Robert E. Lee's Demand for the Surrender of John Brown

By Rulli, Daniel F. | Social Education, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Robert E. Lee's Demand for the Surrender of John Brown


Rulli, Daniel F., Social Education


BORN IN TORRINGTON, CONNECTICUT, on May 9, 1800, John Brown was the son of a wandering New Englander. Brown spent much of his youth in Ohio, where his parents taught him to revere the Bible and to hate slavery During the course of two marriages, Brown fathered twenty children. He built and sold several tanneries, speculated in land sales, raised sheep, and established a brokerage for woolgrowers. Every venture Brown embarked on failed, as he was too much of a visionary to keep his mind on business. As a result, his financial burdens multiplied, and his thinking became brooding as he increasingly focused on the plight of the weak and oppressed. Brown frequently sought the company of blacks and lived in a freedmen's community in North Elba, New York, for two years. In time he became a militant abolitionist, a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and the organizer of a self-protection league for free blacks and fugitive slaves.

Soon after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Brown followed five of his sons to Kansas to help make the state a haven for antislavery settlers. The following year, his hostility toward "slave-staters" exploded when slavery proponents burned and pillaged the free-state community of Lawrence. Brown organized a militia unit within his Osawatomie River colony and led it on a revenge mission the evening of May 23, 1856. He and six followers, including four of his sons, visited the homes of pro-slavery men along Pottawatomie Creek. Several unarmed male inhabitants were dragged into the night and brutally killed with long-edged swords. At once, "Old Brown of Osawatomie" was a feared and hated target of "slave-starers."

In autumn 1856, Brown returned to Ohio. During two subsequent trips to Kansas, he developed a grandiose plan to free slaves throughout the South. Prominent abolitionists--including Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Richard Henry Dana, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Judge Thomas Russell, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson--provided Brown with moral and financial support for his plan. Brown raided plantations in Missouri but accomplished little there. In the summer of 1859, he transferred his operations to western Virginia under the alias Isaac Smith.

On Sunday night, October 16, 1859, John Brown, accompanied by nineteen fully armed whites and blacks from various states, crossed the Potomac River into Virginia at Harpers Ferry. They overpowered the watchmen at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Bridge, the U.S. armory and arsenal, and the rifle factory above the town on the Shenandoah Riven He placed guards at those captured facilities and on the street corners of the town. News of these events spread rapidly, and armed citizens and citizen militias hurried from surrounding parts of Virginia and Maryland to withstand this invasion. By late morning Monday, militia from the nearby communities of Charlestown, Shepherdstown, and Martinsburg surrounded the insurgents within the armory enclosure. Brown responded by withdrawing his men into the fortified gatehouse and took ten of the most prominent of his captives from Virginia and Maryland as "hostages," in order to insure the safety of his band. From openings in the building, Brown and his men fired upon all white people who came within sight.

That evening, companies of state militiamen from Winchester, Virginia, and Frederick City, Maryland, and a detachment of U.S. Marines arrived in the area at Harpers Ferry. The Marines were accompanied by Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, of the Second U.S. Cavalry and his aide, Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, of the First United States Cavalry Lee had been ordered to take command at Harpers Ferry, recapture the government armory and arsenal, and restore order. He dispersed the troops in the armory grounds to prevent the escape of the insurgents and waited for daylight to attack Brown's stronghold. In the morning, Lee sent Lt. …

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