John Brown

John Brown is the most well known of all the abolitionists of the 1800's. Born in Torrington Connecticut, May 9th 1800, Brown grew up being taught to hate slavery and live a biblical life. He worked as a cattle herder and a tanner and viewed mandatory education with disdain. As an adult, Brown fathered more than twenty kids by two wives. Brown moved around on the East Coast for almost fifty years, fighting slavery wherever he went. Unfortunately, he felt that violence was the only way to combat the evils of slavery, and so was involved along with five of his sons in the Kansas conflictsas well as the brutal murder of five citizens in a pro-slavery town (the Pottawatomie Massacre). Brown lived in black communities in order to help former slaves earn a living, and was also involved in the Underground Railroad, but his attack on Harper's Ferry stands above all of his other antislavery contributions. John Brown was executed by hanging on charges of treason on December 2, 1859.
John Brown (Library of Congress)
John Brown (Library of Congress)

Harper's Ferry

John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry was the consummation of his life’s work, as well as a spark that ultimately hastened the outbreak of the Civil War.

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The Plan

Originally, Brown told his followers that they would set up a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains and free slaves while waging guerilla warfare on slave owners. However, in 1857, a rumor that one of his followers was going to give away their planning forced Brown to postpone his war and go into hiding for a year. By the time he was once again prepared to start his crusade in 1859, Brown’s plan had changed drastically. His followers and funders were now hearing that he was going to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry to fuel a full-fledged insurrection. Many of his followers rejected the plan and fell away from him, and when Frederick Douglass was asked to join, he refused. Harriet Tubman was also recruited, but fell ill and did not participate. Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with 21 men-- 16 white and 5 black-- but his expected army of 200-500 slaves never mustered.

The Attack

Brown and his "army" crossed the Potomac after sundown and made their way to Harpers ferry through the driving rain and night. They arrived at 4a.m. and immediately captured Colnel Lewis Washington (great grandnephew of George Washington) as well as a sword and a pair of pistols presented to George Washington by Frederick the Great and Lafayett respectively. The raiders then cut the telegraph wires going into and out of the town and siezed a passing Baltimore and Ohio train. For unknown reasons, Brown let the train leave, which ironically was the train that warned Washington of the attack. Brown's gang then captured the federal arsenal as well as a private supplier of arms for the government, Hall's Rifle Works. Over all, Brown captured 60 of the town's citizens and held them hostage. By this time, it was evident that Brown's army would not come to save them, so the raiders barred themselves in a small engine house, which is now known as John Brown's Fort.


By the time that Washington dispatched troops to stop the threat, three of Brown's gang had either been captured or killed. The local militia had rallied against the raiders and the two forces had been exchanging vollies. When the U.S. Marines arrived under the command of Colnel Robert E. Lee, Brown was offered a chance to surrender. Brown refused, and the U.S. Marines broke into the engine house by using a ladder as a battering ram. Lt. Isaac Greene was the firt in to charge into the engine house, and delivered a serious wound to the back of Brown's neck. In under two minutes, seven more of the raiders were killed and the rest were captured. The criminals were quickly sent to Charles Town, tried, and hanged on charges of treason against the state of Virginia. John Brown's behavior during the trial transformed him into a martyr of freedom in the eyes of the North. However, the South was threatened by the possibility of others like Brown, and so began transforming their militias into a viable defence. The actions of John Brown served to militarize the South and increase tension with the North. Both of these factors served to speed up the breaking of the Civil War.