“John Brown’s body lies a mouldr’n in his grave . . .” The words and music are American, but the song remembering Brown and what happened to him is truly international. In the Spanish Catholic church there is even a hymn sung to the same music, though few priests will admit it.
Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800. His family was religious, and strongly affected by insanity. As he grew up he became convinced that he had been placed on Earth especially by God to save the blacks and abolish slavery. In 1851, at Springfield, Mass., he organised a black defence group called The League of Gileadites, trained to attack slave-catchers, help escaped slaves to the North on the ’Underground Railroad’, and prevent captured slaves from being returned to the South. As part of a band of the Free Soilers, in 1856 his men savagely murdered five pro-slavery farmers at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas.
It is said that Brown himself did not strike a single blow, but he had approved and orchestrated the killing; four of his sons, Owen, Frederic, Salmon and John Jun. thought their father stark mad and said so. Frederic died in the assault. Not content with this, three years later it was his intention to stir up a slave rebellion in the South; by now he had already married twice and had twenty children altogether.
It is by no means certain when he first got the idea of invadingVirginia, but in the winter of 1854/55 he was discussing an armed raid on Harper’s Ferry. In October 1859 Brown and twenty-one followers, including many of his sons, raided the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Unfortunately for Brown this action did nothing to incite the local slaves to revolt against their masters, and the local militia, reinforced by full-time soldiers under Robert E. Lee (q.v.) stormed the arsenal and captured Brown.
He was nearly sixty years old, a frightening but never frightened old man.
In the trial that followed John Brown impressed many in the courtroom with his indefatigable dignity, and refusal to plead insanity for which there was much evidence. The court found him guilty and sentenced him and five others to death. They were hanged in public on2 December, 1859. It was a mistake, thoiugh he had certainly been responsible for violence and killing. On the day he died church bells rang funereally all day right across the North. No less a personage than Emerson said Brown was ‘a new saint awaiting martyrdom’. He had become an icon among abolutionists.
Thomas B. Bishop had already written a song called Gone to be a Soldier in the Army of the Lord and now he added a few verses which Unionist soldiers would be singing as they marched to battle in the impending American Civil War – John Brown’s body lies a ‘ mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on’.
The short-term effect in the South of Brown’s lunatic escapades was different: the North’s approval of the Raid at Harper’s Ferry convinced Southerners that the North intended to abolish slavery and was preparing for war. This convinced them that the South should secede just as soon as a Republican President was elected.