Making Sense of the American Civil War
People & Places

John Brown

John Brown John Brown (1800-1859) has been revered for generations as a martyr to the American antislavery cause. His attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., just before the Civil War freed no slaves and resulted in his own trial and death.

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 the territory hung in the balance between slave- and free-state status while pro- and antislavery settlers contested for control. Brown traveled through the East, speaking on the Kansas question and gathering money for arms, for "without the shedding of blood," he said, there could be "no remission of sin" in Kansas.

In early 1859 he again toured the East to raise money, and in July he rented a farm 5 miles north of Harpers Ferry, where he recruited 21 men (16 white and 5 black) for final training. He intended to seize the arsenal, distribute arms to the slaves he thought would rally to him, and set up a free state for african Americans within the South. Though Harpers Ferry was an isolated mountain town, with few slaves in the vicinity, the irrationality of his plan seemed to occur to no one. (More)

"John Brown." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Harper’s Ferry

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. View of Maryland Heights. On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with 18 men and a wagonload of supplies, leaving 3 men behind to guard the farm. After cutting the telegraph wires, Brown's party slipped into the town and easily captured the armory watchmen. Inexplicably, Brown allowed the midnight train to go through; the conductor telegraphed an alarm the next morning. Shooting broke out early on the 17th between Brown's men and local residents, while militia soon arrived from Charles Town. By nightfall Brown's band lay trapped in the armory enginehouse, all but 5 wounded, Brown's sons Oliver and Watson fatally. That night Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, commanding 90 marines, arrived from Washington. The next morning the marines stormed the enginehouse, bayoneting 2 men and slashing Brown severely with sabers. Of Brown's original party 10 died and 7 were captured; on the other side the toll was a marine and 4 civilians, one of them, ironically, a free African American killed by mistake.

Brown was jailed at Charles Town and tried a week later, lying wounded on a stretcher, in a fair trial which some, however, felt to be unduly hasty. He put up no defense. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done," he said, "in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right.... I am ready for my fate." The jury indicted him on three counts--treason against Virginia, conspiracy with African Americans, and first-degree murder. The court imposed the death sentence on November 2, to be executed a month later. (More)

"John Brown." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Harriet Tubman

Photograph of Harriet Tubman Harriet Ross Tubman (ca. 1820-1913) was a black American who, as an agent for the Underground Railroad, a clandestine escape route used to smuggle slaves to freedom in the North and Canada, helped hundreds flee captivity.

Born in Dorchester County, Md., in the early 1820s, Harriet Ross was a slave child who suffered the usual hardships of black children during the period of Southern slavery. Her wasted youth of hard work, no education, and sometimes harsh punishment led, predictably, to a desire to escape slavery. In 1848, with two brothers (who later became frightened and returned), she ran away, leaving her husband, John Tubman, a free man who had threatened to expose her, behind. During the next 10 years Harriet Tubman returned to the South 20 times to help approximately 300 slaves, including her own parents, to escape. Using a complicated system of way stations on the route from the South to Canada, she is believed never to have lost a charge. (More)

"Harriet Ross Tubman." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale U.S. History In Context. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Dred Scott Case

Dred Scott After a lifetime of slavery, Dred Scott (1795?-1858), who had been born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia, sued the state of Missouri for his freedom in April 1846. He argued that he had traveled with his owner in Wisconsin and Illinois, states where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. By the compromise, Congress decided to admit Missouri as a slavery state and Maine as a free state, and declared that, with the exception of the state of Missouri, the territories north of the 36th parallel (present-day Missouri's southern border) were free.

In March 1857 the Supreme Court, which had a Southern majority, ruled that Scott's residence in Wisconsin and Illinois did not make him free. The court ruled that an African American (a "Negro descended from slaves") had no rights as an American citizen and therefore could not bring suit in a federal court. Further, the court ruled that Congress never had the authority to ban slavery in the territories. The decision pronounced the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, deepened the divide between North and South, and helped pave the way for the American Civil War (1861-65). Dred Scott died the following year. (More)

"Dred Scott Case." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Ed. Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

Quantrill’s Raiders

William C. Quantrill Though the Civil War brought tragedy and devastation to many areas of the nation, nowhere was the fighting more unpredictable, cruel, and bitter than in the savage guerrilla wars that exploded across the Kansas and Missouri border during and after 1861. Even against this bitter background, however, the record of William C. Quantrill's Confederate partisans stood apart.

With the outbreak of fighting, Quantrill restyled himself a partisan leader and recruited a band of followers, many of them Missouri gunmen and outlaws. Terming themselves Confederate raiders, Quantrill's band mixed outright theft with vicious assaults on Unionist homesteads and farms. Quantrill's Raiders cultivated an image of casual cruelty and devil-may-care recklessness, an attitude amply conveyed by the brandished weapons and bragging stance of the three young gunmen in the photograph.

In the end, however, Quantrill's Raiders were their own worst enemies. Constantly splitting into smaller bands, the group became less effective as a military force as the fighting wore on. In 1864 many of his and other Confederate leaders' followers were killed or captured during the failed Confederate army invasion of Missouri; in 1865 Quantrill himself was killed on a raid into Kentucky. (More)

 "Commentary on Quantrill's Confederate Raiders." The Civil War. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1999. American Journey. Gale U.S. History In Context. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

Photographs from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

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Last modified on Wednesday, November 16, 2011