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John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry: Hero or Terrorist?

Updated on February 16, 2015
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John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a controversial event in History. “In October 1859, Brown led eighteen heavily armed black and white men in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia”. (Henretta 402) Historians have argued over whether John Brown was a Hero or a Villain. The raid did not have any lasting effects in fact the few slaves that were freed during the uprising were eventually returned to bondage. The raid highlighted John Brown and his traumatic life. Some thought that John Brown had “intellectual and moral intensity” (Henretta 397) while others just thought he was crazy. John Brown was an ally to the antislavery cause but he was also considered a terrorist for going against the government. John Brown was a passionate abolitionist who fought and died for his cause.

John Brown hoped to start a slave revolt with his militia but he needed weapons to arm them. He planned a raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in order to obtain the weapons he needed to help his cause. The Raid at Harper’s Ferry began on October 16, 1859. Brown headed out and left four of his men behind to guard the rear. He then led the rest of his men into the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Then brown split up his party and sent part of them with John Cook Jr. to find and capture Colonel Lewis Washington. Brown and his remaining men captured several townspeople and watchmen in Harper’s Ferry. Things seemed to be going good for Brown and his men. They seized a train that was passing through. A free black man who was a baggage handler on the train confronted the raiders and was shot and killed. That was the first causality of the raid. For whatever reason Brown did not stop the train instead he allowed it to continue down the line. The Conductor alerted the authorities. That night Brown and his men overtook the arsenal. They captured 60 citizens of the town and held them as hostages. That is where things began to go wrong. They expected the slaves to join the fight but no slaves came to aide them. Then the local militia succeeded in pinning Brown and his men down. When President Buchanan heard of the insurrection he sent Colonel Robert E. Lee to put an end to it. Come October 17 they were surrounded by a group of U.S. Marines that were led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Colonel Lee his soldiers quickly ended the insurrection of Brown and his men. The result was the death of ten of Brown’s men, two of which were his sons. Brown was wounded during the battle. He was tried and found guilty of treason and murder on November 2nd. John brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. As a dying proclamation “he handed his guard a slip of paper that read, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." (John 1) John Brown led 18 men into Harpers Ferry and only one survived, Osborne Anderson. John Browns original party was made up of twenty-two men. After the events at Harper’s Ferry there were “fifteen killed, two mortally wounded, two unhurt, and three escaped with the slaves on Monday morning”. (John 2) While the battle was brief it was still a bloody debacle. After the incident they discovered “Brown’s grandiose plans – including a “constitution” creating a revolutionary state with himself as commander in chief”. (Horwitz 41) This discovery led many to dismiss John Brown as insane. But “others branded him a deluded messiah who saw himself as “God’s instrument” for the destruction of slavery”. (Horwitz 41) No matter how people viewed him the fact cannot be denied that he ultimately wanted to end slavery. He was trying to do a good thing but his zealousness may have pushed him to the extreme.

John Brown commanded a volunteer free-state militia. John Brown had met many influential individuals in his years as an abolitionist. He met with both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. He was supported and financially backed by many prominent abolitionists. Much of his funding came from the “Secret Six,” who were six prominent abolitionists. His “army” expanded and soon included 22 men that was comprised of five black men and three of Brown’s own sons. They prepared their assault in a house rented near Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was fighting to end slavery and while his cause was noble he went about it the wrong way. He was a vigilantly and whether or not the government agreed with his cause and reasoning they could not allow him to continue with his plans. Had he not of attacked the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry the Government may have not of convened so quickly. Granted Brown and his men needed the weapons at the Armory to complete their plan of arming the slaves and to help start the revolt. However John Brown’s first plan was to have a base at the bottom of the Mountains and assist runaway slaves and attack slaveholders. That was the plan that he told his funders. He obviously carried out a different plan that night.

It is important to take a look at the life of John Brown. He was born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised on the Ohio frontier under modest circumstances. He was a man on a mission he had a ferocious ambition. His faith has been compared to Job-like given the tribulations he endured in his life. He was a talented man who excelled as a tanner and stock-raiser but his money management and land speculation drove him into bankruptcy. “For 55 of his 59 years, John Brown was a man on the make who never made it”. (Horwitz 41) He also suffered tremendous family tragedies. He lost both his mother and first wife in childbirth. He also “buried eight of his 20 offspring as infants or youngsters”. (Horowitz 41) He overcame all of his life trials and at the age of 56 became a renowned antislavery warrior. He differed from many other abolitionists because he was willing to take up arms for his cause and he did.

In my opinion John Brown was a passionate man who was willing to fight for his cause. It would be hard to call him a terrorist when he was technically fighting for abolitionists, which at the time many people supported. I think that he was fighting for a cause that the majority supported. I do think that he was technically a Hero but I also think he was a misguided leader. His attack on Harper’s Ferry did not really help his cause but instead cost him and many of his fighters their lives. But I appreciate how stoic he was and how eloquently he spoke. I think that his intellect was what helped him get followers on board. I believe that he was fighting for a great a cause and I grasp his passion for it but I just think that he was reckless in executing his plan. I think that it is easy to get caught up in the moment especially when you are so passionate about something like ending slavery. “Despite the certainty with which historians characterize Brown as a terrorist, scholars of guerrilla warfare and terrorism caution against loose definitions of these terms”. (Etcheson 31) Terrorism is a very broad term and it can be hard to distinguish terrorism from other violence. Obviously his supporters see him as a Hero while his opponents see him as a villain or terrorist. I believe that John Brown was more of an American Hero than a terrorist.

While John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry was not successful it did show people what he was made of and how passionate he was for antislavery. One effect that the raid is believed to have had is that it accelerated the start of the Civil War. Even people who did not agree with his beliefs and tactics took notice of him and many admired him. John Brown was a man that either people admired or hated. Many other abolitionists supported his cause but did not approve of his methods. Whether he was right or wrong he was fanatical and went to the extreme for his beliefs. He lived, fought and died for his cause.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Etcheson, Nicole. "John Brown, Terrorist?." American Nineteenth Century History 10, no. 1 (March 2009): 29-48. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2014).

Henretta, J. A., Brody, D. (2009) America: A Concise History, Volume 1: To 1877. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martins.

Horwitz, Tony. "Why John Brown Still Scares Us." American History 46, no. 5 (December 2011): 38-45. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2014).

"John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry." History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Sun. 1 June 2014. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-browns-raid-on-harpers-ferry>.

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