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"I have no doubt that our seeming disaster will ultimately result in the most glorious success. I have been whipped, but I am sure I can recover all the lost capital by only hanging a few moments by the neck."
-- John Brown
On December 2, 1859, a tall, gaunt, fifty-nine-year-old man was executed in Virginia before 1500 armed guards. Just a month earlier, few had heard of John Brown, a former sheepherder who had embarked on a violent crusade to end slavery. Now his name divided North from South. Was he a martyr or a madman, a fanatic or a hero? More than a century later, John Brown remains one of America's most controversial and misunderstood figures.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents John Brown's Holy War, produced and directed by Robert Kenner (Influenza 1918) and written by Ken Chowder. Narrated by Joe Morton, this ninety-minute special explores the reluctant revolutionary who helped trigger the Civil War.
Born in Connecticut and raised in Ohio, John Brown was the child of devout Calvinists who believed that life on earth was an ongoing trial, and that the true believer had to adhere to a strict code of right and wrongãor else answer to God. His formative years were also defined by an image: when he was twelve years old, Brown witnessed the brutal beating of a slave boy, a jarring event that would forever haunt him.
Deep in the Pennsylvania woods, Brown raised a large family with his wife, Mary. As a father, he fashioned himself after an Old Testament patriarch -- someone to be respected and feared. Although isolated, he knew that slavery was expanding through the South. By 1831, the anti-slavery movement had spread from Boston to western states. In 1835 Brown moved his family to Hudson, Ohio, a center of abolitionist activity. Brown became a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, hiding runaway slaves and guiding them on their flight North.
Two years later, the abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy was shot to death in Illinois by a proslavery mob. At a memorial service in Hudson, Brown rose from his seat and, raising his right hand, issued a vow: "Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." But it would be years before Brown could honor his pledge. Eager to get his share of a development boom, he borrowed thousands to speculate on land -- only to see his schemes fall apart in the Panic of 1837. He tried breeding sheep, started another tannery, bought and sold cattle -- but failed each time. Lawsuits from creditors piled up against him; his farm tools, furniture, and sheep were auctioned off.
In the depth of his shame and grief, John Brown had a dream. He imagined himself as God's agent in a cataclysmic event that would obliterate slavery from America. He soon sought out prominent African Americans to join him in making the dream a reality. "Brown denounced slavery in language fierce and bitter, and thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live," noted Frederick Douglass. "He thought that he had no better use for his life than to lay it down in the cause of the slave."
But once again, practical concerns held him back. In 1848 Brown moved his family to North Elba, a remote enclave for freed slaves in the Adirondack mountains. There he hoped to be "a kind of father" to inexperienced black farmers and to eke out a living for his own large family.
Then, in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. With a nod to Southern power, the federal government gave settlers the right to decide whether their territories would be slave or free; outsiders on both sides of the slavery issue began moving in.
Five of Brown's sons left for Kansas to help defeat slavery with the ballot. But their father stayed home. Now fifty-five years old, he was exhausted. All he wanted, he said, was to "lay my bones to rest."
On March 30, 1855, proslavery forces invaded Kansas. The "Border Ruffians" seized the polling places and voted in their own legislature. John Brown, Jr. sent an urgent letter to his father asking him to supply arms to the anti-slavery cause: "We need them more than we do bread," he wrote.
The day after receiving the letter, John Brown gathered every weapon he could find and set from North Elba. "I'm going to Kansas," he declared, "to make it a free state."
Brown arrived in October, but the fierce Kansas winter drove both sides into their cabins. In May, hundreds of Border Ruffians sacked the town of Lawrence without resistance. The same day, John Brown learned that the abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner, had been severely beaten on the Senate floor by a Southern congressman. "At that, the men went crazy," wrote Salmon Brown. "It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch."
After spending the night in the woods seeking divine guidance, John Brown led a small group of followers toward Pottawatamie Creek and the cabin of James Doyle. Brown ordered the men to come outside, where three of Doyle's party were brutally killedãheads split open, arms cut off. Brown put a bullet into James Doyle's head to be sure. His party went to two more cabins, dragged out and killed two more men. The bloody encounter would come to be known as the Pottawatamie Massacre.
Brown became a guerrilla fighter, hiding in secret campsites with a small band of followers. When an interview with Brown was printed in eastern newspapers, he was hailed as a hero throughout the North. Historian Edward Renehan says, "Kansas is the birth of the messianic Brown, it's the birth of the Moses-like Brown, it's the birth of the murderer Brown."
Brown traveled ceaselessly for the next two yearsãbeseeching Northern abolitionists for guns and money. By the summer of 1859, Brown had decided to launch his crusade against slavery into the South by attacking the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He hoped to seize the arsenal's huge cache of guns and incite slaves to arm and rebel.
On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown and twenty-one men -- fugitive slaves, college students, free blacks, and three of his own sons -- quietly entered Harpers Ferry.
Outnumbered, the arsenal's single guard quickly surrendered. But then a passenger train started to approach and the baggage master ran to warn the passengers. He was shot and killed, the first victim of Brown's war against slavery: a free black man.
As the news from Harpers Ferry spread to Richmond, a company of Virginia militiamen stormed into town, firing along the way. Next to die was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave fighting to free his wife. The crowd mutilated his body. Then they captured two of Brown's men and killed another, tossing his body in the river and continuing to fire on it.
Soon eight of Brown's men were dead or dying, five others were cut off, two had escaped across the river. Brown gathered those who were left in a small brick building to wait out the night.
By early morning of October 18, a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee lined the yard. Although he was completely surrounded, Brown refused to surrender. Marines stormed the building and captured and held them while a lynch mob howled outside.
Just days after the raid, Brown's trial began. It would take a week. On November 2, the jury deliberated for forty-five minutes and reached their verdict: guilty of murder, treason, and inciting slave insurrection. The South rejoiced in Brown's execution. But hanging was not the end of John Brown; it was the beginning. Throughout the North, church bells tolled for him. In Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, "Some 1800 years ago, Christ was crucified. This morning, Captain Brown was hung. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light."