John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid
John Brown was a vociferous opponent of slavery. Unfortunately, he was also more than willing to use violence and bloodshed to further the cause he so fervently believed in. As a result, Brown is best remembered today as the radical abolitionist who fomented a slave rebellion and tried to capture the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800 to poor Calvinist parents. Though he received little schooling as a child, Brown would grow up to be a powerful and charismatic speaker who drew the attention of many prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass
John Brown Photo
courtesy of the National Archives (11-SC-101021)
Brown found his true calling as a radical abolitionist. In 1855, he joined five of his sons in the Kansas Territory to aid Free Soilers in their fight against proslavery factions. His most notorious contribution to the battle was the Pottawatomie Massacre. Brown and his sons were never arrested for the killings.
Brown later conceived a plan to lead a slave insurrection in the South and start a republic of free blacks in Virginia's Appalachian Mountains. The scheme was doomed from the beginning, but Brown was able to persuade a number of prominent abolitionists to back it. On October 16, 1859, he and twenty-two followers rode into Harpers Ferry. They planned to take the federal arsenal and armory there and use the weapons to arm slaves in a rebellion they hoped would spread throughout the South.
The group seized the buildings and hoped slaves would rally to them from the surrounding area. Instead, residents surrounded the abolitionist group and began shooting. By the following afternoon, Brown had barricaded what remained of his band in a fire engine house next to the armory. A company of marines, led by Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, soon arrived to put down the insurrection. Lee captured the hapless Brown, who was found guilty under Virginia law of murder, treason, and inciting insurrection. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.