Saturday, February 24, 2007

John Brown's Song

John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, for his conviction of treason after a failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virgina. Brown's assault on the armory - an attempt to arm slaves for an uprising against their oppressors - was repelled by a force of men led by none other than Robert E. Lee, who would soon fight the abolitionists and the Union as a Confederate States General in the American Civil War.

Initial dispatches from Harper's Ferry described an armed attacking force of 250 white men and a "gang of negroes." The situation was painted dire, with the town reported under the control of Brown and his men. In reality, Brown's rebellion included himself and 21 others, including two of his sons, one who was killed by Lee's men while surrendering under a white flag. Five of the raiders were black. At least one of those five was compelled by more than love for his fellow man. Dangerfield Newby had a more personal stake: His wife was still being held as a slave.

John Brown's 'insurrection' - fueled mainly by his strong religious convictions - was viewed in a poor light by many at the time. Although the abolition of slavery was a common cause for many folks, Brown's often violent methods were more often than not frowned upon by the abolitionists who preferred softer strategies. After his hanging, though, and with a civil war over slavery and secession looming that would involve 3 million fighting men and 600,000 battlefield deaths, John Brown's exploits became legendary among abolitionists and the downtrodden and were captured in plays and song and the like.

One of the songs that preserved the memory of this man who was ahead of his time, was known by various names, including 'John Brown's Body' and 'John Brown's a-Hangin' on a Sour Apple Tree.' It's better known to folks today as 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' by Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the current words to the song after hearing Union soldiers singing 'John Brown's Body' at an encampment on the Potomac. The page below comes from a five-page 1862 pamphlet that includes two other versions of the song, including the 'Battle Hymn,' and 'Brave McClellan is Our Leader Now.'

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

Song pages source: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress,Sheet Music from the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Digital ID: scsm0013

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