Oct 16, 1859 – John Brown led a failed raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown had hoped to capture a large cache of weapons which he would then use to lead a mass slave uprising in the South.
John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800. A deeply religious man, he was vehemently opposed to slavery and an ardent abolitionist. Throughout his adult life, Brown worked at various jobs but was never financially successful. His lack of money, however, did not keep him from supporting causes he believed in. He helped finance anti-slavery newspapers and gave land to fugitive slaves. He also worked for the Underground Railroad and helped protect escaped slaves from slave-catchers.
Unlike many white abolitionists of the time, who opposed slavery but still thought of blacks as inferior, Brown believed in full equality for African Americans. For several years Brown lived in the black farming community of North Elba, New York, alongside former slaves. He and his wife also raised a black child as one of their own. Frederick Douglass, who knew Brown, stated that, “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”
In 1855 Brown and several of his sons moved to the Kansas Territory to help organize it as a free territory, bringing guns so that they could defend themselves from pro-slavery forces. Once there, Brown became angry both at the violence of pro-slavery forces and by the weak response of anti-slavery settlers, whom he described as “cowards, or worse.” He was particularly outraged by an attack on the “free-state” settlement of Lawrence by pro-slave forces in May 1856, during which a newspaper office and a hotel were destroyed. He decided that it was time to fight fire with fire.
He began on May 26, 1856, with committing a mass-murder known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, where he and several of his sons dragged five pro-slavery settlers out of their cabin in the middle of the night and hacked them to death with broad swords. A week later, Brown successfully defended the free-state settlement at Prairie City against an attack by pro-slave forces.
Then, in August, he led the defense of the free-state settlement at Osawatomie against an assault by over 300 pro-slavery men. Although being vastly outnumbered, his forces inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers before being forced to retreat (one of his sons, Frederick, died in the battle). His bravery earned him national attention and made him an instant hero to Northern abolitionists, who gave him the nickname Osawatomie Brown. It also solidified his belief that violence was the only way to combat slavery.
Even before his adventures in Kansas, Brown had begun to consider leading an armed slave uprising in the South. In late 1856, after leaving Kansas, Brown decided on a plan. First, he would lead a raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which had over 100,000 muskets in store. Brown would take the weapons and free and arm local slaves. Then, Brown and these newly freed slaves would march south, liberating and arming more and more slaves as they went.
Brown believed that as his movement spread, and as more and more slaves left their plantations and joined his “army,” the Southern economy, which was completely dependent on slave labor, would collapse. Brown felt that if he could ruin the Southern economy by depriving it of slaves, then slavery itself would end. As crazy as his plan sounded, Brown was nevertheless able to convince several prominent New England abolitionists (known only as the “Secret Six”) to fund his scheme. Over the next two years he finalized his plans and tried to recruit followers to help with the raid. Finally, in May of 1859, he decided that he was ready.
In the summer of 1859 Brown rented a farmhouse near Harper’s Ferry. There, he waited for the arrival of supplies and new recruits. While the “Secret Six” provided rifles and pikes, hardly any volunteers showed up. One major reason was that Frederick Douglass, who knew of the plan, realized that it was foolish and discouraged free blacks from joining. While Brown had hoped for 4,500 men, by late September he had only 21 (16 white and 5 black), including three of his sons (how he had hoped to keep an army of 4,500 men without attracting the notice of local authorities gives a sense of his planning capabilities).
Despite the lack of support, Brown pressed on with his plans. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown led his men in an attack on the armory at Harper’s Ferry. At first, the raid went smoothly. Brown’s men easily captured the armory, which had only one guard. Then, they rounded up hostages from nearby farms (including Colonel Lewis Washington, a direct descendant of George Washington) and spread the news to local slaves that their liberation was at hand.
Soon afterwards, however, everything began to fall apart. Despite easily taking control of the armory, Brown never rounded up the muskets stored there as planned and left. Instead, he became uncertain and confused about what to do next and wandered around the armory while his only advantage – surprise – slipped away.
Early the next morning an eastbound train approached the town. The train station’s baggage master, a free black man named Hayward Shepherd, ran down the tracks to warn the train crew of the attack. Brown’s men yelled for Shepherd to stop and then opened fire, killing him. Inexplicably, Brown then allowed the train to leave. As a result, news of the raid soon reached federal authorities, which gave them time to call in the troops.
In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia began to shoot at Brown’s men from the hills behind the town. Local militiamen also seized the lone bridge to the armory, blocking off Brown’s only escape route. Brown then holed up in a small brick building – the “engine room” – near the armory. He sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag to try to negotiate a cease fire, but the angry crowd simply shot at them. Shots continued to be fired back and forth throughout the day. Brown and his men were trapped.
A company of United States Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee soon arrived and surrounded the Engine Room. When told that he and his men would have their lives spared if they surrendered, Brown replied, “No, I prefer to die here.” The Marines attacked. Ten of Brown’s men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). The rest, along with Brown, were taken prisoner.
Brown was tried in Virginia on charges of murder and treason. As he had not yet recovered from wounds he received at Harper’s Ferry, he attended his trial while lying in a bed, raising himself up on his arms to address the court. Not surprisingly, he was quickly convicted and sentenced to be hanged.
While his supporters made plans to break him out of prison before the execution, Brown insisted that he not be freed. In the end, he wanted to become a martyr to his cause. On the morning of December 2, Brown was hanged; his body was later dumped into a cheap wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck – a final gesture of Southern contempt.
Brown’s last words proved to be prophetic. On the day of his death he wrote, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Although most Northern politicians publicly denounced Brown’s actions, many abolitionists viewed him as a hero who had been sacrificed for the sins of the nation. For both Northerners and Southerners alike, Brown’s raid confirmed that the United States was now really two different countries, openly hostile towards each other. Brown’s prophesy that only “blood” would purge the land of slavery was about to be realized. In less than two years, the Civil War that was to begin.