John Brown’s body

About twenty years ago, in quieter less delirious times, we were visiting Harper’s ferry in West Virginia and took part in a history walk. The town was full of tour guides dressed in period costume and uniforms and talking in character. A soldier in union blue told us that the town was under military occupation, full of Confederate sympathisers, and under continual threat from Confederate raiders like John Singleton Mosby; and he was keeping a close eye on the market stall in front of him to keep control of smuggling.

A lively young woman in a bonnet, who’d told us the story of John Brown’s raid and attempted slave rebellion in 1859 – in which Brown’s aim to seize the arsenal in the town, then march south along the Appalachians raiding plantations and raising an army of freed slaves came to grief when he was defeated by a company of marines commanded by Robert E Lee, arrested and hung- also set us up for the debate on secession that began the civil war two years later… in which John Brown’s soul went marching on and he achieved posthumous revenge.

Having set out the issues – among which were the divergent pull of loyalty to Virginia combined with significant slave owning in rural areas, pulling against urban employment being heavily boosted by federal contracts for the Armoury (1) – she asked us, when we got to the next stop on the walk, to divide according to how we would have voted – secede and join the Confederacy to one side – or remain with the Union on the other.

Until that point everyone had seemed, and probably perceived each other, to be a common body of (mostly) modern, well off, middle class white Americans with broadly shared assumptions. But when the crowd physically divided there was a slight majority for the Confederacy. The two sides stared at each other across a physical gap that was far smaller than the fracture between their visions of the country they thought they were living in.  I found myself weighing them up in case it came to blows.

The cockahoop smirks on their side and the odd smartass comment- “They’re only votin’ that way to keep their jobs” (2) – and the affronted looks of shock and betrayal on ours – turned a piece of historical play acting into a sign of dangerous times; in which this old fracture in the framework of the nation might again render it incapable of containing the incompatible visions within it.

1 “By 1860 the use of slave labor in West Virginia was about 48% in agriculture, 16% in commerce, 21% in industry and 15% in mixed occupations”.

2. The young woman in the bonnet had explained that the town’s largest employers had been very strongly against the Confederacy.

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