Thursday, April 26, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 26: John Brown's body stays restless

Quarters used by Union forces during the siege of Vicksburg

Here is a review of David Reynolds' recent book on John Brown, called John Brown, Abolitionist, and also of Nicholas Lemann's book, Redemption: The last battle of the Civil War, that focuses on Adelbert Ames' fight to sustain democratic government in Mississippi after the war:
John Brown's body and blood by Ari Kelman Times Literary Supplement 02/14/07.

Unfortunately, it starts with a rather fantastic description of John Brown's mission at Harper's Ferry:

Steeled by faith in God’s omnipotence, on October 16, 1859, John Brown set in motion a plan he believed would liberate 4 million slaves throughout the American South. Brown envisioned a biblical flood, not of water, but of people, rising at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, as bondsmen rallied to the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal. This army of liberation would break over Dixie in a divine wave, cleansing the the region of sin. At nightfall, Brown and his men seized the armoury and sent patrols to take hostages and alert slaves that the day of jubilee had arrived. The next day, townspeople traded shots with Brown's gang, until marines arrived and ended the rebellion.
Well, the part about Brown getting caught is more-or-less right. Brown was hoping for some slave reinforcements in Harper's Ferry. But he didn't imagine gather in them into an "army of liberation" that "would break over Dixie in a divine wave". He intended to set up a guerrilla operation in the Appalachians that would encourage slaves to escape their masters and facilitate them in doing so.

This description of Ames' battle with the Redeemers isn't quite so bad, although it implies that the occurences at Vicksburg were more a one-time event than an example ofa process that occurred through much of the South:

At least for six years: in 1865, the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, finally abolishing slavery nationwide. In 1874, that amendment, as well as the Fourteenth, expanding citizenship and promising equal protection under the law, and the Fifteenth, guaranteeing voting rights, prompted another violent upheaval, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Self-styled white "Redeemers", convinced that freedmen with ballots menaced a divinely sanctioned natural order, disfranchised African Americans by terrorizing them. The Redeemers seized Vicksburg to ensure that an upcoming election would remain a whites-only affair. Mississippi’s Reconstruction governor, Adelbert Ames, then sent African American troops to recapture the town. The white mob held off the militia and killed twenty-nine African Americans. (my emphasis)
And this comparison immediately following is accurate enough:

Separated by sixteen years and a Civil War, John Brown’s raid and the Vicksburg murders are divided by more than that in most histories of the era. Brown, after all, fought for freedom. He was a champion of racial equality, whose righteous ends mitigate, even if they don’t necessarily justify, his bloody means. The Redeemers, by contrast, then, were devoted to an antiquated racial order, and they killed to return to a bygone era. Disparate goals seem to open a gulf between the Redeemers and Brown that not even a shared fondness for bloodshed, underpinned by relevant scriptural passages, can close. (my emphasis)
The review kind of goes downhill from there. He makes an unconvincing attempt to link the religious outlook of the postwar, white-supremacist Redeemers with that of John Brown. Well, Brown and most if not all the "Redeemers" were Christian. But beyond that, there's not a lot of resemblance.

He criticizes Reynolds for supposedly justifying Brown spilling "rivers of blood", a highly questionable metaphor in Brown's case. Describing Brown's most controversial action, the execution of five proslavery settlers in the "Bleeding Kansas" mini-civil war, this way:

On May 24, he and his followers snatched five pro-slavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. His gang split the captives' skulls with broadswords, biblical retribution gone mad.
Kelman seems to accept the notion of Brown as a crazy religious fanatic. But the Pottawatomie killings, whatever else they may have been, were not "biblical retribution gone mad". They were specific acts done in a particular context of the conflict in Kansas. Kelman at least gives some historical background of the Kansas conflict and even of the Pottawatomie killings.

But he writes, "Even militant abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, had considered him a dangerous tool, a loaded gun with a hair trigger." Well, no, they didn't. Douglass supported Brown in some of his activities. He declined Brown's invitation to join the Harper's Ferry raid because he thought it was too risky a plan, a judgment which the outcome arguably validated. But he didn't think of Brown as off his rocker or as someone operating on "a hair trigger".

Kelman is correct when he writes of the postwar "Redeemers":

The Redeemers, along with other Evangelical terrorists in the South, sensed an opening and became the Democratic Party’s de facto military wing.
He also gives a decent definition of the Redeemer strategy that "became known as the Mississippi plan: terrorism backed by biblical metaphors, in service of voter suppression", though I do think he over-emphasizes the religious theme. John Brown was clearly deeply religious. The Redeemers were Christians and no doubt had religious views matching their white supremacist beliefs. But their motivations weren't overtly religious in the way Brown's were.

His closing judgment on Ames is also unfair:

Ames, bumbling and naive, lived in complex times and was swamped by uncertainty. He tried to find the righteous path. But he kept tripping along the way.
No, Ames was not "bumbling and naive". He was not "swamped by uncertainty" but by organized force and violence. And he did find a "righteous path". The Redeemers prevented him from travelling down it.


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