• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass meets John Brown

Born in Connecticut on May 9, 1800, John Brown grew up in a deeply religious family. At the age of 12, he witnessed a young slave boy beaten with a shovel. Shortly thereafter, Brown began working with the Underground Railroad to help protect the escaped Negroes from slave catchers.

Not long after the murder of his friend, Elijah Lovejoy, who wrote against slavery, Brown stood up in church one day and stated to the congregation: “Here before God, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”

Frederick Douglass’s first encounter with John Brown took place in Springfield, Massachusetts during 1848 when Douglass paid a visit to Brown’s home. During this meeting, Brown shared with Douglass the ambitious plans he had to free the slaves. For the next 11 years, Brown sought out Douglass’s support and counsel.

In Kansas during 1856, John Brown led his sons on an attack against proslavery settlers. Carrying five men from their homes, the sons beat the men brutally, then murdered and decapitated the individuals. Brown was named an abolitionist hero as a result. For the next several years, Brown would travel to raise money and gather guns, desiring to carry out his plan to conduct a war against injustice in the South regarding slavery.

In 1859, Brown planned his attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His target was the federal arsenal which contained some 100,000 rifles and guns. Brown’s goal was to take possession of the guns, free as many slaves as possible, have them join him and then declare war. Douglass argued with him and endeavored to dissuade Brown from this violent plan.

Arriving in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859, Brown used the name “Isaac Smith.” He rented a farmhouse in Maryland and waited for the recruits to arrive. When they finally did, the number was nothing close to what Brown had hoped to see. In all, the 21 recruits were composed of 16 white individuals and 5 Negroes – 3 free blacks, 1 freed slave and 1 fugitive slave – ranging in age from 21 to 49. Twelve of the individuals in this group had previously been part of Brown’s raids in Kansas.

Brown approached Douglass a final time in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania during August 1859 to ask that he join the planned raid on Harpers Ferry. John felt Douglass’s participation would help recruit a larger number of individuals, both black and white, to take up the cause and fight with him. Douglass, however, refused to do so. He expressed severe reservations and rebuffed Brown’s pleas; then wrote, “Here we separated; he to go to Harpers Ferry, I to Rochester [New York].”

Having learned of Brown’s intentions earlier in the year, Douglass put forth numerous efforts to dissuade Negroes from participating in Brown’s plan. He later described his last meeting with John Brown in his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

John Brown sought to deplete the state of Virginia of its slaves to collapse the institution of slavery from one county to another. A successful accomplishment of his plan would wreak havoc on Virginia’s economic viability. Though he felt violence was a necessity, Brown hoped to limit the quantity of bloodshed rather than create an insurrection among the slaves. Understandably, the view by the Southern plantation owners was a bit different. They felt any effort to arm the slaves amounted to a definitive danger.

On October 16, 1859, Brown left three of his 21 men behind to act as rear guard, then led the other 18 in the attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. At first, things went well. They met no resistance as they entered the town and successfully cut the telegraph wires. With one lone watchman at the armory, its capture was a piece of cake. The next step was to round up hostages from the neighboring farms. Among those he captured was Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of General George Washington. The news was also spread to the local slaves, informing them their liberation was about to occur.

It did not take long for that piece of cake to turn to crumbs as things rapidly headed downhill. An eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train was now making its approach into Harpers Ferry. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, warned the passengers about the problem ahead. Brown’s men shouted for Shepherd to halt and then opened fire. A moment later, Shepherd, a free Negro, became the first casualty in Brown’s war against slavery. For reasons unknown to anyone, shortly after Shepherd was shot, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way.

The townsfolk quickly began to fight back. Local farmers, shopkeepers and militia members quickly pinned the raiders in the armory while shooting from higher levels behind the town. Though some of Brown’s men were successful in shooting a number of the townsfolk, their overall efforts proved unsuccessful. The militia quickly seized the bridge, thereby blocking Brown’s only escape route.

Brown now moved his men and hostages into the engine house, seeking the protection of its brick walls. As the surrounding forces bombarded the structure, Brown and his men fought back. Finally, Brown was forced to send his son, Watson, along with one of his other supporters, outside carrying a white flag. Not buying the idea of surrender by Brown, the crowd shot both men.

As the shooting continued, Brown’s son Oliver was wounded. The pain of his wounds caused Oliver to cry out for his father to kill him and end his suffering. Brown told him, “If you must die, die like a man!” He did so a few minutes later. The shooting continued throughout the course of the day.

On the morning of October 18th, the military arrived, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Surrounding the engine house, now referred to as “John Brown’s Fort”, Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart approached, carrying a white flag, and told the occupiers their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown would have no part of surrender and said, “No, I prefer to die here.”

With that, Stuart gave the signal and the troops used a makeshift battering ram, along with sledgehammers, to break down the door of the engine house. Three minutes after the door was down, John Brown and seven of his raiders were captured. Ten of the raiders were already dead and five had escaped, one of them Brown’s son Owen. One of the troops attempted to run his sword through Brown; however, the blade hit his belt buckle. Though Brown was injured, the wound was not fatal.

Taken to jail for trial, the statements John Brown made began to spread through the nation. His goal was to inspire others to rally against slavery; thus fulfilling the statement in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.”

In the end, the jury rendered a verdict of “guilty of murder, treason and inciting a slave rebellion.” On December 2, 1859, Brown was led to a wagon and seated next to the coffin he would soon occupy. Taken to the gallows, Brown climbed the stairs and the noose was placed around his neck. After a linen hood was placed over his head, the sheriff cut the rope, the platform fell away and Brown dropped through.

Following the arrest of John Brown, federal marshals now issued a warrant for the arrest of Frederick Douglass, charging him with being Brown’s accomplice. To evade capture, Douglass returned to England. Five months later, he was exonerated of the charges and returned to America. Upon his return, Douglass’s tribute to Brown was “a hero and martyr in the cause of liberty.

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