Although many whites were complicit in the system of slavery and the unfair treatment of Black people, abolitionists showed their contempt for slavery in various ways leading up to the Civil War. John Brown, although not widely discussed in history, used more direct means to not only show his disdain, but to try and eradicate slavery completely through revolts.
Brown was born May 9, 1800, to a family that had anti-slavery views. He is said to have married twice and fathered 20 children. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and helped slaves escape to Canada through his organization, the League of Gileadites.
His views on slavery led him to murdering slave owners and freeing slaves in Missouri. On October 15, 1859, Brown led a team of men on a mission to take over a federal arsenal, which they hoped would start a slave revolt in the colony of Virginia.
When Brown is discussed, the men who accompanied him are only mentioned as footnotes or used as mere references. Especially the Black men, all motivated by their own realities of being free and Black in a society ruled harshly by slavery. According to the Washington Post:
Four were free men of color. The fifth had fled from slavery in Charleston, S.C., and was said to be African royalty. He went by Shields Green, and his nickname was “Emperor.” Two were from Oberlin, Ohio — one, John Anthony Copeland, had attended the college’s preparatory department.
Anderson was from Chester County, Pa., the son of a mixed-race man born in Fauquier County, Va., and a red-haired woman said to be from Ireland or Scotland.
In the spring and summer of 1859, Harriet wrote three letters to Newby, at 39 the oldest in Brown’s band.
Each was addressed to “Dear Husband” and signed “Your affectionate wife.” In her last letter, on Aug. 16, she wrote:
Sadly, the slaves did not join in the revolt and the men would eventually be killed during their quest. Brown survived, to be captured and tried by a judge and jury that was said to be made up of all slave owners.
Read More: John Brown Biography
Despite the raid going terribly wrong with the free Black men, Brown and two of his sons being killed, many label this event as the catalyst to the Civil War, which would take place less than a year later.
One man, Osborn Perry Anderson lived to recount the story.
Of the five black raiders, only Osborn Perry would escape and remain free. He fled to Canada, but came back to the U.S. and enlisted with the Union army in 1864. Anderson would write the only eye-witness account of the raid, which was published two years after the raid. He died in 1872.
Before he was hung, Brown is said to have relayed:
“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.”