I wonder if you have any idea, when you sing that old song about "John Brown's body," what it all means. I'm sure I didn't know when I was a child, and I can remember just how I used to enjoy singing it at the top of my voice! Let me see—it goes something like this, doesn't it?
There was a great struggle going on in Kansas between the people in it who believed in slavery and the people in it who did not believe in slavery.
Soldiers had even been sent to Kansas from the South to try to subdue the Free-State people. Four or five hundred of these soldiers came to Ossawatomie, where John Brown lived, for the purpose of attacking the town. John Brown had only thirty men to meet his force with, and so could not expect to be victorious; but so skillfully did he manage his thirty, that he led them to a safe retreat with the loss of only five or six, while the enemy lost thirty-one and had more than twice that number wounded, beside having had a close, hard fight.
Several months later there came into Virginia a white-haired old man with some younger men who were said to be his sons. These men hired a farm near Harper's Ferry, and set to work upon it. They received a great many boxes and packages by rail, which they said were their farming tools.
At Harper's Ferry was an arsenal, stored with guns and powder, and all the munitions of war. One night, as the three watchmen were guarding the gates, up marched a company of twenty-two men. In a twinkling the three watchmen were seized, and bound hand and foot; then the twenty-two marched in and took possession of the arsenal.
Now you have guessed who this white-haired farmer with his sons is! John Brown, of course; but what is he going to do? Simply this: he is going to prepare for war against slavery. It seems at first absurd that a little band of twenty-two should set themselves up against a nation; but they were stronger than they seemed. Already his allies outside had cut down the telegraph wires, and had torn up railroads, so that news of their deed could not spread over the country.
Out into the town John Brown and his men marched, taking prisoner every citizen they met.
"What does this mean?" the astonished prisoners would say.
"It means we are going to free the slaves!" answered John Brown.
"In whose name do you do this?"
"Not in the name of Congress, but in the name of Almighty God."
John Brown had made arrangements with, and was expecting a band of a hundred slaves to join him as soon as they should know that the arsenal was taken. For some unknown reason, these slaves did not appear. He waited for them until too late. By noon, a company of militia marched to the arsenal, and now all hope of escape was cut off. By evening, fifteen hundred soldiers had arrived, and a bloody contest followed. John Brown's men knew, of course, that their doom was sealed, but they fought like tigers to the very last.
At night the party in the arsenal numbered only seven, and three of those were sorely wounded. All night long John Brown sat upon the floor between his two sons, one dead, the other slowly dying. At daybreak the door was broken in, and the soldiers were in the presence of this old hero, John Brown.
And so ended "John Brown's Raid," as it was called. He was tried by the Virginia court, and sentenced to be hanged. He was very brave during the time he lay in prison, and when the day on which he was to be hanged came, he was calm and full of courage.
He felt that he had done only what was right. "I have broken the laws of the State," said he; "but I have kept the laws of God; and the laws of God are greater than any laws of State."
As he walked forth from his jail on this last morning of his life, there stood at the gateway a slave woman with her baby in her arms. As he passed her he stooped and kissed the baby, and then went on sadly, but quietly.
On the scaffold he was blindfolded and led out upon the drop. For ten minutes he was kept standing there, expecting every second to hear the death signal. There seemed little need of this last stroke of cruelty; and even the mob about the scaffold began at last to cry, "Shame! Shame!" Then the drop fell, and John Brown was dead.