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!”
As soon as Brown rejected the lieutenant’s demand, J. E. B. Stuart touched his hat. He gave the signal to Lee and the Marines to storm the place. Instantly, the Marines charged forward, battering the heavy oaken doors in, using their bayonets instead of bullets to spare the hostages. Within minutes, Brown and his remaining men were captured. Two of Brown’s sons were among the dead. The raid had ended barely thirty-six hours after it had begun.
Brown’s venture was a complete and bloody failure. Frederick Douglass had predicted that. But Brown was soon able to change the impression. When he was brought to trial, he rejected with scorn his lawyers’ attempt to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Brown impressed all who saw him with his calm composure, his ready willingness to die for the cause of abolition. Even Virginia’s proslavery governor Henry A.Wise, who visited the abolitionist in prison, marveled at Brown’s steadfastness.
He was charged with “treason” against Virginia and tried in a state court. This was further evidence of President Buchanan’s doughface policies, since Brown’s target was the federal arsenal. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. Sentenced to be hanged, Brown addressed the court:
I believe to have interfered as I have done . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done.
Brown’s pose as Christian martyr was almost perfect. Northern writers generally praised him. Emerson said the “gallows would be glorious like the cross.” Henry David Thoreau told the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts: "No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. . . ."
Unknown to the general public was the letter Brown received from Mahala Doyle. She reminded Brown how he had invaded her Kansas home three years earlier and taken her husband and sons out to butcher them. “My son John Doyle whose life I begged of you is now grown up and is very desirous to be at Charlestown on the day of your execution,” the unforgiving widow wrote.
John Brown was hanged on 2 December 1859. On his way to the gallows, he handed this message to one of the officials: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”
In the crowd that assembled at Charlestown that day, a professor from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, noted Brown’s “unflinching firmness.” Soon, Professor Jackson—Stonewall Jackson—would be giving lessons in unflinching firmness. Standing nearby, fire-eater Edmund Ruffin actually admired Brown’s courage. But young John Wilkes Booth, already a famous actor, had only contempt for the old man. Abolitionists were “the only traitors in the land,” Booth said.