by Robin Smith
John Brown's raid on the United States armoury at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, was his attempt to start a revolution in the South. The objective was to free the millions of slaves held in bondage. His capture and public execution set in motion a spiral of accusation and counter-accusation between Northerners and Southerners that led inexorably toward civil war. The small town of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The Shenandoah runs deep into Virginia and the Potomac stretches southeast to Washington some 60 miles away. Philadelphian Robert Harper owned the ferry in 1747 and Harper's Ferry was the choice of George Washington for the site of the United States Armoury which opened in 1796. By 1859 it was the largest weapons-maker in the South, making 10,000 stands of arms annually. Nearly twenty times this number was stored in the fenced and gated arsenal on Potomac Street.
John Brown was a man of action, an abolitionist who believed that the institution of slavery could only be ended only by violence. His plan to invade the South and free the slaves seems first to have been explained in detail to Frederick Douglass in November 1847. Brown denounced slavery fiercely and bitterly, insisting that slavery was a state of war and that "he was not averse to the shedding of blood." Douglass was fascinated with Brown but was doubtful of his plan, arguing that slavery should be abolished by peaceful means.
Frederick Douglass was an eminent black ex-slave from Rochester, New York. Becoming well-known for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."
Slavery died out in the North because it simply did not pay. In the South the invention of the cotton gin created the cotton empire. By 1860 cotton was 57% of the value of all American exports, its agricultural production dependent on slave labour. The new factories of the industrialising North demanded protection from cheap European imports. The South, with few factories, wanted as many cheap European imports as it could get. These and other differences could have been settled by the democratic process except for slavery, about which there could be no lasting compromise.
There had been the Missouri Compromise in 1820 when North and South argued over whether slavery should be permitted in the land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. Missouri was admitted as a slave state but it was decreed that there should be no new slave states north of the 36°30' parallel, Missouri's southern boundary.
Immense new territory was acquired after the war with Mexico in 1847. Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced new legislation stipulating that slavery be never permitted in any of this land. This did not pass but it was argued furiously and immense heat was generated. In the end another Compromise was engineered. California was admitted as a free state and territories of New Mexico and Utah were created. A much stiffer act to govern the return of fugitive slaves was adopted. Nothing did more to create anti-Southern, antislavery sentiment in the North than the Fugitive Slave Act.
Northern sentiment was in favour of the runaway slave and caused a vast expansion of the Underground Railroad whereby Northern citizens helped Negro fugitives escape across the Canadian border. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in 1852, sold 300,000 copies in America in its first year, and won many converts to the antislavery position, in turn arousing intense new resentment in the South.
In 1854 Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois and friendly to the South, introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas wanted a transcontinental railroad with its eastern terminus in Chicago but the South wanted the railroad to go to the Pacific coast via Texas and New Mexico. In order to get Southern support the act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and specifically repealed the Missouri Compromise.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act raised the argument over slavery to a new intensity. Many Northerners, previously friendly to the South, now came to feel that the "slave power" was dangerously aggressive, trying not merely to defend slavery where it already existed but to extend it across all the national domain. Settlers from the North were grimly determined to make Kansas free soil; Southern settlers were equally determined to win Kansas for slavery. Missouri sent over its Border Ruffians, drifters who crossed the line to cast illegal votes, to intimidate free-soil settlers and now and then to raid an abolitionist town.
New England shipped in boxes of rifles, known as Beecher's Bibles in derisive reference to the fervent abolitionist, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's remark, that in Kansas a gun was of more use than a bible. There were clashes between proslavery and antislavery patrols, barn-burnings and horse stealing. A free-lance fanatic from the North, John Brown, arrived in 1855. Joining his sons John Jr, Owen, Jason, Frederick and Salmon who had established claims near the town of Osawatomie, he was responding to their urgent calls for weapons. John Jr had written to his father telling him that proslavery Missourians were attempting to make Kansas a slave state "by means no matter how foul."
The free soil settlement of Lawrence was sacked by a proslavery mob. John Brown and his followers, the Pottawatomie Rifles, were not able to intervene but he was furious that the Free Staters had not put up a fight. Brown worked himself up into a frenzy and determined on a radical retaliatory measure. More maddening news arrived about the assault on Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber by Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
In retaliation John Brown and his followers murdered five proslavery men near the Pottawatomie Creek. They were brutally hacked to death with double-edged broadswords by two of Brown's sons, his son-in-law and another man. Brown, who must have watched the executions in a kind of trance, actually shot one of the victims in the forehead with a revolver, to make certain of it.
Far from Kansas, extremists on both sides whipped up fresh tensions. Senator Charles Sumner, a humourless, self-righteous abolitionist from Massachusetts addressed the Senate on "the crime against Kansas." In denouncing the western spread of the South's peculiar institution he mockingly compared Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina to the "chivalrous knight" Don Quixote in love with the "ugly harlot, Slavery." Butler was not present having been incapacitated by a stroke and recuperating at his home. Congressman Preston Brooks, a kinsman of Butler, was infuriated by the speech and beat Sumner insensible with a gold-headed cane while seated at his desk in the Senate
The Supreme Court had before it the case of Dred Scott, a negro slave whose master, an army surgeon, had kept him for some years in Illinois and Wisconsin, where there was no slavery. Scott sued for his freedom and in 1857, the 80-year old Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the court's opinion. The denial of Scott's plea for freedom was no surprise, but the grounds on which the denial was based stirred the North even more. A negro of slave descent was an inferior sort of person who could not be a citizen of any state and hence could not sue anyone. Furthermore, the act by which Congress had forbidden slavery in the Northern territories (Kansas and Nebraska) was invalid because the Constitution gave slavery ironclad protection. There was no way slavery could be excluded from any territory.
Northern reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law was violent. Boston's Wendell Phillips demanded division of the Union. William Lloyd Garrison took the extreme step of burning the Constitution publicly, after calling it "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."
As Northern abolitionists became more virulent and intemperate in their attacks, so the South adopted a defensive attitude about its "peculiar institution". Soon though they launched an offensive designed to prove that slavery, far from being evil, was actually a positive good, even quoting the Bible. William L. Yancey of Alabama was the golden orator of the movement and Robert Barnwell Rhett, editor of the Charleston Mercury, its most relentless proponent.
The defensive view of slavery was perpetuated in such idyllic scenes as this lithograph. Near their simple but snug cabin happy Negroes dance away the hours, secure in the knowledge that the kindly master will take care of all earthly wants.
Just after New Year's Day 1857 John Brown stepped off the train in Boston and called at the office of Franklin B. Sanborn. Sanborn was a 25-year old schoolteacher who was the committee secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee. Brown needed the support, contacts and money, of the most influential militant abolitionists for his new mission, the invasion of the South. Sanborn found Brown irresistible and introduced him to Samuel Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker, outspoken abolitionists. Parker was very much taken with the "famous Kansas chieftain". Nobody knew about Brown's part in the Pottawatomie massacre and all were impressed with his plans to defend Kansas - he did not yet reveal to these men his plan to invade Virginia and his scheme to capture the U.S. armoury at Harper's Ferry. Sanborn also arranged for him to meet Dr Samuel Gridley Howe and George Luther Stearns as well as William Lloyd Garrison, the crusading editor of the anti-slave newspaper, The Liberator. Brown already knew Gerrit Smith very well. After his farming and other businesses failed in 1848 he approached Smith, a wealthy reformer from New York, who had set aside 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks for Negro families who wanted to farm and become productive citizens.
The winters were long and cold there and only a few families had settled in the small community called North Elba. He asked to take one of the farms, clear it up and plant it, and show his coloured neighbours how much work should be done. Smith liked Brown who genuinely cared for the black man and gave his consent. Brown moved his family to North Elba in May 1848 and eventually built a house on the 244-acre farm that he bought for $1 an acre.
Brown criss-crossed the east making antislavery speeches and raising money for his cause. In New York in March 1857 he met with an English adventurer named Hugh Forbes. Forbes had fought with Garibaldi in 1848 and had written a two-volume manual on military tactics. After coming to America he became fascinated with abolition and had met Higginson. Intrigued with the idea that he could become the Garibaldi of a revolution against slavery, he agreed to join Brown's company as a drillmaster and to provide a handbook on tactics. Forbes had his own plan for the overthrow of slavery but Brown categorically rejected the drillmaster's proposal. Friction immediately broke out between them when Forbes joined Brown at Tabor, Iowa, his secret headquarters.
Charles Blair, a blacksmith who had attended one of Brown's lectures presented him with a new kind of weapon, a pike. This consisted of a two-edged Bowie knife attached to a six-foot pole. Blair figured that he could make them for $1 each and Brown ordered 1,000. Brown had once spoken of the need for a practical weapon that could be used by those unaccustomed to handling a rifle and thought that the pike was the perfect weapon for slaves untutored in firearms.
Brown had stockpiled arms in Tabor. He was now Nelson Hawkins and fearful that he might be arrested for his part in the affair at Potawatomie. He was collecting recruits when he went to Kansas in November 1857 and approached John E. Cook to enlist in a company "with the purpose of putting a stop to the aggressions of the proslavery men." Cook was proud to join such a company and Brown recruited a number of other~ who would become raiders, John Henry Kagi, Aaron D. Stevens, Charles P. Tidd, William Leeman and some others. Cook had attended Yale and been a clerk in a law office in New York. Kagi was articulate and highly intelligent, a schoolteacher, intensely moral and idealistic who considered slavery a social evil. Stevens was a tall hulking man who had run away from home to fight in the Mexican War when he was sixteen. They all regarded Brown as a brave and high-minded warrior and spoke to him with deep respect. Back in Tabor, Virginia and not Kansas was revealed to them as their destination.
Brown arranged for his recruits to be housed in Springdale, Iowa, a Quaker community, for the winter. Before he left for the east he took John Kagi aside and asked him about Harper's Ferry. Kagi knew the area and thought it a good place to begin the work.
Brown reached the home of his old friend Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York on 28th January 1858. He had visited Douglass on a number of occasions since their first meeting in Springfield, Ohio in 1847 but this was the first time that the Virginia plan was discussed in detail. Brown was there nearly a month and it was then that he drew up his Provisional Constitution that would create a new state in the southern mountains after his invasion. To avoid anarchy and confusion, as he explained to Douglass, he had decided that there should be a regularly constituted government to direct the course of the revolution. For its time, this was a radical document describing slavery as "a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion". However "All persons of mature age, whether proscribed, oppressed, and enslaved citizens" would qualify for membership "regardless of race or gender", which for the time was extraordinary. One of the articles stipulated that "profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behaviour, or intoxication or quarrelling, shall not be allowed or tolerated" - so much for free speech and civil liberties.
Douglass introduced Brown to Shields Green, an ex-slave who would assist him in raising money and recruits among the black communities of the northeast United States. Brown's "flock of sheep" was restless and irritable in their cramped quarters in William Maxson's small farmhouse in Springdale but the highly abolitionist Quaker community sheltered and protected the boys. The company now had four additional recruits: Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, Quaker boys from Springdale, a Canadian Stewart Taylor and ex-whaler George P. Gill.
Brown secured the cooperation of Harriet Tubman, one of the heroes of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to the North. She gave Brown information about the Virginia terrain and agreed to enlist recruits from among her personal following in Canada. Among these was Doctor Martin R. Delany, one of the first black men to be admitted to Harvard Medical School and who, as a Major, became the highest ranked black man in the Civil War. One third of the population of Chatham, Ontario were fugitive slaves and Brown organised a secret constitutional convention there in May 1858. His plan to capture the U.S. Armoury at Harper's Ferry was revealed, his Provisional Constitution was approved and office bearers were elected.
Brown only gained one recruit from Chatham, Osborne Perry Anderson, a bright, dignified young man, working in the printing trade. The Chatham convention was the climax of all Brown's feverish preparations. Now he was ready to go to war with slavery.
As the convention ended, Brown received the news that Forbes had blown the lid off the entire conspiracy. Having failed to extract money from Brown's backers, Forbes had gone to Washington and warned Senator William H. Seward tbat Brown was "a very bad man" and exposed his plan. Senator Henry Wilson wrote to Samuel Howe ordering that the men who furnished arms for Brown to use in Kansas should recover them and put them in the hands of "reliable men". As a result, Brown's backers now demanded that he postpone his attack until next year. In order to quieten Forbes, Brown was to go back to Kansas, as if he was resuming the slavery wars there. In the meantime, John E. Cook was sent to Harper's Ferry to get a job and to make investigations as an advance agent.
Brown returned to Kansas where two more recruits, Jerry Anderson and Albert Hazlett, were added to the company. He was disappointed to learn that, except for isolated bursts of violence the territory had remained fairly quiet. The free state men were in the majority and Kansas was moving towards admission to the Union as a free state which would happen in 1861. However, in December 1858, Brown and Aaron Stevens led separate columns into Missouri, ransacked the homes of two planters, one of whom Stevens shot dead, and liberated not only their slaves but wagons, horses, mules, harness and other property. Brown and his men with their freed slaves, horses and wagons journeyed back to Detroit where the slaves were put on a ferry to Windsor, Ontario in March 1859. All across Illinois and Michigan, because of widespread public resentment toward the fugitive slave law, not a single peace officer dared to arrest Brown and his freed slaves.
Two more negro recruits joined from Cleveland, Ohio, John Anthony Copeland and Lewis Sheridan Leary. Brown went to see his family in North Elba and on 23rd June 1859, with his sons Oliver and Owen and Jerry Anderson he crossed into Pennsylvania, headed towards Harper's Ferry and the fulfilment of his prophecies.
John Brown's first target, Harper's Ferry, is situated on a narrow neck of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossed the Potomac on a sturdy wooden bridge and ran past the town as it wound westward towards Ohio. Washington, lying on the banks of the Potomac was less than 60 miles away by turnpike. The population was a little over 2,500 with but only 88 slaves. A majority of the 1,200 whites were skilled workers and government employees from the North whom the Southerners regarded as foreigners. In the surrounding area there were 18,000 slaves but less than 5,000 of these were men.
The federal armoury was a complex of buildings along Potomac Street. The first building was the fire-engine house. Next came the forging, machine and stocking shops and then the arsenal. About half a mile above the government shops, on an island in the Shenandoah, was Hall's Rifle Works where 60 expert gunsmiths fashioned firearms for the U.S. Army, its output being 10,000 rifles per year.
John E. Cook had been in Harper's Ferry since the summer of 1858, taking a job on the canal across the Potomac. After work he studied the layout of the government armoury and ingratiated himself with the townsfolk. He made love to a plump, blonde girl named Mary Kennedy and had to marry her in April 1859. Brown arrived at Harper's Ferry on 3rd July 1859 with Owen, Oliver and Jerry Anderson. He held a brief consultation with his agent, was unhappy to learn about Cook's woman, and left town again, having told his agent to keep his ears open and his mouth shut. He located a dilapidated two-story farmhouse about 7 miles away on the Maryland side of the Potomac which would serve as a secret hideaway. It belonged to a Dr Booth Kennedy and Brown told him he was a cattle buyer from New York by the name of Isaac Smith.
Brown's recruits trickled in, William and Dauphin Thompson and Watson Borwn arrived on 6th August. Tidd, Stevens, Leeman, Hazlett and Barclay and Edwin Coppoc all reached the farm within a few weeks of one another. Stewart Taylor, an eccentric young spiritualist from Canada arrived sometime in August and so did Dangerfield Newby, a 48-year old free black man who hoped to liberate his wife and seven children from a plantation in Virginia. Brown took great pains to conceal his band of men from the neighbours. 17-year old Martha, Oliver's wife, and 15-year old Annie came down from North Elba to keep house and divert suspicion.
John Henry Kagi was in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania under the name "J.Henrie" attending to the shipment of 15 boxes of Sharps rifles and Maynard revolvers which John Junior had shipped from Ohio. The Maynard revolvers were useless as Brown had not bought the priming tapes. Chambersburg was also the secret rendezvous for the pikes which Charles Blair was to send from Connecticut.
Up to this point some of the men thought they were going into the South on a large slave-running expedition, an expanded version of the 1858 raid into Missouri. But now the old man said things that made their mouths hang open. They were going to attack Harper's Ferry itself and capture the government armoury and arsenal, whose store of arms was desperately needed for the guerrilla army. Once they had control of the town they would hold it until mutinous slaves from the surrounding area joined them. Once the invasion began, thousands of Negroes would break out of their plantations and rush to Harper's Ferry in a mighty black stampede. With all the guns from the arsenal they would move rapidly southwards sending armed parties to liberate more slaves, confiscate arms and provisions, take hostages and spread terror throughout Virginia. Charles Tidd and Brown's sons strenuously objected saying it was suicidal for a handful of men to capture and then hold a whole town. Cook and Kagi were in favour but tempers cooled and things settled down. Stewart Taylor was obsessed with the idea that he would be the first to die. Hazlett and Leeman took to stealing out of the house at night and going down to Harper's Ferry to see Cook.
Brown met with Shields Green and Frederick Douglass in August in an old stone quarry in Chambersburg. Brown told Douglass, apparently for the first time, about his plan to raid the Harper's Ferry arsenal. Douglass was shocked and pointed out that if Brown attacked federal property it would array the whole country against him and the invasion would be stamped out at once. Brown categorically disagreed with that and pleaded for Douglass to join him. Douglass shook his head and said he would not go with him this time. Green felt tremendous loyalty to Brown and agreed to join.
At least 80 people knew that Brown was planning some incendiary move against the South. Senators Seward and Wilson had reason to expect something. Anyone who had read James Redpath's books published early in 1859 and dedicated "To John Brown Senior of Kansas" would have been totally naive not to have suspected that something large was underfoot. In Springdale, Iowa, a Quaker named David J. Gue decided that Brown and his followers would all be killed. To save him from this folly, he and his brothers sent a letter to Secretary of War John B. Floyd. The letter said that "old John Brown, late of Kansas", was organising a secret association to incite a slave uprising in the South. He had a large amount of arms and planned to enter Virginia at Harper's Ferry. When Floyd read this remarkable letter he decided the author was a crank, filed the letter away, and forgot it.
On Sunday night, 16th October 1859, after a day that began with a worship service in the living room and with Brown giving out battle assignments, the 19 raiders set off for Harper's Ferry. Owen, Barclay Coppoc and Francis Merriam were to remain at the farm as rearguard. Apart from sending Cook on a ride to Charlestown a few days previously, Brown had done no scouting. He rode on a wagon loaded with arms, the others walked alongside. Soon they could see the lights of Harper's Ferry and Cook and Tidd fell out and headed into the woods to cut the telegraph lines. Kagi and Stevens darted across the bridge and captured the night watchman who thought it was all a joke at first. They quickly captured the armoury and drove the cart into the yard. Brown himself led a party to seize Hall's Rifle Works. A number of citizens of Harper's Ferry were taken prisoner.
A special detachment went to "Beallair", the home of Colonel Lewis Washington, a planter who lived outside the town. He was a great-grandnephew of George Washington and taken as a hostage. By now, thought Brown, word was spreading through Virginia and in the next 24 hours slaves from all over the state would be pouring into Harper's Ferry. Not long after midnight the special detachment rode into town with ten liberated slaves and three hostagesColonel Washington, a farmer named Allstadt and his son. Also captured was a magnificent sword of Washington's which Frederick the Great had given to his illustrious relative. The slaves were given pikes and told to guard the hostages.
A train came chugging into Harper's Ferry but stopped when the night watchman warned the conductor that he had been attacked by men with guns. The engineer gave the alarm, the townspeople gathered in the streets with knives, axes, squirrel rifles and any weapon they could pick up. Brown let the train press on, taking the news to Monocacy and Frederick. By 11 o'clock on Monday morning a general battle was raging in Harper's Ferry as farmers and militia poured into town and laid down a blistering tire on the tire house of the armoury where Brown and his men were gathered. Kagi, at the rifle works sent frantic messages all morning that they should leave town at once. Brown sent Cook, Tidd, Leeman and several of the liberated slaves across the bridge to help Owen move the arms. Shortly afterwards, the Jefferson Guards arrived from Charlestown and blocked the bridge.
Dangerfield Newby was the first of the raiders to die, shot by a sniper's bullet. Brown wanted to negotiate for a ceasetire and offer to release his prisoners if the militia would let him and his men go free. He sent William Thompson and one of the prisoners out under a flag of truce but the excited crowd took them into custody at gun point. Brown gathered all his men, the armed slaves and 11 of his prisoners into the fire-engine house, a brick building with three heavy oak doors in front and arched windows above them. Brown then sent Watson and Stevens out under another white flag but the mob shot down both the raiders. Watson crawled back to the engine house and lay doubled up in agony. One of the prisoners carried Stevens to the railway station where he was given medical attention. Leeman lost his nerve and fled for his life towards the Potomac. Several militiamen gave chase and shot him on the river bank. A party of whites stormed the rifle works. Kagi ran towards the river but was shot and died in the water. Leary was mortally wounded. Copeland was taken prisoner and was about to be lynched when a local doctor rode up and shielded him until militia took him to a safe place. William Thompson was seized and shot to death under the railway trestle.
In the engine house Brown was now surrounded by 12 militia companies and hundreds of screaming civilians. By evening the militia forces numbered in the hundreds but Brown's party fired unceasingly and inflicted enough casualties to make them think better of storming the engine house, knowing that federal troops were coming from Washington. Inside, John Brown was, in the words of Lewis Washington, "the coolest and firmest man I ever saw in defying danger and death. He commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm." He made sure his prisoners were as comfortable as possible telling them that he meant them no harm.
At 11 p.m. a company of 90 marines arrived, under the command of Lieutenant Israel Green. Colonel Robert E. Lee and his aide Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart had been sent by the War Department in Washington to direct the operation. Lee decided not to make a midnight assault as this would endanger the hostages. As dawn broke, J.E.B. Stuart appeared at the engine house. When the door was opened about four inches he saw Brown peeping out at him with a loaded carbine in his hands. Stuart delivered Lee's written demand for surrender. Brown ignored it and explained his terms at length - he wanted to be allowed to escape. 45. Fight at the engine house There being no chance of negotiation, Stuart stepped aside and waved his hat. Lieutenant Green chose a dozen men for the attack and a heavy ladder was used as a battering ram. The door splintered and Green and his men charged through the hole. Washington pointed out Brown and Green lunged at him with his sword. In the rush of leaving his quarters the previous day, Green had mistakenly brought a dress sword instead of his military sabre. His thrust evidently struck a belt buckle, bending the blade, but he struck Brown several times over the head, inflicting some wounds. One marine was killed by gunfire as he entered. Jerrie Anderson and Dauphin Thompson were killed by bayonet thrusts. Shields Green and Edwin Coppoc were taken into custody, Watson Brown was dying.
Brown was taken to the paymaster's office together with the badly hurt Aaron Stevens. His wounds turned out to be less serious than originally thought, though serious enough to bother him later during his trial. Questioned by Virginia congressman Alexander R. Boteler he accounted for the project's failure by pointing to the lacklustre reaction of slaves and sympathetic whites. Boteler was surprised to hear that he had expected to get assistance from both blacks and whites.
By early afternoon John Brown was national news. An artist was on hand to sketch scenes of the interview. The train brought the Virginia governor, Henry Wise and Senator James Mason. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Israel Green and others who had been present at the action were there. All were outraged at what he had done and most were rabidly proslavery. Brown was cajoled, insulted and damned but he remained steady through the entire three-hour interview. After Brown's capture, a column of Baltimore militia went across the Potomac to a small schoolhouse where they found the boxes of Maynard revolvers and the Sharps carbines. At the Kennedy farmhouse were the pikes and an incredible collection of incriminating documents. Brown's secret backers and some innocent friends were implicated. Thus Brown's war for slave liberation ended in dismal failure. No uprisings had taken place anywhere, slaves everywhere being afraid of Southern reprisals. The raid cost 17 lives: three townsmen, a slaveholder and one marine had been killed as well as 10 of Brown's own recruits including two of his sons. Hazlett and Cook were caught in Pennsylvania several days later and returned to Virginia. Owen Brown, Merriam, Tidd, Barclay Coppoc and Osborne P. Anderson all escaped for good.
Brown and the other captured raiders were taken by train to Charlestown, eight miles southwest of Harper's Ferry and lodged in the county jail. Governor Wise made a decision that would bear significantly on the outcome of Brown's raid: although Brown had attacked federal property at Harper's Ferry, the governor decided to prosecute him in a Virginia court. Wise wanted to enhance the prestige. of Virginia as well as his own in the eyes of fellow Southerners. Judge Richard Parker's circuit court was in session at Charlestown and Brown was ordered to stand trial there just one week after his capture.
On 25th October Brown was charged with the murder of four whites and one Negro, for conspiring with slaves to rebel and for committing treason against the state of Virginia, even though he owed that state no allegiance. Similar indictments were made against Copeland, Coppoc, Shields Green and Aaron Stevens. All were given separate trials and Brown's wounds were not considered serious enough to be reason for postponement. On 2th October the trial began with Brown, composed and heroic, lying on a cot. The jury took only 45 minutes to find him guilty as charged. Brown drew himself up for a final burst of eloquence and delivered a 5-minute discourse that was to awe an entire generation:
"I believe that to have interfered as I have done on behalf of the despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."
Judge Parker was unmoved and on 2nd November sentenced John Brown to hang on the gallows. Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, John Copeland, Stevens, Hazlett and John Cook all met the same fate.
Governor Wise praised Brown's behaviour and how he spoke. In a speech in Richmond he said he is "fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, truthful and intelligent". Wise's proslavery friend from Ohio, Democrat Clement Vallandigham said "he would have been a consummate commander in a good cause."
Brown was so surrounded by guards as he left jail that none of the onlookers [in the painting depicted on the slide] could have gotten close to him. This message scribbled on a piece of paper and given to the jailer is only too true.
Virginian famer-politician Edmund Ruffin was a typical fire-eater and used John Brown's raid to further the cause of secession. He was present at John Brown's hanging. He considered slavery so wonderful that he hoped whites would one day take over Africa and enslave its natives who would then receive the blessings of Christian civilisation. He procured a number of John Brown's notorious pikes and sent one to each of the governors of the slave states so that no one would forget the hostility and aggression of the North toward the South.
The efforts of Ruffin and others to make political capital of Harper's Ferry fell on willing ears. A number of Southern states cited Northern support of John Brown as a main reason for secession in that "they (the North) have encouraged a hostile invasion of Southern states to excite insurrection, murder and rapine." After the John Brown raid the chance that the bitter sectional argument over slavery could be harmonised faded close to vanishing point.
Following the Civil War, the Reverend Dr. Nathan Cook Brackett established a Freewill Baptist primary school in the Lockwood House on Camp Hill, Harper's Ferry. Brackett's tireless efforts to establish freedmen's schools in the area inspired a generous contribution from philanthopist John Storer of Sanford, Maine, who offered $10,000 for the establishment of a school in Harper's Ferry. The donation was offered on condition that Storer College be open to all regardless of sex, race or religion and the school catered largely for freed blacks to provide a basic education and life skills. Frederick Douglass was a trustee and on the occasion of the 14th Anniversary of the college he delivered an oration extolling John Brown as a martyr to the cause of liberty. Especially notable was the presence among the platform guests of Andrew Hunter, District Attorney of Charlestown, who had prosecuted John Brown and secured his conviction. His memorable words:
"When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone - the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union - and the clash of arms was at hand. The South drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown's, the lost cause of the century."
Return to Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org