On the evening of October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty- one other men launched an attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry,1 the beginning of a long-range plan to destroy the slave system in the South. They were successful in capturing the Arsenal, but soon lost their superior position, due partly to circumstances which delayed the raiding party from leaving the Arsenal and retreating into the mountains above Harpers Ferry. The next day the group was surrounded by the Virginia militia, and on Tuesday morning U. S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, battered down the doors of the engine house in the Armory yard and captured John Brown and his surviving comrades. In the course of the raid ten of Brown’s men were killed; seven, including Brown himself, were captured and later hanged, and five escaped. There is evidence also that several slaves and free Negroes from the Harpers Ferry region participated in the raid; those who were killed or captured were surreptitiously disposed of by the State of Virginia, and those who escaped went quickly and quietly back to their residences in order to avoid detection.2
In The Inner Civil War, George M. Fredrickson describes John Brown as “a narrow-minded and possibly insane religious fanatic.”3 This dismissal of Brown as a lunatic or, at best, a religious fanatic, is common among contemporary historians. It is ironic that the Civil War, which cost 600,000 lives, is today considered a “reasonable” or at least “understandable” event in our history, but John Brown’s raid is disregarded as the bloody act of a “madman.”
In 1859, the raid at Harpers Ferry was taken much more seriously, both by abolitionists and by the defenders of slavery. Several prominent abolitionists aided Brown with money and weapons in his preparations for Harpers Ferry and in his earlier fight in “bleeding Kansas.” Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were asked to join the raiders, and Harriet Tubman agreed to participate but was ill at the time of the raid. And, although the immediate reaction to the raid was shock on the part of the less militant abolitionists, many openly applauded the action and honored the raiders before the year was out. The raid at Harpers Ferry was influential in persuading Northern abolitionists that moral suasion would not be sufficient to end the slave system and that more direct action was necessary.
via Metafilter which has a spirited discussion about John Brown including this quote:
His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine…
Mine was as the taper light;
his was as the burning sun.
I could live for the slave;
John Brown could die for him.