"In the Beginning, all America was Virginia."
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Raid, Incarceration, and Execution

John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harper's FerryAlthough John Brown and his followers easily captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, no army of runaway slaves and sympathetic whites emerged to join his movement. During a day-and-a-half of skirmishing, townspeople and the local militia killed or wounded many of his men. On October 18, a detachment of U.S. Marines commanded by Robert E. Lee captured the remaining insurgents. Ten days later Brown was placed on trial and charged by the state with treason, murder, and inciting slaves to revolt.

At his trial, Brown argued that his deeds were justified because they were based on Christian principles and his goal was to end slavery. He said that his plan was simply to free a few slaves and shed no blood. That statement was entirely different from what he had boasted when he was captured—that his intention was to spark a widespread slave insurrection. A few days after the speech, Brown changed his The Trial Of John Brown, At Charlestown, Virginia, For Treason And Murderstory—he argued that he had been confused in court and that he had hoped the raid would start a rebellion. The important point is that the courtroom speech—which denies the endorsement of violence—was read throughout the North, in newspapers and in pamphlets. It caused many there to reassess Brown and side with him. The speech, however, had no bearing on the outcome of the trial: Brown was sentenced to hang on December 2.

In the following weeks John Brown wrote emotional, persuasive letters from jail that defended the antislavery movement and carefully omitted any mention of the widespread human slaughter that would have accompanied his planned slave revolt. The letters, combined with his courtroom testimony, caused northerners and southerners to reassess their original impressions. Brown could no longer be dismissed as a mere madman who had launched an impossible crusade. When John Brown was hanged, he became a martyr for the abolitionist movement.

John Brown's raid in American Memory
John Brown and his followers easily seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, but soon afterwards Brown was captured, and a number of his men were killed. He did succeed, however, in initiating a national debate about slavery.
General View of Harper's Ferry Enter Fullscreen More information
General View of Harper's Ferry, Harper's Weekly, 5 November 1859
Although John Brown and his followers easily captured the federal arsenal, no army of runaway slaves and sympathetic whites emerged to join his movement. Following a day-and-a-half of skirmishing with local militia units, the insurgency was put down by a detachment of U.S. Marines commanded by Robert E. Lee. Ten days later Brown was placed on trial and charged by the state of Virginia with treason, murder, and inciting slaves to revolt. Brown was convicted on all counts and sentenced to hang in December. (VHS call number: AP2 H23)
John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harper's Ferry Enter Fullscreen More information
John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harper's Ferry
John Brown's plan was to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, not only to carry off guns with which to arm the slaves whom he planned to liberate, but also to sound a protest against the federal government's tolerance of slavery. On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, with a company of twenty-one men, five of whom were black, Brown marched on Harpers Ferry. The arsenal was easily taken by surprise in the middle of the night. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, used with permission)
Attack on the Insurgents at the bridge at Harpers Ferry of the railroad men Enter Fullscreen More information
Attack on the Insurgents at the bridge at Harpers Ferry of the railroad men
By morning, residents of the town and neighboring county hurried to respond to what they believed to be an invasion by robbers. The residents and twelve neighboring militia units attacked the insurgents aggressively, killing ten of them and forcing Brown and the last four of his men still standing to retreat into the fire-engine house on the arsenal grounds. Seven other raiders had escaped; two of those would be captured and hanged. This engraving, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on October 29, 1859, shows the chaos of the attack (VHS call number: AP2 F82 o.s.)
The Storming Of The Engine-House By The United States Marines Enter Fullscreen More information
The Storming Of The Engine-House By The United States Marines
President James Buchanan sent to the scene a contingent of U. S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee. The men arrived Monday evening. At dawn on Tuesday—before Lee ordered a group to storm the engine house—he sent Lieutenant Jeb Stuart forward under a flag of truce in an attempt to negotiate surrender. Having served in Kansas, Stuart recognized John Brown, whose identity to that point had been unknown. On the failure of Stuart's effort, Lee ordered the marines forward. One of them was killed, as were two insurgents. The episode lasted only a few minutes. In the end, four citizens had been shot and killed, along with the one marine. Several other citizens were severely wounded. Ten of Brown's twenty-one men were dead; six more, plus Brown himself, would be hanged. This engraving of the storming of the engine house was published in Harper's Weekly on November 5, 1859. (VHS accession number: 2003.31.21)
Old John Brown's Residence, Kennedy Farm, Maryland Enter Fullscreen More information
Old John Brown's Residence, Kennedy Farm, Maryland
Southerners initially dismissed Brown as a madman. Then his papers, 200 rifles, and 950 "pikes" (spears) were discovered in two buildings from which he had staged the raid. The papers, which included letters from the "Secret Six," and the quantity of the weapons suggested that northerners wanted to unleash a bloody slave insurrection that would take the lives of men, women, and children. This engraving, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on November 26, 1859, shows the hideout that Brown and his men used in Maryland before the raid on Harpers Ferry. (Library of Congress)
The Trial Of John Brown, At Charlestown, Virginia, For Treason And Murder Enter Fullscreen More information
The Trial Of John Brown, At Charlestown, Virginia, For Treason And Murder
At his trial, the still wounded John Brown lay stretched out on a cot, seemingly oblivious to the proceedings. When asked if he chose to speak, Brown rose to argue that his deeds were justified because they were based on Christian principles and his goal was to end slavery. His address to the court was masterful. Ralph Waldo Emerson later ranked it with Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" as the two greatest speeches in all of American history. This engraving of the trial was published in Harper's Weekly on November 12, 1859. (VHS accession number: 2003.31.3)
Mary Brown and Two of Her Daughters Enter Fullscreen More information
Mary Brown and Two of Her Daughters
Among the many visitors to Brown in jail was his wife, Mary. She arrived a day before the hanging and the couple was allowed four hours together. Husband and wife were said to have embraced tightly for minutes without speaking; Brown fumed when she was not allowed to stay the night. Mary would not have his body burned as he wished; she would take it home for burial. They discussed his will, which he would later dictate to Andrew Hunter, the man who had prosecuted him. She carried home his papers and the letters he had received in jail. (Library of Congress)
The Execution Of John Brown, In A Stubble Field, Near Charlestown, Va. Enter Fullscreen More information
The Execution Of John Brown, In A Stubble Field, Near Charlestown, Va.
To the consternation of many in the North and abroad, the state of Virginia ignored their humanitarian protests and hanged John Brown, on December 2, 1859, as shown in this engraving published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on December 10, 1859. The execution assured him martyrdom and victory for his cause. Not a single slave had been freed by Brown, but Americans were forced by the raid and the execution to reconsider the horrific institution of slavery. Southerners and northerners who had previously dismissed the idea of secession and possible armed conflict moved rapidly toward the more militant positions that would bring war two years later. It can be argued that if Brown had not invaded Virginia, the war might never have happened. (VHS call number: AP2 F82 o.s.)
John Brown's raid in American Memory
General View of Harper's Ferry
General View of Harper's Ferry, Harpe
John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harper's Ferry
John Brown with a company of 21 men, white
Attack on the Insurgents at the bridge at Harpers Ferry of the railroad men
Attack on the Insurgents at the bridge at
The Storming Of The Engine-House By The United States Marines
The Storming Of The Engine-House By The Un
Old John Brown's Residence, Kennedy Farm, Maryland
Old John Brown's Residence, Kennedy F
The Trial Of John Brown, At Charlestown, Virginia, For Treason And Murder
The Trial Of John Brown, At Charlestown, V
Mary Brown and Two of Her Daughters
Mary Brown and Two of Her Daughters
The Execution Of John Brown, In A Stubble Field, Near Charlestown, Va.
The Execution Of John Brown, In A Stubble
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