Daguerreotype of John Brown
Fervent abolitionist John Brown raises his right hand as if taking an oath in the earliest known portrait of him. This daguerreotype was made in 1846 or 1847 by an African American photographer named Augustus Washington, the son of a former slave who operated a daguerrean studio in Hartford, Connecticut. Both Brown and Washington were deeply committed to ending slavery.
Brown was accused of massacring pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856 and, in 1859, he led an unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia), in an attempt to start a slave insurrection. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his men occupied the federal arsenal in the northern Shenandoah Valley and were quickly surrounded by the combined forces of local militias and a detachment of United States Marines led by Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart. After a thirty-six-hour shoot-out, Brown and his surviving men surrendered. At the insistence of Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, Brown was tried in state, not federal, court. At the end of a gripping trial held in Charles Town, he was found guilty of conspiracy, of inciting servile insurrection, and of treason against the state. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. Brown's raid (and the fact that five of his "soldiers" were African Americans) touched off a frenzy among Southern slave owners and, in the estimation of many historians, set the nation on an irreversible course toward civil war.