Report #19 from Abe, Robert E., & Ulysses: Sept. 21, 2001



John Brown, the Abolitionist:
Abe: In
Report #18, Sacagawea told you about the lovely town of Lake Placid, New York, and about the Olympic Training Centers here. In the shadows of the towering ski jumps lies a small farm just outside of the town. It is famous for the fact it was once the home of the fiery abolitionist, John Brown, and is now the site of his final resting place. Photo: Robert E., Ulysses, and me with Mary at the entrance to the John Brown Farm site.

Ulysses: Did you ever hear the song, "John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave?" The song is sung to the tune of one of America's most favorite hymns, "the Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Robert E.: But the original John Brown of the song is not the same John Brown whose body is buried beside a huge boulder in North Elba, New York.

Abe: John Brown of North Elba was actually born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, but soon after his family moved to Ohio. This was only the first of many moves John Brown made in his nearly sixty years of life. As a young man, he studied to become a minister, but his eyes were poor, and he soon had to give up his studies. Then he became a tanner (working with leather), as well as a farmer and surveyor. He married when he was twenty. He and his wife, Dianthe, moved to Randolph, Pennsylvania, where he built a tannery as well as organized a church, built a school, and served as the village's postmaster. During the next twelve years, they had seven children. When Dianthe died, John moved his family back to Ohio, and married his second wife, Mary Ann. Together, they had thirteen more children. Photo: John Brown.

Ulysses: Around 1846, John Brown learned of the abolitionist movement in the Northern states. Abolitionists thought the enslavement of African Americans in the South was morally wrong, and they worked to pass laws that would set the slaves free.

Robert E.: One of these abolitionists was a man named Gerrit Smith who bought up large parcels of rugged farmland in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Smith offered farm plots to the free African Americans in New York. He envisioned a special community of free African Americans , and he called it "Timbucto." John Brown was fired up by this idea, and he moved his large family to the Adirondacks where he settled on one of Gerrit Smith's farms. Here John Brown set about to help the new settlement grow by surveying the land for the free African Americans, assisting them in building their farms, and planting their crops. Unfortunately, Timbucto did not thrive, and many of the would-be settlers moved away to climates that were warmer and less harsh. Photo: Abe and Mary outside the farmhouse where John Brown and his family lived.

"Bleeding Kansas"
Abe: Meanwhile, some of John Brown's older sons, who were now grown up and married, had moved to Kansas, where there was a great deal of bickering and outright fighting over the question whether or not Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state.

Ulysses: In fact, the fighting was so bad, this western state soon became known in the east as "Bleeding Kansas."

Robert E.: John Brown's sons were fighting to keep Kansas a free state. When John heard of this, he went out to Kansas to give his aid. Mary Ann and the younger children stayed on the farm in North Elba and worked the rocky land. In Kansas, the abolitionist cause inflamed John Brown with a religious fervor, and he waged a number of bloody skirmishes to win freedom for the slaves of Kansas. During the next three years, John Brown increased his war-like campaigns against slavery while attracting a following of like-minded men -- including several of Brown's sons.

Raid on Harpers Ferry:
Abe: On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his small band of followers attacked the U. S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia), with the idea they would capture a large number of rifles with which to arm the slaves. John Brown envisioned a slave uprising that would sweep the South, thus ending slavery for all time.

Ulysses: Though his intentions were good, John Brown had overstepped the loose bounds of the law. By attacking a government instillation with the idea of forming a rebellion, John Brown had committed treason in the eyes of the law. Robert E. Lee, then a colonel in the United States Army, was sent quickly to Harpers Ferry to put down the attackers. Photo: Robert E. Lee.

Robert E.: John Brown and his men, including several of his sons, sought refuge inside the fire house at Harpers Ferry. After a bloody battle, during which two of John Brown's sons were killed, the abolitionist was captured on October 18.

Abe: John Brown was imprisoned at Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia), and was tried and found guilty of treason. On December 6, 1859, John Brown was hanged outside of Charlestown. His last wish was to be buried on his farm back in the peaceful Adirondack Mountains. Six days after John Brown's execution, his body as well as those of his sons, was buried by a boulder a few yards from his farmhouse.

Ulysses: Within two years of John Brown's death, America was engaged in a bloody war to settle the question of slavery. Many people saw the attack on Harpers Ferry not as an act of treason, but as a praiseworthy endeavor.

John Brown's Farm:
Robert E.: Mary Ann Brown remained on the farm until 1863, when she moved to California in order to escape her husband's notoriety. She sold the land in 1866, to a local farmer. In 1870, a group of John Brown's admirers purchased the farm with the idea of turning it into a memorial. In 1895, the farm was donated to the State of New York as a historic site. Photo: Mary and Abe admire the life-size bronze statue of John Brown with a slave boy sculpted by Joseph P. Pollia. It was unveiled on the welcome circle on May 9, 1935, on the 135th anniversary of John Brown's birth. You can see the farmhouse in the background.

Abe: But the John Brown who rests in peace there is not the same John Brown who was immortalized in song.

John Brown of Boston:
Ulysses: That John Brown was a young Scottish immigrant who was a member of the 2nd Battalion Boston Light Infantry in 1861. Because of his name, the soldier was teased by his comrades in arms. To while away the tedious hours of camp life, members of the Boston Light Infantry formed a singing group. Among them was John Brown, the Scotsman. One of the many songs they loved to sing was an old hymn called, "Glory, Glory Hallelujah."

Robert E.: One of John Brown's fellow songsters improvised a new line to the verse of "Glory" and sang "John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave," much to the amusement of the 2nd Battalion Boston Light Infantry as well as the embarrassment of a very lively John Brown. Soon more verses were added. Other Federal units heard the song and took up the refrain. It made a great marching song. Most of the soldiers who sang it thought they were singing about the abolitionist John Brown -- not John Brown of Boston. Photo: John Brown, the abolitionist.

Battle Hymn of the Republic:
Abe: "John Brown's Body" was sung during a review of the Union Army of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., in late 1861. Among the spectators was Julia Ward Howe, who had known the original John Brown and was a great admirer of his. A friend suggested Mrs. Howe compose more appropriate lyrics to the song. The next morning, Julia rose before dawn and set down the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The new verses quickly were adapted to the old tune, and the song became an inspiration, not only for the embattled Union forces during the Civil War, but down through the years to the present day. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is now one of our country's most beloved patriotic songs.

Neither of the John Browns ever heard the "Battle Hymn." The abolitionist had been "a-mouldering in his grave" two years before Julia Ward Howe wrote it. And John Brown of Boston died very early in the Civil War. He too never heard the ultimate song that his name had inspired.


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