Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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How did John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry influence the Civil War's outcome?

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The raid at Harpers Ferry had several immediate effects which can be seen as not only causative with regard to the war, but also having a bearing on the way the war was fought and, possibly, its outcome.

Prior to Brown's raid, the Southern militia system barely existed. A man attempting to start a rising of enslaved people, though it was easily stopped, led the Southern states to expand and to organize their militias with large numbers of volunteers. These militias then became the nuclei of the Confederate armies when war broke out a year and a half later. The raid also convinced Southerners that not just John Brown but other Northerners intended to free the enslaved people and to abolish the institution of slavery, not merely to "contain" it by excluding it from the territories, as the platform of Lincoln and his party would be the following year (1860).

The reaction in the North to Brown's raid was that Brown began to be seen as a martyr even by people who were not especially committed to abolition. Though his tactics were decried by most people (including Lincoln), the cause for which Brown stood was central to the conflict between North and South. This had always been the case, but the spectacular (and doomed) act of violence perpetrated by Brown had the effect of inflaming people on both sides. All of these factors led, however indirectly, to secession first by the Southern states a year later and to a protracted war in which both sides would not back down over the issues at the root of the conflict. In answering your question as to whether the raid affected the outcome of the war, we cannot give a direct yes or no because there were so many intervening things that happened in the span from October, 1859 to April, 1865. Brown's legacy, throughout the conflict, was an inspiration to many of the Union troops, as the song "John Brown's Body," which then became the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," indicates. But that legacy also could have made the Confederates wish even more to fight to the death, given their fear that what Brown intended—the liberation of the enslaved people—was inevitable with Union victory, as it in fact was.

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John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 was important in understanding the nation's culture before the war. John Brown attempted to launch a slave revolt by raiding the national arsenal at Harper's Ferry. The revolt was put down by men who would figure prominently in the Civil War, most notably Robert E. Lee and James Ewell Brown Stuart. Many people viewed the raid differently. Some abolitionists cheered the raid and viewed Brown as a martyr when he was hung. Southerners viewed him as a terrorist and accused many prominent abolitionists of funding this raid. While some abolitionists did extend aid to Brown's cause, it was never proven that they knew all of the details of his mission. The divisiveness over John Brown's fate proved that the nation now viewed slavery as its most polarizing issue, and both sides were willing to go to war to ensure that their side was the one that prevailed. During the Civil War, a popular song with Union troops was "John Brown's Body" ; it had the same tune as "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The Southern leadership feared a slave uprising until the last, waiting until March 1865 to offer freedom for slaves who fought for the Confederate cause; by that point, of course, the war was nearly over.

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John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry helped lead to the Civil War. There had been a series of events in the 1850s that pushed the United States closer to a civil war. When John Brown attacked a federal arsenal in the hope of starting a slave revolt, southerners were concerned. When some northerners praised him and viewed him as a martyr, southerners were dismayed. For some southerners, this was another sign that a civil war was unavoidable. After this raid failed, the voices of people who were promoting a compromise solution to the issues affecting the North and the South began to fade. After Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, secession was a reality for many southern states.

John Brown’s raid affected the outcome of the Civil War because it showed the North was becoming increasingly in favor of ending slavery completely. Even though Abraham Lincoln said he would allow slavery to remain where it already existed in order to keep the country united, many southerners believed this promise would not be kept. After the Civil War began, the Union became more focused on ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, freed the slaves in the South. The North was now fighting to end slavery as well as to preserve the Union. European countries, which had recently ended slavery, now knew the United States was serious about ending slavery.

John Brown’s raid was an important event in pushing the United States closer to a civil war.

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On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and his 22 followers staged an armed attack on the town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown's intention was to seize control of the US armory in Harpers Ferry and use the guns contained there to arm the slaves, setting off a rebellion that would end slavery in the United States.

Brown and his family had a long history of involvement in radical abolitionism. For the several years before the raid, Brown and his sons were prominent figures in the violent guerrilla conflict between abolitionist and pro-slavery forces in Kansas. After pro-slavery guerrillas raided the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence in 1856, Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery men living along Pottawatomie Creek in a retaliatory raid. In 1857, Brown left Kansas for the east coast to raise money and recruit men for his planned attack on Harpers Ferry.

Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a tactical failure, as his tiny uprising was crushed by U.S. forces led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart—two men who became Confederate generals when the Civil War started less than two years later. Brown was hung for treason, although not before making a final statement that "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."

However, Brown's tactical failure was a strategic victory. With his violent attack on Harpers Ferry, the mood of the nation became completely polarized. People were no longer willing to search for yet another compromise on the question of slavery and became determined to fight it out and resolve the issue once and for all. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, a total of 11 states eventually seceded and declared their independence as the Confederate States of America.

In the Civil War that followed, 620,000 soldiers on both sides were killed before the Confederacy eventually surrendered in 1865. Slavery was abolished in the United States just six years after Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry. Although the raid happened before what most people think of as the official beginning of the Civil War, it arguably made the Civil War inevitable.

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