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Harpers Ferry Raid


HARPERS FERRY RAID. The Harpers Ferry raid from 16 to 18 October 1859 was led by the abolitionist John Brown. Brown captured the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (subsequently West Virginia), at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. With the weapons seized there, he intended to arm the great number of slaves he thought would join him. But the plot was a failure, and Brown and most of his followers were either killed outright or captured and later executed. Nevertheless, the raid, and the myth of John Brown it created, accelerated the sectional divide over slavery and indirectly helped achieve Brown's agenda.


John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800. He was a deceitful businessman, a defendant in litigation in twenty-one separate cases. However, he was able to inspire loyalty among low and influential men alike. He had become an ardent sympathizer of the slaves by the 1830s. In 1855 he moved with five of his sons to Kansas, where the slavery issue was bitterly contested. On 24 May 1856, Brown led a party on a raid of Pottawatomie Creek, a frontier community near Lawrence. In what has become known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown and his followers killed five proslavery men. The massacre exacerbated national tensions over slavery by suggesting that antislavery forces were willing to commit violence. It also suggested that Brown saw himself as an agent of God. Murky evidence about Pottawatomie allowed Brown to avoid arrest. From 1856 to 1859 he traveled between Kansas and New England, organizing antislavery raiding parties. In early 1858 he began seeking support for the Harpers Ferry raid.

The Plot

By 1858 Brown had cultivated support among leading northern antislavery and literary figures. That year he approached his contacts with a plan to take an armed force into Virginia to rally the slaves, and resist by force any effort to prevent their being freed. Evidently Brown viewed Virginia, a slave state, as ready for black revolt. Brown consulted with Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, George Stearns, Franklin Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, and Samuel Gridley Howe. Several tried to dissuade Brown, but all except Douglass ended up agreeing to provide him with the money necessary to launch the Harpers Ferry raid. They became known as the Secret Six.

John Brown's intentions at Harpers Ferry are mysterious. After his capture he asserted that freeing slaves was his only object, not killing slaveholders. On the other hand, on 8 May 1858 in Ontario, Canada, he shared with several dozen Negroes and white men a "provisional constitution" that provided for confiscating all the personal and real property of slave owners and for maintaining a government throughout a large area. Since Brown did not expect to have more than a hundred men in his striking force, the large army necessary for this operation would have to be composed of liberated slaves. Moreover, Brown's little band already had plenty of guns at its disposal. Therefore, the only thing to be gained by attacking the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry was weapons, presumably to arm thousands of slaves. We can conclude that Brown did not intend to kill people in the Harpers Ferry raid unless they got in his way. But he also intended to encourage a great many slaves to defend their freedom and to give them the means to do so.

Brown planned to strike at Harpers Ferry in the summer of 1858, but his plans were interrupted by Hugh Forbes, an English soldier of fortune he had hired to train troops. Disenchanted by Brown's reneging on his wages, Forbes publicized the plot by describing it to U.S. senators Henry Wilson and William Seward. Wilson chastised the Secret Six, warning them that Brown's scheme would compromise the antislavery cause. The Secret Six told Brown that he must go back to Kansas, which he did in June 1858. In December he led a raid into Missouri, where his band killed a slaveholder and liberated eleven slaves whom they carried (in midwinter) all the way to Ontario. This was Brown's most successful operation ever. It could have capped his antislavery career and gained him a solid footnote in Civil War history books. But Brown saw his destiny in Virginia.

The Raid

In the summer of 1859, Brown went to Maryland and rented a farm five miles from Harpers Ferry. There he waited, mostly in vain, for additional men and money. By mid-October 1859 he had twenty-two followers and probably recognized that his force never would be any stronger. On the night of 16 October, he and his band marched toward the Potomac with a wagonload of arms, cut the telegraph wires, crossed and captured the bridge, and moved into Harpers Ferry. Brown quickly seized the armory and its rifle works. He then sent out a detail to capture two local slaveholders along with their slaves. This mission was accomplished. Meanwhile, Brown's men had stopped a Baltimore and Ohio train, inadvertently killing the African American baggage master, but then allowed the train to go on its way. On the morning of 17 October, Brown took a number of the armory's employees hostage as they came in for work. Otherwise he remained in the engine works of the arsenal, perhaps waiting, in his mind, for the slaves to rise. By mid-morning, Maryland and Virginia militia were on their way to Harpers Ferry, and the president of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad reported to Washington that some sort of insurrection was in progress. By the afternoon of the 17th, the militia had gained control of the bridges, driving off or killing Brown's outposts. By 10 p.m., Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, U.S. Cavalry, with his aide Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, had arrived to take charge.

Lee followed military protocol for the situation. He offered the Virginia militia a chance to capture the engine works (which they declined), gave the insurrectionists a chance to surrender, and was careful to avoid shooting Brown's prisoners. On 18 October, Lee sent Stuart to negotiate with the leader of the raid. A veteran of Kansas, Stuart was astonished to recognize Brown. Once Brown refused to surrender, Stuart waved in a dozen marines who charged with bayonets. It was all over in moments, without a shot fired. One marine and two of Brown's men were killed. Brown himself was wounded but was saved from death because his assailant, in command of the assault team, had only a dress sword. Altogether, Brown's force had killed four civilians and wounded nine. Of his own men, ten were dead or dying, five had escaped the previous day, and seven were captured.

Brown's scheme—leading an army of twenty-two men against a federal arsenal and the entire state of Virginia—was amazingly amateurish. He left behind at his Maryland farm many letters that revealed his plans and exposed all of his confederates. He seized Harpers Ferry without taking food for his soldiers' next meal. Most bizarrely, Brown tried to lead a slave insurrection without notifying the slaves. As an abolitionist, he took it as an article of faith that slaves were seething with discontent and only awaited a signal to throw off their chains. But the Harpers Ferry raid was so poorly planned and executed that slaves, even had they been as restive as Brown assumed, could not participate.

The Consequences

In the six weeks that followed the raid, Republican and Democratic leaders denounced Brown's act. But he had shown a courage that won him grudging admiration in the South and legendary status in the North. Brown recognized that the manner of his death might be a great service to the antislavery cause. After a one-week trial, during which he lay wounded on a pallet, he was convicted of murder, treason, and insurrection. When he received his death sentence, he uttered words that became oratory of legend:

Had I interfered in 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 un-just enactments, I say, let it be done.

When Brown was hung at nearby Charles Town, on 2 December 1859, church bells tolled in many northern towns, cannons fired salutes, and prayer meetings adopted memorial resolutions. The execution dramatically deepened moral hostility to slavery. Such expressions of grief turned southern enchantment with Brown into panic. Southerners identified Brown with the abolitionists, the abolitionists with Republicans, and Republicans with the whole North. Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 fed rumors that the Republicans were letting loose dozens of John Browns on the South. Radical southern newspapers claimed Harpers Ferry showed that the South could have no peace as a part of the Union. John Brown's raid moved southern sentiments from mediation toward revolution.

Once the Civil War erupted, the ghost of John Brown inspired the Northern armies through the popular song "John Brown's Body." Its best-known version spoke of John Brown's body moldering in the grave, of his departure to become a soldier in the army of the Lord, and of hanging the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, on a sour apple tree. In November 1861, Julia Ward Howe, the wife of Secret Six member Samuel Gridley Howe, visited an army camp and heard the song. She awoke in the middle of the night with a creative urge to write down the words of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Upon publication, this version of the John Brown song became exalted. The words of the "Battle Hymn" have come down through the years as the noblest expression of what the North was fighting for in the Civil War.


Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. The best overall work among many.

Rossbach, Jeffery. Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Evaluates Brown's and his supporters' assumptions about the slaves' responsiveness.

United States National Park Service. John Brown's Raid. Washington, D.C.: Office of Publications, National Park Service, 1974. Good visual representation of key locations at Harpers Ferry at the time of the raid.

Timothy M.Roberts

See alsoAntislavery ; "Battle Hymn of the Republic" .

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Harpers Ferry Raid


John Brown (18001859) was an American abolitionist and insurrectionist whose violent raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 played a key role in sharpening the regional tensions that led to the American Civil War (18611865). John Brown was born at the turn of the nineteenth century in Torrington, Connecticut, and spent his childhood in Ohio, where he encountered and absorbed strong anti-slavery sentiments from the local population. Over the next three decades Brown raised a large family, but failed at a series of businesses. By 1855, Brown's antislavery stance had evolved into the conviction that God had chosen him to free the slaves from bondage. He followed five of his sons to Kansas to join the growing struggle between pro-slavery and Free Soiler forces over the legal status of slavery in the territory. (The Free Soil party was a U.S. political party with a main objective to prevent the extension of slavery to newly acquired U.S. territories.)

Angered by the ravaging of the Free Soiler town of Lawrence, Kansas, by pro-slavery guerrillas in May 1856, Brown and four of his sons launched a brutal retaliatory raid three days later. In a nighttime attack on a pro-slavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, Brown and his followers killed five settlers. The murders inflamed the conflict in Kansas as hundreds of settlers rushed to arm themselves. By the end of 1856, at least 200 Kansas citizens lay dead. The tragedy in Kansas ignited the national debate over slavery. Animosities hardened, and in Washington, D.C., pro-slavery and anti-slavery congressmen hurled curses and threats at each other in the Capitol over responsibility of the "bleeding Kansas." President Franklin Pierce (18531857) made matters much worse. An advocate of Southern interests, he refused to intervene when intimidation and fraud led to the election of a pro-slavery legislature.

For many Northerners, including respected intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, John Brown was considered a hero, praised for his righteous and uncompromising stand against slavery. To Southerners, Brown was a loathed and feared abolitionist who threatened a core institution of Southern society. He personified the horrible fate that awaited if the North was able to dictate its will on the issue of slavery.

Encouraged by his celebrity, but alarmed by the apparent victory of pro-slavery forces in Kansas, Brown next conceived a plot to strike a mortal blow against slavery. With a group of 18 white and black followers, Brown attacked and seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown hoped the assault would inspire slaves to join his cause. Arming the slaves in his group with weapons from the arsenal, Brown then intended to establish a Negro republic in the woods of Virginia. From this stronghold he planned to wage war against the South, his forces continuously strengthened by slave rebellions and private Northern assistance.

The failure of the raid was inevitable. The local population and militia quickly mobilized against the group, which failed to recruit a single slave to its side, let alone spark a general rebellion. The raid's fate was sealed when a company of United States Marines under the command of Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, ordered to the site by President James Buchanan (18571861), charged the engine house in which Brown and his followers had barricaded themselves. Ten of his group were killed and Brown was wounded and captured.

Brown's grand scheme lasted only 36 hours, but the impact of his raid on Harpers Ferry was far reaching. Although Brown was tried, convicted, and ultimately hanged for treason, he conducted his defense with uncharacteristic dignity and muted religious conviction, inspiring a wellspring of sympathy and support in the North. In death, Brown did more to provoke the dispute over slavery than he accomplished alive. Not surprisingly, Brown's raid heightened the sense of threat in the South, where many concluded the North approved his behavior, and that secession was the only viable solution to the great struggle over the future of slavery.

See also: Bleeding Kansas, Civil War (Economic Causes of), Harpers Ferry Armory


Connelley, William Elsey. John Brown. Topeka, KS: Crane and Company, 1900.

Fried, Albert. John Brown's Journey: Notes and Reflections on His America and Mine. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978.

Keller, Allan. Thunder at Harper's Ferry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.

Nelson, Truman. The Old Man: John Brown at Harpers Ferry. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown, 18001859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965.

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"Harpers Ferry Raid." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 17 Nov. 2017 <>.

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"Harpers Ferry Raid." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved November 17, 2017 from