Abolitionist John Brown (May 9, 1800-December 2, 1859) was as responsible as any one person for the coming of the Civil War. His October 16, 1859, raid on Harpers Ferry galvanized the nation, further alienating North and South and drastically reducing any possible middle ground for compromise.
Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, the fourth of eight children of Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. Unsuccessful at every occupation he undertook, by the 1850s Brown had committed himself to the violent abolition of slavery. He took an Old Testament view of his cause, believing that the great sin of human bondage must be purged from the land by the shedding of blood. In May 1856 he and his sons and followers killed five proslavery men in Kansas, and he later lost one of his sons in a similar raid.
At Chatham, Ontario, in 1858, Brown met with supporters, including Jefferson County native Martin Delany to plan for an armed insurrection of slaves in the South. In early 1859, he established himself and his followers on a Maryland farm near Harpers Ferry and in October carried out his raid on the U.S. arsenal there. Brown’s plan was to issue government arms to slaves in the surrounding countryside, thereby enabling them to free themselves.
The raiders easily captured the arsenal and the town of Harpers Ferry, but in their military inexperience failed to capitalize on their initial success. The hoped for slave uprising never materialized, and Brown’s men soon were besieged by local militia and U.S. marines under the leadership of Col. Robert E. Lee. After a last stand in a small fire-engine house, Brown and his surviving followers surrendered. He had lost ten of his 18 men, and himself was wounded. They had killed four people in taking Harpers Ferry, ironically including Heyward Shepherd, a free African-American of the town.
John Brown was tried for murder, treason, and insurrection in the Jefferson County courthouse at Charles Town, convicted November 2, 1859, and hanged there a month later. Maj. Thomas J. Jackson, later nicknamed ‘‘Stonewall,’’ was among those commanding the Virginia forces standing guard at the execution.
Brown was instantly transformed into a demon in the Southern imagination and a martyr in the North. The song ‘‘John Brown’s Body’’ was a favorite marching song of Union armies in the ensuing war, and (now with new words as the ‘‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’’) is still one of America’s great patriotic songs. John Brown remains controversial a century and a half later, widely viewed as a murderous fanatic in an unquestionably good cause and a pivotal figure in the country’s history. Harpers Ferry was made into a National Historic Park (originally Historic Monument) in 1944, and is the most visited historic site in West Virginia.
Last Revised on September 27, 2012
Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
Oates, Stephen B. To Purge this Land with Blood. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.