John Brown An Overview

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THE STORY OF JOHN BROWN An Overview


 

John BrownJohn 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 John Brown Holds Hostage at Bay with Rifletwenty 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 slave catchers.

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
 



John Brown's Black Raiders

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.

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 much.

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 attacks 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 arrive.

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 kind.

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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