THE STORY OF JOHN BROWN
— An Overview
Brown was a man of action -- a man who would not be deterred from his
mission of abolishing slavery. On October 16, 1859, he led 21 men on a
raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His plan to arm
slaves with the weapons he and his men seized from the arsenal was
thwarted, however, by local farmers, militiamen, and Marines led by
Robert E. Lee. Within 36 hours of the attack, most of Brown's men had
been killed or captured.
John Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington,
Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to
slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a
district that would become known for its antislavery views.
During his first fifty years, Brown moved about the country, settling in
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, and taking along his
ever-growing family. (He would father
children.) Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner,
and land speculator, he never was finacially successful -- he even filed
for bankruptcy when in his forties. His lack of funds, however, did not
keep him from supporting causes he believed in. He helped finance the
publication of David Walker's Appeal and Henry Highland's "Call to
Rebellion" speech. He gave land to fugitive slaves. He and his wife
agreed to raise a black youth as one of their own. He also participated
in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the League of
Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped slaves from
In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield,
Massachusetts. Of the meeting Douglass 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." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to
Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.
Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. The
community had been established thanks to the philanthropy of Gerrit
Smith, who donated tracts of at least 50 acres to black families willing
to clear and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families
were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish
his own farm there as well, in order to lead the blacks by his example
and to act as a "kind father to them."
Despite his contributions to the antislavery cause, Brown did not emerge
as a figure of major significance until 1855 after he followed five of
his sons to the Kansas territory. There, he became the leader of
antislavery guerillas and fought a proslavery attack against the
antislavery town of Lawrence. The following year, in retribution for
another attack, Brown went to a proslavery town and brutally killed five
of its settlers. Brown and his sons would continue to fight in the
territory and in Missouri for the rest of the year.
Brown returned to the east and began to think more seriously about his
plan for a war in Virginia against slavery. He sought money to fund an
"army" he would lead. On October 16, 1859, he set his plan to action
when he and 21 other men -- 5 blacks and 16 whites -- raided the federal
arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Brown was wounded and quickly captured, and moved to Charlestown,
Virginia, where he was tried and convicted of treason, Before hearing
his sentence, Brown was allowed make an address to the court.
. . . I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf
of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be 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."
Although initially shocked by Brown's exploits, many Northerners began
to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. "He did not recognize
unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. . . .," said Henry
David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts.
"No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for
the dignity of human nature. . . ."
John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859
On October 16, 1859, John Brown led 21 men on an assault at Harpers
Ferry -- an event that shook the nation and [nudged it even closer
toward civil war]. Among these raiders were five black men: two of these
men would die at Harpers Ferry, two would be captured and executed, and
one would escape to Canada.
John Brown's Black Raiders
Dangerfield Newby, a strong, 6'2" African American, was the first
of Brown's men to die in the fighting. Born a slave in 1815 but later
freed by his white, Scottish father, Newby married a slave who was still
in bondage in Virginia. A letter found on his dead body revealed his
motive for joining Brown. . .
Dear Husband: I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you
do not get me somebody else will. The servants are very
disagreeable; they do all they can to set my mistress against me.
Dear Husband,. . . the last two years have been like a troubled
dream to me. It is said Master is in want of money. If so, I know
not what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hopes of the
future are blasted, for there has been one bright hope to cheer me
in all my troubles, that is to be with you, for if I thought I
should never see you, this earth would have no charms fo me. Do all
you can for me, which I have no doubt you will. I want to see you so
Newby's wife was sold after the raid and moved farther to the south.
Lewis Sheridan Leary also died at Harpers Ferry, although he did
survive for eight hours after receiving his wounds. Originally from
North Carolina, Leary moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where he married Mary S.
Patterson. She did not know Leary's plans when he left her and their
six-month-old child to rendezvous with Brown. Leary did, however, manage
to send his family messages before he died.
A fugitive slave of pure African ancestry, Shields Green
accompanied Frederick Douglass to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where the
great abolitionist spoke to John Brown for the last time. Brown was
unsuccessful in convincing Douglass to join him in the raid; he did,
however, recruit the young Green. Green was captured at Harpers Ferry
and later executed. He was reportedly only 23 years old.
Born free in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1834, John Anthony Copeland,
Jr. moved to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1842, where he later attended Oberlin
College. In September of 1859 he was recruited to John Brown's army by
his uncle and fellow black raider, Lewis Sheridan Leary. Copeland's role
in the assault was to seize control of Hall's Rifle Works, along with
John Kagi, a white raider. Kagi was killed while trying to escape from
the factory. Copeland was captured alive. During his trial, in which he
was convicted and sentenced to death, he managed to impress many of
those with whom he came in contact. Speaking of Copeland, the trial's
prosecuting attorney said. . .
From my intercourse with him I regard him as one of the most
respectable persons we had. . . . He was a copper-colored Negro,
behaved himself with as much firmness as any of them, and with far
more dignity. If it had been possible to recommend a pardon for any
of them it would have been this man Copeland as I regretted as much
if not more, at seeing him executed than any other of the party."
This dignity continued to be evident. On his way to the gallows he was
heard to say, "If I am dying for freedom, I could not die for a better
cause -- I had rather die than be a slave!"
Of the five black raiders, only Osborn Perry Anderson would
escape and remain free. He fled to Canada, but came back to the U.S. and
enlisted with the Union army in 1864. Anderson would write the only
eye-witness account of the raid, which was published two years after the
raid. He died in 1872.
The Raid on Harper's Ferry
(click on the picture for a larger image)
John Brown's plan seemed fairly straightforward: he and his men would
establish a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains from which they would
assist runaway slaves and launch
on slaveholders. At least that was the plan that the militant
abolitionist had described to potential funders in 1857. But his plans
would change. He had been ready in 1858 to launch his war -- he had both
the men and the money to proceed. Brown was asked to postpone the
launch, though, because one of his followers had threatened to reveal
the plan -- a threat that the blackmailer did follow through on. So
Brown agreed to go into hiding.
The following summer, after a one-year delay, Brown was eager to get
underway. He rented a farm in Maryland, across the Potomac River from
Harpers Ferry. Here he assembled his arms and waited for his "army" to
The delay had an adverse effect on Brown's plan. Many of the men he had
recruited the previous year had changed their minds, moved away, or
simply didn't think the plan would work. Even Henry Highland Garnet, the
radical abolitionist who advocated insurrection, didn't have faith in
the plan, believing that slaves were unprepared. Brown also met with
Frederick Douglass in August of 1859, when Brown told his friend of his
intentions of seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry rather than
staging guerilla warfare from the mountains. Attacking the arsenal was
in effect attacking the federal government and, in Douglass' estimation,
a grave mistake. "You're walking into a perfect steel-trap," he said to
Brown, "and you will never get out alive."
On October 16, Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with 21 men -- 5 blacks,
including Dangerfield Newby, who hoped to rescue his wife who was still
a slave, and 16 whites, two of whom were Brown's sons. Leaving after
sundown, the men crossed the Potomac, then walked all night in heavy
rain, reaching the town at 4am. They cut telegraph wires, then made
their assault. First they captured the federal armory and arsernal. They
then captured Hall's Rifle Works, a supplier of weapons to the
government. Brown and his men rounded up 60 prominent citizens of the
town and held them as hostages, hoping that their slaves would join the
fight. No slaves came forth.
The local militia pinned Brown and his men down. Under a white flag, one
of Brown's sons was sent out to negotiate with the citizens. He was shot
and killed. News of the insurrection, relayed by the conductor of an
express train heading to Baltimore, reached President Buchanan. Marines
and soldiers went dispatched, under the leadership of then Colonel
Robert E. Lee. By the time they arrived, eight of Brown's 22-man army
had already been killed. Lee's men moved in and quickly ended the
insurrection. In the end, ten of Brown's men were killed (including two
blacks and both of his sons), seven were captured (two of these later),
and five had escaped.
Brown, who was seriously wounded, was taken to Charlestown, Virginia
(now Charles Town, West Virginia), along with the other captives. There
they were quickly tried, sentenced, then executed. John Brown's
statements during his trial reached the nation, inspiring many with his
righteous indignation toward slavery. The raid ultimately hastened the
advent of the Civil War.
John Brown's Address to the Court
Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia
on November 2, 1859
I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along
admitted, -- the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly
to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I
went into Missouri and took slaves without the snapping of a gun on
either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in
Canada. I designed to do the same thing again, on a larger scale. That
was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the
destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or
to make insurrection.
I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer
such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which
I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor
of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this
case), -- had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the
intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends
-- either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that
class -- and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference,
it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have
deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
The court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I
see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the
New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that
men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further
to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored
to act up to that instruction. I say, I am too young to understand that
God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I
have done -- as I have always freely admitted I have done -- in behalf
of His despied poor, was not 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 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!
Let me say one word further.
I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my
trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than
I expected. I feel no consciousness of my guilt. I have stated from the
first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design
against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason,
or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never
encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of any
Let me say also, a word in regard to the statements made by some to
those conncected with me. I hear it has been said by some of them that I
have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say
this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one
of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at
their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of
conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the
purpose I have stated.
Now I have done.
reprinted from PBS
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