December 2, 1859 – John Brown Hanged for Treason

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery.


On October 16, 1859, Brown led 19 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory in Virginia (this was before the division of Virginia; Harpers Ferry is now in West Virginia). He had received 200 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. He hoped to cause slavery to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the entire South, wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. Thus, while violence was essential to self-defense and advancement of the movement, Brown’s hope was to limit and minimize bloodshed, not ignite a slave insurrection as many have charged. From the Southern point of view, however, any effort to arm slaves was perceived as a definitive threat.

By the morning of October 18 the engine house of the Armory was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee. Within minutes of rejecting an order to surrender, Brown and the survivors were captives. Altogether Brown’s men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown’s men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown’s men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown.

Robert E. Lee in 1850

Robert E. Lee in 1850

Although the attack had taken place on Federal property, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise ordered that Brown and his men would be tried in Virginia (either to avert Northern political pressure on the Federal government, or in the unlikely event of a presidential pardon). The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black; conspiring with slaves to rebel; and with treason against Virginia. On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. At 11:00 a.m. on that day, he was escorted through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers. Among them were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson as well as the actor John Wilkes Booth, who borrowed a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution.

On the day of his death Brown wrote:

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.”

After his death, northern abolitionists attempted to make a martyr out of John Brown, but southerners were more successful at promulgating the idea that John Brown was insane.

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