At eight o’clock on the evening of Sunday, October 16, a fifty-nine-yearold man with a prophet’s beard and a prophet’s vehemence spoke to twentyone disciples in a farmhouse: “Men, get on your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry.”
The Ferry was the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and the little army that set off into the drizzling darkness was led by John Brown. Earlier that day he had gone over his final plans: they would seize the armory and rifle works, take hostages to negotiate with the militia, hold the town while slave reinforcements came in from Virginia, and withdraw into the mountains to establish a base, which, growing ever stronger, eventually would smash the institution of slavery in America.
At first everything went smoothly. Brown’s men easily took the town’s two bridges and minutes later grabbed the terrified government watchman at the arsenal. “I came here from Kansas,” Brown told him, “and this is a slave State; I want to free all the negroes in this State; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood. ”
While Brown consolidated his position, his raiders went out into the countryside and brought back ten slaves and three hostages, among them Col. Lewis Washington, a great-grand-nephew of the President. With the colonel came a splendid sword that Frederick the Great had given to his ancestor; John Brown strapped it on.
Not long after Washington’s capture, the express from Wheeling rattled across the bridge, to be driven back by gunfire. The baggagemaster left the station to see what was happening and fell mortally wounded. John Brown’s raid had claimed as its first victim a free Negro named Hayward Shepherd.
The gunfire woke the town, and in minutes the terrible news of a slave insurrection was everywhere: the horror Nat Turner had unleashed thirty years before was back again.
By Monday morning the armory and the enginehouse where Brown and his men had barricaded themselves were under heavy fire, whose pitch increased as furious farmers came in from the countryside to join the fight. Brown could still have escaped. But he waited—no one knows why—and by noon militia companies had arrived from Charlestown and it was too late. The slave reinforcements had not materialized, and Brown sent one of his men out under a flag of truce to negotiate. But the crowd wanted blood. The siege continued all afternoon and into the night.
The next morning found John Brown standing over the corpse of one of his sons while another lay mortally wounded nearby; and the first light showed him regular troops under the brevet colonel Robert E. Lee. A young cavalryman named Jeb Stuart negotiated briefly with Brown, then Marines stormed the enginehouse, battered in the door, and bayoneted two of the defenders. Lt. Israel Green, the Marine commander, stabbed at Brown with all his strength, but his pretty dress sword was too light for the job of killing; it bent double, and Green had to content himself with hammering Brown on the head until he fell unconscious. Lee got him a doctor.
Had Green been wearing his battle sword that day, John Brown might have been remembered only as an abolitionist malcontent who, after failing in a half-dozen businesses, had been goaded into murder by his relentless Calvinist god. But once his rebellion failed, Brown behaved with Roman dignity. When his scrupulous trial reached its inevitable conclusion, Brown delivered a five-minute speech that Emerson would compare with the Gettysburg Address: ”… I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done … in behalf of His despised poor, was not 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 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!”
From his jail cell he wrote letters of such courage and eloquence that even in the few weeks of life left him he began to undergo the transformation from felon to martyr. He was well aware of this and discouraged any attempts to save him: “I am worth inconceivably more to hang ,” he wrote, “than for any other purpose.”
On the morning of December 2 guards led him from his cell to where a wagon containing his casket waited: he would ride on his coffin to the gallows. He handed one of his attendants his last statement: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away ; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”
Then, his work finished at last, John Brown looked around him and took in the warm, hazy morning. “This is a beautiful country,” he said. “I never had the pleasure of seeing it before.”