The Atlantic

The South Only Embraced States' Rights as It Lost Control of the Federal Government

For decades, slaveholders like Robert E. Lee were powerfully committed to the Union. That changed when Washington stopped protecting their interests.
Source: Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

One hundred and fifty-eight years ago, on the morning of October 18, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown found himself surrounded in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, by an armed force much larger than his. Two days before, Brown had led a daring raid on a federal armory, hoping that its capture would catalyze the rapid abolition of slavery in the United States. But a local militia quickly cornered Brown’s small band of 19 men, five of whom were black. Soon, a group of U.S. Marines arrived with orders to retake the armory.

As dawn broke, Brown received a written demand that he surrender. The Marines had was delivered by the future Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, one of the officers present. And it was signed by the colonel in charge of the “U. S. Troops” surrounding Brown and his men.

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