Former Washington Post reporter and editor Meyer (Chesapeake Country, 2015, etc.) rights a wrong older than the Civil War: Five African-American men made up 25 percent of John Brown’s crew at Harpers Ferry. Until the 2009 sesquicentennial, they were never mentioned.
Fleeing escapees found a safe haven in Oberlin, Ohio, an integrated city strongly linked to Brown, whose father was a trustee of the college. The Great Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, drove not only escaped slaves, but also fearful free African-Americans to move. A great number settled in Ontario and built a thriving community. Dangerfield Newby was a former slave who joined Brown to rescue his wife and children, still held in slavery and under threat of being sold south. Shields Green, an escaped slave from Charleston, was living with Frederick Douglass when Brown came seeking support from Douglass in his efforts to free the slaves. Douglass turned him down, but Green joined up. Brown held a meeting to set up a free government of liberated slaves in Virginia. Osborne Anderson served as secretary and was the only one joining Brown—chosen by lottery as it turned out. In Oberlin, John Copeland told his family he was leaving to teach in a colored school, and Lewis Leary just left his family to join the fight. It’s difficult to say if any of these men truly understood Brown’s intention to take the arsenal and use a slave army in a full-scale assault on federal power. Brown only had 19 men with him; in the end, he moved the date up by a week, preventing support from many who couldn’t get there in time. Fresh in the minds of the state and federal governments was Nat Turner’s murderous rebellion, and defenders struck back hard. Though the raid failed, it is widely viewed as the opening round of the American Civil War. The author delivers a well-researched, approachable narrative, but the final section, about the men’s descendants, is overkill.
A good book for Civil War buffs.