John Brown, the radical abolitionist, ensured his place in US history when on 16 October 1859 he led a group of 21 men on a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The raid failed and Brown, wounded, was tried, convicted and hanged. But by his action, John Brown deepened further still the chasm between the anti and pro-slavery camps and by his death became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.
Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal was not his first. During a spell in Kansas, Brown was involved in more than one attack on pro-slavery supporters. After a group of pro-slavery supporters attacked the anti-slavery town of Lawrence in Kansas, Brown, who believed it was his divine mission to extract revenge, retaliated and led a nighttime attack on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on 24/25 May 1856. Among his group of seven men were four of his sons and one son-in-law. Three pro-slavery supporters were dragged from their homes and hacked to death. Two more were killed before the sun rose. Brown escaped the pursuing peace-keeping troops of the US Army.
Brown fled to New York where he asked abolitionists for funds to provide weapons for a slave army. His plan was to establish a stronghold where both white and African-Americans could stage a revolt that would spread across the country and put an end to slavery.
But Brown’s plan was betrayed, forcing him into hiding. He returned to Kansas and led a raid into the neighbouring slave state of Missouri where slaveholders were killed and eleven slaves freed. Once again, Brown escaped, this time taking the freed slaves with him into Canada.
In July 1859, Brown finally began to prepare for his revolt. Going by the name of Isaac Smith, he rented a house in Maryland just across the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, site of the federal armoury, where supporters arrived by night to join him.
The raid began late on 16 October 1859. In the early hours of the following morning, Brown and his followers took possession of the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry with the intent of stealing the weapons inside to arm slaves and form an ‘army of emancipation’ which, he hoped, would liberate their fellow slaves. The armoury stored some 100,000 rifles and guns but were to be used, at Brown’s insistence, not to kill but for self-defence only. Among his 21 followers were three of his sons and five African-Americans, armed with rifles and Brown’s Pikes, a weapon Brown designed himself.
Brown’s men took as many as 60 hostages including the great-grandnephew of George Washington. The spontaneous uprising however failed to materialize and Brown and his men found themselves besieged by local militia, farmers and tradesmen. Once the townsfolk had secured the bridge across the River Potomac, Brown’s men were surrounded. On 17 October, realising his cause was lost, Brown sent out two men under the white flag, one of them being his 24-year-old son, Watson Brown. Despite the flag, Watson was shot and died two days later.
The following day, the US president, James Buchanan, sent no less a man than Robert E Lee to deal with the situation. Attempts to negotiate failed and Lee sent in his men. Attacked with a sword, Brown was wounded and ten of his followers, including another son, were killed. It was all over in a matter of minutes.
Among those Brown tried to recruit for his raid at Harpers Lane were Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both influential freed slaves. Tubman, who suffered unbearable headaches and black outs throughout her life as a consequence of a childhood accident, may have been too ill to travel. Douglass simply refused to be drawn in, believing Brown’s mission to be suicidal.
‘Wicked, cruel and unjust’
Brown was tried and convicted of murder, insurrection, treason, although he himself did not kill anyone during the Harpers Ferry raid. At his trial, he said, ‘Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!’
John Brown was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia, on 2 December 1859 with an armed militia surrounding the gallows to prevent any rescue attempts. Six more of his followers who had taken part in the raid were also tried and hanged.
Little more than fourteen months later, the American Civil War had broken out.
To learn more, see The American Civil War: History In An Hour and American Slavery: History In An Hour both by Kat Smutz and published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and, the American Civil War, as audio.