Source Analysis

John Brown Song

Civil War Era

Lesson Plan

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and John Brown’s Body (Song)

Author: Heather Coffey
School: Mill Run Elementary
Grade Level: 4th
Time Estimated: 2 days (60 minute periods)


Students will read and analyze three letters or newspaper articles in groups of 4-5. They will be looking for meaning, opinions, and how the letters/speeches affected Americans in 1859. They will present their findings to the class in order to form more “knowledgeable” opinion of John Brown’s raid. Students will then examine three different portraits of John Brown, and choose one of the portraits that they view was the best representation of him in 1859, and will write a letter to an 1859 newspaper encouraging them to print that particular photo to go along with John Brown’s obituary.

Students will listen to the song “John Brown’s Body” by William W. Patton and will use the lyrics to analyze the feelings of Northerners towards John Brown shortly after his raid on Harpers Ferry.

Related lesson: Northern and Southern Differences in 1856

Historical Background

John Brown was an abolitionist and insurrectionist. He was a strong opponent of slavery, and known to many as a radical. He assisted in helping slaves escape before moving with his family to Kansas. At that time, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had just been passed overruling the Missouri Compromise. Settlers became argumentative over whether or not their state should have slavery, and many riots erupted. John Brown eagerly joined the anti-slavery side, declaring himself a “captain” in ridding the area of slavery. At this time, John Brown led a raid against pro-slavery settlers that ended in death and bloodshed. Northern extremists looked to Brown as a hero. Brown decided to form an “army” of other insurrectionists whose mission it would be to rid the country of slavery.

In early 1859, Brown moved to a farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He armed his followers, and attacked and captured the federal arsenal. He was surrounded by United States militia commanded by Robert E. Lee, and was forced to surrender. Ten of his followers were killed, and John Brown himself was captured. Brown’s raid excited the North and spurred their position to end slavery. In the south, people were outraged over Brown’s raid. Brown was put on trial and was convicted of treason. His punishment was death by hanging. Many southerners were elated over his trial, while many northerners continued to fight the spread of slavery. The interesting thing about the north was that as a collective whole, the north held many differing opinions about Brown’s raid. Some viewed him as a murderer and terrorist, others viewed his raid as a “necessary evil,” and others viewed him as a martyr and almost saint-like. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was viewed as a catalyst to the start of the Civil War.

While the north was initially divided in opinion after Brown’s raid, their sentiments towards him changed over time. Initially, Northerners did not view Brown’s approach as heroic, but rather inappropriate and unconstitutional. While they held Brown’s view that slavery should be abolished, they certainly did not want the south thinking they advocated the use of violence and invasion in the process. However, the South was so worried over the rebellion, that they overlooked civil liberties and due process when it came to Brown’s trial. Before Brown was executed, he delivered a very eloquent speech indicating that he once thought slavery could be ended without bloodshed, but ultimately that would never happen. The North began to view Brown as more of a martyr-like figure whereas the south became more nervous not only about Brown, but the North’s reaction to his raid. As the Civil War began, John Brown became a hero and motivating force for the Northern army because, although he caused a relatively small amount of bloodshed, the war itself was full of large acts of violence. Brown became revered by some as a prophet.

Photographs and paintings of John Brown over the years depict vastly different images of the man. Some portray Brown as a hero and saint, while others show Brown as a tyrant and monster. In Thomas Hovenden’s painting, “The Last Moments of John Brown,” Brown is seen leaving the courthouse kissing a Black child in the arms of a mother while white soldiers glare at John. It portrays a very kind and dedicated John Brown, and affirms his mission to help all slaves. It was painted in 1884 by a man from the north, well after the end of the Civil War when slavery had been abolished. John Curry’s “The Tragic Prelude,” from 1942, depicts a wild-looking John Brown holding a gun and Bible. He is drawn larger than life, and much larger than others in the painting. Brown is an intimidating and frightening figure in this depiction with both blacks and whites cowering at his feet. It is apparent that he is shown as a hero, and even a prophet. By this time in history the Civil War is well over, and the nation is at war again for different purposes. This portrait could even be looked at as a form to gain patriotism. Finally, Currier and Ives’ painting, “John Brown: The Martyr,” from 1870 is a simple scene showing a black mother and child looking at Brown in adoration with a quiet plea for help while a white soldier simply glares at him. It was painted a few years after the Civil War ended, and depicts a scene similar to that of Hovenden’s.

Letters, speeches, and articles written at the time of John Brown’s trial presented varying viewpoints of Americans at the time. Brown himself wrote a letter on the day he was hanged declaring that what he had done was right, and that it would continue until slavery was over. Frances Watkins, a free black from Indiana wrote a letter to John Brown acknowledging her agreement with his actions. She thanked him for helping to save her race. In contrast, the Richmond “Whig” Newspaper printed an editorial that same year rejoicing that John Brown had been hung. Brown was called a murderer and a traitor. Interestingly enough, the Mercury newspaper in South Carolina printed an editorial from the New York Tribune declaring Brown a patriot. While this was not unusual for Northerners to think, it definitely presents an interesting question as to why a Southern newspaper would be reprinting such an article.

The Song

The tune to “John Brown’s Body” was originally written some time around 1856 by William Steffe as a camp-meeting song with the traditional “Glory, glory hallelujah” refrain. Later, the lyrics were rewritten to “poke fun” at a Scotsman in the Union army by the name of John Brown. Knowing this Scotsman shared the same name as John Brown the abolitionist, he was used to the jokes from his soldier friends. “John Brown’s Body” became a popular Union marching song, and was played during rallies and in cities in the North. Many who heard it were unaware of the Scotsman for whom the song was name. Rather, people believed the “John Brown” in the song was the same man who led the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Later in 1861, a northern man by the name of William W. Patton revised the lyrics to make the song truly about John Brown the abolitionist. What stands out in Patton’s lyrics is the glorification of Brown’s violent acts. This version speaks of John as a martyr and goes as far as to compare him to John the Baptist, liberating people from evil. The lyrics were later revised for a third time by Julia Ward Howe to become what we know today as the Battle Hymn of the Republic.


    Students will:

  • Discuss John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry
  • Analyze a newspaper article or letter to evaluate John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry from the perspective of America in 1859
  • Evaluate three photographs of John Brown and choose the best representation of him
  • Write a descriptive obituary of John Brown from the perspective of an American citizen in 1859
  • Analyze the lyrics to Patton’s version of “John Brown’s Body”
  • Evaluate John Brown’s raid

Standards of Learning


VS.1a The student will identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history.
VS.1b The student will determine cause and effect relationships.
VS.1d The student will draw conclusions and make generalizations.
VS.1g The student will interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives.
VS.1h The student will discuss issues orally and in writing.


VS.7a The student will demonstrate knowledge of the issues that divided our nation and led to the Civil War by identifying the events and differences between northern and southern states that divided Virginians and led to secession, war, and the creation of West Virginia.



Day 1
  • Introduce: Put kids into groups of 2-3 and hand each child a packet of John Brown pictures. Do not tell the students anything about the pictures. Students should take time to look at the pictures and talk with their teammates about what they see and what they think might be going on in each picture. Students should have their write to learn journals and a pencil with them. Allow students 10 minutes to look through the pictures and take notes in their journals. Encourage kids to write down what they see and to write down any questions that come to mind.
  • Kids should return to their seats and have a chance to share with their classmates some of their thoughts and questions.
  • Instruct: As a class, read the story of John Brown in the textbook.
  • Place the photograph of John Brown without the beard on the overhead and ask students if they can make a connection. Then, place the photograph of Brown with the beard on the overhead. Students should now make a connection between the photograph and the paintings they saw earlier.
  • Ask students to look at their paintings again. As a class, discuss each painting and what is being represented. Look at the dates and artists and make note of where each artist was from. Ask students why the portrayals of John Brown are all different. Ask students to guess how the artists felt about John Brown based on their artwork. Based on their knowledge of Brown and the Civil War, ask students to discuss why each portrait was created the way it was at that time. How does the portrait reflect the thinking of that time period?
  • Students should once again return to their groups of 2 or 3, this time with the packet of letters/speeches/newspaper articles. Assign each group one of the written documents to read and analyze. Pass out the “John Brown Guiding Questions Sheet”. The purpose is for the group of students to figure out what the author’s view of John Brown was at the time of his raid on Harpers Ferry. Have students use their 2-color highlighting strategy while reading. (One color highlighter is used to indicate what students don’t understand while the second color is used to confirm what they already know.) Allow 10-15 minutes for reading and discussion.
  • Come back as a class and have students discuss their reading. Go over each article and decide how the author felt about John Brown at the time of his raid.
  • Assess: Inform the students that they have been chosen to write John Brown’s obituary from the perspective of an American citizen in 1859. Present students with the following list of viewpoints: northern abolitionist, “average” northerner, southerner, or slave. Assign students a viewpoint to take while they write. They should include a description of Brown’s raid, and a paragraph describing Brown as a person. They must also choose one of the paintings to place with their obituary that best represents the viewpoint they chose in writing the obituary. They should write their obituary on the “stationary sheet.”
    Homework: Finish writing John Brown’s Obituary.

Day 2
  • Introduce: Display the overhead copy of “The John Brown Song” cover. Give each child a piece of construction paper and crayons. Tell them that they will be hearing a song, and they are to draw on the paper whatever comes to their mind as they listen.
  • Play “John Brown’s Body” and let students work in silence to draw and color the images that they feel or hear in their minds. When the song ends, allow a few minutes for students to finish up their pictures.
  • Ask students to partner up and share their pictures with a friend. Choose a few students with different perspectives of the song to share their pictures with the class.
  • Instruct: Pass out the “Guiding Questions sheet” and instruct students to look at the “Music” side. Work through these questions with the class until the students realize that the song was a military/patriotic song based solely on tempo, instrumentation, and expression.
  • Pass out the “Lyrics” sheet. Tell students that they will be seeing the words to a song written in 1861. It is the same song they heard, although there are a few additional verses. Let students read with a partner using their two-highlighter strategy for reading. Allow 10-15 minutes.
  • Come back as a class and ask students if they made any connections between the lyrics and anything that they’ve been learning in social studies. Go over words students found to be difficult (bondage, undaunted, Old Virginny, traitor, oppression, etc.).
  • Have students turn their Guiding Questions sheet over to the “lyrics” side. Students should pair up and work through these questions.
  • Coming back as a class one final time, provide students with the historical background to the John Brown song. Ask the final question, “How did Northerners view John Brown’s decision to raid Harpers Ferry? Do you feel that the South felt the same way? How do you think the words of the song show how the North felt about John Brown’s raid?”
  • Assessment: Replay the song John Brown, and have students listen carefully to the tune and musical components. Tell the students that they will have a chance to redo, or revise their original pictures based on what they now know about the song. Play the John Brown song one final time and have students use their lyric sheet and guiding questions sheet to illustrate a more accurate portrayal of the song.
    Homework: Write-To-Learn Journal entry: Why is the song “John Brown’s Body” important to our understanding of how the North viewed John Brown’s raid in 1861?”


Inform the students that they have been chosen to write John Brown’s obituary from the perspective of an American citizen in 1859. Present students with the following list of viewpoints: northern abolitionist, “average” northerner, southerner, or slave. Assign students a viewpoint to take while they write. They should include a description of Brown’s raid, and a paragraph describing Brown as a person. They must also choose one of the paintings to place with their obituary that best represents the viewpoint they chose in writing the obituary. They should write their obituary on the “stationary sheet.”

Descriptive Writing (John Brown’s Obituary).

Art Project (Not to be graded).


Students work in groups and as a class to enhance understanding for all levels. Writing rubric can be modified for special needs students.



Errico, C. and Oates, S. Portrait of America Volume One: to 1877. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

    This source provided a plethora of information on the life of John Brown. It gave many details about his life from birth to death, and provided the political reasoning behind many of his actions. It outlined his strategies in both Kansas and Harpers Ferry.

Foner, E. and Garraty, J., Editors. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1991.

    This source gave an easy to understand and simple summary of John Brown’s life. The book had many different readings about John Brown based on the specific topic that was researched.

Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. Interview with Dr. Chandra Manning on the John Brown song


“John Brown, 1800-1859,” Territorial Kansas Online, 1854-1861

    This website comes from the state of Kansas. It provides readers with information about Kansas history, including a lengthy discussion about John Brown’s role in the event known as “Bleeding Kansas.” There are photographs and illustrations to go along with the historical text.

“John Brown,” Kansas State Historical Society

    The Kansas State Historical Society runs a museum known as the John Brown museum. This is a website dedicated to both the Society and the museum. It provides a wealth of information about John Brown, his family, and the events that transpired in his life. There are pictures and artifacts of Brown himself, and his family members. There is also a section for children to explore.

“History of ‘John Brown’s Body,'” PBS

    P.B.S. has a website where they’ve described John Brown’s “Holy War.” Throughout this site, there are descriptions of John Brown, his life, illustrations, and comments about documents and songs written about him. In particular, there is a discussion about the origins of the song “John Brown’s Body.”

“William Weston Patton,” Wikipedia

    Wikipedia gives a wonderful description of the man who is know for writing the version 2 lyrics of John Brown’s Body. This site provides the reasoning for his doing so, gives a photograph of Patton, and provides further information about how the song changed from a simple Union army tune to a popular song known throughout the country.

“The John Brown Song,” Library of Congress