"John Brown After His Capture," by Thomas Hoyenden. Printed in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1883). Courtesy of Ken Welsh/The Bridgeman Art Library.
John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry in the fall 1859 was in nearly every sense a failure. Brown, a fanatical abolitionist and confidant of Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, had planned to storm the town's federal arsenal and distribute its cache of weapons among local slaves, which would, he hoped, spark a wide-scale insurrection. Before the break of dawn on Monday, 17 October, Brown and a twenty-one-man party set out from the farm he had been renting—and plotting from—on the Potomac River. The group was able to storm the arsenal with little opposition and was able to recruit two slaves to join its cause. Within hours of its victory, however, a local militia forced the group's retreat into a firehouse. The next morning, U.S. Army forces led by then lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee—and under express command of President James Buchanan—arrived to route what was left of the would-be insurrectionists. By the time of Lee's arrival, eight of the men had been killed, and a wounded Brown surrendered. He was taken into custody and transported to Charles Town, West Virginia, to stand trial. Brown was hanged on 2 December of the same year, a symbolic end to an operation that had been so continually disastrous. Yet, for all of its failures, Brown's raid succeeded in driving the nation ever closer toward war with itself, an event that Brown had long proclaimed necessary in order to finally free the country's slaves. So taken with his friend's heroic last stand, Frederick Douglass later asserted in a speech, "I could live for the slave, but [Brown] could die for him."