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This page describes the 1859 John Brown Rebellion against the Federal Arsenal in Harper's Ferry.

John Brown's Rebellion

John Brown

A Hatred of Slavery

John Brown was born on May 9th, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. At age 5 he moved to Ohio and acquired a hatred for the institution of slavery from his father. When he was 12, he stayed with a Michigan family who continuously beat their slaves. The image would haunt Brown for the rest of his life. Brown soon became a staunch abolitionist (an advocate for the banning of slavery) and even started a school to help educate young black people in 1834.

A Murderous Act of Vengeance

In 1855, John Brown followed five of his sons to "Bleeding Kansas", where a number of abolitionists had recently been murdered. Brown and his sons subsequently murdered five slavery advocates at Pottawatomie, Kansas on May 24, 1856. Brown and his sons immediately became fugitives and withstood a mob of attacking Missourians at Osawatomie. Brown's actions, together with his stand at Osawatomie, made him a legendary figure and a nationally recognized opponent of slavery.

Planning for an Insurrection

When Brown returned east, he formulated a plan to free slaves by force. He had financial support from many wealthy abolitionists in the northeast. Brown's plan included a refuge for runaway slaves in the mountains of Virginia. On October 16, 1859, John Brown, his sons, and a small number of loyal supporters, launched an attack against the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He believed word of the arsenal's capture would inspire slaves throughout Virginia to rebel against their owners. The group easily took the town and the arsenal. Brown, however, failed to launch any further offensives and took a defensive position within the arsenal. Brown's group was quickly surrounded by the local militia, and then, a day later, by U.S. marines led by Robert E. Lee. The ensuing battles resulted in the death of two of his sons, his own injuries, and an unconditional surrender.

A Martyr

As a result of his actions, Brown was charged with murder and treason. He was hanged at Charleston, Virginia on December 2, 1859. Nevertheless, his rebellion was one of the primary causes of the Civil War. Many southern sympathizers believed Brown's rebellion was a conspiracy against slavery advocates of the south staged by the U.S. Government. Others feared Brown's rebellion would indeed cause a slave insurrection. For many years after his death, Brown was considered a martyr and hero to the abolitionist cause.

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