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The Trial Of John Brown
Verdicts Of History: III -- Even his abolitionist friends thought his attack on Harpers Ferry insane, but the old Kansas raider sensed that his death would ignite the nation’s conscience.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Brown tried to use ten local white hostages to guarantee a safe passage into the Maryland hills, but Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U. S. Cavalry, ordered to the scene by President Buchanan, declined to bargain. When Brown refused a final demand to surrender, Lee sent a dozen Marines, led by Lieutenant Israel Green, to crash through the engine-room door with fixed bayonets. Green, according to his own account, caught Brown as he was reloading his gun and beat him to the ground with repeated blows on the head from his light dress sword. Such was the beginning and the end of “the well-matured plan.”
On the same afternoon, as Brown lay on the floor of the office of the armory paymaster, he was confronted by Governor Wise and his party of distinguished interrogators. For more than three hours Brown sparred with them, laying the groundwork for his defense. His plan had failed, he insisted, because he had neglected tactics out of humane consideration for the hostages his men had rounded up after seizing the arsenal Sunday night. He went on to lament that his wounds were inflicted upon him “some minutes after I had ceased fighting and had consented to a surrender for the benefit of others, not for my own.”
Brown blatantly maintained that he could have killed Lieutenant Green, “but I supposed he came in only to receive our surrender.” When someone impatiently pointed out that the Lieutenant had scrambled headfirst through an opening battered in the door, with bullets whistling all around him, and that the first man to follow him had been killed and the second seriously wounded, Brown solemnly explained that the Marines had fired first. This was another lie. The Marines had been given strict orders to use only their bayonets lest they kill the hostages.
Meanwhile, the nation reverberated with the shock of John Brown’s deed. The initial reports, based on rumors, trumpeted news of a military invasion and an uprising involving thousands of slaves. When the true dimensions of Brown’s futile foray became visible, the first reaction was bewilderment. The Cleveland Leader thought the whole affair was “positively ridiculous.” The New York Tribune called it “the work of a madman,” and so did the Hartford Evening Press and the St. Louis Evening News. Even the Liberator, Boston’s abolitionist organ, called Brown’s raid a “misguided, wild and apparently insane, though disinterested and well-intended effort by insurrection to emancipate the slaves.” Southern papers, of course, took a different point of view. The Richmond Inquirer echoed most of the South when it declared, “The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of the Government. …”
The reference in the indictment to “divers other evil-minded and traitorous persons to the Jurors unknown” echoed the southern conviction that Brown had not acted alone. On a Maryland farm a few miles from Harpers Ferry, where Brown had spent the summer planning the raid, searchers had found a carpetbag full of correspondence between Brown and his backers. As for these gentlemen, the news of Harpers Ferry turned their blood to ice water. Smith had a mental collapse, which may have been real, and was confined to an asylum. Douglass and several others left for Canada, beyond the reach of federal warrants.
Within a week of his capture, Brown was on trial. The speed was in accordance with the Virginia statute which required, “when an indictment is found against a person for felony, in a court wherein he may be tried, the accused, if in custody, shall, unless good cause be shown for a continuance, be arraigned and tried in the same term.” Governor Wise had already rejected the advice of some Virginians to declare martial law, convict Brown in a drumhead court, and hang him on the spot. He insisted that the honor and reputation of the South made it imperative to give Brown every benefit the law allowed. But Wise apparently could not bring himself to do more than yield the law’s strict letter. Neither he nor his prosecutor could see that they were duelling John Brown for the minds and hearts of millions of neutral northerners.
Already Brown’s tactics were having their effect beyond the borders of Virginia. The Lawrence, Kansas, Republican fulminated, “We defy an instance to be shown in a civilized community where a prisoner has been forced to trial for his life, when so disabled by sickness or ghastly wounds as to be unable even to sit up during the proceedings, and compelled to be carried to the judgment hall upon a litter.…” But Brown did not convince everyone. The reporter for the New York Tribune wrote, “The prisoner lay most of the time [during the reading of the indictment] with his eyes closed and the counterpane drawn close up to his chin. He is evidently not much injured, but is determined to resist the pushing of his trial by all the means in his power.”
Brown’s delaying tactics rose in part from his instinctive skill at putting his accusers on the defensive. But he also had more practical reasons. He had sent letters north to three prominent lawyers; as yet, none had responded. Moreover, if he managed to stall long enough, his supporters might have time to mount a rescue operation; freeing prisoners from well-guarded jails had been done more than once in Kansas.