Exploiting John Brown’s Body

Storer_college_postcardI‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid.  There are a number of things that are disturbing here.  Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens.  Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.

What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda.  Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry.  They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves.  Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia.  The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History.  More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all?  It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day?  Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?

The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor.  If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd.  And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs.  There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave.  How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event?  Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd.  I think I have an idea.  Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.”  What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful?  Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.

This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry.  The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.

Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video.  The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above.  The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider.  As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.

Exactly what is the SCV commemorating?

Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of John Brown’s Raid – SCV Style

The Virginia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans has issued the following press release in recognition of “Hayward Shepherd Day”:


The Army of Northern Virginia of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will kick off the Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States on Saturday, October 3, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, by holding their annual meeting beginning at 10:30 at the Block house (John Brown’s Fort). The purpose of the meeting is to announce that October 16 will be known as HAYWARD SHEPHERD DAY, honoring the unfortunate black citizen who met his death as John Brown’s first victim 150 years ago.  Hayward, a faithful employee and Baggage Master of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was murdered in furtherance of John Brown’s nefarious scheme to capture the arsenal in that famous city. The SCV will honor Hayward Shepherd by placing a wreath at the 1931 marker honoring him across from the Engine House where Brown’s raid ended. Mr. Richard Hines, a well known historian from Alexandria, Virginia, will discuss the real John Brown.

Many today try to whitewash Brown’s crimes and call him a martyr. Mr. Hines will discuss Brown’s true motivations and his association with a group of famous Northern abolitionists (the Secret 6) who financed his plot and encouraged him to murder and commit crimes against his fellow Americans. The public is welcome to come see the wreath laying and hear Mr. Hines speak. [my emphasis]

Hines is a former managing editor for Southern Partisan.  The SCV’s interest in Hayward Shepherd goes back to a joint project with the UDC to erect a statue commemorating Shepherd in 1931.  [See here, here, and here]  In choosing to begin their commemoration of the Civil War with this event the SCV has solidified its place as defenders of a Lost Cause that was lost long ago.

For those of you with a more serious interest in Civil War history check out the following events/links here, here, and here.

Acknowledging a Master Historian

9780195039146As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history.  While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians.  So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography.  As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking.  I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution.  The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week.  The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.  Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out.  Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it.  It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews.  I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week.  Wood’s book was a revelation to me.  The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind.  This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before.  Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.

The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations.  I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles.  The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why.  Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood.  My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes.  With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.  The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author.  Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.

If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me.  Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals.  I make no apologies for that.  I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.