Two words: John and Brown

Published:October 12, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Heyward Shepherd

Speaking of anniversaries, we’re four days away from October 16, the 150th anniversary of John Brown‘s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The West Virginia Archives & History has a new online presentation on the man and his famous attempt to start a slave rebellion. As anyone who has read about the raid knows, the action started with a symbolic hostage-taking and an accidental (and tragically ironic) death:

Several raiders, led by Aaron Stevens, left on a mission to capture Jefferson County slaveowner John Allstadt and Lewis W. Washington, great grand-nephew of George Washington, and to take possession of a pistol and sword that had belonged to the late president. The men then returned to town with Washington, the pistol and sword, Allstadt and his son, and 10 slaves, arriving at Harpers Ferry between 4 and 5 o’clock in the morning. In the meantime, the Baltimore and Ohio train was stopped about 1:30 a.m. and African American baggage handler Heyward Shepherd was mortally wounded, ironically becoming the first casualty of John Brown’s Raid.

Now it turns out that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have declared a holiday to honor poor Heyward Shepherd. Kevin Levin is not impressed:

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.

Kevin is right that the loyal slave is a fixture of the Lost Cause, which you can read more about here. If talking about genre writing and Stephen King is a good way to start a fight with writers, then all you need with historians are two words: John and Brown.

IMAGE: Detail from Heyward Shepherd, sketch by David Henderson (Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives)


2 Comments on “Two words: John and Brown”

  1. Terry

    I think what the SCV are pointing out is the irony of the fact that Brown, who in modern times would be called a terrorist, is supposedly there to free the slaves. Who does he kill first? A black person. Brown was a nut who was used for propaganda purposes. By the way, who is Kevin Levin and why does what he think merit any attention in this discussion?

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    I guess, Terry, the same question could be asked of you.

    That said, I tend to boringly take the complicated view of these things. Calling Brown a “nut” or a “terrorist” doesn’t mean all that much because you and I possibly have different ways in which we understand those words.

    My question to you, or to the SCV if they are not the same, is why is calling attention to this irony so important? Is John Brown’s hatred for slavery something that bothers you?

    Or perhaps it’s that he is considered in some quarters to be a hero for a raid on Harpers Ferry that, at best, was treasonous. Of course, Robert E. Lee’s donning of a Confederate uniform was, at best, also treasonous. That’s another irony of Harpers Ferry, I guess.

    Whatever the case, my place isn’t to take a stand on these issues. But I’m happy to give you space to tell me more:

    Why is this irony so important?

    Did John Brown and his men deliberately kill Shepherd?

    What do you mean by “nut” and “terrorist”?

    Do you object to abolitionist propaganda? Why?

    And what’s your beef with Kevin Levin?

    In the meantime, thanks for your comment.

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