to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
most of the eighteen fifties, war was a continual threat between the North and the
South over the issue of slavery. Then, in the autumn of eighteen fifty-nine,
the crisis seemed to calm.
extremists governed only a few states of the North. And pro-slavery extremists
held power in only a few states of the deep South. There had been elections in
most of the northern and southern states. Voters had rejected candidates with
extremist ideas and elected moderates instead.
saw the elections as a sign of hope that reasonable people might find a way to
settle the bitter dispute over slavery.
hopes fell apart on October seventeenth, eighteen fifty-nine. That day brought the
news that a group of Abolitionists had attacked the town of Harpers Ferry. The
town was then part of Virginia; today it is part of West Virginia.
Moyles and Harry Monroe continue our story.
was led by John Brown, an old anti-slavery extremist. Many believed him insane.
He had gone to Kansas and fought bitterly against pro-slavery forces. Once, to
answer an attack on the town of Lawrence, Brown and his men pulled five men and
boys from their homes and murdered them.
of one of the men said Brown told her: "If a man stands between me and
what I believe to be right, I will take his life as coolly as I would eat my
a son in a pro-slavery attack on his home at Osawatomie, Kansas. Brown and his
friends were forced to flee. They watched as the pro-slavery men burned the
shook with grief and anger. "I have only a short time to live," he
said, "only one death to die. And I will die fighting for this cause.
There will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done for. I will give
them something else to do than to extend slave territory. I will carry this war
into the South."
To fight a
war against slavery, Brown needed money and guns. He went to Massachusetts and
New York. He spoke at town meetings and met privately with Abolitionist
private talks, Brown said it was too late to settle the slave question through
politics or any other peaceful way. He said the only answer was a slave
rebellion. It would be bloody, Brown said, and this was terrible. But slavery itself
was a terrible wrong -- the same as murder. Only blood, he said, would wash
away the wrongs of slavery.
God meant for him to begin this rebellion by invading Virginia with a military
force he already was organizing. Brown said even if the rebellion failed, it
would probably lead to a civil war between North and South. In such a war, he
said, the North would break the chains of the black man on the battlefield.
the support of a group of Abolitionist leaders. They formed a secret committee
and called themselves the "Secret Six." They agreed to advise Brown
and, more importantly, to raise one thousand dollars for him.
England, Brown went to Chatham, Canada. He went there for a secret convention
he had called to form a revolutionary government. This government would rule
all the slave territory that Brown and his men could capture.
representatives went to the convention -- thirty-four Negroes and twelve
whites. Brown told them of his plan. He said he was sure that southern slaves
were ready for rebellion. He said they would rise up at the first sign of a
leader who wished to break their chains.
what if troops are brought against you?" one man asked.
answered that his men would fight in the mountains, where a small force could
stop a much larger one. He said his men would be well-trained in mountain
fighting. Brown said he expected his small force to grow much larger. He would
invite the slaves he freed to join his army. And, he said he thought that all
the free Negroes of the North would come to fight slavery with him.
representatives approved Brown's constitution. And they named him
decided to strike at Harpers Ferry, a town of about twenty-five hundred people.
It was in northern Virginia about one hundred kilometers north of Washington.
Harpers Ferry was built on a narrow finger of land where the Shenandoah River
flowed into the Potomac River. There were two bridges. One crossed the
Shenandoah. The other, a railroad bridge, crossed the Potomac to Maryland.
chose Harpers Ferry because there was a factory there that made guns for the
army. There also was an arsenal where several million dollars worth of military
equipment was kept. Brown needed the guns and equipment for the slave army he
hoped to form.
arrived at Harpers Ferry early in July, eighteen fifty-nine. Two of his sons,
Owen and Oliver, and another man came with him. They rented an old house on a
farm in Maryland not far from Harpers Ferry. Brown told people that he was a
cattle buyer from New York.
men joined him, one or two at a time, over the next several months. They
traveled at night so no one would see them. Once they reached the farm house,
they had to stay in hiding.
week, the little force grew. But it grew too slowly. By the end of summer,
there were still less than twenty men hiding in the old house.
wrote letters to his supporters in the North. He asked for more money and more
men. He got little of either. His supporters were afraid. Too many people knew
of Brown's plans. The "Secret Six" feared they would face criminal
charges if Brown attacked Harpers Ferry.
men grew tired of the small, crowded rooms of the farm house. Brown knew he
must act soon or his young men would begin leaving.
Saturday, October fifteenth, three men arrived to join the group. One of them
brought six hundred dollars in gold for Brown's use. Brown saw the gold as a
sign that God wanted him to act. He told his men they would strike the next
religious services Sunday morning and prayed for God to help him free the
slaves. Then he called his men around him to explain to them his battle plan.
seize the two bridges at Harpers Ferry and close them. Next, they would capture
the armory and the rifle factory. They would capture as many people as
possible. They would use the people as hostages for protection against any
soldiers that might be sent against them.
had no men near Harpers Ferry. Brown believed he would have all the time he
needed. He believed his only opposition might be local groups of militia. He
did not fear these civilian soldiers.
man thought he and his men could hold Harpers Ferry until slaves in the area
rebelled and joined them. Brown knew that Maryland and western Virginia were
full of people opposed to slavery. He expected many of them to come to his aid.
twenty-two men rested until dark, listening to rain hit the roof of the farm
eight o'clock, Brown called his group. "Men," he said, "get your
weapons. We are going to the Ferry."
was brought out and a horse tied to it. In the wagon were a few tools and some
extra guns. Brown climbed into the wagon and started it toward town. Two of his
men stepped out in front of the wagon, leading the way. The others walked
It was a
dark and cold night. A light rain was falling. There was no one else on the
road. After a time, they reached the high ground above the Potomac. Below them,
across the river, lay the town of Harpers Ferry. Most of the town was sleeping.
Only a few lights shone through the rain.
was ready for his final struggle against slavery.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Jack
Moyles and Harry Monroe. Transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and archives of our
programs are online, along with historical images, at voaspecialenglish.com.
Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history
series in VOA Special English.
This is program #89 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION