Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty-one armed followers stole into the town of Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) as most of its residents slept. The men--among them three free blacks, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave--hoped to spark a rebellion of freed slaves and to lead an "army of emancipation" to overturn the institution of slavery by force. To these ends the insurgents took some sixty prominent locals including Col. Lewis Washington (great-grand nephew of George Washington) as hostages and seized the town's United States arsenal and its rifle works.
The upper hand which nighttime surprise had afforded the raiders quickly eroded, and by the evening of October 17, the conspirators who were still alive were holed-up in an engine house. In order to be able to distinguish between insurgents and hostages, marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee waited for daylight on October 18 to storm the building.
Brown and most of his men were veteran foes of slavery. In 1849, he and his family had settled at a black community at North Elba in New York state. Brown had become increasingly militant during the 1850s in his quest to eradicate slavery. In 1855, he had migrated to the Kansas Territory to become the leader of a band of anti-slavery guerrillas. He lead a nighttime raid in retaliation for the sack of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces and helped to liberate slaves and to safely transport them to Canada.
Brown claimed he, "knew the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders, and that they would never consent to give up their slaves, till they felt a big stick about their heads," and that a slave-holding community was, by its nature, in a state of war and, thus drastic actions were necessary and justified. His supporters felt they had a moral imperative to take action.
For his actions, Brown was quickly tried and convicted of murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state and sentenced to death by hanging.