Today, 161 years ago, John Brown led an attack on the federal armory of Harpers Ferry in present-day West Virginia. It would be one of the last straws before the eruption of the American Civil War.
Brown was born in 1800 to abolitionist parents and grew up in Ohio. His family offered refuge to fugitives along the Underground Railroad. During Brown’s life he conducted several businesses involved in cattle production and tanning, and continued aiding in the liberation of enslaved people with the property he owned. At one point in his life he was propositioned to help with the expulsion of Native Americans seasonally hunting in his area and refused, having said, “I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country.”
Brown took part in the Bleeding Kansas years, a period of violent unrest in Kansas Territory over the legality of slavery, and in 1856 led a group of anti-slavery settlers in the Potowamie Massacre, a broadsword and pistol attack that left five slave hunters and pro-slavery settlers dead.
During Bleeding Kansas Brown spent years gathering weapons, popular support and forces in defense of abolition. His efforts culminated to his famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, a Potomac River town which held a weapons manufactury and depot that in the following years of the Civil War would serve as a massively important control point for both the Union and Confederacy. Brown aimed to seize the weapons inside and, using the armory as a base, incite a revolt in which he hoped up to 500 enslaved people might join.
On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and his party of 22 began their raid. The first day of the operation went well; they captured the armory, took Colonel Lewis Washington (a slave-holding great-grandnephew of George Washington) hostage, and cut the town’s telegraph wire.
However, the second day went much more poorly. With the trains backed up, Brown and his company couldn’t receive the aid they had expected, and as the afternoon continued his men lost control of the bridges surrounding town. With a combination of local resistance, a lack of reinforcements, and Brown’s mismanagement of hostages and captured trains, the raid was clearly failing.
By the third day U.S. Marines landed in Harper’s Ferry. Brown refused their offer to surrender and was apprehended, wounded, and incapacitated in the ensuing invasion. During the raid 10 insurgents were killed, seven were captured and executed, and 5 escaped. Two of Brown’s sons died during the event. Brown was found guilty of “Conspiring with negroes to produce insurrection,” treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and murder. He refused an insanity defense.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry was one of the last “pre-war” events that led up to America’s bloody Civil War. The social, legal and economic tension that had grown from the North and South’s disputes, with slavery at the forefront, had been largely fought in courtrooms and markets until then; however, Brown’s actions brought a true threat to the matter. Southern slaveowners became afraid of similar attempted uprisings and took action. In the years to come the South rebuilt its shambled organization of militias into what would become the Confederate Army, and in April of 1861 the Civil War would begin.
In his time, and even today, John Brown has been both hailed as a heroic martyr and decried as a mad extremist. In my own public school education in Austin, TX we were briefly taught that Brown was deranged, zealous and violent. However, many of his contemporaries wrote of the effect he would have on the country. Victor Hugo, author of “Les Misérables,” wrote that he “would open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder.” Frederick Douglas wrote that “History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevolence.”
In 1970, Malcolm X said “Why, I would be afraid to get near John Brown if I go by what other white folks say about him. But they depict him in this image because he was willing to shed blood to free the slaves. And any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom — in the sight of other whites, he’s nuts… So when you want to know good white folks in history where black people are concerned, go read the history of John Brown.”
Brown was executed on Dec. 2, 1859. His last words, slipped to a prison guard on a small sheet of paper, were these:
“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.”