A Failed Attempt to Raise a Rebel Army of Slaves
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Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
In October of 1859, a group of anti-slavery extremists attacked the town of Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry was part of Virginia then; today it is located in West Virginia. The attackers were led by John Brown. They seized a gun factory and a federal supply center where military equipment was kept. They planned to use the guns and equipment to organize a rebel army of slaves.
This week in our series, Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant tell us what happened to John Brown after he seized Harpers Ferry.
The president of the United States in 1859 was James Buchanan. When Buchanan learned of the attack, he wanted immediate action. He sent a force of Marines to Harpers Ferry, under the command of Army Colonel Robert E. Lee.
John Brown had attacked with about twenty men. Several, including two of his sons, had been killed by local militia. He and his remaining men withdrew to a small brick building. The attack had failed. Not one slave had come to Harpers Ferry to help Brown.
The few whom his men had freed had refused to fight when the shooting started. Brown could not understand the fear that kept the slaves from fighting for their freedom.
Brown and his men were trapped inside the brick building. They held a few hostages whom they hoped to exchange for their freedom.
Colonel Lee wrote a message to John Brown demanding his surrender. He did not think Brown would surrender peaceably. So, he planned to attack as soon as Brown rejected the message. He felt this was the surest way to save the lives of the hostages.
As expected, Brown refused to surrender. He said he and his men had the right to go free. As soon as Brown spoke, the signal was given. The Marines attacked.
They broke open a small hole in the door of the brick building. One by one, the Marines moved through the hole. They fought hand-to-hand against the men inside. After a brief fight, they won. John Brown's rebellion was crushed.
A few hours after Brown was captured, the Governor of Virginia and three Congressmen arrived in Harpers Ferry. They wanted to question Brown. Brown had been wounded in the final attack. He was weak from the loss of blood. But he welcomed the chance to explain his actions.
The officials first asked where Brown got the money to organize his raid. Brown said he raised most of it himself. He refused to give the names of any of his supporters. Then the officials asked why Brown had come to Harpers Ferry. "We came to free the slaves," Brown said, "and only that."
He continued: "I think that you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity. I believe anyone would be perfectly right to interfere with you, so far as to free those you wickedly hold in slavery. I think I did right. You had better -- all you people of the South -- prepare yourselves for a settlement sooner than you are prepared for it.
"You may get rid of me very easily. I am nearly gone now. But this question is still to be settled -- this Negro question, I mean. That is not yet ended."
The raid on Harpers Ferry increased the bitterness of the national dispute over slavery. Members of the Democratic Party called the raid a plot by the Republican Party. Republican leaders denied the charge. They said the raid was the work of one man -- one madman -- John Brown. Still, they said, he had acted for good reason: to end slavery in America.
Southern newspapers condemned Brown. Some said his raid was an act of war. Some demanded that he be executed as a thief and murderer. Many southerners said all of the
North was responsible for the raid. They believed all northerners wanted a slave rebellion in the South. And it was such a rebellion that southerners feared more than anything else.
New measures were approved throughout the South to prevent this. Military law was declared in some areas. Slave owners threatened to beat or hang any Negro who even looked rebellious.
The fear of a slave rebellion united the people of the South. For years, rich slave owners had talked of taking the southern states out of the Union to save their way of life. But those who had no slaves opposed the idea of disunion.
John Brown's raid changed that. After his attack on Harpers Ferry, the south spoke with one voice. All southerners declared that they would fight to protect their homes from a Negro rebellion or from another attack by men like Brown. Feelings were especially high in Virginia, the state in which the raid took place. Virginians wanted Brown punished quickly to show what would happen to anyone who tried to lead a Negro rebellion.
There was some question whether Brown should be tried in a federal court or a state court. Brown's raid took place within the borders of a state. But the property he seized belonged to the federal government.
The Governor of Virginia decided to try Brown in a state court. He believed a federal court trial would take too long. If Brown were not brought to trial quickly, he said, people might attack the jail and kill him.
Brown was being held in Charles Town, a few kilometers from Harpers Ferry. The court there named two lawyers to defend him. A doctor examined Brown. He reported that Brown's wounds were not serious enough to prevent the trial from starting. Brown lay in a bed in the courtroom throughout the trial.
John Brown's lawyers tried to show that his family had a history of madness. They tried to prove that Brown, too, was mad. They asked the court to declare him innocent because of insanity. Brown protested. He said the lawyers were just trying to save his life. He did not want such a defense. The matter of insanity was dropped.
Brown's lawyers then argued that he was not guilty of the three crimes with which he was charged.
First, they said, he could not be guilty of treason against Virginia, because he was not a citizen of Virginia. Second, he could not be guilty of plotting a slave rebellion, because he had never incited slaves against their owners. And third, he could not be guilty of murder, because he had killed only in self-defense.
The trial lasted five days. The jury found John Brown guilty of all three charges.
The judge asked Brown if he wanted to make a statement before being sentenced. Brown did. He declared that he had not planned to start a slave rebellion. He said he only wanted to free some slaves and take them to Canada.
Brown's statement was strong. But it was not true. He had, in fact, planned to organize an army of slaves to fight for their freedom. He acted in the belief that slaves throughout the south would rise up against their owners and join him.
Brown's words did not move the judge. He said he could find no reason to question the jury's decision that Brown was guilty. He sentenced Brown to be hanged.
One of Brown's supporters attempted to find a way to free Brown from jail. Several plans were proposed. None were tried.
Brown himself did not want to escape. He said he could do more to destroy slavery by hanging than by staying alive.
John Brown was executed on December second, 1859. His death created a wave of public emotion throughout the country. In the North, people mourned.
One man wrote: "The events of the last month or two have done more to build northern opposition to slavery than anything which has ever happened before, than all the anti-slavery pamphlets and books that have ever been written."
In the south, people cheered. But their happiness at Brown's punishment was mixed with anger at those who honored him. As the nation prepared for a presidential election year, the South renewed its promise to defend slavery -- or leave the Union.
That will be our story next week.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant. Transcripts of our programs can be found along with MP3s, podcasts and historical images at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.