American Civil War for Kids Illustration

American Civil War


There is no getting around this. John Brown was a murderer. Yet, the day he was hanged in 1859 for treason and murder, bells rang all over the North. Thousands of people stopped what they were doing, and said a prayer for John Brown, a man who had hacked to death with swords unarmed men in front of their families, a man who led the unsuccessful raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry causing the death of 22 people, a man who had devoted his life to the abolition of slavery. 

John Brown was a poor businessman. He started 15 different businesses, and they all failed. Many lawsuits were filed against him for various reasons. He had two wives, and between them, he fathered 20 children. Through it all, there was one consistency in his life - his intention to help abolish slavery forever.

The first thing he did on his road to the gallows was to work as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. If caught, he would have been fined, not hung. But he was breaking the law. He knew that, but laws never bothered John Brown much. While he was helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom, he became obsessed with the idea that it was possible to overthrown slavery, and that God had chosen him to help lead the way.

In 1855, he loaded a wagon with guns and ammunition and headed to the Kansas Territory, where bloody fights had broken out between proslavery and antislavery factions. One night in Kansas, believing he was acting as an instrument of God, he and four of his sons went from house to house in a proslavery settlement. They dragged out unarmed men and hacked them to death with swords in front of their families. John Brown escaped, and returned to the East. 

The plan that got him hung was his plan to attack the armory at Harper's Ferry. The armory was a storehouse for guns and ammunition. John Brown wanted the guns, so he could arm the slaves and help them rise up in rebellion. He set about raising funds for his mission. Some Northern abolitionists did give him money. (They later denied any knowledge of this.) He established a stronghold in the Appalachian Mountains so escaped slaves could wait in safety until it was time to attack the armory. He also bought a farmhouse in Maryland, just north of Harper's Ferry, for a second possible retreat. He was very proud of his plan, but no one seemed interested in actually joining his uprising. He asked Frederick Douglass, but Douglass told him it was a suicide mission, and refused. Not a single slave or former slave joined his cause. But, trusting that God was on his side, with 21 men he led a raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry. It was a total disaster. Twenty-two (22) people died, including two of his sons.

Less than two years before the start of the Civil War, John Brown was caught and executed for treason and murder for his actions at Harper's Ferry. He spoke quite well for himself at his trial, and pled non-guilty, ignoring his defense attorneys who told him to plead insanity. The jury found him guilty. He spoke with many prominent men during the month he waited for his execution. He wrote many letters. He told his brother and others that he believed God had chosen him to die in the cause of freedom, and that his death would help to accomplish what he did not accomplish in life - an end to slavery. He never said a word when they brought him to the gallows. He did pass a note to one of his jailers though. It said: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."

Historians credit John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry as one of the major events that led up to the Civil War.

This Day in History - John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown (Ken Nelson, Ducksters)

Causes of the Civil War

See Also:

The Civil War for Kids, Index

Civil War Interactive Games & Activities for Kids

Civil War Presentations in PowerPoint format

Civil War Video Clips

Civil War Clip Art for Kids and Teachers

Civil War, Free iPad & iPhone apps

American Civil War Lesson Plans for Teachers