United States and American History: 1859

About the history of the United States in 1859, Oregon becomes a state, John Brown leads an attack on Harpers Ferry, the country moves closer to Civil War.


--Harriet Beecher Stowe accepted an invitation to dine at the Atlantic Club on the stipulation that no wine be served.

--Ad in a Richmond, Va., paper offered $25,000 for the heads of a number of Northerners. The Richmond Enquirer recommended establishing a strict surveillance over Northern visitors and the Virginians who dealt or associated with them.

--Oregon was admitted as a free State.

--The slave market reports indicated that up to $2,000 was being paid for "prime field hands." July 25 At a town meeting in St. Joseph, Mo., a resolution was introduced: that the new free State paper, the Free Democrat, was a nuisance and its editor, Mr. Grant, should leave town immediately. The resolution was voted down by a large majority.

Sept. 26 Overland mail arrived in St. Louis from San Francisco in 24 days.

Oct. 16 Backed by money received from abolitionists in Canada and New England, John Brown led a raiding party of 16 white men and 5 Negroes in an attack on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. Brown's long-range motive in seizing the arsenal was to set up a republic of fugitive and freed slaves in the Appalachians, and then to declare war on the slave States of the South.

During his raid, Brown killed the town mayor, took 60 hostages, and held off the local militia. When the U.S. Marines, commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, arrived 2 days later, Brown and his party, along with their hostages, found refuge in a locomotive roundhouse. Brown and his men battered holes through the brick wall of the roundhouse to fire their rifles through, and began to fight. One of the hostages said later: "Brown was the coolest and firmest man I ever saw defying danger and death. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm and sell their lives dearly as they could."

By nightfall, with 10 of his men dead and Brown himself wounded, Brown was taken prisoner.

Oct. 17 Dispatches arrived at Baltimore telling how 250 whites and a gang of Negroes had taken possession of the arsenal. Another report told of a stampede of Negroes from Maryland and yet another said the streets were filled with insurgents who were plundering the town. Still another report was that the town was in the possession of Negroes who were arresting citizens and throwing them into prison. One account placed the number of insurrectionists at between 500 and 700, including both whites and blacks.

Oct. 18 The President, through the mayor of Washington, ordered a detachment of volunteer militia sent to Harpers Ferry.

Oct. 31 Refusing to plead insanity as a defense for his actions at Harpers Ferry, John Brown went on trial. He was found guilty of treason, criminal conspiracy, murder, and was sentenced to be hanged. Important people around the U.S. voiced shock at Brown's extremism. Almost alone, Ralph Waldo Emerson hailed Brown as "that new saint" who "will make the gallows glorious like the Cross."

Nov. Newspaper reports alleged Buchanan's Cabinet knew about Brown's plan as early as August 20.

Dec. 2 John Brown was hanged.

Dec. 13 Henry Clay said he was confident the election of a Republican President meant the end of the Union.

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