John Brown

How many of you have heard of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia? Much of the old town on the Potomac River about fifty miles northwest of Washington, D.C., is now a national historical park. It is a beautiful little town in the Shenandoah Valley. There are several reasons why this place was set aside as a historical area.
One reason was that several Civil War battles were fought here. General Stonewall Jackson won some of his greatest victories here. Another reason was that this was the place where John Brown’s raid occurred in 1859. Who was John Brown? And what was his raid on Harpers Ferry all about?
John Brown was an anti-slavery man. He was also a man of action and violence. He said concerning the slavery question that “all I hear is a lot of talk. What is needed is action, action.” When northerners and southerners were struggling for possession of the Kansas Territory, John Brown hurried to this frontier and cast his lot with the northerners who were trying to keep slavery out of Kansas. He gathered around him four of his sons and three other radicals and proceeded to murder in cold blood five southerners who were slave owners. Brown and his band, which sometimes numbered up to forty or fifty, engaged in pitched battles and guerilla warfare that caused him to be outlawed and a price put upon his head.
John Brown next shows up in Maryland. He had secured financial backing from anti-slavery people for this next great adventure—to free the slaves by force of arms with a band of 21 men, several of whom were his sons. In the middle of the night, he and his band quietly crossed the bridge over the Potomac River into Harpers Ferry into what was then Virginia (and is now West Virginia). Brown and his little army seized the government armory at Harpers Ferry, declared the slaves he found there free and called upon them to take up arms and fight for their freedom.
No slaves came to the aid of Brown and his men, and after two days of battle with the local militia company, Brown and his surviving followers were taken prisoner by a force of United States Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee. John Brown was indicted for treason and criminal conspiracy to incite a slave rebellion. He was tried at Charlestown, Virginia, now West Virginia, convicted and hanged. Later, six other members of his band were also hanged.
From all accounts, John Brown was a man of courage. A newspaper writer who witnessed the execution said that Brown arrived in a wagon sitting on his coffin,, and as he approached the gallows he looked up at the eternal hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and calmly said, “This is a beautiful country.”
John Brown’s raid and its grim ending created a national sensation. Those in the North who opposed slavery looked upon Brown as a hero and a martyr and tolled funeral bells on the day of his execution. Southern people were thoroughly frightened by the raid. Jefferson Davis, the United States Senator from Mississippi and later President of the Confederate States of America, described the affair as “the invasion of a state by a murderous gang of anti-slavery radicals bent on inciting slaves to murder helpless women and children.” The people of Virginia were tremendously disturbed by John Brown’s raid, for they remembered that not too many years before Nat Turner of Southhampton County, Virginia, led a slave rebellion that saw 57 white men, women, and children murdered in their beds.
As a military expedition, John Brown’s raid was not a very large affair, but coming at a time when there was so much tension between North and South on the slavery question, it created so much hate and distrust that the voice of moderation could not be heard. The nation was headed for an explosion. And it soon came. Eighteen months after John Brown’s raid, the Civil War began and Union soldiers were marching south singing John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on.”

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