John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 5): Tony Horwitz

John Brown hoped to launch his “wool business,” as he called his attack on slavery, in 1858. But his former drillmaster, Hugh Forbes, tried to blackmail his backers by threatening to expose Brown’s plan to seize the armory at Harpers Ferry and free slaves.

The Secret Six suspended funding, and Brown reluctantly returned to Kansas. In the final excerpt from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” Tony Horwitz tells how Brown regained the confidence of his financiers and used a front business to conceal his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia:

In the summer of 1858, John Brown returned to Kansas with a new alias and a long white beard to further disguise his identity. The beard made him look older than his 58 years, as did his deepening stoop. Decades of hardship were finally taking their toll. Brown also lacked a clear purpose, other than to dispel any rumors that his nemesis, Hugh Forbes, might spread regarding an attack on Harpers Ferry.

But in late December, a new mission presented itself. A Missouri slave named Jim Daniels slipped into Kansas, ostensibly on a trip to sell brooms. Meeting one of Brown’s men near the border, Daniels said he and other slaves were about to be sold and desperately needed help.

Missouri Raid

Brown answered this plea by leading 18 guerrillas into Missouri the next night. One party under his command raided the farmhouse of Daniels’s master, liberated five slaves at gunpoint and then freed five more slaves from a neighboring property. A separate party burst into another home and freed a slave, but in so doing shot her owner dead. The two groups of raiders also carried off oxen, horses, food and other loot before crossing back into Kansas.

This daring strike caused an immediate sensation, and when the identity of its leader became known, rewards for Brown’s capture were issued by both the governor of Missouri and President James Buchanan. Undaunted, Brown kept himself in the headlines by embarking on a midwinter trek, escorting the liberated slaves north through Kansas, with pro-slavery posses and federal marshals in pursuit. At one point, he eluded capture by switching getaway wagons, and when an 80-man posse intercepted his convoy, Brown charged with his 22 men, causing his foes to fall back in panic.

Escaping Kansas, Brown led his caravan across Iowa and secreted the liberated slaves onto a boxcar to Chicago. From there they were taken to Detroit and put aboard a ferry. “BROWN’S RESCUED NEGROES LANDED IN CANADA,” read the March 18, 1859, headline in the New York Tribune. The long journey from bondage to freedom had taken 82 days and covered 1,100 miles. One of the liberated slaves gave birth en route. “The child has been christened John Brown,” the Tribune reported.

Brown had redoubled his celebrity as a bold and seemingly invincible abolitionist fighter. And he wasted no time using it to restart his “wool business” in Virginia. Writing the Secret Six that he was now ready to “set his mill in operation” in the South, he asked for the money promised him, and noted of the Missouri raid: “The entire success of our experiment ought (I think) to convince every capitalist.”

It did. Gerrit Smith provided fresh funds for Brown’s bold plan to attack and overturn the institution of slavery. Brown raised more money in Boston and Concord. In June 1859, he visited the Connecticut forge-master he’d long ago hired to manufacture 1,000 spear-like pikes. “I have been unable, sir, to fulfill my contract with you up to this time,” Brown told Charles Blair. “Now I am able to do so.”

Making Weapons

Blair’s workmen were fully employed, and he’d been disappointed by Brown two years earlier. He also couldn’t understand why the abolitionist wanted him to finish work on pikes intended for Kansas, where the fighting was petering out and antislavery forces were emerging triumphant.

Brown replied that the pikes were worth nothing unfinished, but that he “could dispose of them in some way” if fully assembled. And so, upon receipt of the $450 still outstanding, Blair wrote Brown that he would complete the job. “Wishing you peace and prosperity,” he said in closing.

Accompanied by two sons, Brown traveled to Pennsylvania. Another accomplice, John Kagi, a Kansas fighter and Brown’s second in command, was to rendezvous with the advance party at its destination. “We leave here to day for Harpers Ferry,” Brown wrote Kagi on June 30. “We shall be looking for cheap lands near the Rail Road.” He signed himself with a new alias: Isaac Smith.

Posing as a cattle farmer and mining entrepreneur, “Mr. Smith” and his sons rented a secluded log house in the Maryland hills, just across the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry. Having established a forward post, he needed a staging area where he could safely receive men and weapons.

So Kagi, under the alias “John Henrie,” found lodging in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a rail hub just north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the weeks that followed, “Mr. Henrie” and “Mr. Smith” exchanged frequent letters filled with opaque discussion of “mining tools,” “freight” and “hands to work on the job.”

This was code for guerrillas and guns, as well as the 1,000 pikes Brown planned to put in the hands of freed slaves. In August, heavy boxes labeled “Hardware + Castings” began arriving by rail at Chambersburg and were transported by wagon to Brown’s Maryland hideout. “Hands,” including five black fighters, one of them a fugitive slave, also made their way quietly south.

Women as Lookouts

Brown’s teenage daughter and daughter-in-law joined the band, to act as lookouts and camouflage. When neighbors or passers-by approached the log house in Maryland, the teenagers met them on the porch and played the part of “Smith” family farm women, while the men huddled out of view in the attic.

As the summer wore on, however, Brown was once again plagued by business problems. His eldest son, “John Smith,” head of the Ohio branch, misunderstood his father’s “mining schedule” and was slow forwarding material and manpower. High freight bills, and the cost of sustaining people during the delay, exhausted the money Brown had raised that spring in expectation of quickly launching his campaign. “I begin to be apprehensive of getting into a tight spot for want of a little more funds,” he wrote in August, sounding very much like the strapped businessman of old.

By early autumn, Brown had to borrow $40 from one of his men. He still needed more fighters, but couldn’t afford to wait any longer. “We have not $5 left, and the men must be given work or they will find it themselves,” Kagi wrote on Oct. 10. The Secret Six, weary of Brown’s repeated delays and demands for money, were tapped out. They also dispatched a young Bostonian, Francis Meriam, “to look into matters a little for the stockholders,” wrote Franklin Sanborn, the lead organizer of the Six.

Meriam had his own mission. Though sickly and one-eyed, he was a militant abolitionist and eager to join Brown’s strike force. He also carried $600 in gold coins he had inherited from his wealthy family. Meriam spent half of it buying ammunition and other supplies for the guerrilla band and gave the rest to Brown, who badly needed it to fund the long campaign he anticipated. On Oct. 13, Sanborn learned from Meriam that “business operations” would at last commence.

To Harpers Ferry

Brown made final preparations for his attack and wrote his impoverished family in upstate New York. “Perhaps you can keep your animals in good condition through the winter on potatoes mostly, much cheaper than any other feed.” Then, on the night of Oct. 16, Brown put on the cap he’d worn in Bleeding Kansas and climbed aboard a horse-drawn wagon loaded with pikes, pine torches and gunpowder. Eighteen men, armed with rifles and revolvers, fell in behind.

“Come, boys!” Brown called out, leading the wagon away from the log hideout and onto the road to Harpers Ferry. In a few hours, they would seize the Virginia town and its massive federal armory, begin freeing slaves and spark a bloody two-day uprising that ended with Brown’s wounding and capture.

But the resilient abolitionist triumphed in defeat. His raid shocked and divided the nation, and his courage and eloquence in captivity made him a martyr and hero to antislavery Northerners. Using business language to the end, Brown wrote his wife from prison that he could “recover all the lost capital” from his many failures by “only hanging a few moments by the neck.”

He did so, on Dec. 2, 1859. Eighteen months later, the Civil War began and Union troops marched into battle singing of John Brown. And in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he once termed “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.”

(Tony Horwitz is the author of “A Voyage Long and Strange,” “Blue Latitudes,” “Confederates in the Attic” and “Baghdad Without a Map.” This is the last in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” to be published Oct. 25 by Henry Holt and Co. The opinions expressed are his own. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)

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