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John Brown and the Civil War: The Connecticut Connection

Controversial Torrington native plays key role in prelude to the Civil War.

The commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War this year would be incomplete without a discussion of the role that John Brown — born in Torrington, May 9, 211 years ago this week — played in its beginning.

The great-grandson of a Revolutionary War officer from Connecticut and father of 20 children himself, John Brown remains one of the most controversial characters in our history. A fiery abolitionist, Brown distinguished himself from other Northern abolitionists, such as  William Lloyd Garrison, in his extremism. Brown openly advocated the use of violence to abolish slavery, famously saying of men like Garrison: “These men are all talk. What we need is action — action!”

One of Brown’s most famous acts of violence in the name of abolitionism occurred in May of 1856 in the famous Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas. Reacting to violence visited upon abolitionists in Lawrence, Kansas, Brown and his supporters — including four of his sons—raided the homes of suspected pro-slavery advocates. Their first stop was at the Doyle house.

There, James P. Doyle and two of his sons, William and Drury — known slave catchers — were taken from their home. Brown’s son, Owen, and one of his brothers, executed the three Doyles with broadswords. John fired a bullet into the head of the elder Doyle to make sure that he was dead.

Their next stop was the Wilkinson home. A known pro-slavery advocate, Allen Wilkinson was ordered out and fatally put to the sword by Brown’s sons and followers. Crossing the Pottowatomie Creek, Brown and his followers hunted down William Sherman, brother of an avid pro-slavery advocate. He was led to the edge of Pottawatomie Creek and hacked to death with broadswords.

Undoubtedly, John Brown’s most famous action, however, was his raid on the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, VA (now West Virginia) in 1859. Colonel Robert E. Lee — then of the United States Army — put down that rebellion, but not before seven were killed and 10 were wounded. It was Brown’s intent to steal weapons from the arsenal and to give them to slaves in the South to start an armed insurrection against slavery.

One key supplier of weapons to Brown for this raid was Charles Blair of Collinsville. Blair supplied Brown with about 1,000 pikes. Brown lost two of his sons in the fight — Watson and Oliver. Brown was wounded and captured. Following a trial, Brown was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Escorted to the gallows by then Major Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, he was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859 — a martyr to the cause of abolitionism in the minds of many.

In fact, the literati of the time weighed in on Brown’s trial and execution. Victor Hugo called for sparing him and warned, prophetically, of an impending Civil War should he die. Emerson said that Brown’s execution will make the “gallows glorious like the cross.” Walt Whitman wrote about his execution.

Henry David Thoreau, who famously wrote an essay on non-violent civil disobedience, interestingly wrote an essay entitled “A Plea for Captain John Brown” — despite the fact that violence was at the center of Brown’s actions against slavery.

Aside from the Blair connection to Harper’s Ferry, another Connecticut relationship to Brown can be found in Ohio. Brown lived for many years in the northeastern part of Ohio still known as the Western Reserve. At the time, the Western Reserve was also called “New Connecticut,” as many of the residents there had emigrated from Connecticut.

In fact, that section of Ohio was once owned by Connecticut. Furthermore, as a child, Brown lived in Ohio with Jesse R. Grant, father of the future President (18th) and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant’s grandfather, Noah, from Windsor, CT, was a Revolutionary War veteran himself and represented the sixth generation of Grants living in Connecticut since 1635.

It should come as no surprise that the Western Reserve section of Ohio, populated largely by former residents of the Nutmeg State, should be a hotbed of abolitionism. The residents there were some of Brown’s most fervent supporters.

Born in Torrington, and later educated at the Morris Academy in Litchfield County, it was Brown’s intention to become a minister. Instead, he became the most ardent and controversial supporter of abolitionism in America. Nevertheless, it was religion that underpinned his principled attack against slavery. In his famous final speech at his trial on November 2, 1859, Brown stated

This court acknowledges …the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible…That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction…I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted that I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.

Two Connecticut natives played an enormous role in the run-up to the Civil War. Connecticut resident Harriet Beecher Stowe helped fuel the fires of secessionism with the publication of her famous anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. In fact, Lincoln purportedly said to her in 1862, at the White House, “So you are the little woman who wrote that book that started this great war.”

John Brown, whose ties to Connecticut are numerous, added fuel to those fires later in the same decade. Martyr? Terrorist? Fanatic? Hero? Abraham Lincoln thought he was “insane.”  One thing is for sure; his bold raid on Harper’s Ferry did indeed inflame the fears of the South toward the North’s perceived intention: the elimination of slavery in that region. Brown’s actions clearly fired emotions and set the stage for secessionism.

 

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