The largest outbreak of violence over the issue of slavery in the United States erupted in 1859 as abolition-extremist John Brown seized the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Inside the arsenal were 100,000 government firearms, enough for the largest army the continent had ever seen. Brown's agents rushed as much of the weapons as possible to nearby farms, creating enough chaos that wagonloads of munitions went in disparate directions and turned the region into a war zone.
The raid was not the first of John Brown's ends-justify-the-means actions, though it would be his crowning achievement. Born to a Connecticut Puritan family, Brown became an industrious entrepreneur in Ohio before the economic crash following the Panic of 1837 wiped out his businesses. He moved his family, scourged by illness, to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was touched by the abolition movement and eagerly became a part of the Underground Railroad. When his last bid toward business in the wool industry collapsed, he became enraptured in the cause of abolition, founding the League of the Gileadites to defend, by any means necessary, fleeing slaves from legal capture under laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act. As the Kansas territory opened and Border Ruffians (pro-slavery forces) gathered there to ensure it would not be voted free, Brown rushed to fight, murdering five ruffians at Pottawatomie in 1856, the bloodiest massacre of Bleeding Kansas, and losing a son to the feud.
When calm settled in Kansas, Brown left for the North on a crusade to raise funds for all-out war. He gave lectures to crowds that included writers Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott. As word grew, Brown met with wealthy abolitionists, some of whom dispatched weapons to his cause such as 200 breech-loading carbines and 950 pikes. Mercenary Hugh Forbes signed on as well as two dozen volunteers. Harriet Tubman offered to serve but was unable due to illness, while Frederick Douglass refused to join what he correctly thought to be a suicide mission. In fact, this outright violence "would array the whole country against us."
Brown ventured forth nonetheless. His first action was to kidnap George Washington's great-grandnephew Lewis Washington and, more importantly to the cause, seize relics of liberation that were in his possession: a sword given to Washington by Frederick the Great and pistols gifted by Lafayette. They proceeded to cut telegraph wires and capture a passing train, where they killed the black baggage-clerk who tried to stop them. Brown was about to let the train go to spread the word of the uprising when one of his men asked, "Shouldn't we spread our own word?" Brown agreed, the train was disabled, and the men marched on the unsuspecting armory.
Northern Virginia and western Maryland were turned into a warzone. Runners dispatched arms to slave populations scouted out the summer before. Some of the slaves seized the opportunity to fight back, others refused to fight, and many fled and hid to escape the coming violence. Local militia immediately began to counterattack, but Brown proved far more organized and successfully held the arsenal, even sending out more weapons. State and federal officials did not hear about the raid until everyone else did, through panicked or excited telegrams.
As the United States government hurried to assemble a force to march on Brown's holdout, Brown himself received reinforcements as word spread among slaves and abolitionists from the North raced to join. Finally, after days of turmoil, President Buchanan called together Marines and put them under command of cavalry Colonel Robert E. Lee, who had time to dress in his uniform before marching. As they approached the arsenal, Brown's forces retreated, setting fire to everything that hadn't already been emptied.
The small military force was joined by more and more soldiers, and an overall quelling of the uprising was organized by General Winfield Scott. His work was slowed by constant guerilla warfare Brown had learned in Kansas, although he was ultimately betrayed by the surrender by Henry Forbes, who exonerated himself by pointing to a letter he had sent to Secretary of War John Buchanan Floyd. Theories rose up that Floyd, a Virginian, could have prevented the whole thing, making public opinion on the matter one of government failure with Floyd becoming the fall guy, creating the colloquial term "his name is Floyd" for anyone who fails miserably.
Brown was shot during a standoff in the Appalachian Mountains on December 2, and, though there were some actions after, that was considered the end of the rebellion. It became the top matter in the election of 1860, when Senator Stephen Douglas was able to blame the sitting administration, including Vice-President John C. Breckinridge, and rally Deep Southern votes to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency with Virginian Robert M. T. Hunter, whose home had been in the area of the turmoil, as his vice-president.
While the nation was united against violent uprising in any form, the Abolition Movement virtually collapsed. People did not want to associate with Brown and many abandoned the cause. A dedicated few carried on, finally winning an end to slavery through economic incentive by federal and private grants liberating slaves, which planters used to invest in new farming methods and later factories. Through the Southern Industrial Revolution, the South's tradition as nation's strongest economic region surged.
In reality, John Brown let the train go on, expecting word of mouth to be all that was required to start his slave rebellion. Instead, word went straight to the authorities, and little, if anything, was mentioned to the slaves. Militia (many of them railroad workers who had been warned by the train) besieged the arsenal. Lee led the Marines in an assault that killed many of Brown's men and captured him. Upon his execution as a traitor to the United States, he became a martyr to the cause of abolition, written about with glorifying words by men like Thoreau and Alexandre Dumas.