Why is John Brown so significant to the Civil War?

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ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Before John Brown attempt at taking Harper's Ferry, Virginia, the focus of abolitionists had been on debating and trying to change the laws to abolish slavery. After Harper's Ferry, many abolitionists changed their tactics to direct confrontation and physical violence of those who supported slavery. This crucial change made violence against the practice of slavery acceptable.

At Harper's Ferry, Brown took over a town with a force of 14 whites and 5 blacks. "Shots were fired and lives taken". Brown, himself was wounded. Ironically, union forces under the control of Robert E. Lee, eventually retook the town and captured Brown. Then the union forces investigated the farm Brown had used as his headquarters and found documents which linked him to several prominent men. These documents proved that Brown had been part of a conspiracy and he was scheduled to be hanged in Charleston. The day of the hanging martial law had to be declared in Charleston and 1500 soldiers, including a group of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the command of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, had to guard the gallows. Brown was hanged, but became a martyr to the abolitionist cause and his tactics suddenly seemed morally correct. Brown had made violent physical confrontation over slavery acceptable, something the soldiers fighting in the civil war would experience many, many times.

jameszaworski | Student

John Brown was an ardent abolitionist who felt that it was his sacred duty to end slavery.

John Brown was perhaps the most important individual that contributed to the onset of the American Civil War. He both alarmed and radicalized the South as a result of his failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was essentially “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

The country was essentially polarized over the issue of slavery, and particularly from the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 and onward, there was an increasing interest and division of opinion both North and South over slavery, as well as the rights of the states to determine the future of the institution in new territories and states.

John Brown’s actions in “Bleeding Kansas” are a case in point. He, along with his sons, used machetes and broad swords to murder pro-slavery men to death at Pottowattami Creek. John Brown had a more ambitious plan to seize the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, and incite the slaves themselves to revolt and bring about the abolition of slavery by force. His plan failed, he was captured and hanged.

John Brown’s words speak in support of the above conclusion:

At a church service in Hudson, Ohio John Brown said: “Here, before God, I, John Brown in the presence of these witnesses I consecrate myself to the destruction of slavery”.

Before his execution, he prophesied: “ I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”