Part 2 of 2

The mid 19th century’s most fervent abolitionist, John Brown, spent his early years in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.  His abolitionist sensibilities were roused in 1837, and his passions were so great he required his family to swear an oath to work diligently to help abolish slavery. 

In the late 1840s, after succeeding and then failing miserably at several business ventures, the middle-aged Brown settled in a community established for blacks in upstate New York.  He worked among them until about 1855 when he went to the Kansas Territory to help his sons defend the territory (on the brink of statehood) from pro-slavery vigilantes.

During this period Brown and his followers were preyed upon by Missouri raiders, known as Border Ruffians, and in skirmish after skirmish, Brown managed to kill many of them.  However, two of his sons were kidnapped, his Kansas family home was burned, and another son was gunned down by Missouri roughnecks.  He absconded to Canada, and from there he began his fund-raising campaign to realize his dream, conceived in 1850, of starting a slave insurrection that would finally rid the United States of the blight of human bondage.

North by Northeast
John Brown’s original plan as he saw it in 1850 was a simple one.  He assumed all enslaved blacks in America wanted freedom.  He also assumed, if given the chance and the right leadership, that John Brown (1858)Credit: Chicago Historical Societyopportunity could become a nationwide bid for freedom for all.

His plan required arming a small band of slaves, who would then free more slaves and, with captured arms, take up more and more slaves, and the spreading insurrection would mean freedom. 

One thing for which he had not planned was the element of Big Talk versus Big Dollars.  Many of the abolitionists with whom he met in the days leading up to the Harpers Ferry raid pledged much and delivered little beyond their moral support.  The abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who had created the little black community in upstate New York where Brown still maintained a residence, was one of his staunchest supporters, however.

The other thing that Brown did not comprehend until it was too late was the “slave mentality” of the day.  This mindset would not allow any slave to actively engage in the sedition for which Brown agitated.  Only the most fearless would ever consider joining such a crazed campaign.  Slavery was ingrained, although the slave trade itself (banning the importation of people for slavery) had been abolished in 1804.  The ban on importation meant a thriving “breeding” program on US soil.  Slaves were born and bred in captivity in the same way zoo animals are managed.  Unfortunately, for the average slave, slavery was all he or she knew of life.  The slave mind saw only its surroundings; from experience slaves knew they would be severely beaten, maimed, or murdered for any insurrectionist leanings. 

Brown was an outlaw in the South for his anti-slavery views and his taking up arms against “good, God-fearin’ men” in Missouri and Kansas.  Had Brown set foot anywhere in the Deep South the malice he created was so great he would have been shot or lynched on sight.  As a renegade, Brown had to meet with his potential backers and benefactors under cover of assumed names, undisclosed meeting places, and with much cloak-and-dagger.  He was promised funds with which to arm his men.  The original plan did not call for any trespassing on US Government property. 

He spent the years from 1856 through early 1858 crisscrossing New England and other parts of the US looking for support.  Brown could not comprehend why his backers could not see the valor and “rightness” of sparing no cost to foment a slave uprising.  His abolitionist friends (with a cautionary eye toward the political climate of the day) were more sensitive to public sentiment.  Some agitation was okay; too much was insufferable.  Six influential abolitionists, however, came through with enough funds to get Brown started.  This group came to be known as “The Secret Six” – among them was Gerrit Smith.  Brown often tapped the group, with no questions asked, for further financial aid as time went on.

Brown, through his agents, let his plan be leaked in the state of Maryland where he felt he stood the best chance of creating an army of emancipated slaves.  He was disappointed when few slaves agreed to join – almost all were afraid of retribution if they even got caught talking about a revolt.

Brown was left to his own devices.  Minimally financed, and without much hope of slaves actively engaging in their own freedom fight, Brown gathered around him a group of guerillas, loyal to the cause and willing to die for it.  Two among them were his sons.

In January 1858 a Massachusetts group pledged 200 rifles with sufficient ammunition to the revolution.  This material was stored in Iowa, and Brown had to go get it.  In March of that year Brown contracted for 1000 pikes for his group.  He intended to use these as ready and simple weapons with which to arm the slaves he was certain would flock to him when the rebellion was in full swing.  [Brown paid for half of the consignment up front, and then took off for more fund-raising.  The metal smith to whom he contracted the job, Charles Blair, advised Brown upon his return – almost a year later – that he could not fill the order; he subcontracted the work to another local smith, Charles Hart.  Hart completed the consignment, but Brown never got to use the pikes as intended.]

Brown continued seeking funding.  As earlier, he received many pledges but little in the way of hard cash.  He did meet with good fortune on one front, however.  He was introduced to Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary who had fought in Italy, and had gained valuable military tactical experience in 1848.  Brown hired Forbes to serve as drillmaster for his men and to create their tactical handbook.  Forbes and Brown agreed to meet in Tabor, Iowa (where the pledged rifles were stored) in the summer of 1858. 

Traveling under the alias Nelson Hawkins, Brown hawked his plans in the Northeast and then visited his family in Hudson, Ohio.  He continued on to Tabor, Iowa, to meet Forbes, arriving on August 7 (who didn’t show up until two days later).  The men hunkered down and made plans.  The two disagreed violently on many key aspects of the plot, but in the end they formed what Brown called a “Well-Matured Plan” to combat slavery in the South. 

After summering in Iowa, the group of rabble-rousers then moved into Kansas in November to make further plans and to recruit.  Forbes, who had not been paid for his work and who was at odds with Brown, took off for the East instead of accompanying the guerillas to Kansas. Disgruntled over the finances, he actually made threats to expose Brown’s plot to the Federal government.  He was perhaps lucky to have escaped with his life.  As a fanatic, Brown would not have hesitated to either have him killed or to kill Forbes himself if he sincerely felt his plot would be exposed.

The Ferry
Kansas had settled down in the wake of its October elections that determined whether Kansas would be a Free State or a Slave State.  The populace voted it in as a Free State, a significant victory for the abolition movement. Brown sent his men back to Iowa after giving them a rudimentary outline of his Virginia Plan: a raid on the Harpers Ferry US Armory.

During the planning period Brown traveled extensively, meeting with freed slave and freedom advocate Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York.  He discussed the creation of a constitution for the geographical area he planned to create with slave help in the South that they would then use as a new home state.   Douglass was skeptical of Brown’s success, and felt his plans, while well-intended, were doomed to failure.

Brown also trekked to Chatham in Ontario, Canada, with twelve of his followers (one of whom was his son, Owen).  They convened a Constitutional Convention.  About one-third of that town’s residents were fugitive slaves; Brown met Harriet Tubman there for the first time.

The convention (comprising 34 blacks and 12 whites) discussed and adopted Brown’s idea for a constitution for his envisioned home state for free blacks in the US.  This convention issued a “Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America” in 1859. 

Because of Kansas’ recent stand on freedom over slavery, Brown put forth a plan to make Kansas the goal of “passengers” on the Underground Railroad rather than Canada.  This idea had been conceived years before as his “Subterranean Pass Way”.  During the convention, Brown never mentioned Harpers Ferry or his upcoming plans to besiege a Federal armory there.

Brown, meanwhile, had turned all of his energies toward his plan and Virginia.  Hugh Forbes, however, made good on his threat to expose Brown’s plot.  Unfortunately for Forbes (and unknown to him) the people to whom he spoke were members of the Secret Six co-conspiracy group.  So, although no action was taken, Forbes was perceived as a potential danger to the mission.  Some of The Six, in light of Forbes’ openly discussing the revolt, were for scrapping the plan altogether; the two largest financial contributors, however, pushed up the agenda instead.

In order to create a public alibi and to throw others off his scent, Brown went back to Kansas and stayed there for six months until late December.  He partnered with another man and raided in Missouri during this time.  On December 20, 1858, he led his own raid into Missouri.  This time he freed eleven slaves, took two white men as captives, and stole wagons and horses.  He took the liberated slaves on January 20, 1859, from the territory, intent upon depositing them safely in Detroit.  From there he expected they could ferry into Canada and freedom.  While on a stopover in Chicago, Brown met the private eye, Allan Pinkerton (who founded the legendary detective agency bearing his name and the Secret Service).  Pinkerton helped finance the fares for the slaves to Detroit.

Brown continued his fundraising efforts.  In May 1859 he lectured in Concord, Massachusetts. Among the attendees were notable literary lights and thinkers of the day Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.  He also took time out to meet with the Secret Six, and he paid one last visit to his family back on the North Elba farm.  He left for Harpers Ferry in June 1859. 

He stayed one night en route at a Hagerstown, Maryland, hotel (night of June 30, 1859).  He registered as “I. Smith” listing his sons as “Oliver Smith, Owen Smith” and a follower, Jeremiah Anderson, as “all from New York”.  Brown and his party arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859.  He rented a farmhouse under the name Isaac Smith on the Maryland side of the Potomac River overlooking Virginia’s Harpers Ferry.  Brown waited in the farm-house for his recruits and the pledged reinforcements and supplies to arrive.  He never got the number of men needed or promised. 

Late in August of 1859 Brown met with Frederick Douglass in secret in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and spelled out his complete plan for Harpers Ferry, the armory raid, and taking over the surrounding countryside with freed slaves.  He tried again to enlist Douglass’ aid in spreading the word to the area slaves to help in the revolt.  Douglass, shockingly, expressed reservations.  He had a small idea of this plan since early 1859.  Since that time, Douglass had been aggressively discouraging any freed blacks as he could from enlisting with Brown.  Douglass himself flatly refused to join Brown.

In late September 1859, 950 pikes arrived.  The original plan as envisioned required 4500 armed men.  Brown got 21 enlistees, of which twelve had been with him all along since his Kansas days.  That meant only nine new recruits.  The group was a diverse lot, ranging in ages from 21 to 49 years old: sixteen white men and five black men in addition to Brown.  Of the blacks, three were free blacks, one was a freed slave, and the last was a fugitive slave.  This last recruit was what Brown had hoped his entire regiment might consist of, slaves fighting for their freedom.

The group hunkered down in their little rented farmhouse.  And they worked out their plan.

On October 16, 1859, Brown ordered three men to stay in the farmhouse to watch over the pikes stored there and some other weapons they could not immediately use.  Brown had received his promised 200 “Beecher’s Bibles” – breech-loading Sharps rifles taking a .52-caliber round. 

From his reconnaissance efforts and intelligence gathering Brown knew the armory was a large complex of buildings, and it warehoused an amazing stash of 100,000 muskets and rifles.  Brown’s  goal was to take control of the armory, seize its weapons, and distribute them to all the slaves in the area.  This army, he hoped, could then snowball its way southward into Virginia, picking up more slaves, capturing more arms, until finally the South was free of slavery.  His plan was simple: he thought by removing the slaves from their plantations it would deplete Virginia of its slaves, and in turn would destabilize the economy and the spirit of freedom would spread to the rest of the South.  Sowing the seeds of discontent was his bigger objective.

His immediate concern was capturing the armory, however, and this was done with a minimum of effort, and that goal seemed easily accomplished.  The eighteen raiders met no resistance upon entering town.  They cut the town’s telegraph wires, severing immediate communications with the outside world.  The armory was easily captured; there was a lone watchman defending it.

Illustrations from Harpers Ferry news (1858)Credit: Harpers Weekly Illustrated

Brown’s crew gathered up hostages from the local farmers and occupied the armory for a siege.   His men spread the word to local slaves that their liberation was at hand; if they expected rejoicing and assistance from the slaves, however, Brown found out quickly enough it was not forthcoming. 

The arrival of an eastbound train spelled the end for the rebellion.  One of the train’s porters, on the ground, saw what was happening and tried to warn the train’s passengers from leaving the safety of the train.  One of Brown’s men ordered him to stop, and then opened fire on him.  Hayward Shepherd, the porter, was the first casualty of many to come.  Perhaps in one of the greatest and saddest ironies of Brown’s raid was that the first man to die in the fight to end slavery was a free black man

Potshots were taken at the train’s conductor and its baggage master.  Slaves of two of the hostages Brown’s men held were also killed.  However, true to his volatility and unpredictable nature Brown waved the train on after the porter was killed.  The train’s conductor sent a telegram to the Master of Transportation for the B & O railroad at his first opportunity (at 7:05 AM the next morning October 17).  News of the Harper’s Ferry raid reached Baltimore early that morning and was forwarded to Washington by late morn.

The locals (farmers, shopkeepers, and some militia) managed to pin the raiding party into the armory with sniper fire randomly plunked from the heights behind town.  Brown’s men returned fire and shot some of the townspeople.  By noon, a militia group occupied the only bridge in town, thus effectively blocking the only escape route if the invaders chose to make a run for it.

Brown saw his hopes for a smoothly executed rebellion dwindling rapidly.  He and his crew, although perfectly willing to give their lives to the cause, preferred to live.  He moved his remaining men and their hostages into the armory’s engine house.  This was a squat structure (still standing today) made of brick near the armory’s entrance.  Brown ordered the doors and windows barred, and he ordered loopholes chiseled into the brick walls.

The outside fusillade was relentless.  Brown’s men fired back in sporadic reports.  Brown was surrounded and he knew defeat was only a matter of time.  He had lost.  He summoned his son Watson and another supporter to walk out cautiously with a white flag of surrender.  As they left the safety of the engine house the two were gunned down by the angry mob of townies. 

More sporadic shooting erupted during which Brown’s other son with him on the raid, Oliver, was wounded.  He begged for Brown to shoot him and put him out of his misery; Brown only remonstrated, “If you must die, die like a man.”  Oliver died a few minutes after this exchange. 
Gunshots were traded by both factions throughout the rest of that day.

The morning of October 18 found the besieged engine house surrounded with reinforcements.  A company of US Marines, under command by Col. Robert E. Lee (later Confederate General Robert E. Lee) of the United States Army, battered away at the little engine house where Brown and his men remained stalemated.  Another future Civil War notable, a young lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart, approached the engine house under a white flag.  He advised the raiders their lives would be spared if they would only give up.  Brown thundered back, “No, I prefer to die here!” 

The Marines used a ladder they found and sledge hammers and rammed the engine house’s door.  Once they were inside Brown was cornered and beaten; he received severe head trauma.  Within three minutes of barging in, Brown and his remaining men were subdued.  The hostages were freed and the insurgents taken away.  Ten of Brown’s men had been killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver).  Owen, his other son, had remained behind in the farm-house guarding the weapons as directed by his father.  He escaped injury [Owen later moved to Pasadena, California, where he lived out the rest of his days as a virtual recluse].

Four of Brown’s men escaped.  In toto, Brown and seven of his followers were captured. [Infamously, one of the arresting party was a fairly well-known actor of his day, a man whose brother, Edwin, was the toast of New York’s theater scene.  This man would later become better acquainted with history as the assassin of one of the United States’ most beloved Presidents, Abraham Lincoln.  John Wilkes Booth was that man.]

Trial & Death
The prisoners were held in the armory’s office. On October 18, 1859, Virginia’s governor and (strangely) a Virginia Senator and an Ohio Representative arrived in Harpers Ferry.  Brown was interrogated for three hours.  The presence of the other two government officials was simply to project a sense of impartiality as the acts occurred in the South, and a Southern governor was talking to the primary rebel.

Brown and his men were ordered by Virginia’s governor to be tried in Virginia in Charles Town (the nearest county seat seven miles west of Harpers Ferry, now West Virginia) despite their crimes having been against a Federal facility, and a Federal matter of jurisdiction.  On October 27, 1859, the trial started after a doctor certified the still-injured Brown was recovered sufficiently enough to be considered fit for trial.

John Brown (collage, 1859, trial and aftermath)Credit: public domain


Brown was charged with the murders of four white men and a black man.  He was also charged with conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Brown’s defense counsel was assigned to him.  On October 31, 1859, the defense rested, and in closing stated Brown was not guilty of treason since he owed no allegiance to Virginia nor was he a Virginia resident.  Counsel added that Brown had not personally killed anyone.  Furthermore, the failure of the raid was a clear indicator that Brown had not conspired with slaves (if he had, counsel reasoned, many slaves would have shown up and supported Brown’s group).

On November 2, 1859, after only 45 minutes of jury deliberation Brown was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to be publicly hanged on December 2.  Additional security was called in to ensure no rescue attempts were made on Brown’s behalf.  One of those detailed for the assignment would become another Civil War notable, Major Thomas J. Jackson (later known by the sobriquet “Stonewall” Jackson). 

Brown was granted simple amenities while awaiting execution.  He was allowed to send and receive correspondence.  His letters were picked up by the Northern press.  Because of their eloquence and spiritual tone he won increasing numbers of supporters in the North.  Those same letters, once published in the South, infuriated Southerners, however, with their anti-slavery rhetoric.

A friend from Kansas successfully made it into the Jefferson County, Virginia, jail where Brown was stashed and offered to break him out.  Brown refused, claiming at 59 he was too old to spend his life on the run as a fugitive.  His wife arrived on December 1, the day before his execution.  Although she was allowed to join him for his last meal that evening she was not given permission to stay the night.  This was the only time during his last days Brown lost his stoic demeanor.

Brown read his Bible the morning of his execution and wrote a last letter to his wife.  The text also included his Last Will & Testament.  At 11:00 AM he was escorted a few blocks through aGravestone and signature (John Brown, North Elba NY) crowd of 2,000 soldiers to a small field where the gallows stood. 

An unusual spectator to this event was actor John Wilkes Booth (the future assassin of President Lincoln).  Booth had borrowed a militia uniform so he could gain entrance to the soldier’s section for watching the hanging.

Because Brown had rejected all forms of mainstream religion, preferring his own brand of fire-and-brimstone, he roundly rejected the ministrations of the clergy on hand.  Also, this minister was pro-slavery, a keen insult to Brown’s beliefs.  He demurred from any kind of religious service either at the jail or on the scaffold.

He was hanged at 11:15 AM and pronounced dead with certainty at 11:50 AM. His body was placed in a wooden casket with the noose still around his neck.

Brown’s hanging was memorialized in the North at the time of his execution with bell ringing, gun firing, and with services held throughout the region.  His body was taken for interment to his farm near North Elba, New York.  The site is marked with a rough stone with crude carving upon it.  His sons Oliver and Watson are buried nearby. 

Terror Redoubled
The famous French author, Victor Hugo, frantically tried to gain a pardon for Brown.  He wrote a plea on December 2, 1859, that was published on both sides of the Atlantic in which he presciently stated Brown’s death was a harbinger of civil war for America. 

Brown wrote, on his last day to draw breath, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.  I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

John Brown’s attempts to end slavery with terrorism failed.  His actions also hastened the start of the American Civil War.  It forced the issue of slavery to a highly sensitized and tinderbox level, one in which it had yet to be cast.  In the wake of Brown’s raid, Southerners (absolutely terrified of the possibility of a major slave uprising) began stockpiling armaments and training militia personnel.  It was this preparedness born of fear that allowed the South to mobilize an army much more quickly than the North when the Civil War began within a short time of Brown’s raid. 

As Victor Hugo pointed out, with such a volatile and divisive issue such as slavery unresolved, a civil war was inevitable.  Brown knew this.  The North knew this, as did the South.  Brown’s actions simply sped up what was going to happen anyway.  This domestic terrorist sparked an even greater terror, that of a country tearing itself asunder in civil war.

[End of Part 2]

Part 1 of 2: Abolitionist John Brown 

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