Extreme abolitionists like John Brown were in no way willing to place slavery on the path of ultimate extinction. They demanded action and they demanded it now. Brown moved freely among the leaders of the abolition cause. He began to share, but not completely, his plans for a dramatic strike against slavery. A group of financial backers known as the Secret Six helped Brown rent a Maryland farmhouse across the Potomac River from the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown assembled a small force of twenty-one impressionable young men—including his own sons and some former slaves. He planned to raise the banner of liberation in that strategic town and call on slaves to join in a bold bid for freedom.
Brown was an unlikely choice to organize a revolution—or anything else. Father of twenty, he had failed as farmer, as a merchant, and in every other line of work. Still, he was charismatic. Tall, straight as a ramrod, bedecked with blazing eyes and a bushy beard, Brown seemed the picture of an Old Testament prophet to many. Others saw in him the demon of unreasoning fanaticism. No one would ever meet John Brown and think of Lincoln’s appeal to “mind, all-conquering mind.” Brown had escaped capture for his murders of proslavery men in Kansas. This only emboldened him to greater exploits. He tried to enlist Frederick Douglass in his plot, but Frederick recoiled from his friend. He was “shocked” at the plot and thought it would immediately be stamped out. Embittered, Brown determined to go ahead without Douglass’s aid.
When he finally struck on 16 October 1859, John Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and took several Virginians as hostages. The news alarmed the entire nation.
Colonel Robert E. Lee was home on leave in Virginia when the news of Harpers Ferry came. He immediately reported to the White House, taking Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart with him.
There, President Buchanan authorized Lee to take a detachment of U.S. Marines to Harpers Ferry to capture Brown and his cohorts. Lee raced to retake the federal arsenal. He sent Stuart under a white flag of truce to demand the immediate surrender of Brown and his fellow insurrectionists. From inside the arsenal, Lee and his Marines could hear cries coming from some of the hostages. They feared they would die in an assault on the building. One of the hostages, Lewis W. Washington, yelled out: “Never mind about us, fire!” Lee knew the voice well. It was the grandnephew of George Washington. Smiling amid the tension, Lee told his Marines: “The old revolutionary blood does tell!”