“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” That was a prophetic statement by abolitionist John Brown before he was hanged for leading a small group on a raid against a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Being one who demanded a more aggressive stance on slavery, Brown led the raid on the federal munitions depot at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, with the belief that enslaved men and women would rise up against their slaveowners amid his actions.
However, he failed in his attempt to start an armed slave revolt and bring to an end the institution of slavery as he was captured by militia members and U.S. Marines and sentenced to death by hanging. His prophesy before his death was that bloodshed would be needed to destroy the sin of slavery. And that came to pass almost two years after his death when the Civil War began.
Born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut but raised in Ohio, Brown came from an antislavery family. He was a very religious man who believed that sin should have no place in society, according to the Kansas Historical Society. He believed that the country’s greatest sin was slavery and he vowed to destroy it completely.
Growing up, he tried his hands at many businesses but did not succeed in any of them. By age 42, he had declared bankruptcy with several lawsuits filed against him, according to History. In the year 1837, he decided to dedicate his life to the destruction of slavery after attending an abolition meeting in Cleveland. He was so touched by the meeting that he publicly announced that he was going to do all he could to destroy the institution of slavery.
“Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery,” he declared publicly.
He went on to attend lectures by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and by 1848, he had started a plan to start an uprising. During this period, he battled pro-slavery citizens in Kansas and Missouri. On May 21, 1856, when proslavery men raided the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown and his sons fought back, killing five men in the pro-slavery settlement of Pottawattomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas. This became known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre.”
By 1857, Brown had started raising money and recruiting followers for his raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry. His plan was to seize the weapons stored in the armory, give those weapons to enslaved Black men and trigger an antislavery rebellion. About six abolitionists supported his plan. Brown tried to get the backing of Frederick Douglass but the famed abolitionist declined, “advising that an attack against the federal government would turn public opinion against abolitionists,” according to The Washington Post.
On the night of October 16, 1859, the attack on the armory began. Brown led 18 men (13 Whites and five Blacks) into Harpers Ferry, where they captured federal government buildings and killed about four people. Nine were wounded. When the people of Harpers Ferry learned that the armory had been attacked, they brought together the militia and a gun battle broke out. The United States government also sent Marines to the scene.
“Expecting local slaves to join them, Brown and his men waited in the armory while the townspeople surrounded the building. The raiders and the civilians exchanged gunfire, and eight of Brown’s men were killed or captured,” according to the Library of Virginia. “Five of the conspirators, including Brown’s son Owen, escaped to safety in Canada and the North.”
After a 36-hour standoff, Brown, who was also wounded in the attack, was captured by militia members and U.S. Marines and taken to the jail at Charles Town. He was tried by the state of Virginia for treason and murder, and he was found guilty on November 2, 1859. 59-year-old Brown went to the gallows on December 2, 1859.
Thomas Jackson, who would later become well known as Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, was an eyewitness to the execution. In a letter to his wife, Jackson described the scene after the order to hang Brown.
“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,” Jackson wrote. “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.”
Brown was buried in front of his New York farmhouse. His planned rebellion failed. Nevertheless, the Harpers Ferry raid helped trigger the South’s secession from the Union and the beginning of the Civil War.