Thus, Jackson, a firm believer in the punishments of hell, had sent up a prayer for the salvation for the soul of John Brown, a condemned murderer whom Jackson saw- incorrectly- as a godless man. (Gwynne 24)
When two sides go to war, emotion and moral righteousness tends to consume the warring parties. John Brown raided a Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia on October 16, 1859. His intent was to capture the firearms, and use them to arm Virginia slaves. He hoped by arming all 491,000 slaves in Virginia that a revolt would spread throughout the south and free the remaining slaves. Brown was firmly convinced in the righteousness of his cause. He had a deep faith that he was carrying out the will of God. But, God would apparently did not want to grant him success in his mission. In fact, Robert E. Lee with eighty-six US marines would put an end to his grand ambitions. Thus, Brown was convicted of treason and sent to the gallows. He was hanged on December 2, 1859 in Charleston. Brown believed that he was destined for heaven. But, Jackson, who watched Brown fall and clinch with “spasmodic motions” before the “wind blew his lifeless body to and fro” was convinced that he was watching John Brown’s soul depart to eternal damnation (Gwynne 24).
John Brown’s death is instructive and relevant for several reasons. First, the immediate aftermath drove a deep division between north and south. Gwynne rightly points out that the “reaction to the event loomed larger than the event itself” (Gwynne 27). Doesn’t sound too different than the twenty-first century news drama. It’s good to know some things never change. Or is it? Nevertheless, the reaction to John Brown’s raid was like “fake news” going viral on social media. Everyone had a story to tell about the fallout. Rumors spread. In fact, Gwynne writes that while Brown was imprisoned, “rumors, meanwhile, swept the countryside: armed abolitionists were on the march; slaves were rising up; antislavery radicals were coming to Brown’s rescue (Gwynne 23). None of this was true. But, fear swept across the south. What was true was that cheering could be heard in abolitionist corners of the north. After Brown’s trial and execution, Gwynne explains that there was “an almost instant revision of history” as many Northerners came to view Brown as a hero and martyr (Gwynne 25). This reaction was met with “horror” throughout the South and especially in Virginia. To most Virginians, their state had been invaded. Northerners were suspected to be behind it in the form of “wealthy benefactors” who may have financed the raid (Gwynne 26). The dissolution of the Union seemed to be a sure thing. Both the Richmond Whig newspaper and Richmond Enquirer wrote that the event was driving the nation closer to breakup than anything had before it. Meanwhile, Jackson’s mindset seemed to change remarkably. Like many other Virginians, he became convinced that there was a plot among the free states to create a slave revolt.
Thus, in chapter two, “The Imperfect Logic of War,” I was fascinated by the human psychology of the cause. Jackson firmly believed that John Brown was going to hell, and watched the man’s brutal execution. Meanwhile, Brown believed he was going to heaven, and thought he was dying a martyr’s righteous death. Meanwhile, a firestorm of rumors and overreactions spread throughout the country. Passions were inflamed. Tempers flared. The country marched closer to war, and Thomas Jackson like most of his fellow Virginians became ever more convinced that the fight they would soon wage was the right one.