As was noted by Civil War Emancipation in its May 4 edition, by early May 1861 northern newspapers began taking note of the slave insurrection scare prevalent in many slave states after the outbreak of the Civil War. The departure of men for the Confederate army and news of military units from the North moving south, led many white Southerners to fear they were on the verge of a mass slave uprising as masses of northern John Browns in federal uniform armed the slaves, and set them upon their masters and other whites.
Clearly, some white Northerners did not share this fear. In its June 1, 1861 issue, Harper’s Weekly addressed the insurrection scare in a mocking editorial entitled, “Sitting on Gunpowder.” The editorial stated:
By taking up arms against the Government, and plunging into war. The slaves can not be kept ignorant of the war, and they will ask the occasion. They will learn that their masters are fighting against those whom they untruly and persistently call “Abolitionists.” Is it not evident, then, that unless the slaves love slavery, they will fight against their masters in any way they can ? And is he an inciter of servile insurrection who points out to the masters so palpable a fact ? If a man sees a neighbor sitting upon a barrel of gunpowder and intently trying to strike a light by scraping a match upon the side of the barrel, is he such a diabolical fellow if he warns his neighbor that he runs great risk of blowing himself up?
Interestingly, Harper’s Weekly chose not to mock the racist assumptions behind the slave insurrection scare in the South (to whit, that barbaric slaves were itching to kill whites and would do so at the earliest opportunity, especially if encouraged by abolitionist troops who armed them). What the publication chose to mock was secession, in which rebel slaveholders made an enemy of the very government that before would have provided the best guarantee against servile insurrection and stood ready to suppress it should it happen anyway. Clearly, America’s great illustrated newspaper had not yet embraced emancipation, although it would soon be reporting stories of the peculiar institution unraveling in the South.