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John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War

John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War

by Franny Nudelman
John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War

John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War

by Franny Nudelman


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Singing "John Brown's Body" as they marched to war, Union soldiers sought to steel themselves in the face of impending death. As the bodies of these soldiers accumulated in the wake of battle, writers, artists, and politicians extolled their deaths as a means to national unity and rebirth. Many scholars have followed suit, and the Civil War is often remembered as an inaugural moment in the development of national identity.

Revisiting the culture of the Civil War, Franny Nudelman analyzes the idealization of mass death and explores alternative ways of depicting the violence of war. Considering martyred soldiers in relation to suffering slaves, she argues that responses to wartime death cannot be fully understood without attention to the brutality directed against African Americans during the antebellum era.

Throughout, Nudelman focuses not only on representations of the dead but also on practical methods for handling, studying, and commemorating corpses. She narrates heated conflicts over the political significance of the dead: whether in the anatomy classroom or the Army Medical Museum, at the military scaffold or the national cemetery, the corpse was prized as a source of authority. Integrating the study of death, oppression, and war, John Brown's Body makes an important contribution to a growing body of scholarship that meditates on the relationship between violence and culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469625874
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: Cultural Studies of the United States
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 240
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Franny Nudelman is associate professor of English at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read an Excerpt

John Brown's Body

Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War
By Franny Nudelman

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2883-1

Chapter One

The Blood of Millions:

John Brown's Body, Public Violence, and Political Community

Accustomed to the overnight successes, unexpected comebacks, and sudden reversals of celebrity culture, we might still find cause to wonder at the course of John Brown's fame. At the time of his capture in October 1859, Brown was a pariah, a fanatic, a blunderer of enormous proportions. By the summer of 1861 he was a mascot of sorts for the Union army-his death commemorated time and again as soldiers prepared to fight, his name synonymous with bravery, self-sacrifice, and patriotism. No one was more aggrieved by this transformation than John Wilkes Booth. Writing to his brother-in-law in 1864, he lamented, "What was a crime in poor John Brown is now considered (by themselves) as the greatest and only virtue of the whole Republican party. Strange transmigration!"

From Sunday, May 12, 1861, when it was first sung at Fort Warren, "John Brown's Body" quickly became a Union favorite:

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

His soul is marching on.


Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

His soul is marching on.

He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,

He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,

He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord, His soul is marching on!

John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back,

John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back, John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back,

His soul is marching on!

His pet lambs will meet him on the way, His pet lambs will meet him on the way,

His pet lambs will meet him on the way,

They go marching on!

They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,

They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,

They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,

As they march along!

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union,

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union,

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union,

As we are marching on!

Offering a secular rendition of Christ's burial and resurrection, "John Brown's Body" puts religion to work in the service of wartime nationalism. Opening with the graphic "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave," the song proceeds to describe the transformation of Brown's corpse; he becomes a foot soldier in "the army of the Lord," and finally a martyr. As Brown's body decays, his spirit is reborn and, in turn, donates new life to the army and the nation it serves.

Singing this song, soldiers celebrated the power of Brown's body, as it disappeared, to produce a spirited community that found expression in "three rousing cheers for the Union." And yet, even as the song translated death into martial enthusiasm, reminding soldiers that they died on behalf of a greater cause, it did not allow them to ignore the difficult reality of violent death. Brown's body could not be forgotten long; each time the song was sung, his rotting corpse was brought back into view. When soldiers sang "John Brown's Body," they celebrated not simply Brown's death or its redemptive aftermath, but rather the very process of transformation through which corpses, in all their gruesome and seemingly intractable materiality, are reinterpreted as group spirit. The song schooled soldiers in the abstraction of bodily suffering that allows for the amplification of the body's social meaning.

Keeping the rotting corpse firmly in view, the song speaks to the problem, at once psychological and political, posed by war: how can citizens and soldiers believe that the losses they suffer, individually and collectively, are worthwhile? More dramatically, why do soldiers continue to fight once exposed to the deaths of their comrades and the harrowing experience of combat? Imaginatively reversing the effects of violence, granting both agency and meaning to the process of decay, the song suggests that progress begins with the body's demise. In this way, Brown's example may have helped soldiers envision their own deaths as a source of collective rejuvenation; the song encouraged soldiers to believe that an individual's death might enable the larger community-the people or nation-to endure.

While "John Brown's Body" put Brown's death to work in service of the state, Brown, championing the cause of the enslaved, died the state's enemy. Many versions of the song, like the one cited above, make no mention of slavery, the cause for which Brown chose to martyr himself. Brown's wartime incarnation as a martyred hero does not, however, represent the erasure of his abolitionist past but rather its translation: in its emphasis on physical suffering as the basis of political community, the song remains faithful to the principles, if not the purposes, that structured Brown's abolitionism and led him to radical action at Harpers Ferry. Like other abolitionists, Brown saw slave suffering as a catalyst for identifications that might further resistance to slavery. In the weeks before his execution, he described his impending death as the consequence of his sympathy for slaves, and hoped that his public suffering would prompt others to action. When applied to the problem of wartime nationalism-how to create an affective bond between state and citizen strong enough to compel the citizen's willing self-sacrifice-Brown's own belief that pain produces political community substantiated a vision of the nation rejuvenated by the deaths of soldiers.

Brown's martyrdom, an instance of the radical consequences of compassion, brings to culmination a tradition of abolitionist sympathy; in turn, his death is one of the founding moments in the development of a Northern nationalism based on the affective power of self-sacrifice. In analyzing the relationship between reformist efforts to cultivate compassion and nationalist efforts to rationalize mass violence, I will not contend that one leads inexorably to the other, or that the two are fundamentally opposed. Instead, I hope to use a set of discrete historical events to demonstrate that the production of sympathetic feeling can check or further violent practice. This chapter will examine the construction of Brown's martyrdom-by friends and foes, the press, and Brown himself-in the weeks preceding and following what he liked to call his "public murder." The struggle over the significance of Brown's death was, most broadly, a contest over the political meaning of the violated body-its ability to confer identity on a group and to grant that identity political legitimacy. Abolitionists who supported Brown took their cues from Brown himself: describing the raid on Harpers Ferry as an example of sympathy put into practice, they viewed the violence initiated and suffered by Brown as a model for further antislavery activism. Embracing Brown's resistance to unjust laws, they rededicated their commitment to a "higher law" and renewed their sense of collective purpose. By contrast, state authorities reasserted the power of the law in the face of Brown's incendiary violence and, in doing so, sent a warning to insurrectionaries, North and South: disobedience would not be tolerated. They hoped that the spectacle of execution would sever public identification with Brown and put an end to the inflammatory potential of his example.

This chapter reconsiders the legend of Brown, canonized by "John Brown's Body," in light of the sweeping influence of antislavery rhetoric during the prewar years and, more locally, the logistics of his widely publicized execution. Poised between two of the great crises of the nineteenth-century United States-slavery and the Civil War-Brown's martyrdom suggests the expansive tendency of sympathy, which leads inevitably toward abstraction, and the impotence of the state to halt this process. Indeed, the government failed to discipline the radical sympathies of Northern abolitionists or the insurrectionary aspirations of secessionists; providing a rallying point for the antislavery community, Brown's execution only aggravated Southerners inclined to secede. During the war, however, the state derived its authority from the escalation of violence rather than from the ability to control it. As "John Brown's Body" suggests, the state was ultimately fortified by the logic of sympathy that initially posed a threat to the rule of law: Brown's martyrdom prefigured a wartime nationalism that relied on individual self-sacrifice and took the escalation of violence to be a source of collective identity rather than a threat to the state's integrity.

When Booth, serving in a Virginia regiment, witnessed Brown's execution, he may have assumed that Brown's career as an agitator had come to an end. Brown himself, however, understood that a traitor put to death by the state might exert untold influence. Accustomed to struggle and disappointment-the deaths of his first wife and ten of his twenty children, failed business ventures, dislocation, and poverty-Brown greeted his capture, imprisonment, and execution with exuberance. Writing from prison, Brown assured his cousin, the Reverend Luther Humphrey, "No part of my life has been more happily spent than that I have spent here." In another letter, he exclaimed, "I certainly think I was never more cheerful in my life." Brown was happy, at least in part, because he saw an opportunity for public influence that had never before been available to him: "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose." Brown recognized that his body, subject to the violence of the state, had become a source of public meaning. During the month between his sentencing and his execution, he seized every opportunity to address a Northern audience from the courtroom, his cell, and finally the scaffold; his words and gestures carried great significance as they circulated in the Northern press. Brown was aware that he had the power to move his audience, and he used it masterfully. As Henry David Thoreau described it, "They did not hang him at once, but reserved him to preach to them ... and so his victory was prolonged and completed. No theatrical manager could have arranged things so wisely to give effect to his behavior and words."

On November 2, 1859, Brown, having been convicted of treason, conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder in the first degree, was given an opportunity to address the court. In this speech, he went some distance toward shaping the meaning of his death for his contemporaries as well as future historians. Brown embraced his impending execution with the following words: "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, so let it be done!" In a sweeping rhetorical gesture made meaningful by his impending death on the scaffold, Brown used the figure of blood to ally his extraordinary fate with the routine abuse of slaves. Blood, imagined here as a sort of universal fluid, unites Brown, his family, and countless slaves. Combining his lifeblood with the "blood of millions," Brown participates in, and radicalizes, a tradition of abolitionist sympathy that dramatizes slave suffering in an effort to mobilize readers. Putting sympathetic epistemology into practice, Brown demonstrates his own capacity to feel the pain of others and to act on their behalf.

Antislavery authors and orators hoped to convert audiences to the cause by conveying the slave's physical and emotional pain: they imagined representations of slave suffering setting in motion a chain of responsive anguish that would culminate in the eradication of slavery itself. In "The Story of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'"(1878), Harriet Beecher Stowe describes the composition of her antislavery novel as the result of a mysterious encounter with a brutalized slave. She tells her readers that the "first part of the book ever committed to writing was the death of Uncle Tom." While taking communion at a small church in Brunswick, Maine, Stowe received a vision of Tom's death. She was "perfectly overcome by it, and could scarcely restrain the convulsion of tears and sobbings that shook her frame." This encounter initiates a series of exchanges in which Tom's suffering, conveyed through the medium of fiction, causes others to suffer. After receiving her vision, Stowe rushed home and put the scene down on paper. When she read it aloud to her sons, they too broke down in "convulsions of weeping, one of them saying, through his sobs, 'O mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the world!'" (xix). Once published, the novel was so popular that "eight power-presses, running day and night," barely satisfied public demand. As Stowe's unaccountable vision is transmitted in ever-widening circles, the anguish "that had long weighed upon her soul, seemed to pass off from her and into the readers of the book" (xxi-xxii). Describing an encounter between the abused, black male body and the responsive feminine imagination as the source of her abolitionist fiction, Stowe maintains that narrated pain, transmitted through the vulnerable body of the sympathetic listener or reader, will produce a compassionate community.

Such extraordinary confidence in the power of narration to bridge experiential distance helped antislavery writers to cope with their own ignorance. Northern abolitionists stood at a vast remove from the scene of slavery; by and large, they lacked firsthand knowledge of the institution they sought to dismantle. They addressed an audience that, likewise, gained its knowledge of slavery through oral and written testimony. Stowe herself faltered in the face of inexperience. When Tom boarded a steamboat headed South, Stowe missed her weekly installment in the National Era and appealed to Frederick Douglass for information about plantation life.

While Stowe's lack of firsthand knowledge caused her some anxiety, one might argue that her inexperience accounts for much of the novel's power. At its most effective, abolitionist writing makes a virtue out of necessity by transforming the condition of geographical dislocation into an epistemological challenge: how can one feel for strangers over great distances? Or, to put it another way, how can one feel the pain of a suffering body when the body itself is absent? In keeping with her inability to deliver up the body of the suffering slave, Stowe renders Tom's death without graphic detail. His deathblow is described in one sentence: "Legree, foaming with rage, smote his victim to the ground." In the next, Stowe tells us that "scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear."


Excerpted from John Brown's Body by Franny Nudelman Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Original and provocative.—American Historical Review

Interesting and thought-provoking. . . . [A] creative investigation of familiar literary texts.—Journal of African American History

Challenges us to confront the many faces of death and suffering in what was without question one of America's darkest hours.—History

Nudelman's is an ambitious work that strives to offer an alternative interpretation of the familiar and not so familiar aspects of Civil War violence and death, and of 'the power of the dead to produce civic unity out of civil war.'—Journal of American Studies

A thoughtful and relevant examination of that American studies staple: found materials. . . . Nudelman's view of 'slavery, violence, and the culture of war' is a valuable contribution to American thematic study.—American Literature

An intriguing exploration of the cultural work required by the massive destruction of the Civil War.—Drew Gilpin Faust, author of Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

In its harrowing and compassionate evocation of historic American deathways, John Brown's Body demonstrates the enduring efficacy of the corpse in our national political life. Ranging from John Brown's body to Emmet Till's, but not forgetting John Wilkes Booth's, Franny Nudelman's eloquent readings of Civil War battlefield photographs and their photojournalistic successors show us how popularly circulated images of violent death create the conditions for newly envisioned communities of the living.—Joseph Roach, Yale University

John Brown's Body addresses the physical specificity of bodily violence in war with an unflinching gaze that refuses to allow this wounded and mutilated flesh to metamorphose into the abstractions of personal honor or national glory. In showing how state power and race power build themselves out of corpses, Nudelman reveals the mechanisms of abstraction without falling prey to them herself. This is an important and innovative work.—Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Amherst College

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