On December 2, 1859, abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Charles Town for treason for his raid on the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry six weeks earlier. While Brown’s raid had failed miserably, his capture and hanging had a much greater impact on national events. Brown’s actions set off shockwaves across the country. In the North, many hailed him as a hero. In the South, he was viewed as a villain and a true reflection of the North’s intended war on slavery.
Tensions mounted in the days leading up to Brown’s execution. Rumors of a massive jailbreak circulated in both the North and South. The jail and gallows were guarded by Virginia troops, including Major Thomas Jackson—later to be known as “Stonewall.”
As Brown was brought to the gallows, he handed off a note that read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.” Perhaps more than any other event, Brown’s death hastened a cascade of events that culminated with the first shots of the Civil War 16 months later.