John Brown: The Abolitionist's Death Which Sparked The Civil War

By Jacob Shelton


There are some historical figures whose very existence sparks the fire of everything that follows. They speak not only for themselves but for a moment in time, as if possessed by the specter of history. John Brown, an abolitionist who gave up on talk and turned to violence in the name of the movement, is one of those people. Brown wasn't always a fiery upstart, but by his final days, his actions not only degraded relations between the North and the South, they lit the fuse for the Civil War.

John Brown's Early Life

Born into a family of abolitionists on May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, the young John Brown followed directly in the footsteps of his father, Owen Brown. Five years after he was born, Brown and his family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where they opened a tannery and operated a safe house for slaves attempting to reach the the North. An evangelical family, the Browns believed in the pursuit of personal righteousness and lived strictly according to the Bible.

At 16, Brown moved back to the Northeast, where he studied to become a congregational minister, but when he couldn't afford tuition, he returned to Ohio to work with his brother in their own tannery. Soon, Brown moved his family further north to create an even safer space for fugitives from the South.


The John Brown Tannery

After marrying Dianthe Lusk in 1820, Brown moved his young family to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where purchased 200 acres of land. He reserved this space for opening a new tannery and constructing a cabin, barn, and a concealed area to hide any slaves who made it to his slice of paradise. Between 1825 and 1835, Brown is said to have helped 2,500 former slaves escape to freedom.

In 1831, an illness struck the Brown family, and he lost his wife and his newborn son. His business suffered, and everything in Pennsylvania turned upside-down. The one bright spot in this run of bad luck was Mary Ann Day, a young woman from the area who fell for Brown. The two married, and Brown fathered another 13 children. If anything, however, that only worsened his financial status, and after moving his new family to Franklin Mills, Ohio, Brown's new tannery went bankrupt and four of his children died of dysentery. Another move brought Brown to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1846, where he found an entire city dedicated to the anti-slavery movement.


Business Troubles

Brown was initially pleased with the city's commitment to the anti-slavery movement and spent much of his time working with his business partner, Simon Perkins, to represent the interests of Ohio's wool growers in the northeast. He attended the Free Church, a congregation set up by the African-American abolitionists, and he attended lectures by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Supposedly, after a lengthy discussion with Brown, Douglass found himself doubting the peaceful end to slavery.

When the U.S. passed the Fugitive Slave Act mandating that authorities in free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposing penalties on those who helped slaves escape their captors, Brown founded the League of Gileadites. Inspired by a story in the Bible of a group of Israelites who fought an invading army on Mount Gilead, Brown established the group to protect any escaped slaves who made their way to Springfield. 

It's likely that Brown would have stayed in Massachusetts had it not been for his contentious dealings with the Massachusetts's mercantile elite. The group made a fortune on price setting wool, lowering the standard price for wool around the country. Brown traveled to Europe to set up a relationship with European manufacturers, but they preferred to low prices set by the farmers in Western Massachusetts. Brown and Perkins's firm took a loss of $40,000, bringing an end to their partnership.

(History Channel)

Quid Pro Quo

After leaving Massachusetts, Brown became a bit of a nomad, traveling from New York to Ohio and finally Kansas in the name of collecting funds and weapons to protect Kansas from Southerners who wanted to bring the territory into the Confederacy.

By 1856, Brown was living in Kansas with his adult sons and fuming at what he saw as cowardly actions on the part of anti-slave groups. He witnessed pro-slavery posses led by local sheriffs ransacking newspaper offices and homes and even the caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner. On May 24, 1856, Brown brought a group of abolitionist settlers to Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, where the group killed five men they believed to be "professional slave hunters."

In response, a group of Missourians destroyed the Brown family homestead, ransacked the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, and kidnapped two of Brown's sons. Accepting the challenge, Brown captured the group's leader, Captain Henry Pate, along with 22 of his men, and forced Pate to sign an agreement ensuring their freedom in exchange for the release of Brown's sons.

(United Missouri Bank of Kansas City/Wikimedia Commons)

War In Kansas

Following this tense back-and-forth, a group of 300 men from Missouri followed General John W. Reid into Kansas with the intent to destroy every free state settlement they could find. On August 30, 1856, Brown's son, Frederick, was shot and killed while Brown and his 38 men fought to secure a settlement on the outskirts of Osawatomie. Brown and his surviving men had to retreat, but Brown's shrewdness in battle brought national attention to his work.

On September 7, Brown made his way to Lawrence to prepare for an assault by nearly 3,000 pro-slavery Missourians, but it was for nothing. Governor John W. Geary ordered everyone to stand down and disband, promising no retribution against anyone who walked away. Brown and his three remaining adult sons took this opportunity to leave Kansas and make their way to the North.


The Secret Six

After barely escaping Kansas with his head intact, Brown spent more than two years making his way through Ohio, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and even Ontario, Canada, gathering funds and consulting with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his old friend, Frederick Douglass, along the way. A group dubbed the Secret Six (consisting of physician and educator Samuel Gridley Howe, teacher and journalist Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, industrialist George L. Stearns, and ministers Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker) supported Brown while he carried out the nasty business of freedom fighting.


The Harpers Ferry Raid

In summer 1859, Brown and a group of abolitionists set up shop in a farmhouse in Maryland, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, where a federal armory was just waiting to be raided. That fall, Brown quietly made his way into Virginia with a group of his youngest sons as well as former slaves and free black men. Brown hoped that his haul from Harpers Ferry would be ample enough to distribute weapons to slaves across the South so they could rise up against their oppressors.

Under the dark of night on October 16, 1859, Brown and his group cut the telegraph lines, took the railroad station, and posted up at the bridges of Harpers Ferry, but not even this meticulous plan got all of them out alive. As the Sun rose the next day, multiple white militia contingents converged on the armory to take down Brown and his men.

After the militia killed former slave Dangerfield Newby, Brown attempted to surrender, but one of the men sent to discuss a ceasefire was captured, and his son, Watson, was shot in the street. Brown and the few remaining members of his group attempted to pick off militia members, but after a standoff lasting more than 24 hours, Brown's group was brutally taken down by Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, who later served as Robert E. Lee's cavalry commander during the Civil War. Brown was captured, convicted of treason and murder, and sentenced to death.


John Brown's Legacy

On December 2, 1859, Brown was escorted from the Charles Town jail to a set of gallows, where a sack was placed over his head and a rope was fitted around his neck. He wrote a note to one of his guards, informing the man that "The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood," but his last words were, "Don't keep me waiting longer than necessary. Be quick."

Brown's death left a bad taste in the mouths of people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Abolitionists in the North realized that it would take more than goodwill to end slavery, while Southerners grew paranoid that angry members of the anti-slave movement would come to get them in the dead of the night.

Even though Brown's actions likely sped up the timetable on the Civil War, he also helped Abraham Lincoln's election by pushing Democrats to run two different candidates in the presidential election: Stephen Douglas, who represented the Northern Democrats, and John Breckinridge, who supported the pro-slavery Democrats in the Deep South. Because of their fractured party, Lincoln took the presidency and made the move to abolish slavery for good.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.