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The first North Carolina newspapers to report on the Raid provided drastically inaccurate accounts. Between October 19th and October 20th, three newspapers gave very different accounts of the Raid. In the Wilmington Daily Herald newspapers from October 18th to October 20th, the Raid was described as a “Negro outbreak in Virginia,” which involved “750 fully armed men.” After reading this, many believed the raid to be initiated and conducted by slaves, instead of by white abolitionists. By the next day, the Herald introduced white abolitionists into the account of the raid, describing the raid an “outbreak among negroes assisted by white men.”[1] The Wilmington Daily Herald still provided inaccurate accounts of the raid as an insurrection instigated by free, enslaved and escaped African Americans.

In New Bern, the raid was drastically exaggerated as well. The Daily Progress reported that “a gang of 150 whites” were supposedly involved in the raid. [2] While the number of white Americans involved was greatly exaggerated, this October 19th publication showed that North Carolinians, specifically those in New Bern, were beginning to recognize that abolitionists played some role in orchestrating the raid.

The most accurate early account of the raid was provided by the Fayetteville Observer on October 20th. In this account, the writer mentioned the exaggerations of previous news reports, and gives an accurate account of Brown’s force. “The party originally consisted of 22 persons, of who 15 had been killed, 2 mortally wounded, and 2 unhurt- 3 of them went off with the slaves on Monday morning.”[3] The Fayetteville Observer was not the only newspaper to separate fact from fiction. On October 26th, 1859, the Wilmington Daily Herald rescinded the account in the articles published immediately following the Harper’s Ferry Raid.  “'Twas no insurrection, and it is a libel upon the slave in designating it as such. They had nothing whatever to do with it. There was not a single slave engaged but what was drawn in by compulsion. The original insurgents consisted of some fifteen or sixteen white men and a half dozen free negroes from the North.” This edition of the Herald also foreshadowed the events that would occur during the Civil War. The abolitionist efforts at Harper’s Ferry, “has taught northern fanatics that in future if they desire to liberate the slaves from bondage they must resort to other means, for this thing has taught them that expecting aid and comfort from the slaves themselves is putting faith in a broken reed.” [4] After October 26th, many of those in North Carolina began to read reports of what the John Brown Raid really was: a conflict between militant abolitionists and the Southern slave culture.

The anti abolitionist press continued after John Brown had been captured. The Raleigh Register reported on November 5, 1859, that his capture had a wider significance than just John Brown’s Raid and trial. The Register began to report that Northern periodicals were critical of the severity of punishment that Brown could face. “With what show of reason then can the New York Times, …echo the Journal of Commerce and ask a committal of Brown to the Penitentiary instead of to the gallows, to which he rightfully belongs, and to which he should go if every man, woman, and child North of the Potomac said nay?” The Raleigh Register reflected the mentality of several politicians and publications which were critical of the North’s belief in leniency toward John Brown. Southern publications like the Raleigh Register believed Brown was guilty of murder, treason and various other crimes that collectively warranted an execution. “This opinion, we deeply regret to say, we have had reason to change, and to come to the conclusion, that if the South would maintain her rights, her property, and the lives of her citizens…must rely upon herself, and not look North for aid or sympathy.”[5] North Carolina began to feel ostracized with those, particularly vocal abolitionists, in the North.

 Northern abolitionists did not help this dissatisfaction many North Carolinians felt, and, while I do not believe the majority of Northerners were fanatics, there was empirical evidence of this fanaticism in the North and some proof that was available in North Carolina. A writer for the New York Independent conversed with John Brown’s wife after the trial and said “Ten minutes’ acquaintance is enough to show that she is a woman worthy to be the wife of such a man.”[6] While this does not clearly show support for abolition, it shows that the sentiments of Brown as a hero were very real. In places like New York, and Massachusetts Senator Clingman described Bostonian attitudes to Brown through the sentiments of writer and abolitionist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that Brown “Had made the gallows as glorious as the cross,’ he was rapturously applauded.” At another meeting in Natick, “the principle speaker, Wright, declared the people of the North look upon ‘Jesus Christ as a failure,’ and hereafter would reply upon ‘John Brown and him hung.”[7] Northern fanaticism proved to fuel the already present conflict between the Northern abolitionists and the South.

Not only was there initial reporting of Northern sympathies to John Brown and the abolitionist cause, but some newspapers began to report on the growing fear of a second invasion. The Murfreesboro Citizen told citizens to “Remember Harper’s Ferry! Be on your guard!,”[8] and the Wilmington Herald, mentioned in the article “North Carolina and John Brown,” focused on the possibility of a second invasion of Northern abolitionists to rescue John Brown before his execution. “The recommendation for a margin of safety eventually exceeded 10,000 [troops]” and “Wilmington, Charlotte, and Elizabeth City offered to send troops from their militia.”[9] This article not only attests to the perceived threat of a second invasion, but also the continued support North Carolina offered Virginia. The issue of Northern abolitionists invading Harper’s Ferry, and the reluctance of Northern publications to denounce the raid as an act of terrorism, strengthened the probability of conflict between the North and the South.   

The final publications I will analyze came immediately following John Brown’s execution on December 2nd, 1859. The following day, The Raleigh Register reported on the North’s insistence on regarding John Brown as a martyr. “On yesterday, the godly city of Boston, built up and sustained by the products of negro slave labor, went into mourning, fasting and prayer, over the condign punishment of a negro stealer, murderer and traitor.” By reporting on Northern praise of Brown, the Register was informing North Carolina citizens that the North, specifically Boston, believed that committing crimes like murder, theft and treason, in the name of abolition were acceptable. This article continues by claiming North Carolinians become the “defenders of that society,”[10] in the South, a characterization some citizens would embrace, and that would last into the Civil War. Newspapers continued to provide the information that North Carolinian citizens used to construct their opinions of the events at Harper’s Ferry.

Citizens of North Carolina relied on the newspapers for much of the information about state and national affairs. Due to the close relationship, both geographically and culturally, between Virginia and North Carolina, Virginia news often comprised the majority of out of state news. North Carolina’s citizens were made aware of any event involving Virginia, especially an event of the magnitude of John Brown’s raid. The majority of reactions I have found from North Carolinians to the John Brown Raid are found in The Papers of John W. Ellis, the governor of North Carolina from 1858 until his death in 1862.

[1] Daily Herald, October 18-20, 1859, in Blaser, John Brown and NC, 199.

[2] Daily Progress, October 19, 1859, in Blaser, John Brown and NC, 199.

[3] Fayetteville Observer, October 20, 1859.

[4] “A misnomer,” Wilmington Daily Herald, October 26, 1859.

[5] “Gov. Wise and the Harper’s Ferry Banditti,” Raleigh Register, November 5, 1859.

[6] “The New York Independent,” in The Life of and Letters of Captain John Brown, ed. Richard Webb (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1861), 239.

[7] History of North Carolina Volume 2, ed. Samuel A’Court Ashe (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1925), 526-527.

[8] Blaser, John Brown and NC, 205.

[9] Wilmington Journal, November 18, 1859, in Blaser, John Brown and NC, 206.

[10] “Execution of John Brown,” Raleigh Register, December 3, 1859.