John Brown Took Harpers Ferry Hostage
October 16, 1859
Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and 21 armed followers stole into the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia), as most of its residents slept. They took 60 prominent locals hostage and seized the town’s United States arsenal and its rifle works. Why? The men–among them three free blacks, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave–hoped to spark a rebellion of freed slaves and to lead an “army of emancipation.” They wanted to overturn the institution of slavery by force. With the nighttime surprise, the raiders had the upper hand. But that didn’t last long. By the next evening, the conspirators were holed-up in an engine house. The next day Colonel Robert E. Lee’s troops stormed the building and Brown was caught. For his actions, he was quickly tried and convicted of murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state and sentenced to death by hanging. He had lost two sons in the raid. But John Brown was willing to give everything, even his life, in the fight against slavery. Brown said the slave-holding community was, by its nature, in a state of war; thus drastic actions were necessary and justified. While helping to liberate slaves over the previous 10 years, he had become more and more aggressive. The Harpers Ferry raid inflamed the emotions of parties on both sides of the conflict. John Brown’s raid was perhaps the final spark that ignited the Civil War. Certainly the words he spoke at his death would be remembered:
“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 say LET IT BE DONE.”
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 twenty children.) Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he never was financially 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.
Major Thomas Jackson, (Stonewall), who in 1859 was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute, wrote this letter to his wife Mary Anna. The original letter is located in the Dabney-Jackson collection at the Library of Virginia. It has been widely reprinted; there are minor editorial variations among different published versions, though no substantive differences. For one published source, see Life and Letters of Thomas J. Jackson by Mary Anna Jackson (NY. Harper. 1892December 2  John Brown was hung today at about 11 1/2 A.M. He behaved with unflinching firmness. The arrangements were well made under the direction of Col. Smith. Brown’s wife visited him last evening. The body is to be delivered to her. The gibbet was south east of the town in a large field. Brown rode on the head of his coffin, from his prison to the place of execution. The coffin was of black walnut, enclosed in a poplar box of the same shape as the coffin.
He was dressed in carpet slippers of predominating red, white socks, blacks pants, black frock coat, black vest & black slouch hat. Nothing around his neck beside his shirt collar. The open wagon in which he rode was strongly guarded on all sides. Capt. Williams, formerly one of the assistants of the Institute, marched immediately in front of the wagon. The jailer and high sheriff and several others rode in the wagon with the prisoner.
Brown had his arms tied behind him, & ascended the scaffold with apparent cheerfulness. After reaching the top of the platform, he shook hands with several who were standing around him. The sheriff placed the rope around his neck, then threw a white cap over his head & asked him if he wished a signal when all should be ready—to which he replied that it made no difference, provided he was not kept waiting too long.
In this condition he stood on the trap door, which was supported on one side by hinges, and on the other (south side) by a rope, for about 10 minutes, when Colonel S. told the Sheriff “all is ready,” which apparently was not comprehended by the Sheriff, and the Colonel had to repeat the order, when the rope was cut by a single blow, and Brown fell through about 25 inches, so as to bring his knees on a level with the position occupied by his feet before the rope was cut. With the fall his arms below the elbow flew up, hands clenched, & his arms gradually fell by spasmodic motions—there was very little motion of his person for several minutes, after which the wind blew his lifeless body to & fro.
His face, upon the scaffold, was turned a little east of south, and in front of him were the cadets commanded by Major Gilham. My command was still in front of the cadets, all facing south. One howitzer I assigned to Mr. Truheart on the left of the cadets, and with the other I remained on the right. Other troops occupied different positions around the scaffold, and altogether it was an imposing but very solemn scene.
I was much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man, in the full vigor of health, who must in a few minutes be in eternity. I sent up a petition that he might be saved. Awful was the thought that he might in a few minutes receive the sentence “Depart ye wicked into everlasting fire.” I hope that he was prepared to die, but I am very doubtful–he wouldn’t have a minister with him.
His body was taken back to the jail, and at 6 p.m. was sent to his wife at Harper’s Ferry. When it reached Harper’s Ferry the coffin was opened and his wife saw the body—the coffin was again opened at the depot, before leaving for Baltimore, lest there should be an imposition.
From the political point of view, the murder of John Brown . . . would impart to the Union a creeping fissure that at the last would rend it
Observers on the eve of the Civil War were as conflicted over the fate of John Brown as they are today. The opinion of the towering French poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo was judged by many to be the verdict of the civilized world. He strongly opposed the punishment. Many in Europe followed Hugo’s lead in their disappointment that America chose to execute a man for only trying to free slaves.
Most white southerners, angry at so bold a challenge to their sovereignty and honor, immediately denounced Brown as a lunatic and criminal. Northern reaction to the raid varied among whites. Many initially rejected his use of violence and were disinterested in his goal. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other important New England thinkers, however, took a firm stand in his support from the start. After the hanging, Brown was eulogized by many as a martyr whose death opened the way to emancipation in America.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Library of Congress)African Americans, North and South, praised John Brown. Though some denounced his use of violence, at the same time they endorsed his goal of abolishing slavery. Immediately following the execution, meeting halls and churches in the North were filled with sympathizers—white and black—who proclaimed Brown a martyr. These supporters, however, actually paled in number compared to Brown’s northern detractors. Many in the North were content to tolerate slavery, believing it a problem for white southerners alone to resolve. Abolitionist leaders—many of whom had long rejected violence—at least initially denounced Brown’s invasion as so great an affront to slaveholders that it would only impede their mission. Leaders of the new Republican Party, which had been founded in 1854 largely to halt the expansion of slavery into the territories, did not advocate abolishing slavery where it already existed and they attempted to distance themselves from Brown. To counter the pro-Brown demonstrations, proslavery businessmen in the North, whose prosperity was linked to trade with the slave-supported economy of the South, rejected Brown outright. They organized massive “Union meetings” in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City that attracted thousands who denounced both the man and the raid. Southerners, unfortunately, paid more attention to the abolitionist minority.