Today in 1859 abolitionist John Brown lead a small group on a raid against the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia,in an attempt to incite an insurrection and destroy the institution of slavery.
After failing in business and declaring bankruptcy at age 42, Browns life changed dramatically when he attended an abolition meeting in Cleveland. He was so moved by the meeting he publicly announced his dedication to the destruction of slavery.
Brown, with five of his sons became part of the “Bloody Kansas” era of the early 1850’s. By 1857, Brown returned to the East and began raising money to carry out his vision of a massive uprising of slaves. After securing financial backing of prominent abolitionists, he assembled his invasion force of 22 men
On the night of October 16, Brown and his band overran the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. A handful of hostages, including a few slaves were rounded up. Brown and his small band took refuge in the firehouse at Harpers Ferry. By the morning of October 17th Federal authorities had Brown surrounded and demanded his surrender. Brown refused. The officers of this company of U.S. marines were none other than Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart. On the morning of October 19, the soldiers overran Brown and his band. Ten of his men were killed, including two of his sons. Brown was seriously wounded in the short battle. So serious in fact that when the state of Virginia tried him for treason and murder, he attended the trial on a cot set up in the court room and was often to fatigued to participate in his own defense. Brown was found guilty on November 2. He went to the gallows on December 2, 1859.
Just prior to his execution Brown prophesied, “ … the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."
Although Brown’s raid failed, it helped to make any further accommodation between North and South nearly impossible and thus became an important catalyst of the Civil War.
Colonel Lee and Lt. Stuart, the couragous officer that ended Browns raid, later resigned their Federal commissions to serve in the confederate army.