In the 1850’s, the matter of slavery was beginning to separate the United States, forcing people to side with either the North, which was for the elimination of slavery, or with the South, which had far more need of slaves. In the North, abolitionist groups were becoming more and more adamant that the slaves be set free immediately without compensation to their owners, while the Southerners were growing increasingly resolute that no one would force them to release them before they were ready and willing to do so.
Five years prior to the raid of Harper’s Ferry, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act passed by Congress broadened the gap between the two opposing sides. In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were still territories of the United States that had been obtained from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This statute declared that the settlers of these regions could determine for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The passage of this piece of legislation ignored the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had allowed the practice of slavery in Missouri and any new territories south of the 36° 30’ latitude line. Both Kansas and Nebraska were above that line, and clearly should have been automatically declared free regions. Opponents of slavery were furious at this blatant disregard of the Missouri Compromise, which had been such an important law because both the North and South feared that the other would become more powerful through the addition of new territories adhering to their especial stance on slavery. For the past thirty-four years, this act had prevented slavery from spreading into the North, and once the law had been passed over due to the efforts of Southern legislators, what was to stop it from taking over the nation?
Enraged abolitionists made the decision to converge their efforts on Kansas in an attempt to save it from becoming part of the slave-state group. Their violent undertaking, and the fight of the South against them, gave Kansas its fear-provoking moniker, “Bleeding Kansas.” Southerners realized the importance the outcome of this fight would have on their political strength. If Kansas and Nebraska became free states, this would leave Missouri surrounded on three sides by non-slaveholding states, and Southerners feared that the pressure put upon Missouri would force the institution of slavery to collapse.
And so the race began to move the most people of a certain political position into Kansas. The North organized large meetings held in order to convince people to move to Kansas that they could join the fight against slavery. The South did the same, also collecting money to help emigrants to settle in Kansas.
The sons of John Brown were among those who decided to leave their homes in the North and travel to Kansas. Frederick, Owen, and Salmon Brown left Ohio in October of 1854 with their families, cattle, and horses, until they made it to Meredosia, Illinois, where they spent the winter waiting until the spring thaws would make it viable to cross the Missouri River. They entered Kansas on April 20, 1855, and headed to Osawatomie, near the home of their Reverend Samuel Lyle Adair, their uncle who had moved to Kansas the year before. By June, Jason, John, Jr., Oliver, and Watson Brown had arrived to join them in the establishment of a Brown settlement. In less than six months, John Brown, Sr., arrived from New York to join his sons, bringing his son-in-law, Henry Thompson, with him. While it was difficult to leave the rest of his family in New York, he used this as an opportunity to point out the horrible conditions of life for slaves, who were all too often sold on the slave market to different owners: “If it is so painful for us to part with the hope of meeting again, how of the poor slaves?”
Brown went to Kansas with the no intent to settle there permanently; rather, he went only to join in the fight to make Kansas a free state, hoping that it would take only two or three years to achieve this, and planning to then aid in the struggle in another part of the country. He arrived to find his family in a pitiable state, sick and hungry. He immediately took control, and his endless energy and unconquerable spirit held them over through the winter of 1855-1856. He prepared to meet the “Border Ruffians” with the same violence with which they threatened abolitionist settlers in Kansas.
The Border Ruffians were Missourians dedicated to making Kansas into a slave state at all costs. A Kansas correspondent of the New York Tribune asked readers, “Did you ever see a Border Ruffian? Imagine a fellow, tall, slim, but athletic, with yellow complexion, hairy-faced, with a dirty flannel shirt, of red, or blue, or green, a pair of commonplace, but dark-colored pants, tucked into an uncertain attitude by a leather belt, in which a dirty-handled bowie-knife is stuck rather ostentatiously, an eye slightly whiskey red, and teeth the color of a walnut. Such is your Border Ruffian of the lowest type.”
On May 20 and 21, 1856, the Border Ruffians roared into Lawrence, Kansas and killed two abolitionists. They pillaged the town, bombarding the Free State Hotel with thirty-two cannonballs and then setting it on fire. They also burned the offices of two abolitionist newspapers to the ground, as they did the home of Charles Robinson, a well-known abolitionist. After two days, the raid ended with the Border Ruffians in control after their triumph.
When John Brown heard about this, he rallied his company, the Pottawatomie Rifles, which was made up of about forty men. They left on May 22nd for the thirty-five mile ride to Lawrence, and were met partway with news that Lawrence had been totally destroyed and five abolitionists killed. Brown decided to kill five pro-slavery men in an act of retribution, not knowing that the messenger had been mistaken and only two abolitionists had been killed. He and seven of his men rode off to Pottawatomie Creek, an area known for its surplus of pro-slavery advocates. That night, they pulled five men out of their respective houses and slashed them to death with swords that they had sharpened earlier that day. After this, abolitionists knew Brown as a hero, some who claimed that he had committed these acts under the divine direction of God, and as a man to be feared by anyone on the other side of the issue.
During the three years between the Pottawatomie Massacre and his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Brown and his constituents were actively engaged in guerilla warfare. He also used this time as a chance to raise money for future operations in Kansas, and for his ultimate blow against slavery, which he planned to carry out in Virginia. In the spring of 1858, Brown decided that the place to strike would be the small town of Harper’s Ferry, in northern Virginia. He chose Harper’s Ferry because it contained a United States arsenal, which could provide arms for his followers.
Around midnight on October 16, 1859, Brown and fourteen white and five black men crossed the Potomac River into Harper’s Ferry and overpowered watchmen at the United States Armory. He made his quarters in the thick-walled building at the gate of the armory and sent six men to seize the chief residents of the town and incite the blacks to insurrection. Later in the night, they captured about forty additional citizens of the town and confined them in one room of the armory gatehouse.
The next day, news of these events traveled swiftly, and armed citizen soldiery hurried from surrounding parts of Maryland and Virginia to fight against Brown. They quickly forced Brown and his men into the gatehouse, which the insurgents then proceeded to fortify, taking with them about fifteen captives, whom his referred to as hostages. Brown and his followers spent the next several hours firing from openings in the building at anyone who came into sight.
That night, army companies began arriving from the surrounding states. They waited until dawn the following morning to begin attacking the gatehouse for fear of the safety of the hostages. Soon after the sun rose on the 18th, Lee had a written demand for surrender sent to Brown, but, as expected, he scornfully rejected this offer, and Lee immediately sent forth twelve of his men to break down the doors of the gatehouse with sledge hammers. This proved impossible, however, for Brown had fortified the doors incredibly well. Then a battering ram was used, which managed to break in a portion of the door through which soldiers could gain admission. They ended the insurrection in a matter of minutes, bayoneting resistors and cutting Brown with swords.
In his report to his superior, dated October 19th, Colonel Lee wrote: "It appears that the party consisted of 19 men--14 white and 5 black. 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 retained at the armory, took no part in the conflict and returned to their homes as soon as released. The result proves the plan was the attempt of a fanatic or madman, which could only end in failure; and its temporary success was owing to the panic and confusion he succeeded in creating by magnifying his numbers." Colonel Lee then turned over Brown and his two remaining men to the sheriff of Jefferson County, Virginia.
On October 20th, the Thursday following the uprising, John Brown was brought to trial at Charlestown. The trial lasted nearly a month, and was impartial and fair, as Brown himself acknowledged. He was indicted by a grand jury for the charges of treason and murder. He was sentenced to be executed on the 2nd of December. His lawyer asked for a stay of execution, which was subsequently refused.
In response to threats from abolitionists that an attempt would be made to rescue Brown and his surviving followers, the governor of Virginia ordered troops to Charlestown to watch over the prisoners until their executions. On the day of the executions, guns were fired and bells tolled in many places in the North, and church services were held to glorify the cause he represented, recognizing him as a martyr. Over time, Brown’s name became synonymous with the fight for the freedom of all slaves contained in the United States.