John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

Updated on August 26, 2019

Introduction

In the fall of 1859, an ardent abolitionist named John Brown led a small band of men to capture the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His goal was to seize the weapons at the arsenal and arm the slaves in the area to rise and establish their own free state. The plot turned out to be a dismal failure, costing many of the men their lives. Though Brown and his men didn’t start a slave revolt, it was one of the contributing factors leading up to the Civil War. Some say Brown was a divinely inspired martyr for the antislavery cause; others viewed him as a revolutionary terrorist--apparently, he was both.

John Brown the Man

Five years after the birth of John Brown in 1800 in Connecticut, his family moved to Hudson, Ohio. His father Owen opened a tannery and set up his house as a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing bondage in the South. At age sixteen, John moved to Massachusetts to attend school in the hopes of becoming a Congregationalist minister. When his money ran out, he returned home to Ohio.

Brown married and set up his own leather tannery but had little success in business. In 1846, he moved to the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts. There, he became involved in the St. John’s Congregational Church, which became one of the leading platforms for abolitionist rhetoric in the nation. While in Springfield, he met many leading abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. From an early age Brown grew to hate the institution of slavery and the men and women who perpetuated the trade in humans.

Brown and his family moved to the town of North Elba, New York, to establish a farm and to be part of a community of relocated slaves attempting to build a community there. In 1855, Brown learned from his five adult sons living in the Kansas territory that their families were facing possible violence from pro-slavery forces. Kansas had become a battle ground between pro and anti-slavery factions. Answering the plea for help from his sons, Brown packed up and moved to Kansas to help protect his sons and their families. He hoped to have the state admitted into the Union as a free state. Along the way, he gathered support from his anti-slavery allies.

As the violence escalated between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery or Free State advocates in Kansas, Brown became more than politically active and took matters into his own hands. In the small Kansas town near the Missouri boarder, on the night of May 24, 1856, a band of abolitionists led by Brown attacked and killed five “professional slave hunters.” The killings, known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, ignited a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which twenty-nine people were killed. The series of deadly raids and counter raids between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown and his men were involved in battles at Black Jack and Osawatomie, Kansas, with pro-slavery forces. Brown kept the northern anti-slavery newspapers abreast of his actions and sometimes invited journalists with him in the field. Five weeks after the battle of Osawatomie, in October 1856, Brown left Kansas, sick with dysentery and fever in the back of a wagon. He had entered Kansas the year before a virtual unknown failed businessman and was leaving the territory as “Captain Brown of Osawatomie,” a hero of the anti-slavery movement. Now a wanted man, he would adopt several aliases over the next three years to elude authorities.

The artist John Steuart Curry’s interpretation of John Brown and the antislavery movement in Kansas Territory on a mural at the Kansas State Capitol Building in Topeka, Kansas.
The artist John Steuart Curry’s interpretation of John Brown and the antislavery movement in Kansas Territory on a mural at the Kansas State Capitol Building in Topeka, Kansas.

The Secret Six

Brown spent the next two years gathering funds and building alliances within the ardent anti-slavery community. A group of six wealthy abolitionists, Franklin Sandborn, Thomas Higginson, Theodore Parker, George Stearns, Gridley Howe, and Gerrit Smith, agreed to provide financial support for Brown’s antislavery campaign. Over the next several months Brown sought additional support in various locations in the Northeast. With financial support in place, Brown hatched his plan to make an armed invasion into Virginia to rally the slaves in a revolt against their masters. Brown consulted with his supporters and all of the “Secret Six” pledged their support; only the abolitionist Frederick Douglass failed to give provide financial support to the planned raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The meeting between the two old friends was emotional, Brown pleading with Douglas to join his quest to use force to liberate the slaves. Douglass, realizing the futility of attacking a Federal arsenal, told Brown, “Virginia would blow him and his hostages sky-high, rather than that he should hold Harpers Ferry an hour.” The two men parted company and Brown continued to work toward his goal of liberating the slaves in Virginia while Douglass launched into an exhausting lecture tour across the Midwest, delivering some fifty speeches in six weeks.

I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for.

— John Brown

A New Constitution

Brown, his son Owen, and a dozen followers traveled to Chatham, Ontario, where on May 10, 1858, they convened a constitutional convention. The community of Chatham consisted of approximately one-third fugitive slaves. It was there that Brown met one of the ringleaders of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. She was responsible for helping hundreds of slaves move from safe house to safe house on their journey north to freedom. She also helped Brown recruit supporters for Brown’s planned raid on Harpers Ferry. The convention, a mixture of whites and blacks, adopted Brown’s provisional constitution which called for the confiscation of all the personal and real property of slave owners and would set up a free state in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown intended to build a large army to control the region so the liberated slaves could live and prosper. The thousands of guns and ammunition at the Harpers Ferry arsenal would provide enough arms to supply his army of freed slaves.

The planned raid on the arsenal was foiled in the summer of 1858 by Hugh Forbes, and English soldier of fortune Brown had hired to train his troops. Forbes became disenchanted with Brown when he failed to pay his wages. Forbes exposed part of the plan to the U.S. senators Henry Wilson and William Seward. Senator Wilson admonished the Secret Six, believing that the attempted raid would derail the entire anti-slavery mission and was an act of treason. The Secret Six, fearing their names would be made public, informed Brown that he must go back into Kansas to discredit Forbes’ accusations and gather more anti-slavery backers. In December 1858, Brown led a raid on a slave holder in Missouri, killing him and liberating eleven slaves. A price was put on Brown’s head by the U.S. president James Buchanan and the governor of Missouri. Brown and his men eluded pursuit and reached Canada with their liberated slaves. The successful Missouri liberation bolstered his position with supporters, resulting in additional funds for the cause.

Drawing depicting John Brown and his band with hostages just before the marines break down the door of the engine house.
Drawing depicting John Brown and his band with hostages just before the marines break down the door of the engine house.

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

During the summer of 1859 Brown took his band of followers to Maryland to prepare for the raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. As his basecamp, Brown rented a small farm five miles from the arsenal. To prevent suspicion from his neighbors, he and his small army of twenty-one men--five black and sixteen white--and two women had to stay inside during the day, going out after dark for drills and exercise. Of the men who followed Brown, all but two were in their twenties and only a third of them had seen any real fighting in Kansas. Brown’s daughter-in-law Martha served as the cook and his daughter Annie was the lookout. The numerous anti-slavery supporters who had pledged their support for the raid never materialized so Brown did the best he could with his few loyal followers.

The armory at Harpers Ferry was situated on a sliver of land with Maryland and the Potomac River forming the northern boundary, only sixty-five miles from Washington, D.C. To the south lay Virginia and the Shenandoah River. The B&O Railroad bridge connected the armory to the Maryland shore. The facility dated back to 1799 and had been producing muskets and pistols for the U.S. military for over a half a century. The massive complex included a main armory, a second rifle factory, and the arsenal where finished weapons were stored--an estimated one hundred thousand. By 1859, there was a workforce of about four hundred at the facility.

The raid began on the night of October 16 when Brown and his force of eighteen men--three stayed behind as a rear guard--marched toward the Potomac River with a wagonload of arms. The men walked quietly in the dark so as not to draw attention to themselves. One of the men later told Annie Brown that the solemn procession was “like they were marching to their own funeral.” The raiding party first cut the telegraphy wires and then captured the bridge leading to Harpers Ferry. The arsenal was only lightly guarded, and Brown’s men quickly secured the armory and the gun works. Brown dispatched a detail to capture two local slaveholders and their slaves, which they accomplished with little resistance. The mission took longer than expected since many of the slaves had not returned from their Sunday evening visits to friends and family at neighboring farms. The men stopped a B&O train, killing the African American baggage master when he failed to obey their orders. One tragic irony of the affair was that the first man killed was a respectable free black employee of the railroad who had resisted the aggressors. The raiders allowed the train to continue and at the next stop, the train’s conductor telegraphed the railroad’s headquarters of the trouble at Harpers Ferry, reporting “Express train bound east, under my charge, was stopped this morning at Harper’s Ferry by armed abolitionists…”

The next morning, a Monday, Brown took the armory’s employees as hostages as they arrived for work. By mid-morning of theseventeenth, Maryland and Virginia militia were on their way to Harpers Ferry to squash the insurrection. The militia arrived in the afternoon and took control of the bridges leading into Harpers Ferry by killing or running off Brown’s men. Brown and his men took refuge in the engine works of the arsenal to wait for local slaves to revolt and join their cause. Late that evening, the U.S. Calvary officer Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee and his aide Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart arrived to regain control of the arsenal.

Lee, being an experienced officer, followed military protocol in the situation and first offered the Virginia militia a chance to capture the engine work where Brown and his men were holed up; the militia declined Lee’s offer. Tuesday morning, October 18, Lee sent Stuart to negotiate with the rebels. Stuart, a veteran of the Missouri-Kansas border wars, immediately recognized Brown. The offer of surrender was refused by Brown, who responded, “No, I prefer to die here.” Stuart ordered in a dozen marines to charge the building with bayonets. After busting down the door, events unfolded rapidly; two of Brown’s men and one marine were killed in the melee. Brown lay bleeding on the floor, wounded with nasty sword cuts on his head and neck. When it was all said and done, Brown’s force had killed four civilians and wounded nine. Ten of the rebels were dead or near dead including Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver, five had escaped the previous day, and seven were captured, including Brown.

The insurrection at Harpers Ferry received wide press coverage in both the North and the South. The October 18 edition of the New York Times ran the headlines: “SERVILLE INSURRECTION/ The Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Possession of the Insurgents/ GENERAL STAMPEDE OF SLAVES/ United States Troops on the March to the Scene.” Both Republican and Democratic leaders promptly denounced Brown’s act, but he was quickly becoming a legend and martyr in the North.

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

The Trial of John Brown

Virginia’s governor Henry A. Wise took charge of the initial questioning of the captives. Even though the raid had taken place on Federal soil, Wise ordered the trial to be held in the nearby county seat of Charlestown. In late November, Brown, who was still recovering from his wounds, and six of his followers were put on trial. Brown’s charges included: murdering four men, conspiring with slaves to rebel, and treason against the state of Virginia. Due to the high-profile nature of the trial and all the newspaper coverage, a team of lawyers was assigned to represent Brown. They argued in his defense that he could not be found guilty of treason against Virginia since he was not a resident. Additionally, he was not guilty of murder since he had not killed anyone himself, and the failure of the raid clearly indicated he had not conspired with slaves. Brown’s dignified and fearless conduct at the trial and later the gallows added to his mythic status in the North. Before his execution, seventeen affidavits from neighbors and relatives who believed Brown to be insane, which wasn’t an outrageous claim since insanity was prevalent on his mother’s side of the family, were sent to governor Wise. The governor chose to ignore the evidence of Brown’s metal instability and the trial continued. Brown, realizing his time on this earth was short, used the trial to further the antislavery cause. After a week long trial Brown and his followers were convicted of murder, treason, and insurrection. Upon hearing his death sentence, Brown uttered the now famous words: “Had I interfered on behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great…every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment…Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should…mingle my blood…with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”

The day before his hanging, his wife arrived by train. She was allowed to join him in the county jail for his last meal. On the day Brown was hanged, December 2, 1859, church bells tolled, cannons fired salutes, and prayer meetings adopted memorial resolutions in many northern cities. The execution of Brown further polarized the country on the issue of slavery.

Aftermath of the Raid on Harpers Ferry

Brown was hailed as a great antislavery martyr in the North and a dangerous rebel in the South. A slave revolt was every slave owner’s worst nightmare and Brown and his men had attempted to instigate that very thing. In the mind of the southerners, the abolitionist cause became identified with the Republican Party and the whole of the northern states. When the Republican Senator from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, was elected as president in 1860, it fed rumors that the Republicans were secretly releasing dozens of men like Brown into the South to unleash a violent slave rebellion. The more radical southern newspapers asserted that the events of Harpers Ferry showed that the South could have no peace within the Union. The actions of John Brown at Harpers Ferry had moved the sentiments of the South from mediation to rebellion.

The Legend of John Brown

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry set the stage for the American Civil War that would erupt just seventeen months after his death. His death for the cause of abolishment of slavery became a rallying cry for the Union army through the popular song John Brown’s Body, “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave/ But his soul goes marching on…” Julia Howe, the wife of Secret Six member Samuel Howe, visited an army camp in 1861 and heard the song. Inspired by what she saw and heard, she awoke during the night and wrote down the words in a poem titled The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The poem was set to music and became the rallying cry of the Union forces, “…As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free...” Fredrick Douglass, the African American orator and former slave who knew Brown well, summed up the events of Harpers Ferry and the man who perpetrated the defiant act, speaking in 1881: “John Brown’s raid upon Harpers Ferry was all his own…His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave.”

References

The New York Times Front Pages 1851-2016. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2016.

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Simon & Schuster. 2018.

Halsey, William P. (Editorial Director). Collier’s Encyclopedia. Crowell Collier and MacMillan, Inc. 1966.

Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. Picador. 2011

Kutler, Stanley I. (Editor in Chief). Dictionary of American History. Third Edition. Thomson Gale. 2003.

Johnson, Allen (Editor). Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1929.

Reynold, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Vintage Books. 2005.

Questions & Answers

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      • L.M. Hosler profile image

        L.M. Hosler 

        9 days ago

        Very interesting article. I hope to get to Harpers Ferry to see it for myself sometime soon.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        2 weeks ago from Missouri

        Larry:

        I agree, John Brown is an interesting historical character. I recently went to his museum in Osawatomie, Kansas. The museum is small but nicely done and the curator was very helpful.

      • Larry Slawson profile image

        Larry Slawson 

        2 weeks ago from North Carolina

        Such an interesting story. I've always found John Brown to be a fascinating individual to study. Actually did quite a lot of research into his life during graduate school. Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed!

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        2 weeks ago from Missouri

        Tim:

        You are right, at the time most of the country viewed John Brown as an outlaw terrorist. Over time we see that his means did justify the end. It told bold action to end the institution of slavery and John Brown was just the man for the job.

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        2 weeks ago

        Doug, I would recommend it. There are many historical sites at Harpers Ferry. I would suggest to do the Bolivar Heights car tour. They have many things from the civil war on display to see. It is a good time.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        2 weeks ago from U.S.A.

        Excellent article, Doug. Although John Brown was considered a terrorist-rebel during his time, he is a clear reminder that when good men sit by, evil will win. Of course, John Brown could have worked within the system to try to change the system, but then, we probably wouldn't have this great true story. Thanks, Doug. Interesting and informative.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        2 weeks ago from Missouri

        Mike:

        Thanks for the comment. I am hoping to go Harpers Ferry myself one day. From the pictures I have seen of the area it looks a nice view.

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        2 weeks ago

        Doug, an excellent article. During my travels this past summer my wife and I visited Harpers Ferry. There is certainly a wealth of information about him there. It's is a nice little town. Enjoyed reading this article.

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