|Not the way it always was, Duke.
Note—This look back on military responses to rebellions, insurrections, and protests is growing like Topsy. It is going to have to be a rare multi-entry series. This one looks back to the time between the Revolution and the Civil War.
Yesterday we took a look at some of the questions and issues arising from the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon by armed self-proclaimed Patriots—or gun nut terrorists in the view of many. In particular the issues of how to respond to the seizure and whether the white gunmen were being treated differently than Black or other minority protesters whether armed or not. The Feds have opted for a strategy of first standing off and now isolating the protesters by degrees by cutting off road, electrical, and phone service.
While many view that policy a prudent, others continue to demand immediate armed action to end the occupation calling a seditious rebellion and act of terrorism.
As noted yesterday, “Perhaps it would be useful to do a quick review of the history of the use of military force against protestors armed and otherwise in this country. For this purpose we will ignore actions by local police, sheriff’s deputies, and state police which have been too numerous to list, especially against strikers and minorities who have often been labeled as rioters. We will limit our review to major deployments and use of state militia or National Guard or Federal Troops.
|Rebellion leaders Captain Daniel Shays and Job Shatuck in a contemporary woodcut illustration.
We will start at the beginning, just three years after the end of the American Revolution. The region west of and around Springfield was dominated by small subsistence farmers and the local merchants who supplied their needs in a generally barter economy. Following the War of Independence mercantile traders who imported almost all manufactured goods from England or Europe began demanding payment in specie—hard currency almost exclusively in English, French, Spanish, and Dutch coinage that was seldom seen in the west. Lenders began to demand repayment of debt in coin instead of crops or livestock, and government began to demand the same for tax payments. As a result small farmers and merchants were defaulting on loans and losing their land and property to tax sales. Public officials were seen as corrupt and Boston merchants as vultures. To make matters worse many were war veterans who found sometimes years of back pay owed to them was difficult or impossible to get from either the Massachusetts General Court (Legislature) or Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
Under the leadership of veterans Captains Daniel Shays, John Shattuk, and others years of tensions boiled over in the fall of 1786 when armed men shut down courts processing tax forfeitures and claims on property from lenders in several towns. Governor James Bowdin and alarmed Boston merchants personally funded raising militia companies into a 3,000 man army to suppress the rebellion. On January 25, 1787 Shays and others led about 1,500 lightly armed rebels in an attempt to seize the Federal Armory in Springfield. They were met by a “loyal” militia force of about 1,400 who sent the rebels reeling with four rounds of grape shot which killed four outright and wounded more than 20. The rebels fled west and north and were pursued by the 3000 eastern militia under Revolutionary War hero General Benjamin Lincoln, the man who had accepted Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. 150 rebels were surprised and captured at Petersham on February 4. All of the officers escaped to New Hampshire and Vermont. The rebellion was crushed. Several hundred were indicted for rebellion but most were covered by a general amnesty. 18 were sentenced to hang and all but were pardoned and escaped the gallows. Over 4000 men were banned from holding elective or appointive office. Property seizures were resumed and many families were ruined and impoverished.
News of the Rebellion sent shockwaves throughout the States where either merchant elites or Tidewater aristocrats faced similar restiveness and simmering resentment in their own western portions and along the frontier. A Convention called to revise Articles of Confederation to improve trade and cooperation among the states instead exceeded its authority and drafted a new governing document. Shay’s rebellion had convinced the delegates of the need for a far stronger Federal Government. It is now viewed as that catalytic event leading to the Constitution.
Later concern grew that the new government would be too powerful, especially among western settlers, caused the agreement to add clarifying amendments delineating rights in exchange for ratification by reluctant states. The Second Amendment which famously guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms was explicitly linked to the need for well regulated militia, by which it meant the troops called out by Governor Bowdin and specifically not the irregular militia of the rebels. That “legislative history” to the amendment should be kept in mind when the NRA and arms industry insist that it means unlimited access to virtually all arms by individuals or even that it was intended to put arms in the hands of citizens to resist a tyrannical government.
|President Washington, General Light Horse Harry Lee, and Alexander Hamilton review the army raised to crush the Whisky Rebellion.
The next great confrontation occurred just a few years later and involved the infant Federal Government and the Father of Our Country, a not entirely disinterested party. The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania was caused by many of the same issues and concerns as Shays’ Rebellion. Once again the issues were unfair taxation, the perceived arrogance of the Eastern elite, and the general feeling that needs of frontier farmers were being ignored by the new central government.
President Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury and closest advisor had a problem. His highest priority was securing the nation’s financial soundness and reputation by re-paying all of the new nation’s war debts, including the debts of the individual states which the Federal government assumed. The problem was that Congress, like the American people, was generally allergic to taxation. He had only two sources of revenue—land sales and tariffs. He set the price of western land too high for most people on one hand and on the other had potential sales negated because Revolutionary War back pay and bonuses was taken care of in the form of land warrants to veterans. Some veterans used the warrants to stake western claims, others sold them at a discount for cash to land speculators many of whom then turned around and undersold government land. As for import duties, he balanced setting them high enough to protect and encourage emerging American industries but not too high to enrage the import-dependent agrarian planter class in the middle and southern states.
Hamilton needed to find a source of domestic tax revenue. An excise tax was the obvious choice because it was easiest to assess and to collect. The question was an excise tax on what. Back then the Dirksen rule was in full force in Congress, if unspoken—“Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee. Tax the fellow behind the tree.” Powerful forces in Congress among eastern merchants and manufacturers staunchly opposed taxes on anything they sold or bought. But westerners were underrepresented in Congress. They turned out to be the fellow behind the tree.
As in Massachusetts frontier farmers were cash poor. Moreover the Allegany and Appalachian Mountain ranges provided a nearly impenetrable barrier to getting their crops to Eastern markets where surpluses could be sold for money. In much of the west the principle crop was corn, which was bulky and had to be transported in heavy barrels by ox cart over barely passable mountain trails and then loaded on flat boats for Philadelphia. But the corn could be distilled into whiskey which could be transported by mules in much more compact jugs to a ready and thirsty eastern market. That market was the eastern yeomen farmers, mechanics, and common workmen. The elite drank imported wine and brandy, not raw whiskey and did not care a whit about the damage to the whiskey trade of a steep new excise tax or the grubby poor would pay it would have to pay it. America’s first Federal excise tax was born.
A protest convention of the southwestern counties of Pennsylvania did result in Congress making a 1% reduction to the tax, but that was not enough for many. Petition and protest began to give way to active resistance in September 1791 when a Federal tax collector was tarred and feathered in Washington County. The agent sent to serve arrest warrants on suspected attackers suffered the same quite painful humiliation. This and other acts of defiance and resistance spread beyond Pennsylvania to other frontier regions and states as far south as Georgia. In the brand new state of Kentucky no taxes could be collected at all because no one dared take the job of collecting them.
A second convention in Pittsburgh was in control of the most radical elements on the frontier. They raised Liberty Polls, established committees of correspondence, and assumed control of local militia in imitation of the Revolution. They established their own courts banned suits to collect debts or foreclose on property.
In the capital at Philadelphia Washington and Hamilton viewed the rising unrest as a direct affront to and assault on the Federal government. Washington signed an official proclamation drafted by Hamilton denouncing the brewing rebellion and demanding immediate compliance with the law. It had no effect. Resistance hardened and targets spread to include those who assisted tax agents and even those who paid the tax. Barns and stills were burned. One high ranking agent was forced at gunpoint to renounce his appointment during a nighttime raid on his home. Washington offered a reward for the arrest of the perpetrators. There were no takers.
In May of 1794 subpoenas were issued for 50 known distillers who had not paid the tax. As Congress amended the law to allow such tax delinquency charges to be held in state instead of Federal courts—a demand of the protesters—a Federal Marshall was dispatched to serve the papers before the new law could take effect—widely seen as a deliberate provocation by Hamilton.
Intentional or not, it did provoke. On July 15 rebels surrounded the home of General John Neville, the chief Federal tax inspector for Western Pennsylvania. They demanded the surrender of Federal Marshal David Lennox, who was not present. After an exchange of gunfire in which Oliver Miller, a farmer/distiller who had earlier turned Neville and Lennox away from his home by shooting at them, was killed. The rebels retreated and gathered reinforcements thought to number about 600 men. Neville secured the aid of ten Army soldiers from Pittsburgh under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick. The next day the rebels under Revolutionary veteran Major James McFarlane attacked the house. After an extended exchange of gunfire the house showed a white flag. When McFarlane emerged to parlay under the flag, he was killed by a single shot from the house. The battle resumed, the house was set afire, and Kirkpatrick forced to surrender. The troops were allowed to return unmolested to Pittsburg but McFarlane was arrested. He later escaped.
After Rebels intercepted the U.S. Mail and discovered evidence of support for the tax collectors and administration by several prominent Pittsburgh citizens, they called for a rally meeting at Braddock’s Field, the site of the disastrous ambush and defeat of General Edward Braddock in 1755 by French and Indian forces in which young Virginia Col. George Washington had played a prominent part. At the field 8 miles from Pittsburgh and estimated 7,000 men with blood in their eyes under the leadership of David Bradford met. Most were landless laborers. The protest quickly got beyond control of the relatively wealthy farmer/distillers who began it. Demands for an independent nation were raised and the radical French Revolutionaries praised. The men were prepared to march on Pittsburg and burn it as a nest of wealthy traitors.
A message of support from Pittsburgh and the expulsion of some men who were identified in the stolen letters somewhat mollified the assembly. They agreed to make only a peaceful march though the city as a show of strength. By in large that march was peaceful except for the burning of Major Fitzpatrick’s barns.
A new convention at Whiskey Point was divided between Bradford’s radicals and those like Albert Gallatin and Hugh Henry Brakenridge who urged reconciliation with the government. The convention agreed to authorize a delegation including Gallatin, Brakenridge, and some of the radicals to meet with peace commissioners sent by Washington. Those commissioners included Attorney General William Bradford, no known close relation to the rebel leader, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice and Pennsylvania Senator John Ross, an ardent Washington/Hamilton loyalist and long-time political foe of Gallatin.
Meanwhile Washington and Hamilton decided that an army needed to be raised to crush the rebellion in case negotiations failed. Some have long maintained that the negotiations were a ploy to delay things while the troops were raised, armed, and assembled and that especially Hamilton always intended to use force to crush the rebellion. After a U.S. Supreme Court Justice ruled that western Pennsylvania was in a state of insurrection, Washington was free to call state militias to Federal Service.
Militias from New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia were called out. The ranks could not be filled with volunteers so drafts were instituted in some areas resulting in more protests and even rioting. But a force of 12,950 men was assembled—as big as the largest army in the field that Washington commanded in the Revolution.
The peace commissioners offered the rebel delegation stark terms—that the committee must unanimously agree to renounce violence and submit to U.S. laws, and that a popular referendum must be held to determine if the local people supported the decision. Those who agreed to these terms would be given amnesty from further prosecution.
The committee narrowly split in favor of accepting the terms. Referendums were held in the western counties with some areas overwhelmingly supporting the terms. But the poorest areas continued to reject them. Despite the deescalating tensions, Washington decided to move forward with his Army.
In early October Washington took to the field as the only sitting President to command an army in the field. After inspecting troops in Pennsylvania and Maryland and meeting with western representatives, Washington determined that there would be no meaningful armed opposition to the huge force he had assembled. He turned over field command to General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the sitting Governor of Virginia. Hamilton, who always dreamed of military glory, remained with the army a civilian advisor with more than symbolic authority.
The Army marched west and the rebels scattered and went into hiding. That included David Bradford and most of the other prominent leaders. Twenty men were captured and brought in cages by to Philadelphia. A Federal Grand Jury eventually indicted 25 men for the capital offence of Treason. Only ten men stood trial on those charges and just two, Philip Wigle and John Mitchel were convicted and sentenced to hang. Satisfied that Federal authority had been upheld Washington commuted the sentences of both men, acting for once against the advice of Hamilton. State courts convicted several other men on charges ranging from assault to arson.
On one hand Federal authority was upheld. On the other resentment of the government festered on the Frontier for years and a permanent culture of defiance, including the moonshine tradition remains to this day.
|Nat Turner's Revolt was luridly depicted in the press electrifying and horrifying the slave owning South.
Slavery was at the root of much civil unrest. Slave rebellions were nothing new. During the Colonial era they had occurred and been crushed not only in the plantation South but in urban New York City. A large scale rebellion inspired by the Black revolution in Hatti had taken place in the recently acquired Orleans Territory along the Mississippi north of New Orleans. That had been violently put down, but the relative isolation from the rest of the country meant that it was not well known on the eastern seaboard. Freeman Denmark Vesey was alleged to be another revolt in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina but he and others were arrested and hung before any revolt could take place
But in August 1831 Nat Turner, a slave in Southampton County, Virginia led a surprise uprising in which up to 70 whites, including planters, their wives and children, overseers, and travelers they encountered. Militia from Virginia and North Carolina was called out, but it was in organizational disarray. The so-called militia turned out to be a barely organized and enraged white mob. They were eventually reinforced by three batteries of U.S. Army artillery and Navy sailors and Marines from the USS Natchez and USS Warren which were at moorage at Southampton.
As many as 200 Blacks were killed in the two days it took to crush the rebellion. Many, probably most, had nothing at all to do with the uprising. Eventually 56 were tried and hung. Violent rampages continued against blacks for days, not only in Virginia, but across the plantation south as far as South Carolina. Hundreds more were killed before the violence finally died out. Virginia and other states payed compensation to the owners of slaves murdered or executed for the loss of their property.
The rebellion struck terror across the South. Virginia was the first to enact new Slave codes which made it a crime to teach a black person to read and right—both Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner were literate and were said to have been corrupted by reading about the Rights of Man and even The Bible. All slave gatherings were banned including religious services unless a white minister was present. Other states followed suit enacting even harsher regulations.
Another effect was overhauling and reviving the militia system across the South. Since the end of the War of 1812 and virtual all Indian warfare in the east north of Florida, militias had been neglected. Annual summer musters were little more than occasions for communal drinking. Now Governors took action to standardize training and armament. Aroused young men were encouraged to take an active part with young gentlemen of fine families often elected as officers. Wealthy citizens often stood the cost of fine uniforms and equipment. Regular drills and parades were held. This tradition continued through rising secular tensions right up the Civil War when the South was able to enter that conflict with surprising numbers of well trained and equipped units. By contrast Northern Federalized militia with few exceptions were a rag-tag bunch.
|Marines under Maj. Robert E. Lee use a battering ram on the door of the Harpers Ferry engine house to capture John Brown.
Which brings us to the most famous armed occupation of a Federal facility in history—John Brown’s Raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in October of 1859, regarded by many as the spark that lit the fuse to the Civil War.
Brown, you will undoubtedly recall, was the obsessed abolitionist who had made a name for himself in Bloody Kansas as a Free Soil guerilla in a ruthless war with pro-slavery border ruffians. On May 24, 1856 in his most infamous act he and his sons kidnapped five pro-slavery settlers from their rural farm homes on Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with artillery broadswords. That ignited the bloodiest month of the Kansas conflict in which at least 28 more men on both sides were killed in round after round of revenge slayings.
Brown and his son’s became hunted men. Considered arch villains in the slave holding south, they were still regarded as heroes in the eastern abolitionist circles who had secretly been funding his activities.
Brown had made his way east with a plan to inspire as slave rebellion to lay before his secret benefactors. He succeeded in collecting some funds. Then he convinced a group later called the Secret Six to offering on-going support on a non-questions-asked basis on how they were used. This group included Unitarian Minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Unitarian out-cast Theodore Parker; social reformer and husband of Julia Ward Howe, Samuel Gridley Howe; merchant and industrialist George Luther Stearns; and former Free Soil Congressman and Presidential Candidate Gerrit Smith. Among their first contributions were funds to ship 200 Beecher's Bibles—named for abolitionist minister Lyman Beecher—actually modern Sharps rifles and 300 pikes.
Meanwhile Brown’s plans for a slave insurrection matured. He recruited, and lost, an ally in Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary who had fought with Garibaldi in Italy and met with Fredrick Douglas. Despite being one of the most wanted men in America, he was able to travel freely under assumed names and somewhat disguised by the flowing beard he grew. He drafted a preliminary constitution for a proposed republic of freed slaves. He tried, with limited success to recruit northern Black abolitionist to his side.
In May 1858 he convened a secret convention of 12 men including his son Owen in Chatham, Ontario where nearly a third of the local population were escaped slaves. The convention officially elected Brown commander in chief of a liberating army. Shortly after the convention a security leak disrupted his contact with the Canadian supporters at the convention, he lost contact with them, and few, if any went across the border to join Brown’s Amy.
Another security leek came when former ally Forbes threatened to expose the plans frightening some of the Secret Six. Plans were delayed while Brown returned to Kansas for six months, largely to make Forbes think he had abandoned his plans. On December 20 he staged a raid into Missouri in which he freed 11 slaves who he took to Canada via Chicago with an assist from Alan Pinkerton.
He boldly lectured publicly under his own name, including a stop in Concorde, Massachusetts were his audience included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Branson Alcott. He also reconnected with and reassured his angels in the Secret Six.
But it was finally time to move, even though he had not gathered as many Black followers as he had hoped. He rented a farmhouse near Harpers Ferry on the Maryland side and waited for Harriet Tubman to send him volunteers from Canada. They never materialized. Fredrick Douglas was also asked, but he felt the plan was mad and doomed and had quietly passed word among his contacts discouraging them from joining Brown. More than 900 pikes arrived but the men to carry them did not materialize in the end Brown had only 21 men—16 white and 5 Black: including 3 long time freemen, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave. He also had more than 50 of the Sharp’s rifles.
He left three men behind hoping that they would bring late arriving volunteers to join him. Brown moved on Harpers Ferry to capture the Arsenal there on October 16, 1859. He hoped word of his action would encourage slave in the area to flock to his side and take up the more than 1000 stands of arms in the Arsenal. Initially the raid came off as planned. Telegraph wires were cut and the arsenal easily seized from a single unarmed watchman. Things started to unravel when a Free Black baggage master tried to warn an incoming passenger train about the armed men in town. The station manager was shot and killed becoming the first casualty of the raid. For some reason Brown allowed the train to proceed after the shooting. At the next town the conductor wired the news to B & O Railroad headquarters Baltimore which alerted the War Department.
Meanwhile local merchants, farmers, and militia men rallied to keep up a harassing fire at Brown and his men who were forced to retreat to the railroad engine house which they did their best to fortify. As word spread, more men joined the ad hoc siege. In Washington a company of Marines were ordered to Harpers Ferry under the command of Army Major Robert E. Lee, the most admired officer in the Army. He was accompanied by an aid, Lt. J.E.B. Stuart.
On the morning of October 18 Stuart approached the Engine House under a flag of truce and asked those inside to surrender to prevent further bloodshed. Brown replied he would “rather die here.” Lee ordered the Marines to attack. They breached the heavy engine doors with a battering ram. A chaotic struggle ensued. Marine Lt. Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several time wounding him in the head. In the three minute battle Brown’s men killed four attackers, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown’s men were killed including his sons Watson and Oliver. Five of his men including his son Owen escaped. Brown and seven others were captured.
After a sensational trial that divided the nation Brown was sentenced to hang. He rode to his execution on sitting on his own casket and died defiantly. He quickly passed into legend and martyrdom in the north and became a bogyman in the South. John Brown’s Body would become the early marching song of Union troops in the Civil War and Julia Ward Howe adapted the melody for The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Obviously there was no tolerance for armed occupation or insurrection in 1859.
Ironically Brown, long a hero to progressives, has lately been embraced as an example for rabidly violent anti-abortion groups and has even been cited as a model by the Oregon occupiers. Perhaps they did not think that out very well considering the fate of Brown and his men, including the several others who were hanged.
Next: Labor Wars, Black targets, and Bonus Marchers.