John Brown, who I will be talking about here, is one of the most controversial American figures of the 19th century, in that he decided that the abolition of slavery could not be achieved through talks or negotiations, and instead attempted to incite an armed revolt.
Brown originally operated tannery and sheep wool trading businesses, but was inspired by the abolitionist movement that was gaining momentum at the time, and eventually devoted himself entirely to the abolitionist cause. In May of 1856, an abolitionist band led by Brown attacked and killed five pro-slavery activists and settlers in eastern Kansas. In August of that year, again in eastern Kansas, Brown and his supporters violently clashed with a pro-slavery band, resulting in losses of life on both sides. These two incidents brought national attention to Brown and solidified his reputation as a militant abolitionist.
In October of 1859, roughly two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, John Brown and 21 of his men, armed with weapons donated to them by supporters, raided the town of Harpers Ferry, which is located about 50 miles northwest of Washington D.C. They succeeded in cutting off lines of communication to the outside, but they later attacked a train that had arrived in town, which caused authorities to become aware of the raid sooner than Brown had planned. Brown and his party were successful in capturing the armory on the first day of the raid, but by then the townspeople who had been attacked by Brown’s men began to counterattack using their own weapons. Brown believed that slaves in the area, encouraged by his actions, would be moved to join him and that together they would start an insurrection (the raid on the arsenal was to secure a large cache of weapons for that purpose). Things did not, however, go according to Brown’s design; not one local slave showed up to join in Brown’s attempted rebellion. Nearly overwhelmed by local militia and townspeople, Brown and his men holed up in a small fire engine house located at the arsenal. The following day, the federal government, which had already gotten word of the raid, ordered in U.S. Marines, who surrounded the engine house upon their arrival. Despite this, Brown refused to surrender. During the fighting, many of Brown’s men were wounded or killed, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown himself was wounded and captured soon after. Having been found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859. In his last testament, he wrote, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.”