A "Fanatical Clamor": UVA Reacts to John Brown's Raid
    by Gwen Dilworth

In an October 1859 entry of Socrates Maupin's Chairman's Journal, Maupin notes the unauthorized absences of two students, Holmes Conrad and Geo Bedinger, following John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry. The entry reports that "having on the 17th received such information of the occurrences at Harpers Ferry on the 16th as to excite alarm for the safety of their friends residing in the vicinity, left hurriedly on the morning of the 18th for their homes."1 Determining their justification satisfactory, Maupin excused their absences.

On October 16th, abolitionist John Brown and a small group had set out to occupy the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, steal weapons from the arsenal, and initiate an armed slave insurrection. While the group was successful in occupying the arsenal, the United States Marines—led by Colonel Robert E. Lee—took all surviving raiders prisoner just a day after their discovery. On November 2nd, Brown was found guilty of treason and murder by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and was sentenced to be hanged on December 2nd, just a month later.

In Charlottesville, John Brown's raid did not only rattle students with close connections to Harpers Ferry, but rather ignited a feeling of crisis across the city. Historian Peter S. Carmichael writes, "Brown's attempted insurrection permanently changed the tone at Virginia universities, militia organizations, and debating societies. Young people started to encourage any sign of Virginian's preparing themselves for what appeared to be an inevitable conflict."2 On November 3rd, 1859, the day following Brown's indictment, student Elliot Muse Healy wrote home to his brother in Urbanna, Virginia to share his account of the atmosphere at UVA following the raid. He writes, "the Citizens of Charlottesville at least, look upon it as a serious thing and have appointed a mass-meeting to be held to night for the purpose of increasing the military force of the Town & Country so that they may be prepared when occasion call for them."3 The impending threat of both slave uprising and Northern intrusion motivated Charlottesville residents and students to band together in order to provide a defense for slavery and the South.

Beyond efforts to militarize, students responded to the raid by expressing their enmity towards John Brown and abolitionism. John Minor, a law professor and the faculty's most open supporter of the Union, wrote in a letter that a "fanatical clamor" had arisen at the university in the wake of John Brown's raid. He advised that students exercise patience, and to "give time for the more quiet & order loving people to make their voices heard,"4 but little patience was exercised on the part of the student body. The extremism present is emblematized by an attempt to burn John Brown in effigy, an effort that was nonetheless frowned upon by most students.5 The Jefferson Society responded to the events at Harpers Ferry by inviting Daniel Voorhees, attorney to one of the raiders, John E. Cook, to address the organization. In trial, Voorhees argued that Brown had forced Cook to participate in the raid, condemning the actions of John Brown and his fellow abolitionists. Both the attempt to burn John Brown in effigy and Voorhees' invitation to address the Jefferson society highlight the attention the enraptured student body paid to the raid and proceeding events in late 1859 and early 1860.

Perhaps even more indicative of UVA students' investment in the incident, however, was the decision of a group of students to travel to Charleston to witness the hanging of John Brown and allegedly, to attempt to prevent Northerners from rescuing him. The editors of the December 1859 issue of the Yale Literary Review satirized UVA students' actions, writing, "the students of Virginia University having gone to Charleston to prevent a rescue…when they heard that Yale College were coming to rescue 'John Brown'" were "so frightened that they walked right home and haven't been heard from since."6 The editors of the Virginia University Magazine responded in January 1860: "if gotten up by children, we would be disposed to laugh…but when they appear in the third number of the twenty-fifth volume of the Yale Literary Magazine, they excite our profoundest disgust."7 The editors went on to defend the actions of UVA students, stating "those students, of the University of Virginia, who went to Charlestown, needed but an opportunity to prove that, though they may sometimes run, yet it is always with their faces towards the enemy."8 The blatant animosity towards Yale—and the North—foreshadowed the hostility that would ignite the Civil War in just two years.

The fanaticism that arose in the days and months following John Brown's raid sparked the intensification of UVA students' support for secession and subsequently, the Civil War. Carmichael writes that after the raid at Harpers Ferry, "many young Virginians became receptive to the idea of a Southern nation."9 While students at the university had been sympathetic to such an idea since the turn of the decade,10 the raid loosened remaining allegiances to the Union and prepared young people for an impending war. The Virginia University Magazine editors conclude their response to the Yale Literary Review with a threat: "and if, on the other hand, a Hartford Convention should ever assemble in our vicinity, or armed bands congregate in our midst for the purpose of wickedly invalidating northern soil and stirring up internecine strife amongst our peaceful neighbors, we'll capture the offenders and hang them as high as Haman!"11 Rhetorically imposing the fate of John Brown upon Yale—a stand-in for the abolitionist North—the student editors of the Virginia University Magazine envision an idealized future of victory over the oppressive, depraved North. John Brown's raid not only made a future of blatant hostility between the North and the South amenable, but desirable, transforming the perspectives of southern youth and making the Civil War more conceivable than ever before.


1 University of Virginia, "Session 36 of the Chairman's Journal," Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty 12 (September 30, 1859-August 8, 1860).
2 Carmichael, Peter S., The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 117.
3 Elliot Muse Healy to Brother, November 3, 1859, Papers of the Healy family, 1859-1960, Accession #10496, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA.
4 Carmichael, Last Generation, 109.
5 Carmichael, Last Generation, 117.
6 "John Brown and Yale Literary Magazine," Virginia University Magazine, January 1860, 208.
7 "John Brown and Yale," 208.
8 "John Brown and Yale," 208.
9 Carmichael, Last Generation, 117.
10 Dilworth, Gwen, "The Destinies of the South Must Be Entrusted to Our Keeping":  1850s Secessionist and Pro-Slavery Thought at the University of Virginia," Jefferson's University-The Early Life.
11 "John Brown and Yale," 208.