How Old Brown took Harpers Ferry

Edmund Clarence Stedman

John Brown in Kansas settled, like a steadfast Yankee farmer,
    Brave and godly, with four sons, all stalwart men of might.
  There he spoke aloud for freedom, and the Borderstrife grew
    Till the Rangers fired his dwelling, in his absence, in the
            And Old Brown
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Came homeward in the morning—to find his house burned

  Then he grasped his trusty rifle and boldly fought for freedom;
    Smote from border unto border the fierce, invading band;
  And he and his brave boys vowed—-so might Heaven help and
      speed 'em!—
    They would save those grand old prairies from the curse that
      blights the land;
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Said, "Boys, the Lord will aid us!" and he shoved his ramrod

  And the Lord did aid these men, and they labored day and
    Saving Kansas from its peril; and their very lives seemed
  Till the ruffians killed one son, in the blessed light of
    In cold blood the fellows slew him, as he journeyed all unarmed;
            Then Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Shed not a tear, but shut his teeth, and frowned a terrible

  Then they seized another brave boy,—not amid the heat of
    But in peace, behind his ploughshare,—and they loaded him
      with chains,
  And with pikes, before their horses, even as they goad their
    Drove him cruelly, for their sport, and at last blew out his
            Then Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Raised his right hand up to Heaven, calling Heaven's vengeance
  And he swore a fearful oath, by the name of the Almighty,
    He would hunt this ravening evil that had scathed and torn
          him so;
  He would seize it by the vitals; he would crush it day and
          night; he
    Would so pursue its footsteps, so return it blow for blow,
                  That Old Brown,
                  Osawatomie Brown,
  Should be a name to swear by, in backwoods or in town!

  Then his beard became more grizzled, and his wild blue eye
          grew wilder,
    And more sharply curved his hawk's-nose, snuffing battle
          from afar;
  And he and the two boys left, though the Kansas strife waxed
    Grew more sullen, till was over the bloody Border War,
                  And Old Brown,
                  Osawatomie Brown,
  Had gone crazy, as they reckoned by his fearful glare and frown.

  So he left the plains of Kansas and their bitter woes behind
    Slipt off into Virginia, where the statesmen all are born,
  Hired a farm by Harper's Ferry, and no one knew where to
          find him,
    Or whether he'd turned parson, or was jacketed and shorn;
                  For Old Brown,
                  Osawatomie Brown,
  Mad as he was, knew texts enough to wear a parson's

  He bought no ploughs and harrows, spades and shovels, and
      such trifles;
    But quietly to his rancho there came, by every train,
  Boxes full of pikes and pistols, and his well-beloved Sharp's
    And eighteen other madmen joined their leader there again.
          Says Old Brown,
          Osawatomie Brown,
  "Boys, we've got an army large enough to march and take
      the town!"

  "Take the town, and seize the muskets, free the negroes and
      then arm them;
    Carry the County and the State, ay, and all the potent South.
  On their own heads be the slaughter, if their victims rise to
      harm them—
    These Virginians! who believed not, nor would heed the
      warning mouth."
          Says Old Brown,
          Osawatomie Brown,
  "The world shall see a Republic, or my name is not John

  'T was the sixteenth of October, on the evening of a Sunday:
    "This good work," declared the captain, "shall be on a holy
  It was on a Sunday evening, and before the noon of Monday,
    With two sons, and Captain Stephens, fifteen privates—black
         and white,
            Captain Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Marched across the bridged Potomac, and knocked the sentry down;

  Took the guarded armory-building, and the muskets and the cannon;
    Captured all the county majors and the colonels, one by one;
  Scared to death each gallant scion of Virginia they ran on,
    And before the noon of Monday, I say, the deed was done.
            Mad Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  With his eighteen other crazy men, went in and took the town.

  Very little noise and bluster, little smell of powder made he;
    It was all done in the midnight, like the Emperor's
         coup d'etat.
  "Cut the wires! Stop the rail-cars! Hold the streets and
         bridges!" said he,
    Then declared the new Republic, with himself for guiding star,—
            This Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown;
  And the bold two thousand citizens ran off and left the town.

  Then was riding and railroading and expressing here and thither;
    And the Martinsburg Sharpshooters and the Charlestown
  And the Shepherdstown and Winchester Militia hastened whither
    Old Brown was said to muster his ten thousand grenadiers.
            General Brown!
            Osawatomie Brown!!
  Behind whose rampant banner all the North was pouring down.

  But at last, 't is said, some prisoners escaped from Old Brown's
    And the effervescent valor of the Chivalry broke out,
  When they learned that nineteen madmen had the marvelous
    Only nineteen—thus to seize the place and drive them straight
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Found an army come to take him, encamped around the town.

  But to storm, with all the forces I have mentioned, was too risky;
    So they hurried off to Richmond for the Government Marines,
  Tore them from their weeping matrons, fired their souls with
        Bourbon whiskey,
    Till they battered down Brown's castle with their ladders and
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Received three bayonet stabs, and a cut on his brave old crown.

  Tallyho! the old Virginia gentry gather to the baying!
    In they rushed and killed the game, shooting lustily away;
  And whene'er they slew a rebel, those who came too late for
    Not to lose a share of glory, fired their bullets in his clay;
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  Saw his sons fall dead beside him, and between them laid him

  How the conquerors wore their laurels; how they hastened on
      the trial;
    How Old Brown was placed, half dying, on the Charlestown
      court-house floor;
  How he spoke his grand oration, in the scorn of all denial;
    What the brave old madman told them,—these are known
      the country o'er.
            "Hang Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown."
  Said the judge, "and all such rebels!" with his most judicial

  But, Virginians, don't do it! for I tell you that the flagon,
    Filled with blood of Old Brown's offspring, was first poured
      by Southern hands;
  And each drop from Old Brown's life-veins, like the red gore
      of the dragon,
    May spring up a vengeful Fury, hissing through your slave-worn
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
  May trouble you more than ever, when you've nailed his coffin

On October 16th, 1859, John Brown led a small force of about 20 men to capture the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown was an ardent abolitionist. He had been active in fighting the abolitionist cause in Kansas, and was known as 'Osawatomie' because of his attack on settlers (people he took to be pro-slavery) at Osawatomie. His aim at Harpers Ferry was to spark a conflict which would lead to the ending of slavery in the USA.

Brown captured the Arsenal, but his men were soon defeated by a contingent of troops led, ironically, by Robert E. Lee, the future general of the pro-slavery confederacy. Brown was hanged in December 1859.

Although the raid ended in failure, it contributed to the rising tensions between pro- and anti-slavery states, which led to the Civil War less than eighteen months later.