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Osawatomie Brown @ Harpers Ferry

In 1854 John Brown (1800-1859) was a failed businessman, an impoverished farmer with a few head of cattle in Ohio and some land in Upstate New York that he had not yet paid for. Brown came to Osawatomie River from his farm in upstate New York in October 1855 after three of his sons, who had arrived earlier in the year, appealed to him for help against proslavery forces in the area. While in Kansas, Brown was involved in a number of skirmishes in the so-called Bleeding Kansas" era.

On the night of May 24, 1856, Brown led a raiding party of four of his sons, his son-in-law, and two other men to Pottawatomie Creek. For the most part, this raid was unplanned and almost spontaneous. Brown acted in retaliation for a raid on the free state settlement at Lawrence, the killings of free state settlers in Kansas, and persistent threats by the proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. Brown and his men entered three cabins, interrogated a number of men, and eventually killed five of them, all with swords and knives. Some were killed quickly, while others, who resisted, were cut in many places. Brown and his men then departed.

Later that summer, a proslavery minister, working as a scout for the U.S. Army, murdered Brown's unarmed son Frederick, shooting him in the heart at close range. His body, when discovered, was riddled with bullets. Throughout the rest of 1856, Brown and his remaining sons fought in Kansas and Missouri. Some of these encounters were pitched battles between Brown's small army and proslavery forces, which were sometimes abetted by the U.S. Army.

By the end of 1856, Brown was one of the most renowned (and either hated or adored) figures in "bleeding Kansas," and in the East he became known as "Osawatomie Brown" or "Old Osawatomie." For some New England abolitionists he was approaching the status of a cult figure. Taciturn, blunt, gruff—and armed—Brown had become a symbol of the emerging holy crusade against slavery.

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown led a band of followers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (in what is now West Virginia). Brown’s goal was to use the weapons seized to lead a slave uprising. John Brown and 18 "soldiers" seized the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown's plans were fantastic—some would say insane. He would use the arms in the arsenal—as well as old-fashioned pikes he had had specially manufactured—to begin a guerrilla war against slavery. The core of his army would be the mostly white band of raiders who seized the arsenal. But soon, he hoped—he believed—he just knew—that hundreds or even thousands of slaves would join him in the fight against the "peculiar institution." He predicted that once word of his raid got out, slaves from throughout the region would appear at his side, as bees "swarm to the hive." Brown remained in the armory, waiting for slaves to flock to his standard. They never came.

After two days of fighting, Brown and his surviving men were taken prisoner by a force of U.S. Marines commanded by Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee.

Brown’s attempt confirmed the worst fears of many Southerners. Antislavery activists, on the other hand, generally hailed Brown as a martyr to a great cause. Virginia put Brown on trial for conspiracy, treason, and murder. Brown told the court that his actions against slavery were consistent with God's commandments. "I believe," he said in a speech that electrified many Northerners who later read it, "that to have interfered as I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say 'let it be done.'"

On December 2, 1859, he was hanged. By the time of his execution, the entire nation was fixated on this bearded man who spoke and looked like a biblical prophet and whose deeds thrilled—whether with fear or admiration or both — an entire generation. When Brown was hanged, many saw him as the harbinger of the future servile insurrection. For Southerners, he was the embodiment of all their fears — a white man willing to die to end slavery—and the most potent symbol yet of aggressive Northern antislavery sentiment. Although most Northerners had initially condemned him, increasing numbers were coming to accept his view that he had been an instrument in the hand of God. For many Northerners, he was a prophet of righteousness, bringing down a terrible swift sword against the immorality of slavery and the haughtiness of the Southern master class.

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Page last modified: 07-09-2017 16:56:48 ZULU