Shortly before reading A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, I read what is regarded as one of the “finest one-volume chronicles” of the U.S. Civil War (according to the Wall Street Journal blurb on the cover), James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Although his Pulitzer Prizewinning text is well written and flush with footnotes citing a wealth of sources, it presents a far different picture of the Harper’s Ferry “raid,” and of Brown’s raiders. McPherson paints the picture of a Brown who is driven by a leaden sense of fatalism, and is driven by a leaden sense of fatalism, and suggests the very notion of fomenting insurrection in the South was “strange,” if not “apparently insane.”‘
Anderson’s account informs us that the action was influenced by the very real danger of detection by neighbors of the Washington County, Maryland, farmhouse where the men were training and assembling arms, and the delay of reinforcements from other areas: Not being satisfied as to the real business of “J. Smith & Sons” [Brown’s nom de guerre—M.A.-J.] after that, and learning that several thousand stand of arms were to be removed by the Government from the Armory to some other point, threats to search the premises were made against the encampment. A tried friend having given information of the state of public feeling without, and of the intended process.
Captain Brown and party concluded to strike a blow immediately, and not, as at first intended. to await certain reinforcement: from the North and East, which would have been in Maryland within one and three weeks. Could other parties, waiting for the word, have reached headquarters in time for the outbreak when it took place. the taking of the armory, engine house, and rifle factory, would have been quite different. [Emphasis factory, would have been quite different. [Emphasis added]  Anderson, as an African in the Americas (he lived for a time in Chatham in Ontario), saw the wiry “Osawatomie Brown” as a kind of Moses, who was “chosen by God to this great work.” “This great war ” was the liberation of oppressed, and the establishment, if successful, of a new nation founded on freedom, not slavery.
Anderson was present and active at the Provisional Constitutional Convention held at Chatham, a free Black community of refugees from Yankee bondage, where a Constitution was adopted “for the proscribed and oppressed people ‘of the United States of America.”‘ Officers of the Provisional Government, members of Congress, and Secretary of State were elected at the convention. Anderson himself was named to Congress. Congress. While McPherson devotes several lines to Chatham, Anderson’s invaluable account is not cited, and his name doesn’t appear in the text, the footnotes, nor the index. It would have invaluably enriched his account, and given a unique perspective that is often missing from “history.”
For example, McPherson paints a picture of Black betrayal of Brown, and quotes a Black recruit from Cleveland who failed to show up, thus: “I am disgusted with myself and the whole Negro set, God dam’ em!”  As the only Black survivor of the seizure of Harper’s Ferry, as one who escaped the slave —holder’s hanging for armed revolt, and as one who bore arms in defense of freedom and in furtherance of the establishment of a free Black republic in the mountains of the Appalachians, Anderson was in a perfect position to speak to the issue of slave position to speak to the issue of slave betrayal. Instead, he sees none. He found the slaves supportive and overjoyed by the revolt, and counts them among the first to fall from the armed conflict. He was among the contingent that visited the plantations, where he found “the greatest enthusiasm”: [J]oy and hilarity beamed from every countenance.
One old mother, white-haired from age, and borne down with the labors of many years in bonds, when told of the work in hand, replied: “God bless you! God bless you!” Anderson found volunteers, who stepped forward “manfully” to assist the cause. Indeed, the only hesitation he found was among so-called “free” Blacks: “A dark complexioned free-born man refused to take up arms. He showed the only want of confidence in the movement, and far less courage than any slave consulted about the plan.” The truth of the Harper’s Ferry “raid,” as it has been The truth of the Harper’s Ferry “raid,” as it has been called, in regard to the part taken by the slaves, and the aid given by colored men generally, demonstrates clearly: First, that the conduct of the slaves is a strong guarantee of the weakness of the institution, should a favorable opportunity occur; and, secondly, that the colored people, as a body, were well represented by numbers, both in the fight, and in the number who suffered martyrdom afterward.
Of the seventeen revolutionaries who died at Harper’s Ferry, nine were Black men! Moreover, five Black men were among the twenty-three revolutionaries who waged the action, and only one (Anderson) successfully escaped the battle. This means that the majority of men who died at the Ferry were Black men; the majority of Black men who fought and died (five of nine) were slaves fighting for their freedom! Have you ever read such a thing in your history books? Have you ever even got that impression from any previous rendition of the assault of John Brown’s troops on the assault of John Brown’s troops on Harper’s Ferry? There is an old saying: “History is written by the victor.” Thus, much of what we claim to know is that which was preserved and projected by the slave-holders, who prevailed at Harper’s Ferry, aided as they were by the Virginia and Maryland militias, as well as a company of U.S. Marines.
History is also a work of suppression, and a silencing of views that challenge the prevailing narrative. Osborne Anderson’s A Voice from Harper’s Ferry shatters that silence, and speaks with a calm and moving intelligence that shows the reasons the attack was launched, the intensity of feelings which preceded it, and the genuine respect that Brown engendered in his troops. That these twenty-three men could work together, fight together, and some die together in pursuit of liberty is a powerful together in pursuit of liberty is a powerful testimony that continues to resonate in us almost a century and a half later. What you have here is hidden history, written by one who actually lived a life in resistance to a great evil——-human slavery.
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary for 2 December 1859 (the date of Brown’s execution), “This will be a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution—quite as much needed as the old one.” Some sixteen months later, Southern rebels would fire on Fort Sumter, a federal installation located in the self-described Republic of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, and a state of Civil War would be pronounced. When Union soldiers marched into Dixie, many of them were singing “John Brown’s Body.” In a sense, they were but reinforcements, who took two years to heed his call, to deliver a death blow to the hated system of human death blow to the hated system of human bondage, sounded loudly on 17 October 1859.
25 June 1999 Death Row / Waynesburg, Pa