How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War
More than any other event, it was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that lit the fuse of North-South tension and ignited the Civil War. Brown planned the raid for two years in advance, so it was no mistake that the first thing he did when he crossed into Virginia was to send a detachment to steal a sword and kidnap its owner. It wasn’t just any old sword. It was – purportedly – the sword of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great.
Legend of the Sword
The story of why Frederick the Great’s sword fascinated John Brown is a story of the symbolism in the raid. And that symbolism helped establish Brown’s reputation as a martyr.
Brown’s preparations for the raid included sending an advance man, John Edwin Cook, as a spy. Cook moved to Harpers Ferry over a year in advance. He blended in well and even married a local girl. One interesting tidbit Cook passed on to Brown had to do with a sword once belonging to Frederick the Great and two pistols once belonging to General Lafayette. Col. Lewis W. Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, had inherited them and lived only four miles from Harpers Ferry. Frederick the Great had reputedly sent the sword to Washington in 1780 with a note: “From the oldest General in the world to the Greatest.”
John Brown Steals Frederick the Great’s Sword
Brown’s raiders kidnapped Washington in the middle of the night and delivered him by carriage, along with the sword and pistols, to the U.S. armory in Harpers Ferry, now under John Brown’s command. Brown kept Washington hostage in the armory’s fire engine house and wore Frederick’s sword during the following standoff. Robert E. Lee, appointed to command the U.S. troops from Fr. Monroe present in Harpers Ferry, successfully recaptured the armory.
Brown was injured and captured. Carrying Frederick’s sword might have helped save his life. When a U.S. Army lieutenant tried to strike Brown with a saber, something under Brown’s shirt deflected the blow. That something is thought to be the buckle for the belt carrying the sword. Brown, according to one source, surrendered Frederick’s sword and Lafayette’s pistols to a black man, Osborn Perry Anderson, a freeborn Pennsylvanian who had joined Brown on the raid. They were eventually returned to Washington.
Had Brown been killed immediately, he may not have become a national martyr. His stoicism in face of the death penalty is one of the things that changed him, in the eyes of the North, from an abolitionist who had gone too far to a national saint.
Why the sword? And why the pistols?
The Sword in Symbolism
John Brown planned the raid on Harpers Ferry not only on a tactical level, but also a symbolic one. Symbolism was already reflected in his selection of the date for his raid: July 4, 1859. Only because he couldn’t amass enough men and materials by Independence Day did Brown postpone the raid to October 16.
Historians today doubt whether Frederick really gave Washington a sword. It’s impossible to determine the origins of the sword because it was severely damaged in a fire in 1911. But the point is moot, because the people of the era believed it really was Frederick the Great’s sword and the role it played was symbolic. Brown had planned from the beginning to place those national heirlooms in the hands of a black man as a symbol of racial justice.
Literature on point:
Michael Korda: Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (Harper, 2014)
Peggy A. Russo & Paul Finkelman, eds. Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press 2005)
United States Department of the Interior; National Park Service. National Registers of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Beall-Air (Jefferson County, West Virginia) 1973.