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Russell Banks, historian on
Harpers Ferry

Russell Banks BANKS: Why he chose not to flee Harpers Ferry when he still could have gotten himself and his men out alive is interesting, ... and it usually comes down to, well, when did he decide to do it. Was it at the quarry in Chambersberg, Pennsylvania, when Douglass made it clear that, he wasn't going in with him and that he thought Brown was walking into a steel trap, as he put it? Yet he still went in. Was it after he got in and there was no great tide of escaping slaves coming forward? My own feeling is that it was a decision made on the ground, in much the same way he'd probably made the decision about Pottawatomie, out of despair and frustration, a sense of hopelessness in the activity in its current terms. His only option, as he saw it, was to change the terms, to up the ante, as it were, to go from being a gorilla warrior and terrorist into a martyr. I do think it probably was or felt like, to him, a kind of giving up. I imagine a terrible despairing fatigue coming over him at that point. It was his last roll of the dice in a way and, when it didn't work -- as it was clearly not working -- then I think the only light he saw was the light of martyrdom.

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