He's been called both a martyr and a madman, a freedom fighter and a fanatic. More than any single person, he can be said to have set the United States irrecoverably on the path to Civil War. His name was John Brown.
He was born on May 9, 1800 in the town of Torrington, Connecticut; the son of a tanner. A few years later, his family moved to Ohio, settling in the town of Hudson. Brown's family was very religious and instilled strong evangelical values in him, as well as a respect for the Native Americans of the region and a firm belief in Abolitionism.
As a young man, he hoped to become a Congregationalist minister, but a lack of funds and a serious eye inflammation forced him to leave school. He tried his hand at several other professions, including farmer, tanner, surveyor, and wool merchant; but the economic upheavals of the 1830s and 40s put him seriously into debt. He had a zeal for sticking up for the underdog which led him to try to organize other sheep farmers and to settle his family among a black community. He and his father had been "conductors" on the Underground Railroad in his youth and he had spoken out against racism and segregation in his own church. His friend, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass once described him as a man who "though a white gentleman, is in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery."
In the late 1840s, Brown conceived a plan to build a chain of forts in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains that would serve not only as a super version of the Underground Railroad, but as a base for raids on plantations for the purpose of freeing slaves and conducting them to Canada. His goal was not to personally rescue every slave in the south, but to cause enough economic disruption that the slave economy would collapse.
About this time, the Kansas Territory was being settled, and some of his adult sons were among the settlers. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had ruled that the settlers of the territories would be the ones to decide whether slavery would be permitted. Brown's sons wrote home to tell their father how pro-slavery forces from Missouri and other slave states were sending thugs and ruffians into Kansas to attack anti-slavery settlers and make sure their side won the slavery issue. Brown was one of many who answered the abolitionist's call for help by traveling personally to Kansas with a wagon-load of "Beecher's Bibles" — breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps rifles, nicknamed after the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher.
During the next few years the violence escalated and the territory became known as "Bleeding Kansas". In 1856 the anti-slave town of Lawrence, Kansas was raided by pro-slavery border ruffians. On the night of May 24. a group of abolitionists seized five pro-slavery settlers from their homes on Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown claimed he was not involved with the atrocity, but that he approved of it. Brown's apologists say that he had legitimate reason to believe his family was in danger from the pro-slavery faction; his family homestead was burned to the ground and two of his sons were taken prisoner.
Open war raged across the territory all through the summer of 1856, until in September, the new governor John W. Geary ordered both sides to disband and offered clemency to those who disarmed. Brown returned to the North with three of his sons to raise money to continue the fight.
Brown spent the next few years meeting with eastern abolitionists. He met with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as former slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He formed a small circle of wealthy backers, dubbed the "Secret Six", to fund his operations, although it is unclear how much the Six new about his plans. Brown organized a convention to draft a provisional constitution for a new free state he hoped to carve out of the heart of the South.
His plan was to conduct a raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal located in Harpers Ferry, a small town in present-day West Virginia. He intended to seize the 100,000 muskets and rifles in the arsenal and use them to arm a slave uprising. "When I strike," Brown predicted, "my bees will swarm." He tried to recruit Frederick Douglass for the attack, but Douglass feared the plan would fail and declined.
The attack took place on October 16, 1859. Brown had 950 pikes and 200 rifles. His plan originally called for an army of 4,500 men; he had to make do with 21. They easily took posession of the armory, which was guarded only by a single watchman, and took hostages from the town. Brown hoped that once word spread, slaves would flock to join his crusade.
Brown's hoped-for army never materialized. Instead, he found himself besieged by local militias. His men halted and fired upon a train entering the town, killing a black baggage master. By the morning of October 18, a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee had arrived. They stormed the armory and took Brown and his surviving followers prisoner.
Although Brown's raid had taken place on Federal property, the Governor of Virginia ordered that he be tried in a Virginia court. He was charged with murdering four whites and a black, with conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against the state of Virginia. On November 2, after a week-long trial, Brown was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to hang.
A friend named Silas Soule manage to sneak into the prison where Brown was being held and attempted to help him escape; but Brown refused to go along with the plan. He said he was ready to be a martyr, and his eloquent letters from prison stirred the abolitionist movement far more than he could have had he fled and gone into hiding.
But the abolitionists weren't the only people he stirred. Southerners became even more convinced that any day another army of abolitionists might swoop down across the Ohio River to take away their Way of Life. They formed and drilled more local militias, preparing against the day of a dreaded slave insurrection. When the American Civil War began in earnest, they were ready.
Not all abolitionists were that happy with Brown either. The newly-formed anti-slavery Republican Party tried to distance itself from the radical excesses of Brown and his followers and chose a more moderate abolitionist named Abraham Lincoln to be their standard-bearer in the 1860 election. It didn't help.
Brown went to the gallows on December 2. On the morning of his death he wrote: "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."
Game and Story Use
- A historical or time travel campaign set just prior to the American Civil War could involve John Brown; particularly if the PCs become involved with the Underground Railroad or the fighting in Bleeding Kansas.
- The PC's might be recruited to participate in one of Brown's raids; prehaps in Kansas; perhaps in his Harpers Ferry raid.
- They might be recruited to try rescuing him from prison. And then discover that he doesn't want to be rescued!
- Brown's early plan for an Underground Railroad on steroids, serving as a base for raids to free slaves, sounds like just the kind of thing some players would love.
- Brown can be characterized either as a noble idealist battling a corrupt and evil system, or a deranged and fanatic willing to commit any atrocity in the name of his beliefs. Or maybe as elements of both.
- Most players will have no trouble accepting slavery as evil. How far would they be willing to go to root out slavery? A character like John Brown could give them some tough ethical decisions.