SOUTHERN MEMORIES: John Brown hanged for treason, for his insurrection to free slaves

By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal

Charles Town, Va., Dec. 3, 1859 – Militant abolitionist John Brown, 59, and his dream of emancipating slaves in the South came to an abrupt and brutal end at a quarter past 11 yesterday morning, as the scaffolding door dropped and Brown’s neck snapped on the end of a hangman’s noose, his lifeless body gently swaying in a morning breeze.
Virginia Gov. Henry Wise refused to allow any newspaper reporters or private citizens to go within a quarter of a mile of the hanging site which was in a vacant field on the outskirts of town. The governor was afraid Brown could utter last words that could incite even further anti-slavery fervor and violence in the U.S.
Taking precautions to reduce disturbances, Gov. Wise surrounded the scaffolding with hundreds of armed soldiers and stationed hundreds more in a long line with bayonets pointed toward the huge crowd that had gathered to witness the hanging, even though the crowd could barely see Brown because of distance.
Brown had been tried and convicted of treason for his Oct. 16 raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. He and 20 of his men attempted to obtain guns and ammunition to carry out a revolutionary plan of freeing slaves, first in Maryland and Virginia, then with hopes of the effort spreading throughout the slave South.
Brown had five former slaves in his raiding party and had hoped hundreds of other slaves surrounding Harper’s Ferry would have joined his little band of men to fight for their own freedom. No slaves came to fight.
So, no slaves rushed in but the Marines did. President James Buchanan dispatched Col. Robert E. Lee with a detachment of Marines to quell this insurrection and rescue Brown’s 60 hostages. With his superior military prowess, Col. Lee easily outwitted his inexperienced adversary and captured Brown and what was left of his small force. Ten of Brown’s men were killed, six private citizens died and one Marine was fatally shot in the hostilities. Brown was badly wounded but recuperated in time for his trial and hanging. Other survivors in Brown’s fruitless uprising await similar fates.
Brown rode to his destiny yesterday in a wagon, sitting on his own black walnut coffin, clothed in the same bloodstained clothes he was wearing when captured. He showed no fear or any emotion at all as he stepped down from the wagon and walked steadily toward the gallows.
Brown did manage, however, to pass a written note to his jailer that pretty well summed up why Gov. Wise took all the precautions to keep him away from people, so he could utter no last words. The note read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” It appears Brown is predicting civil war. Hopefully, his dying prediction will not come true.
2012 update
Of course, John Brown’s prediction became truth. The Civil War broke out in America less than two years later, with slavery as a major cause. To the Southern slave holders 150 years ago, Brown was a feckless, incompetent madman. To the Northern slave abolitionists, he was a brave, enlightened martyr who was on the right side of history. Even today, his historic definition still elicits confusion.
So many well-known figures in American history were involved in the capture and execution of Brown or had a strong opinion about him. As stated, Robert E. Lee took him into custody, under the direction of James Buchanan. Gen. Stonewall Jackson witnessed his hanging and later wrote that Brown walked to the gallows with “apparent cheerfulness” and faced death with “unflinching firmness.” As a pro-slavery zealot, President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, dressed as a soldier so he could see Brown’s execution up close because he had “unlimited, undeniable contempt” for Brown and viewed him as a “traitor and terrorizer.” And, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about Brown, “that new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death, – the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.” This potpourri of historic deeds and feelings ensures that John Brown will forever be a part of all our Southern Memories.