During the weeklong celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War we shouldn’t forget some of the incidents that precipitated this fight between the Confederate Johnny Reb and Billy Yank of the Union. Among the most memorable moments before the firing on Fort Sumter that set off the “bloody conflagration between brothers,” as one historian defined it, was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
Brown, a radical abolitionist, believed the stain of slavery could only be removed by blood and with a small squadron of troops attacked the arsenal in order to acquire the weapons he needed to dispense to the slaves he aimed to emancipate.
It was a daring gambit that in one way failed and Brown has been immortalized in literature and song for his bravery, but so often lost in this raid is the role of Brown’s Black recruits—John Copeland, Dangerfield Newby, Shields Green, Lewis Leary, and Osborne Anderson, who was the only Black to survive the attack. Anderson escaped and made his way to Canada where he joined a number of runaways and wrote his account of the raid, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.
The five Black men who rode with Brown are exemplary of the African-Americans who were active agents in the fight for their liberation. Nearly 200,000 Blacks in uniform and in other capacities helped the Union defeat the Confederate Army. Among these heroic freedom fighters was Harriet Tubman who is said to have made 19 trips into the bowels of the South to rescue some 300 slaves trapped in bondage.
Black soldiers played key roles in a number of major battles, and the movie “Glory,” is only a glimpse of their “last ounce of devotion,” as President Lincoln said of the gallant men and women on the ramparts for freedom and justice.
While we commemorate the anniversary many of the vestiges of that great war remain; more than one perceptive writer and commentator has noted the continuing presence of racism and discrimination, and some forms of slavery that linger in today’s society. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow has poignantly addressed some of these issues, noting that there are more Black men and women in correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were in bondage in 1850, a decade before the Civil War erupted.
In short, the Civil War may be something we can look back on with pride and honor, and thank those who sacrificed their lives so that others might be free, but there remains a number of battlefronts where dedicated soldiers, activists, and workers are needed in order to continue the struggle for civil and human rights, for total liberation.