One person there was, . . . to whom earthly fame or human discredit seemed of very small account; who yet suffered
the extremes of both. This was John Brown, - a man who made the most common of names uncommonly famous,
and, as many said infamous; an old man when the world began to take note of him; but who yet achieved much that might seem
to be the task of young men; who, in the words of an old book, "Being perfected in a short time fulfilled a long time."
- Frank Sanborn
In 1860, John Brown was at one and the same time the most despised and deified man in the United States. Born in the small New England town of Torrington, Connecticut, mere months after the birth of a new century in 1800, he died on the gallows in Charles Town, (West) Virginia in 1859, on the eve of civil war. In four short years, he went from being a little known sheep farmer and wool dealer to one of the most famous (or infamous) men in the country.
John Brown became a household name in a struggle that increasingly divided the country by the 1850s—whether slavery would spread, or even survive, in the United States. When he and his small band of men attacked the federal armory at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, he forced men and women to take a position, not only about the issue of slavery but also about Brown’s choice of method to end it. John Brown may not have started the Civil War in Harpers Ferry, but he almost certainly made imminent the day when the “irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces,” of which William H. Seward had spoken a year earlier, would rend in two the fabric of the nation, and it would be decided once and for all whether the United States would be “entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.”
In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia Archives and History has created an online exhibit—“’His Soul Goes Marching On’: The Life and Legacy of John Brown.” Archives and History is fortunate to have the Boyd B. Stutler Collection, one of the largest collections of John Brown memorabilia in existence, which was assembled by the late authority on John Brown. The Stutler Collection, which includes original letters of Brown, his family, and associates, as well as photographs and other materials, forms the basis of the online exhibit.
Through this exhibit, historians, students, and others interested in John Brown and the impact of his life on the country’s history have the opportunity to see the images and read the words of the documents surrounding his life. Archives and History is also pleased to offer as part of this online exhibit a series of lesson plans for teachers to use in presenting this important subject to students of both West Virginia and United States history. These will be found in the Table of Contents for the online exhibit.
Archives and History welcomes inquiries about “’His Soul Goes Marching On’: The Life and Legacy of John Brown.” Comments or questions about the content of the online exhibit should be directed to Mary Johnson, and those regarding the accompanying lesson plans should be directed to Bryan Ward. In addition to e-mail, both staff members may be reached by telephone at (304) 558-0230.