After the events of May, 1856, in Kansas that I have described in the preceding posts, Brown continued to fight the Lecompton partisans and the Border Ruffians in Kansas Territory. Merrill Peterson gives a good summary of that period:
Brown became the terror of the prairie in 1856. Reporters for eastern newspapers lionized him. His fame increased in June with the defeat of a superior force under the Border Ruffian captain Henry Clay Pate at a place called Black Jack. It was sealed at Osawatomie in the fall. Here a cavalry force of 250, mounted and armed in Missouri under command of veteran officers of the Mexican War, undertook to wipe out Brown, his family, and his allies. Outnumbered 10 to1, they fought gamely but went down in defeat. Brown's son Frederick lost his life; the captain himself was reported killed; the town was consumed in flames. "God sees it," Brown said as he watched, then, face wet with tears, vowed to his son Jason, "I have only a short time to live - only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for. I will give them something else to do than to extend slave territory. I will carry the war into Africa." Henceforth he was known as "Old Osawatomie Brown." (my emphasis)
Carrying the war "into Africa" meant into the South, into the domain of the slaveowners. And, indeed, that's what he worked on doing and eventually attempted in 1859 at Harpers Ferry. The Battle of Black Jack would look like a minor, even comical skirmish compared to the famous battles of the Civil War. But it was what first made Brown a hero to the abolitionists. Taking place on June 2, about a week after the Pottawatomie killings and less than two since the sack of Lawrence and Preston Brooks' attack on Charles Sumner, that skirmish was the Free States' first clear victory in the Kansas conflict. It came at a time when it was badly needed, and much appreciated.
During the next few years, Brown travelled in the North raising money to provide supplies, guns and money for the Free State side in Kansas. And also for his plan to "take the war into Africa". He was even invited to address the Massachusetts Legislature during this time in support of a bill to provide aid to Kansas. His address didn't convince the legislature to pass the bill. But it did boost Brown's own reputation, and provides us with some kind of benchmark of how the Free State cause in Kansas was perceived in the North.
During these years, he gathered around him a group of supporters that helped him finance his "Africa" project, a group that would become known as the Secret Six: Franklin Sanborn, Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe (husband of the Julia Ward Howe who later wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body"), George Luther Stearns, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Garrit Smith. Parker and Higginson were both Christian ministers.
The Harpers Ferry raid has been described many times, and the basic facts of the raid are not in dispute. The motivations and justifications, as well as the historical effects, are very much in dispute. As are the nature of Brown’s plans.
I’ll let these three paragraphs from James McPherson serve as a basic description of the raid itself:
In the summer of 1859 Brown rented a farm across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry and began to gather his seventeen white and five black recruits. He hoped for more blacks, but even Brown's determined dedication and undoubted charisma could not persuade some potential recruits to take part in an apparently suicidal enterprise. Brown pleaded with his friend Frederick Douglass to join the raid. "I want you for a special purpose," he told Douglass. "When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them." Douglass refused, and tried to dissuade Brown. He knew that Harpers Ferry was a military trap. Situated at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and surrounded by commanding heights, the town could be completely cut off by troops that controlled those heights and the two bridges. And so it proved.
Brown considered himself a skilled military leader. And some of his guerrilla activities in Kansas seemed to demonstrate that skill. But his attack on Harpers Ferry the night of October 16–17, 1859, was poorly thought out. With the advantage of surprise he managed to capture the undefended armory and arsenal. He also sent patrols to seize hostages and a few slaves. But he neglected to plan an escape route if things went wrong. He did nothingabout laying in supplies or establishing a defensive line against an inevitable counterattack. The nineteen men who invaded the town carried no rations. After his initial success, Brown seemed not to know what to do next. He stopped the night train heading to Baltimore, but then inexplicably let it proceed after a few hours - spread the alarm.
Brown continued to sit tight, apparently waiting for slaves to flock to his banner. Few did. But at daylight the local residents began shooting at the raiders, who fired back. Militia from the surrounding areas seized the bridges, cutting off any chance of escape. Several men on both sides were killed in the fighting on October 17, including two of Brown's sons. Brown's remaining men retreated to the strongly constructed fire engine house where they made their last stand. That night a detachment of US marines arrived from Washington, commanded by none other than army lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee, who interrupted his leave at Arlington to accept this duty. After Brown refused a summons to surrender, the marines attacked and carried the engine house, killing two more raiders and wound-ing Brown. Thirty-six hours after it began, John Brown's war to liberate the slaves was over. No slaves were freed. The whole effort seemed a miserable failure.
In saying, “No slaves were freed,” MacPherson presumably means in the larger plan. As part of the Harpers Ferry operation itself, Brown’s group did free a number of slaves.
The raid began on Sunday evening, 10/16/1859, and ended with Brown’s surrender on Tuesday morning. After a speedy and not terribly fair trial by the State of Virginia, he was convicted of treason against Virginia (a state of which he was not a citizen), murder and inciting slave insurrection. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. Several of his men were hanged soon after.
Between the time of the raid and the time of his hanging, Brown had become a polarizing figure throughout the nation. His few speeches in court, his letters from prison, along with the statements of prominent supporters in the North like the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, established his reputation as a principled enemy of slavery, a white man who was willing to risk his own life in defense of democracy and the will of God in destroying slavery. To the South, he became the sum of all fears.
Herman Melville introduced Battle Pieces, his postwar volume of Civil War poems, with this one about Old Osawatomie hanging on the gallows:
The Portent. (1859.)
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
Shenandoah!The cut is on the crown(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
Online resources for the Harpers Ferry raid: The Harper's Ferry Raid (PBS American Experience); John Brown and the Valley of the Shadow; A Lecture on John Brown by Frederick Douglass; Dr. Stephen Oates on John Brown (audio and video).
(See Sources on John Brown for references to quotes in this post.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.