This Day in History – December 2nd, 1859

In July of 1859 a mysterious man going by the name of Isaac Smith rents a farmhouse in Maryland, and waits for the arrival of others who believe as he does. The following month he meets with Frederick Douglas to tries persuade him to join the plotters, but Douglas expresses doubts, declines, and further more tries to discourage men from joining this suicide mission. Since late 1856 a plan had been devised by “Smith” and financed by a group who later became known as the Secret Six, and the time was close at hand for the plan to be set in motion . . . the plan was a raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory, and “Smith” was extreme abolitionist John Brown.

Portrait of John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872.

Portrait of John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872.

On October 16th, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher’s Bibles—breechloading .52 (13.2 mm) caliber Sharps rifles—and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves.

Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. The train’s baggage master tried to warn the passengers. Brown’s men yelled for him to halt and then opened fire. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, became the first casualty of John Brown’s war against slavery. Ironically, Shepherd was a free black man. Two of the hostages’ slaves also died in the raid. For some reason, after the shooting of Shepherd, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way. News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and then on to Washington by late morning.

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Harper’s Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown’s “Fort”

In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown’s men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route.

By the morning of October 18th, the engine house, later known as John Brown’s Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army. A young Army lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, “No, I prefer to die here.” Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledge hammers and a makeshift battering-ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives.

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Illustration of the interior of the Fort immediately before the door is broken down

Altogether Brown’s men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown’s men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown’s men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown. Among the raiders who were killed were John Henry Kagi; Lewis Sheridan Leary and Dangerfield Newby; those hanged besides Brown included John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and Shields Green.

On November 2nd, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2nd. In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that “[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”

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John Brown on the way to be executed – two and one-half blocks from the jail to his scaffold.

Brown refused to be rescued by Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who had somehow infiltrated the Jefferson County Jail offering to break him out during the night and flee northward. Brown supposedly told Silas that, aged 59, he was too old to live a life on the run from the federal authorities and was ready to die as a martyr. Silas left him behind to be executed. More importantly, many of Brown’s letters exuded high tones of spirituality and conviction and, when picked up by the northern press, won increasing numbers of supporters in the North as they simultaneously infuriated many white people in the South. On December 1st, his wife arrived by train in Charles Town where she joined him at the county jail for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay for the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure for the only time through the ordeal.

The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovenden

The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovenden

On the morning of December 2nd, Brown wrote,

“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.”

John Brown on the way to be executed – two and one-half blocks from the jail to his scaffold.

He read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 a.m. he was escorted from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers a few blocks away to a small field where the gallows were. Among the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and President Lincoln’s future assassin John Wilkes Booth, who borrowed a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution.

Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since he had consistently rejected the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most northerners, including journalists, were run out of town, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. He elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. On December 2nd, 1859, John Brown was hanged at 11:15 am and pronounced dead at 11:50 am. His body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck.

Brown’s coffin was put on a train to his family homestead in New York for burial. In the North, large memorial meetings took place, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown.

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