The Civil War was the darkest time in US history, but the war that nearly tore the country apart was preceded by years of turmoil and tension that increased until war broke out in 1861.
One of the events that further divided the country was the actions led by revolutionary abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and his execution on December 2, 1859.
Let’s take a look at the life and times of John Brown, and see his influence on the Civil War and freeing of enslaved people in the United States.
John Brown was raised in a religious family that believed slavery was abhorrent and should be actively opposed. As an adult, he supported a violent overthrow of slavery, as he felt peaceful opposition was ineffective. History lessons barely talk about Brown, but he was famous in his time. He even worked with famed abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman!
Farm at Lake Placid, New York
In 1850, Brown and his family moved to the Lake Placid area of New York, to start a farm where he could teach freed people how to farm. They also built an area to hide people traveling on the Underground Railroad.
Brown intended for the farm to be a safe haven for his wife and children while he left them to fight against slavery in Kansas and other places.
It was here on the farm that his body was buried after he was put to death on December 2, 1859. The farm is now a National Historic Landmark, and is open to visitors year-round, even during the long, harsh winter months.
Battle of Black Jack, Kansas
In the 1850s, the US Congress passed a law that said the new states could decide whether they would be “slave” or “free” states, and Kansas became a hotbed of struggle between the two sides.
Brown moved to Kansas to fight slavery in 1855, and became famous for his role in a three-month period of raids and massacres as pro-slavery and abolitionist forces fought.
The Battle of Black Jack was fought on June 2, 1856, and the “Free State” fighters won. The battle helped give the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” and Brown a reputation as a radical leader in the abolitionist movement.
The area has several signs commemorating the battle, as documented by one of its survivors.
Historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Rather than find satisfaction with his actions in Kansas, Brown was fueled to commit even more significant, and violent, actions against slavery. He raised funds from noted abolitionists including Harriet Tubman in his efforts. The plan was to raid the armory at Harper’s Ferry with a large group, and move south, starting an uprising along the way.
Harper’s Ferry, a small town in then-Virginia was selected because it provided convenient access to the south, and would draw attention from people all over the United States. But mostly, the armory had thousands of weapons he would need for his revolution.
These days, Harper’s Ferry is most notable for Brown’s raid, and is a nice summer getaway from nearby Washington, D.C.
John Brown’s Fort, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
On October 16, 1859, Brown and his army of 21 men (a far cry from the thousands he had hoped to recruit) raided the town’s armory, and temporarily halted a train. Eventually the train was allowed to pass, and the train’s conductor alerted others of the raid. Police quickly showed up and began a standoff with the revolutionaries.
After initial fighting at the armory, Brown and his men holed up at the fire engine house, which was later renamed “John Brown’s Fort”. They fought from that position until October 18, when a group of US Marines, overseen by Robert E. Lee, charged the building and quickly ended the uprising. Brown was wounded, and two of his three sons there that day were killed.
Jefferson County Courthouse, Charles Town, West Virginia
Brown was captured and put in prison in the nearby county seat of Charles Town, West Virginia. He was put on trial on October 27, and the prosecution lasted a week. A jury deliberated for 45 minutes on the charges of murder. He was found guilty, and sentenced to death.
After the requisite one month waiting period, Brown was executed in a field near the courthouse on December 2, 1859. Many famous people spoke out in his defense, including Victor Hugo.
John Brown’s Bell, Marlborough, Massachusetts
The Marines that broke up the raid took memorabilia, including weapons, books, and the arsenal bell, which was put on display in Massachusetts, and remains to this day.
While Brown awaited his death sentence, he spent days talking with reporters and others about the diabolical institution of slavery. He felt that his time in jail made his sacrifices all the more valuable, because he was able to draw attention and sympathy to the cause for an entire month.
His trial gathered more attention than even he could imagine, and his execution by hanging did indeed go a long way to ending slavery in the United States.
We remember Brown for his courage, and hopeless efforts to free the slaves, and recognize him for bravery and dedication, even if his methods were controversial. And, he did indeed move events forward to their inevitable conclusion in the Civil War.
Here are the last words he spoke before he was beheaded:
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.