Connecticut-born radical abolitionist John Brown was already a nationally polarizing figure by the time he staged his infamous raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Born in Torrington in 1800, Brown’s adult life was characterized by failed business ventures, repeated moves across the country, and an increasingly fanatical devotion to fighting the spread of slavery.
As tensions between the North and South increased over the spread of slavery in western territories, Brown became convinced that the “evil” spread of slavery could only be stopped by violent means. In 1856, near Pottawatomie, Kansas, Brown gained national infamy when he led a party of armed abolitionists on a raid that resulted in the killing of five pro-slavery settlers in cold blood. Brown’s actions triggered several months of bloody retaliations between pro- and anti-slavery settlers known as “Bleeding Kansas,” which historians cite as one of the major conflicts of the 1850s that accelerated the onset of the Civil War.
John Brown’s most extreme plan of action, however, was yet to come. In 1859, Brown planned an elaborate raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, hoping to use the stolen munitions to start a massive armed slave rebellion that would consume the entire South and deal a fatal blow to the institution of American slavery. On the night of October 16, Brown and a small force of men (including five black men and two of Brown’s sons) cut the telegraph wires outside of Harper’s Ferry and successfully captured the armory. The next day, local militia surrounded the armory and the two sides exchanged intermittent gunfire for nearly a full day before a company of U.S. Marines — ordered to the scene by President James Buchanan and led by then-Colonel Robert E. Lee — arrived and demanded Brown’s complete surrender. Brown refused to comply, and on the morning of October 18, 1859, Lee’s Marines advanced on the occupied armory, overtaking Brown’s small group of raiders in only three minutes’ time.
Overall, ten of Brown’s men, including both his sons, were killed in the raid, along with a single Marine and six civilians. Brown was taken to nearby Charles Town to await trial, where he was quickly found guilty of conspiracy to incite a slave insurrection, first-degree murder, and treason against the state of Virginia, and was executed by hanging on December 2nd. That day, Brown penned his last testament, defiantly declaring:
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.
Brown’s ominous, foreboding words proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Just over one year later, South Carolina’s declaration of secession would precipitate the bloodiest conflict the United States had ever seen, and put an end to the institution of American slavery.
“John Brown: A Portrait of Violent Abolitionism,” connecticuthistory.org
“John Brown’s Raid,” Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Fergus M. Bordewich, “John Brown’s Day of Reckoning,” Smithsonian Magazine