakened physician John Starry, who ran out to see what the commotion was about. After Starry pronounced the wounds fatal, Brown let him go. The doctor threw himself onto his horse and headed for the militia in Charles Town, seven miles away.

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    The militia kept Brown corralled until Col.