He was called a “misguided fanatic” by Abraham Lincoln, a “blood-thirsty murderer” by Jefferson Davis and considered a 19th century “Christ” by intellectuals like Emerson and Thoreau. He was John Brown.
Since his early childhood in Ohio, Brown had taken to heart the doctrine that all of “God’s” creations should be free. He used his home to hide runaway slaves and often spoke openly for the abolition of slavery. He followed five of his sons to Kansas Territory in October 1855 and soon made his presence is known as a religious man and a military leader. However, it was in May 1856 that his most noted adventure in Kansas occurred. After the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces, Brown and seven of his followers set out to seek revenge and on May 24 they brutally murdered and mutilated five pro-slavery men near Dutch Henry’s Crossing on Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County. This action was denounced by both the free-staters and pro-slavery forces. It was reported in the press in both the North and South and earned Brown national recognition as “John Brown from Osawatomie, Kansas.”
He left Kansas Territory never to return in early 1859. His plan to capture the armory at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia and ignite a slave insurrection failed. Brown was tried for treason and executed by hanging on December 2, 1859. His stirring speeches at his trial and brave composure while being executed, made Brown a martyr for the abolitionists. Poems, ballads, and songs were written in his honor and his legend grew in popularity through the Civil War.
John Brown is born in Torrington, Connecticut
While in Michigan, John Brown lodges with a slave-owning man. Brown’s memory of seeing the man beat his slave with a shovel inspires his hatred of slavery.
June 21, 1820
Brown marries Dianthe Lusk. His wife will bear five children, but the birth of the last child causes her death in 1832.
August 31, 1831
Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Virginia that results in the deaths of fifty-five white plantation residents and hundreds of blacks. (Turner is captured and hanged with sixteen of his cohorts two months later.) Turner’s rebellion shocks the South and influences Brown’s planning for his later attack at Harper’s Ferry.
June 14, 1833
Brown weds the stable and stoical Mary Day, who is only sixteen at the time. Mary will give Brown thirteen more children. Only four of Mary’s children will outlive her.
Brown moves to central Ohio. Although beset with economic difficulties, Brown establishes important connections in Ohio’s abolitionist network. His life’s work begins to come into focus as he becomes a stationmaster of the Underground Railroad and gives speeches in support of repeal of state laws discriminating against blacks.
Brown is expelled from his church for escorting blacks to pews reserved for white parishioners.
November 7, 1837
Anti-slavery minister and editor Elijah Lovejoy, who editorialized against the lynching of a black, is killed when a mob of angry whites storm his printing press in Alton, Illinois. The murder of Lovejoy further radicalizes John Brown, and he vows during a memorial service to end slavery.
Brown begins to consider a plan to lead a slave revolt.
September 28, 1842
Brown is adjudged bankrupt by a federal court. He and his family is left only with the bare essentials necessary to survive.
John Brown and two of his sons move to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he runs a wool distribution center.
Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas visits the Brown home, where Brown lays out his plan to lead a group of men on raids of slave-holding southern plantations, followed by retreats into the mountains.
Brown moves to a farm in North Elba, N. Y., near Lake Placid. North Elba is perhaps the first American community where blacks and whites live together on generally equal terms.
Brown begins to focus on Harper’s Ferry as the site of his attack, drawing sketches of log forts that he intended to build in the mountains surrounding the town.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act puts the decision of whether or not to allow slavery in the new territories into the hands of the settlers in those terrorities.
June 28, 1855
At a convention of Radical Political Abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas, Gerrit Smith, and Lewis Tappan, Brown held raise money for the Free State settlers of Kansas.
October 7, 1855
John Brown and his party arrive in Brown’s Station, Kansas. A state of near anarchy exists in Kansas, after border ruffians from Missouri perpetuate voter fraud and organize a bogus legislature in Shawnee Mission that enacts draconian pro-slavery laws. A competing Free State constitution is presented in Topeka and ratified by settlers opposed to slavery.
January 24, 1856
President Franklin Pierce declares the proslavery legislature legitimate.
February 22, 1856
A Northern antislavery party, the Republican Party, is formed in Pittsburgh, largely in response to news of fraud and violence of proslavery forces in Kansas.
May 21, 1856
Proslavery forces storm the antislavery center of Lawrence, Kansas, ransacking Free State printing presses and looting homes.
May 22, 1856
After delivering an antislavery speech on the floor of the United States Senate, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts is severely beaten with a cane by proslavery Senator Preston Brooke of South Carolina.
May 23, 1856
Enraged by news of the storming of Lawrence and the caning of Senator Sumner, John Brown and six other radical abolitionists arm themselves with guns and swords and leave Ottawa Creek, heading in the direction of a proslavery settlement.
May 26, 1856
Brown directs the murder of five proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. The massacre causes southerners to misread Brown’s extremism as typical of the feelings of most northern abolitionists, greatly affecting the course of subsequent events on the national stage.
Brown leaves Kansas for the East, the month after his badly outnumbered men won a battle against proslavery forces at Osawatomie, Kansas. Brown is henceforth often referred to as “Osawatomie Brown.”
In Boston, Brown is introduced to important abolitionists who will provide financial and moral support for his antislavery activities. This group becomes known as the “Secret Six.” Brown collects arms and hires Hugh Forbes, an experienced English military tactician, to be the drillmaster for the forces he is mustering for his planned attack at Harper’s Ferry and elsewhere.
August 7, 1857
Brown arrives in Tabor, Iowa, where he and Forbes, for a period of weeks, refine the plans for an assault on slavery. He travels later to Kansas, where he finds the situation moving towards a peaceful resolution, as antislavery voters become a substantial majority in the territory.
Brown seeks recruits in Kansas for what by now is a clearly emerging plan to lead an attack on the federal arsenel in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
Concerned about possible arrest for his activities, Brown hides out for three weeks in the Rochester, New York home of his friend, Frederick Douglas.
Brown proposes a new (rather utopian) constitution, based on complete equality of the races, at a convention in Chatham, Ontario. The convention elects Brown commander-in-chief, John Kagi as Secretary of War, and Richard Realf as Secretary of State.
Brown, with Forbes now leaking information to key congressmen about Brown’s plans to attack slaveholders, travels to Kansas.
Brown and his followers invade Missouri and appropriate property and liberate slaves from two farms. Brown begins leading the slaves on an 82-day one-thousand-mile journey to freedom in Canada.
Brown travels through the northeast raising money and increasing support for his cause.
Brown leaves his home in North Elba for the last time.
July 3, 1859
Brown and three of his soldiers arrive in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to scout out the federal arsenal for his planned attack.
Brown rents a Maryland farmhouse near Harper’s Ferry from Dr. Booth Kennedy. He and various of his forces will stay at the Kennedy farm until their attack.
August 16, 1859
Brown meets secretly with Frederick Douglas at a rock quarry in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where Brown unsuccessfully tries to convince Douglas to join him at Harper’s Ferry.
October 16, 1859
Brown leads 21 men on an attack on the armory at Harper’s Ferry. They meet little early resistance and capture the armory. Hostages are rounded up from nearby farms. In an effort to prevent news of the attack from reaching Washington, the baggage master of an eastbound train is shot, but then the train is allowed to proceed.
October 17, 1859
With the arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio train in Washington, news of the attack at Harper’s Ferry reaches officials. Local citizens begin to fire on the arsenal, effectively pinning down Brown and his men. The bridge is seized cutting off Brown’s escape route, and he is forced to move with his hostages into the engine house, a small brick building in the armory.
October 18, 1859
U. S. Marines, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, surround the engine house. Brown refuses to surrender and the marines storm the building. Brown and six of his men are captured. Ten of his men (including two of his sons) are killed. Brown is questioned for three hours.
October 27, 1859
After being declared fit for trial by a doctor, John Brown faces the first day of trial for murder, conspiracy, and treason in Charlestown.
October 31, 1859
The defense concludes its case, having argued that Brown killed no one and he owed no duty of loyalty to Virginia, and thus could not be guilty of treason against the state.
November 2, 1859
After 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury finds Brown guilty of conspiracy, murder, and treason. Brown is sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2.
December 1, 1859
After declining rescue attempts, Brown has a last meal with his wife.
December 2, 1859
Brown writes a final letter to his wife. Around 11:00 he is led through a crowd of 2,000 spectators and soldiers to the scaffold. He is pronounced dead at 11:50 AM. His body is later taken to North Elba for burial at the family farm.
April 12, 1861
Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War begins.
December 6, 1865
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, is ratified.
Lee’s Demand that Brown’s Forces Surrender (Oct. 18, 1959)
Headquarters Harper’s Ferry
October 18, 1859.
Colonel Lee, United States army, commanding the troops sent by the President of the United States to suppress the insurrection at this place, demands the surrender of the persons in the armory buildings. If they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept in safety to await the orders of the President. Colonel Lee represents to them, in all frankness, that it is impossible for them to escape; that the armory is surrounded on all sides by troops; and that if he is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.
R.E. Lee – Colonel Commanding United States Troops
Col. Robert E. Lee’s Report Concerning the Attack at Harper’s Ferry
October 19, 1859
Colonel Lee to the Adjutant General
HEADQUARTERS HARPER’S FERRY
COLONEL: I have the honor to report, for the information of the Secretary of War, that on arriving here on the night of the 17th instant, in obedience to Special Orders No. 194 of that date from your office, I learn that a party of insurgents, about 11 p. m. on the 16th, had seized the watchmen stationed at the armory, arsenal, rifle factory, and bridge across the Potomac, and taken possession of those points. They then dispatched six men, under one of their party, called Captain Aaron C. Stevens, to arrest the principal citizens in the neighborhood and incite the negroes to join in the insurrection. The party took Colonel L. W. Washington from his bed about 1-~ a. m. on the 17th, and brought him, with four of l]is servants, to this place. Mr. J. H. Allstadt and six of his servants were in the same manner seized about 3 am, and arms placed in the hands of the Negroes. Upon their return here, John E. Cook, one of the parties sent to Mr. Washington’s, was dispatched to Maryland, with Mr. Washington’s wagon, two of his servants, and three of Mr. Allstadt’s, for arms and ammunition, and as the day advanced, and the citizens of Harper’s Ferry commenced their usual avocations, they were separately captured, to the number of forty, as well as I could learn, and confined in one room of the fire engine house of the armory, which seems early to have been selected as a point of defense. About 11 a. m. the volunteer companies from Virginia began to arrive, and the Jefferson Guards and volunteers from Charlestown, under Captain J. W. Rowen, I understood, were first on the ground. The Hamtramck Guards, Captain V. M. Butler; the Shepherdstown troop, Captain Jacob Rienahart; and Captain Alburtis’s company from Martinsburg arrived in the afternoon. These companies, under the direction of Colonels R. W. Baylor and John T. Gibson, forced the insurgents to abandon their positions at the bridge and in the village, and to withdraw within the armory enclosure, where they fortified themselves in the fire-engine house, and carried ten of their prisoners for the purpose of ensuring their safety and facilitating their escape, whom they termed hostages, and whose names are Colonel L. W. Washington, of Jefferson county, Virginia; Mr. J. H. Allstadt, of Jefferson County, Virginia; Mr. Israel Russell, justice of the peace, Harper’s Ferry; Mr. John Donahue, clerk of Baltimore and Ohio railroad; Mr. Terence Byrne, of Maryland; Mr. George D. Shope, of Frederick, Maryland; Mr. Benjamin Mills, master armorer, Harper’s Ferry arsenal; Mr. A. M. Ball, master machinist, Harper’s Ferry arsenal; Mr. J. E. P. Dangerfield, paymaster’s clerk, Harper’s Ferry arsenal; Mr. J. Burd, armorer, Harper’s Ferry arsenal. After sunset more troops arrived. Captain B. B. Washington’s company from Winchester and three companies from Fredericktown, Maryland, under Colonel Shriver. Later in the evening the companies from Baltimore, under General Charles C. Edgerton, second light brigade, and a detachment of marines, commanded by Lieutenant J. Green accompanied by Major Russell, of that corps, reached Sandy Hook, about one and a half-mile east of Harper’s Ferry. At this point, I came up with these last-named troops, and leaving General Edgerton and his command on the Maryland side of the river for the night, caused the marines to proceed to Harper’s Ferry, and placed them within the armory grounds to prevent the possibility of the escape of the insurgents. Having taken measures to halt, in Baltimore, the artillery companies ordered from Fort Monroe, I made preparations to attack the insurgents at daylight. But for the fear of sacrificing the lives of some of the gentlemen held by them as prisoners in a midnight assault, I should have ordered the attack at once.
Their safety was the subject of painful consideration, and to prevent, if possible, jeopardizing their lives; I determined to summon the insurgents to surrender. As soon after daylight as the arrangements were made Lieutenant J. E. B. Stewart, 1st cavalry, who had accompanied me from Washington as a staff officer, was dispatched, under a flag, with a written summons, (a copy of which is hereto annexed, marked A.) Knowing the character of the leader of the insurgents, I did not expect it would be accepted. I had therefore directed that the volunteer troops, under their respective commanders, should be paraded on the lines assigned them outside the armory, and had prepared a storming party of twelve marines, under their commander, Lieutenant Green, and had placed them close to the engine-house, and secure from its fire. Three marines were furnished with sled-hammers to break in the doors, and the men were instructed how to distinguish our citizens from the insurgents; to attack with the bayonet, and not to injure the blacks detained in custody unless they resisted. Lieutenant Stewart was also directed not to receive from the insurgents any counter propositions. If they accepted the terms offered, they must immediately deliver up their arms and release their prisoners. If they did not, he must, on leaving the engine-house, give me the signal. My object was, with a view of saving our citizens, to have as short an interval as possible between the summons and attack. The summons, as I had anticipated, was rejected. At the concerted signal, the storming party moved quickly to the door and commenced the attack. The fire-engines within the house had been placed by the besieged close to the doors. The doors were fastened by ropes, the spring of which prevented their being broken by the blows of the hammers. The men were therefore ordered to drop the hammers, and, with a portion of the reserve, to use as a battering-ram a heavy ladder, with which they dashed in a part of the door and gave admittance to the storming party. The fire of the insurgents up to this time had been harmless. At the threshold, one marine fell mortally wounded. The rest, led by Lieutenant Green and Major Russell, quickly ended the contest. The insurgents that resisted were bayoneted. Their leader, John Brown, was cut down by the sword of Lieutenant Green, and our citizens were protected by both officers and men. The whole was over in a few minutes.
After our citizens were liberated and the wounded cared for, Lieutenant Colonel S. S. Mills, of the 53d Maryland regiment, with the Baltimore Independent Greys, Lieutenant B. F. Simpson commanding was sent on the Maryland side of the river to search for John E. Cook, and to bring in the arms, &c., belonging to the insurgent party, which were said to be deposited in a school-house two and a half miles distant. Subsequently, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stewart, with a party of marines, was dispatched to the Kennedy farm, situated in Maryland, about four and a half miles from Harper’s Ferry, which had been rented by John Brown, and used as the depot for his men and munitions. Colonel Mills saw nothing of Cook, but found the boxes of arms, (Sharp’s carbines and belt revolvers,) and recovered Mr. Washington’s wagon and horses. Lieutenant Stewart found also at the Kennedy farm a number of sword pikes, blankets, shoes, tents, and all the necessaries for a campaign. These articles have been deposited in the government storehouse at the armory.
From the information derived from the papers found upon the persons and among the baggage of the insurgents, and the statement of those now in custody, it appears that the party consisted of nineteen men-fourteen white and five black. That they were headed by John Brown, of some notoriety in Kansas, who in June last located himself in Maryland, at the Kennedy farm, where he has been engaged in preparing to capture the United States works at Harper’s Ferry. He avows that his object was the liberation of the slaves of Virginia, and of the whole South; and acknowledges that he has been disappointed in his expectations of aid from the black as well as the white population, both in the Southern and Northern States. The blacks, whom he forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance. The servants of Messrs. Washington and Allstadt retained at the armory, took no part in the conflict, and those carried to Maryland returned to their homes as soon as released. The result proves that the plan was the attempt of a fanatic or madman, who could only end in failure; and its temporary success was owing to the panic and confusion he succeeded in creating by magnifying his numbers. I append a list of the insurgents, (marked B.) Cook is the only man known to have escaped. The other survivors of the expedition, viz: John Brown, A. C. Stevens, Edwin Coppic, and Green Shields, (alias S. Emperor,) I have delivered into the hands of the marshal of the western district of Virginia and the sheriff of Jefferson county. They were escorted to Charlestown by a detachment of marines, under Lieutenant Green. About nine o’clock this evening I received a report from Mr. Moore, from Pleasant Valley, Maryland, that a body of men had, about sunset, descended from the mountains, attacked the house of Mr. Gennett, and from the cries of murder and the screams of the women and children, he believed the residents of the valley were being massacred. The alarm and excitement in the village of Harper’s Ferry was increased by the arrival of families from Sandy Hook, fleeing for safety. The report was, however, so improbable that I could give no credence to it, yet I thought it possible that some atrocity might have been committed, and I started with twenty-five marines, under Lieutenant Green, accompanied by Lieutenant Stewart, for the scene of the alleged outrage, about four and a half miles distant. I was happy to find it a false alarm. The inhabitants of Pleasant Valley were quiet and unharmed, and Mr. Gennett and his family safe and asleep.
I will now, in obedience to your dispatch of this date, direct the detachment of marines to return to the navy-yard at Washington in the train that passes here at I am to-night, and will myself take advantage of the same train to report to you in person at the War Department. I must also ask to express my thanks to Lieutenant Stewart, Major Russell, and Lieutenant Green, for the aid they afforded me, and my entire commendation of the conduct of the detachment of marines, who were at all times ready and prompt in the execution of any duty.
The promptness with which the volunteer troops repaired to the scene of the disturbance, and the alacrity they displayed to suppress the gross outrage against law and order, I know will elicit your hearty approbation. Equal zeal was shown by the president and officers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in their transportation of the troops and in their readiness to furnish the facilities of their well-ordered road.
A list of the killed and wounded, as far as came to my knowledge, is herewith annexed, (marked C;) and I enclose a copy of the” Provisional Constitution and ordinances for the people of the United States,” of which there were a large number prepared for issue by the insurgents.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. LEE, Colonel Commanding.
Colonel S. COOPER, Adjutant-General U. S. Army, Washington City, D. C