By Doug Coleman
HELTER SKELTER AT HARPERS FERRY
Less than a year ago, Dylan Roof murdered nine people and wounded one more at a black Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This was not a random act of violence. Roof had an agenda, as set forth in his manifesto on his website, the Last Rhodesian. He was trying to spark a race war which would definitively “solve” America’s racial conflicts. In fact his victims died forgiving him and Charleston did not explode. However, because the little thug had taken selfies with the Confederate flag, he provided an excuse for the easily-triggered to demand that all things Confederate be obliterated. In Alexandria, there is presently an effort on to remove “Appomattox” and rename streets commemorating Democrats who fought for the Confederacy.
Roof was not exactly plowing new ground in trying to start a race war. In July and August of 1969, a creepy Jesus-wannabe named Charles Manson orchestrated a series of nine murders in Southern California, most famous of whom was the lovely and very pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife of film-maker Roman Polanski. The Manson family wrote words on the wall in blood – “piggies” and “helter skelter” – and carved “war” into one of the victim’s abdomen. Turns out the Manson family had an agenda too – to start and exploit a genocidal conflict which would leave the “family” in charge of America.
Manson called his plan “Helter Skelter”, after the song on the Beatles’ White Album. Manson planned to trigger a cascade of events through the release of an album of his own, which would attract all the pretty hippie chicks from Haight-Ashbury to the Manson family’s secret underground lair in Death Valley. Deprived of Dead-dancing white women, black men would become sexually frustrated and take it out on white people generally. This in turn would cause racist whites to retaliate and then the conflict would spread when non-racist whites began fighting the racist whites to protect blacks. Pretty much all of the white people in America would thus be exterminated in short order. But the surviving blacks would eventually figure out they were not smart enough to run things, at which point Manson would emerge from his desert retreat, take over everything and usher in some sort of hippie utopia. The point of the carnage in summer of 1969 was to get this process rolling. One really can’t make this stuff up and some people think Charles Manson was crazy. For much more, read Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders.
Every bit as creepy as Charles Manson was John Brown, arguably America’s first domestic terrorist. Brown is of course famous as an anti-slavery “activist.” Manson had to recruit his family; Brown had twenty children of his own, some of whom fought beside him in his abolitionist crusade.
Brown began taking his abolitionism to extremes when he moved his family to Kansas in the mid-1850s so as not to miss out on the prequel to the Civil War. In “Bleeding Kansas” proslavery forces were fighting anti-slavery settlers to establish Kansas as a slave state, like adjacent Missouri. Things came to a head when a troop of pro-slavery good old boys sacked anti-slavery Lawrence on May 21. 1856 (Quantrill’s raiders would do it again seven years later). An outraged Brown vowed revenge. Brown with seven others (including some of his sons) retaliated in a night raid against the proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on May 24th. Even though no one had died at Lawrence, Brown slew five of the settlers, some of whom were hacked to death with broadswords. Brown was now a federal fugitive and had to flee Kansas; the conflict he left behind claimed over 200 lives by the end of the year.
Brown’s “direct action” approach made him the darling of the northern abolitionists. By 1858 he had managed to recruit a company of like-minded extremists, including three of his sons, whose purpose was to overthrow slavery by igniting a slave revolt. Late in 1858, he met secretly in Ohio with six money men and proposed to establish a refuge in the mountains of Virginia where escaped slaves might flee and which would be the base for a wider revolt. He met with Frederick Douglass and Douglass probably had at least some knowledge of this plan. Many other Northerners contributed money to Brown’s cause, clueless that they were making themselves accessories to treason.
In 1859 Brown and his gang moved to Virginia and rented a farm near Harpers Ferry. After months of preparation, Brown and 21 fellow zealots seized the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. They managed to accidentally shoot Hayward Shepherd, a free black working for the railroad. Mayor Fontaine Beckham was also killed. Soon armed citizens and local militia forced Brown’s gang to take refuge in a railroad engine house. Local blacks failed to rise.
Lieutenant Israel Green was dispatched with a company of 86 Marines. A messenger found Colonel Robert E. Lee at the counter of Leadbeater’s Apothecary in Alexandria; Lee was ordered to assume command of the Marines and proceed to the arsenal to deal with the fanatics. J.E.B. Stuart served as Lee’s aide. They arrived on October 18th to reinforce the locals. Stuart approached the engine house to negotiate a surrender. Brown wanted a running start. Stuart said nothing doing, the best he could do was keep the locals from lynching Brown and make sure he received a trial. Brown refused. The Marines battered down the door and killed 10 of the terrorists, capturing the rest. Brown himself was wounded. Two of his three sons present did not survive, one being gunned down by townsfolk as he tried to negotiate a truce.
Brown lived to be tried and used his trial as a bully-pulpit to promote his cause, portraying himself as the avenging arm of the Lord, an Old Testament prophet martyring himself to the cause of Abolition. The Yankee press ate it up and sympathizers called for his release. Virginians were less excited about a slave uprising and sent him to the gallows in December 1859. Witnesses document the hangman’s drop as less than three feet; i.e., the Commonwealth deliberately prescribed a protracted death from strangulation versus instant death by a broken neck. Such was the fear of a rescue attempt or other trouble that VMI cadets were dispatched to provide an additional military presence. VMI’s instructor Stonewall Jackson was there in command of two howitzers. Four more conspirators were hung later in December and another two in March 1860. Some of those executed were denied burial as medical cadavers. Of the four who got away, two would die in the war they helped start. Brown’s son Owen took the remaining family to California, surviving the war to die in his bed at 64.
The real significance of Brown’s raid was to convince the South that it could no longer coexist with the North. A crazy man, apparently with a lot of Northern money and encouragement, had just tried to ignite a revolt which would have cost thousands of lives. The North thought that guy was a hero – for the Left, the end always justifies the means. Brown was the last straw and finds his way into the seceding states’ articles of secession as a cause for grievance. Mississippi, for example: “[The North] has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.” And who could blame them? Imagine how Californians might have felt if half the country had lionized the Manson family because Californians “had it coming?” Roof, Manson, Brown – three psychos with a common notion to start a race war. 150 years on, is it possible that John Brown has a lot more in common with Timothy McVeigh than Martin Luther King?
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at email@example.com.