On October 16, 1859, John Brown struck what many people referred to after- ward as the first blow of the Civil War. Brown had left Kansas and gone east to raise an African American army. His belief in the power of arms to end slavery speedily was unaltered. He captured the interest and excitement of many men, but during the months of preparation for action, many of them grew uneasy or lost faith in Brown and abandoned his cause.
During the night of October 16, Brown and his small remaining band of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and took sixty hostages. Brown was devastated when no slaves came to the aid of his army. Within 36 hours, Colonel Robert E. Lee and the Virginia militia had surrounded the arsenal, killed many of Brown’s men, and compelled the rest to surrender. On December 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged as a traitor. Henry David Thoreau spoke for all enslaved Africans and abolitionists when he wrote that Brown had been “a brave and humane man.” Southerners, of course, had the opposite reaction. To them, Brown was a terrorist whose act amounted to a declaration of war on them and on their way of life.
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