Yet by the end of 1865, America's slaves were all free. Did Brown's mad scheme work after all? Was his blood sacrifice the lever that set the whole avalanche -- secession, war, emancipation -- in motion? North and South, millions of people thought so. If so, was that a crime or a heroic act? At least 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, more than in all our other wars put together. Should Brown be blamed for their deaths or praised for liberating the enslaved?
I should note that while white Americans have long been ambivalent about Brown, black Americans have not. To most blacks, Brown has always been a hero, plain and simple. Frederick Douglass explained why in a speech he gave in Harper's Ferry in 1879:
His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine - it was as the burning sun to my taper light - mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.
A few wonderful details: one of the wealthy abolitionists who backed Brown, the "secret six", remarked in a letter to another that while Brown's plan seemed doomed, "He is the stuff of which martyrs are made."
The bodies of Brown's men killed in the fighting were carried away by medical students for dissection; Brown's own body was spared this fate by the personal intervention of Virginia governor Henry Wise, who responded with great courtesy to a plea from Brown's wife.
Robert E. Lee hated everything about his assignment and was deeply disturbed both by Brown's act and by the savage vituperation of Harper's Ferry civilians toward Brown's men.
Brown's daughter Annie stayed with the raiders at the Maryland farmhouse they rented while they made their final preparations, and she often said how much she regretted being sent away before the shooting started. When the Civil War began she complained bitterly that she could not join the fighting. In 1863 she finally found a way to go south herself, teaching freed slaves how to read in a school at a plantation that had been seized from Governor Wise.
I was once moved by the argument that slavery was doomed for economic reasons and would soon have died out even without the war, which was therefore unnecessary. Now I doubt it. So far as we can tell, slaves remained very good investments right down to 1860, and had lost none of their economic value; and rather than moving toward emancipation, Southern white opinion was only growing more fixed in favor of slavery with every passing year. I have come around to the opinion expressed with great power by former governor Wise, in 1866:
God knew that we could be torn away from our black idol of slavery only by the destroying angel of war.John Brown was that dark angel's herald, blowing the trumpet that unlocked the first seal of America's Armageddon.