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John Brown's Flag (U.S.)

Abolitionist Flag

Last modified: 2023-04-22 by rick wyatt
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[John Brown's flag] image located by Dan Coppock, 4 June 2013

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Introduction: Discussion about John Brown's Flag

I'm doing a bit of an impromptu research project on Union flags in the Civil War. I came across a daguerreotype of John Brown holding a flag of the "Subterranean Pass Way" but you can't see much of the design of the flag. I was wondering if you'd ever come across it or know what it would look like.
Dan Coppock, 4 June 2013

I have seen the photo before but just what the flag is, no one knows for sure. The famous auctioneer Wes Cowan states it is the "Subterranean Pass Way" flag in an Auction catalog from December 2007, but does not give any references, so I do not know what that was based on. (photo only) I have not researched the "Subterranean Pass Way" in any meaningful way so don't know much about it. Frankly, I have studied this photo in the past and never came across the "Subterranean Pass Way" before.
Dave Martucci, 4 June 2013

Text from the Wes Cowan auction website: "An oversized plate, housed in a pressed leather case, with a simple purple silk pad, stamped in black Washington Gallery. Hartford CT inside a ribbon surround, and below in block letters Washington Galery [sic]. Hartford, CT. The image framed by a heavy stippled brass, arch-topped mat; the preserver likely from a later 1860s-70s image. The plate itself marked 'O' in one corner."
"In the other Washington studio portrait, Brown wears the same outfit and raises his right hand as if taking an oath while he grasps a standard in his right hand. This is the flag of the S.P.W., the 'Subterranean Pass Way,' Brown's militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad. In that composition, the lower face and right hand are slightly out of focus with movement as Brown lifts his arm and nods his head forward a bit. It exhibits considerable damage; vertical and horizontal 'wipes' mar the plate in numerous areas. Both daguerreotypes are house in pressed leather cases, each with a simple purple silk pad, stamped in black italics Washington Gallery. / Hartford CT" and below in block letters 'WASHINGTON GALERY [sic]/ HARTFORD, CT.'"
Pete Loeser, 5 June 2013

Since Brown rejected the pacifist approach of most abolitionists, he wanted to differentiate his more militant strategy from their "Underground Rail Road" and labeled his plans "The Subterranean Pass-Way" See Fergus Bordewich's webpage "John Brown's Subterranean Pass-Way" (January 14th, 2006)
From Bordewich's excellent overview:

JOHN BROWN believed that God himself had ordained him to bring an end to slavery. Achieving his goal hinged on a radical and deeply secret scheme: the establishment of an 'Underground Pass Way' that would extend the Underground Railroad more than a thousand miles southward through the Appalachian Mountains into the heart of the Deep South. This highway to freedom would drain the South of slaves, Brown believed; they would travel north to the free states protected by strongholds manned by armed abolitionists and freed slaves. Few abolitionists knew what Brown really had in mind. Brown's dreams ended in the debacle at Harper's Ferry.
What was John Brown's Subterranean Pass Way? As Brown envisioned it, it would be an underground highway that would reach 2,000 miles all the way down through the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and into the Deep South, as far as Georgia. It was the vision that Brown had in mind when he marched into Harper's Ferry in 1859.
It would thus probably be more accurate to refer to his SPW as a plan or a strategy then as a formal organization.
While it is difficult to make out the design on his flag, it does appear to follow a standard model for many American military and militia flags of the period - assuming that image enhancements haven't created details not really there. Many such flags were similar to the example shown at the official US Army webpage having the national coat of arms on a blue field.
Ned Smith, 5 June 2013

The more I study the circumstances of this photo and the timeline of John Brown's career, the more skeptical I get about auctioneer Cowan's description of it as the "flag of the Subterranean Pass Way." I'm even a bit skeptical of whether it was "John Brown's flag" at all, except in the mundane sense that he was holding it in a well-known portrait. First, as I already mentioned, the Subterranean Pass Way was a strategy, not an organization. Secondly, even if Brown had decided to produce a flag for his strategy, the plan was a product of the 1850s, while the daguerreotype was shot in the photostudio of Augustus Washington in 1846. Two portraits of Brown were known to have been made by Washington. One was a conventionally posed portrait, the other a portrait seemingly posed to record Brown's militancy and determination. That one included a flag, but there is no evidence to conclude that it was Brown's property, rather than a conventional prop supplied by the studio, or one brought in just for the occasion. I think we ought to be very cautious in labeling this flag until more evidence surfaces.
Ned Smith, 6 June 2013

Following further research, unlike my earlier skepticism I find that Brown apparently did talk of his "Subterranean Pass Way" before the 1850s, although he did no concrete actions to carry it out until later. So he might have designed a SPW flag at the time the daguerreotype was made. That still doesn't mean that is the likely identity of the flag in the image under discussion.
One author, who had met Brown, stated decades later that Brown had an additional daguerreotype made around 1850. This one showed Brown with an African-American, John Thomas, who was holding a "small banneret lettered S.P.W." [John Brown and his Men Richard J. Hinton, 1895, p. 27] Modern scholars have not found evidence of the existence of this daguerreotype and some have reservations about the overall accuracy of many of Hinton's recollections.
For whatever it is worth, if Hinton's claim is true, the flag held by Brown in the surviving daguerreotype would seem to be too large to likely be described as a "small banneret", and whatever design it carried, the most prominent feature on it does not seem to be SPW.
Ned Smith, 9 June 2013

First, I hesitate to give you my definitive opinion on the flag because all my John Brown reference materials are currently in storage, and difficult of access. However, I believe that there is a full discussion of the flag in David S. Reynolds's excellent recent book "John Brown, Abolitionist." It's easily available. Reynolds himself teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, and should be easy to reach, if necessary.
That said, the flag was not a studio prop. It was a standard with meaning for Brown, and those he sought to lead. The Underground Pass Way was not a movement; it was a highly speculative plan for militarizing the Underground Railroad, and extending it far into the South. The Harper's Ferry raid was an abortive attempt to put this into action. (Though by the time the raid took place, I think Brown knew the larger plan was unrealistic, and was bent on martyrdom.) I don't think anyone knows what the flag looked like unfurled, but I may be wrong; Reynolds would know.
You are already aware of my essay on the Pass Way on my website (under the blog). There is also a discussion of the Pass Way in my book Bound for Canaan, which puts it (and Brown) in the context of the larger Underground Railroad.
Fergus M. Bordewich, 11 June 2013

I looked up David Reynolds' book on Amazon. With the help of "Look Inside", page 87 notes: "The banner [?] may be inscribed with the initials S.P.W."
Dan Coppock, 12 June 2013

I contacted David Reynolds about UFE13-27 "John Brown's Flag" and he recommended I get in touch with Louis DeCaro, who he identified as an excellent John Brown biographer. I did as suggested and received this reply:

In response to the note to David, I would be happy to make some comments.

First, as a long term researcher and biographer of John Brown, I have never heard of the flag allegedly brought to Harper's Ferry by John Brown. On one level, it makes sense that Brown might have a flag, considering his extensive use of formality and military protocol, such as preparing and publishing a constitution, holding elections for a provisional government, and issuing certificates of military commission to his officers. His provisional constitution states that their flag would be the same as the nation's flag. On the other hand, I've never once seen a reference to any flag brought to Harper's Ferry. I am acquainted with many details referencing everything from gunpowder to whistles brought to the Ferry, as well as what was left behind in John Brown's Maryland headquarters, but have never seen reference to a flag. I don't know where the Douglass Memorial home got the flag, but unless the current archivist/caretaker can provide provenance, I'm more than skeptical of its alleged origin as a John Brown flag.

Second, as to the Subterranean Pass Way flag, we have only one reference, found in Richard J. Hinton's book, John Brown and His Men, published late in the 19th century. Hinton was a Kansas associate of JB and is often dismissed by historians because he does have errors in his book and depends at times on unreliable sources. However, he was both an eyewitness and insider and his book can be very helpful if used wisely. Hinton speaks of a daguerreotype taken of Brown with his black associate, Thomas Thomas, in which the latter was holding a "banneret" labeled "S.P.W." for subterranean pass way (p. 27). Unfortunately that dag has been lost, but we have the more famous portrait of JB taken at the same setting, with JB alone holding the banneret and other hand upraised, both done by Augustus Washington. (The latter was quite choreographed since Brown would have to have held the banner in his right hand and raised his left hand for the portrait, since daguerreotypes reverse the image - in this case creating an image of him with his right hand upraised.) We are sure the extant dag is from the same session and this was the "banneret" blazoned with 'S.P.W.' I believe a little of the lettering is ever so slightly visible.

It is not clear whether SPW was a Brown invention, but I suspect it was the terminology in use in the earlier part of the 19th century. We should recall that in the 1840s, the literal railroad was only beginning to develop, and so the metaphor for escaping slaves had not yet been updated to 'railroad.' Brown lived in Springfield, Mass. from 1846-49 and made a lot of contacts with antislavery people, whites and blacks, and worked with people who assisted fugitives from slavery in the Connecticut valley, just as he had in eastern Ohio. I suspect the dag of JB was supposed to be featured along with the other one taken with him and a black man, perhaps to be used in the carte-de-visite format of the day. Recall that JB also founded a militant resistance movement in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but he probably already had some kind of militant organization in mind in the later 1840s when the picture was taken. The flag or banneret never appears anywhere else, not even in reference. So I think it was more of a prop than an actual banner employed by Brown, although perhaps it was a prototype for the kind of organization he had in mind.

[John Brown's flag] image from the Gilder Lehrman Collection

You should be aware that there is an actual flag that you've overlooked, and it is held in the Gilder Lehrman Collection, housed at the NY Historical Society. This was not Brown's but it came from anti-slavery Ohio and was probably familiar to him and his sons. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., 15 June 2013

So, although we seem no closer to the actual design or identity of the flag, we do seem to be learning more about John Brown's movement and a bit about his use of flags. (Also apparently "Pass Way" can also be "Pass-Way" but not "Passage.")
Pete Loeser, 15 June 2013

Possible "Subterranean Pass Way" Flag c1859
New England Black Republican, Abolition 'Rule or Ruin', or Disunion Flag

[Possible 'Subterranean Pass Way' Flag] image located by Pete Loeser, 20 April 2023

Responding to both wild rumors and written threats the governor of Virginia Henry A. Wise called out the state militia to guard against a rescue attempt of John Brown and his followers during his trial. In a letter he presumably wrote after the execution he included a drawing of a flag he called the "New England Black Republican, Abolition 'Rule or Ruin', or Disunion Flag." Could this also be the mysterious flag called the "Subterranean Pass Way" Flag?
On the attached drawing notice a "gallows" used as the pole standard. In the canton of the flag is a wooden ham surrounded by 32 circled wooden nutmegs on a red field. One would guess the black field shows the general intention of the group hoping for the abolition of slavery.
Source: Governor's Office, Letters Received, Henry A. Wise, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.
Pete Loeser, 20 April 2023

Abolitionist Flag (c1859-1860)

[Abolitionist Flag (c1859-1860)] image by Clay Moss, 20 April 2023
based on this image.

This flag, an item in an estate sale, was found near Andover, Ohio in 1996. The flag came from a home that had been used as a tavern and inn prior to the Civil War. John Brown's son lived in Andover and perhaps this flag was made to show support for the abolitionist cause. It is a large flag measuring ten feet long by five feet tall.  It has nine alternating white and red stripes sewn together with 20 irregular stars in the blue canton. Typically, prior to the Civil War, the Abolitionist's flags dropped the stars of the slave states from the blue fields of their flags and only represented the 20 free states. The stripes for the succeeding states of Georgia, Virginia, and North and South Carolina were sometimes omitted. Many abolitionists believed that the slave states should be expelled from the Union and ironically it was just what the southern states wanted.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Pete Loeser, 20 April 2023