Skip Navigation

Chapter Thirteen
Toward Civil War

"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land:
will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think:
vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed;
it might be done."
- John Brown's last words

Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection

Irrepressible Conflict
The Irrepressible Conflict. Source:
Frank Leslie's Illustrated
, November 19, 1859,
Periodicals Collection
In the aftermath of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, many of his closest supporters sought to evade possible arrest. Frederick Douglass fled to Canada before sailing for England, and Samuel G. Howe and George L. Stearns stayed in Canada for several weeks. Frank Sanborn also went to Canada for a few days before returning to his home in Concord, Massachusetts. Gerrit Smith, suffering an apparently legitimate mental breakdown, was hospitalized in a mental institution. Of the "Secret Six," only Thomas W. Higginson stayed in Massachusetts throughout the months that followed. He even gave assistance to raiders Frances Merriam and Charles Tidd on their way to Canada and plotted rescues of Brown and other raiders. Theodore Parker, dying in Europe, was far removed from the panic that afflicted other supporters.

Conservative northerners held Union meetings denouncing John Brown's actions at Harpers Ferry. Ardent abolitionists worked to depict Brown as a martyr to a noble cause, gathering in various towns on the day of his execution and ringing bells in honor of their fallen warrior. Among southerners, the terror that swept the South in the immediate aftermath of John Brown's raid became a fierce determination to blot out any suspected disloyalty in the South to slavery, to create a united South ready to withstand any aggression from the North, and to fight more vigorously for federal protection of territorial slavery.

Meanwhile, agitation over the Harpers Ferry affair took hold in Congress, reinforcing the divisiveness over slavery that increasingly dominated the political discussion. For two months after convening in December 1859, the House of Representatives was unable to elect a Speaker of the House. John Sherman, the Republican candidate, was unacceptable to southern representatives because he had endorsed Hinton Helper's anti-slavery book The Impending Crisis. Southerners denounced the book, the position of Republicans and northerners in general on slavery, and the reaction in the North to John Brown's raid.

One of the congressman who spoke on the subject was Alexander Boteler, who represented the district that included Harpers Ferry: "in my opinion, the leaders of the Abolition party, who are seeking to control the organization of this House, and to obtain possession of the Government, are as much the murderers of my friends at Harper's Ferry as were old John Brown and his deluded followers; and I think that the committee engaged in the investigation in my State, and the investigation on the part of the Senate, will prove that the agitation of the slavery question by the great leaders of the Republican party has been the direct cause of the Harper's Ferry invasion."

Alexander Boteler
Hon. Alexander Boteler
from Virginia. Source:
Archives Collection

James M. Mason
James M. Mason

Arrest of Frank Sanborn

Arrest and Rescue of Frank Sanborn
While the House fought over the speakership, the Senate created a select committee chaired by James M. Mason of Virginia to investigate the raid. Wielding a questionable power to summon witnesses and compel them to testify, the committee heard the testimony of thirty-three men between January and May. The committee also summoned several others and issued arrest warrants for John Brown Jr., Thaddeus Hyatt, James Redpath, and Frank Sanborn when they failed to appear. Hyatt, the former head of the National Kansas Committee, was held in jail for four months while he refused to testify. When officials attempted to arrest Sanborn in April, they were met with the successful intervention of his family and neighbors. Federal marshals apparently could not find Redpath, while, fearing armed resistance, they did not try to arrest John Brown Jr. in Ohio. Summons for John Brown Jr.
Summons for
John Brown Jr.

With political party conventions in the late spring and a presidential election in the fall of 1860, the country quickly moved toward disunion. Divisions among Democrats produced two Democratic candidates for president:Stephen A. Douglas in the North and John C. Breckinridge in the South. These two men, plus John Bell, representing the Constitutional Union Party, and Abraham Lincoln, for the Republican Party, were put before the electorate in the November elections. In the wake of Lincoln's victory, the most committed disunionists pushed southern states toward secession. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first of eleven states to secede, propelling the United States into four years of civil war.

Primary Sources:

Letter, Lydia Maria Child to Mary Stearns, November 3, 1859
Letter, A Martyr's Friend to Governor Wise, November 22, 1859
Message of Gov. Henry A. Wise to the General Assembly of Virginia, December 1859
Speech, J. M. L. Curry, on Anti-slaveryism, December 10, 1859
Speech, M. J. Crawford, on the Election of the Speaker, December 15, 1859
Letter, James M. Mason to Andrew Hunter, December 20, 1859
Speech, Benjamin F. Wade on Invasion of Harpers Ferry, December 24, 1859
Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Governor Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia, 1860
Letter, Samuel May to Lydia Maria Child, January 13, 1860
Speech, Alexander R. Boteler on the Organization of the House, January 25, 1860
Report, Joint Committee of the Two Houses of the General Assembly of Virginia on the Harpers Ferry Outrages, January 26, 1860
Speech, Stephen A. Douglas on the Invasion, January 28, 1860
Clipping, Thaddeus Hyatt Summons, January 1860
Letter, George L. Stearns to S. G. Howe, February 27, 1860
Speeches, Charles Sumner on the Imprisonment of Thaddeus Hyatt, March 12 and June 15, 1860
Speech, Owen Lovejoy, on Slavery, April 5, 1860
Sanborn Arrest, New York Herald, April 7, 1860
Letter, Joseph P. Fessenden to William Pitt Fessenden, April 14, 1860

Secondary Sources:

Table of Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

His Soul Goes Marching On