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John Brown, Portrait, 1859


In October 1859, John Brown and other antislavery men slipped across the border between Maryland and Virginia and occupied the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Brown hoped to arm enslaved men and lead a campaign to abolish slavery. However, Brown failed and Colonel Robert E. Lee, in command of a company of United States Marines and local militia units, captured Brown and killed or captured most of his followers. Brown was tried and convicted of treason against Virginia. The state's governor, Henry A. Wise, refused pleas to treat Brown leniently and had him hanged on December 2, 1859.

Sectional tensions on slavery and John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry inflamed public opinion. Many Southern slave owners feared that other abolitionists would also incite an insurrection of enslaved people and spread violence and bloodshed throughout the South. The suspicions and distrust between the political leaders and citizens of the free states and of the slave states had increased during the decade and Brown's Raid made the solution of political differences even more difficult.

Artist David Hunter Strother from Martinsburg, Virginia, created this drawing of John Brown in 1859, three years after Brown and a party of antislavery activists had killed several people in Kansas during a violent public controversy about slavery in the territory. Strother was one of the best-known illustrators in the United States by the eve of the Civil War and by 1853, he had acheived fame as "Porte Crayon" for a series of illustrated articles on Virginia in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Additionally, Strother served in the Union army during the Civil War and his memoirs of the war were published in eleven installments in Harper's Monthly between June 1866 and April 1868.

Citation: Strother, David Hunter. Portrait of John Brown. 1859. Pierre Morand Memorial, Special Collections, Library of Virginia


VS.1, VS.7, VS.8, USI.1, USI.9

Suggested Questions

Up for Debate: Would you classify Brown's actions as heroic or as that of a terrorist? Use historic examples of other actions to defend your stance.

Artistic Exploration: Study the portrait of John Brown who, in other depictions of the time, was portrayed as an unkempt radical and even a madman. From your perspective, what does this depiction of him reveal? Look at his profile, facial, expression, and environmental setting; what, if anything, can you reveal?

Current Connections: Compare Brown's actions to recent protests and challenges to government systems or decisions in the U.S. Which situations have the most in common with what happened at Harpers Ferry?

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