At 8 o'clock, Sunday evening, October 16, Brown led a party of approximately 21 men into Harpers Ferry where they captured the lone night watchman and cut the town's telegraph lines. Encountering no resistance, Brown's men seized the federal arsenal, an armory, and a rifle works. Brown then sent out several detachments to round up hostages and liberate slaves.
But his plan soon went awry. As news of the raid spread, angry townspeople and local militia companies cut off Brown's escape routes and trapped his men in the armory. Two days later, U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived. Brown and his men took refuge in a fire engine house. Lee's marines stormed the engine house and rammed down its doors. Five of Brown's party escaped, ten were killed, and seven, including Brown himself, were taken prisoner.
A week later, Brown was put on trial in a Virginia court, even though his attack had occurred on federal property. He was found guilty of treason, conspiracy, and murder, and was sentenced to die on the gallows. The trial's high point came at the very end when Brown was allowed to make a five-minute speech, which helped convince many Northerners that this grizzled man of fifty-nine was a martyr to the cause of freedom.
Document: I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say.
In the first place, I deny every thing but what I have already admitted, of a design on my part to free Slaves. I intended, certainly, to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri, and there took Slaves, without the snapping of a gun on either side, moving them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I desired to have done the same thing again, on a much larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite Slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection, and that is, that it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner, and which I admit has been fairly proved,--for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case,--had I so interfered in behalf of the Rich, the Powerful, the Intelligent, the so-called Great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right. Every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy a reward, rather than a punishment.
This Court acknowledges too, as I suppose, the validity of the LAW OF GOD. I saw a book kissed which I suppose to be the BIBLE, or at least, the NEW TESTAMENT, which teaches me that, "All things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them." It teaches me further, to "Remember them that are in bounds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done--in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong but RIGHT.
Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and MINGLE MY BLOOD FURTHER WITH THE BLOOD OF MY CHILDREN, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments--I submit; so LET IT BE DONE.
Let me say one word further: I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected; but I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the liberty of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite Slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.
Let me say something, also, in regard to the statements made by some of those who were connected with me. I hear that it has been stated by some of them, that I have induced them to join me; but the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regarding their weakness. Not one but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part at their own expense. A number of them I never saw and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me, and that was for the purpose I have stated. Now I have done