Harpers Ferry Raid

views updated May 23 2018

Harpers Ferry Raid

United States 1859


On Sunday evening, 16 October 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and a band of supporters raided the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown's purpose was to strike a decisive blow against slavery and to embolden slaves to rise up and revolt. The raiders managed to seize control of the arsenal, but on Tuesday morning federal troops stormed it and captured several prisoners, including Brown. Later that month he was tried and convicted of treason, and on 2 December he was hanged. The notoriety of the Harpers Ferry raid further polarized the nation over the slavery issue and propelled the North and South closer to civil war.


  • 1839: England launches the First Opium War against China. The war, which lasts three years, results in the British gaining a free hand to conduct a lucrative opium trade, despite opposition by the Chinese government.
  • 1844: American artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse successfully sends the first message via telegraph: a series of dots and dashes that conveys the phrase, "What hath God wrought?," across a circuit between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
  • 1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. Over the next eight years, she will undertake at least 20 secret missions into Maryland and Virginia to free more than 300 slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad.
  • 1852: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, though far from a literary masterpiece, is a great commercial success, with over half a million sales on both sides of the Atlantic. More important, it has an enormous influence on British sentiments with regard to slavery and the brewing American conflict between North and South.
  • 1855: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is published.
  • 1859: Building of the Suez Canal begins.
  • 1859: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, sparking enormous controversy with an account of humankind's origins that differs markedly from the Bible.
  • 1859: Retired American railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake drills the first successful oil well in the United States, at Titusville, Pennsylvania.
  • 1861: Within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the U.S. Civil War begins with the shelling of Fort Sumter. Six states secede from the Union, joining South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) and electing Jefferson Davis as president. The first major battle of the war, at Bull Run or Manassas in Virginia, is a Confederate victory.
  • 1865: U.S. Civil War ends with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. More than 600,000 men have died and the South is in ruins, but the Union has been restored.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.

Event and Its Context

The Development of an Abolitionist

John Brown was born in Connecticut on 9 May 1800, and during his childhood and early manhood he developed a deep and abiding hatred of slavery. By the 1830s he was a successful tanner, but the depression of 1837 wiped out his modest wealth, which he had intended to use to finance an antislavery campaign. Throughout the 1840s his attitude toward slavery hardened, and he came to believe that only armed resistance—not speeches, protests, and petitions—would bring down the institution of slavery.

A turning point in Brown's life was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Plans to organize Nebraska as a territory met with opposition from the South because under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Nebraska would be a free state. Accordingly, the area was organized as two territories, Nebraska and Kansas, and each would determine whether it wanted to be a free or a slave state—in effect repealing the Missouri Compromise. Kansas immediately turned into a battleground over slavery. Proslavery settlers were rushing into Kansas, while northern abolitionist groups were financing the settlement of "free-soilers." In 1855 a proslavery legislature was elected, but free-soilers refused to recognize it and established their own shadow government. Meanwhile, border ruffians from Missouri were launching raids into Kansas, where they burned homes and murdered antislavery settlers.

In the midst of this chaos, Brown arrived in Kansas on 6 October 1855. Convinced that decisive action had to be taken, particularly after a force of 2,000 Missourians sacked and burned Lawrence, the free-state capital of Kansas, he organized a small troop of men, including four of his sons who had settled in Kansas. On the night of 24 May 1856, Brown led them to Pottawotamie Creek, where he directed the execution of five leaders of raids on free-staters. His actions helped plunge the state into a bloody conflict that ended only with the intervention of federal troops. Brown escaped to spend the next three years collecting money from abolitionists to aid runaway slaves. To accomplish his aims, however, he needed weapons such as those produced at the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Preparation and Plans

Some historians have described Brown as a "madman," and the popular conception of the Harpers Ferry raid was that it was little more than a desperate, ragtag effort to lash out at the slave system. In many respects, though, the raid was carefully planned and became the first step in a strategic campaign to bring about the collapse of slavery. Brown needed a dramatic way to galvanize a response both from slaves, who he believed would flee their plantations and join him, and from northern abolitionists, who he was convinced would send men and arms in the belief that an attack on slavery had begun in earnest. Using the Virginia mountains as a base, he planned to send small bands of men to local plantations to persuade slaves to join him. Once slavery collapsed locally, slave owners in surrounding counties would feel increasingly insecure about their ability to defend their "property" and would sell their slaves farther south. This process would repeat itself throughout Virginia, then throughout an ever-expanding area of the South, with Brown and his men following. Eventually, Brown believed, the nation's nearly four million slaves would be freed by an orderly, disciplined revolution—one governed not by a thirst for blood but by a "Provisional Constitution" written to ensure honorable and restrained conduct by his supporters.

To accomplish his goals, Brown needed arms and money. Much of the money came from the so-called Secret Six, a group that included some of New England's foremost abolitionists: Gerrit Smith, a millionaire philanthropist and a member of Congress from New York; Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who hid runaway slaves in his Boston home; Franklin B. Sanborn, an educator and later Brown's biographer; Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, coeditor of an abolitionist newspaper with his wife, Julia Ward Howe; George Luther Steams, a wealthy businessman; and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, also a Unitarian minister. Even Henry David Thoreau contributed money to Brown's cause, though no evidence shows that he knew of the raid. The arms, Brown concluded, would come from the Harpers Ferry Arsenal, which had been created by George Washington in 1794 and continued to produce weapons until it was destroyed at the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

In the summer of 1859, Brown took up residence on a Maryland farm near Harpers Ferry, where he trained a group of 21 men in military maneuvers; among them were his sons, Oliver, Owen, and Watson. There he tried to maintain an air of normalcy to allay the growing suspicions of neighbors. Originally the raid was scheduled for 24 October, but Brown feared exposure of his plans, so on the night of 16 October the men launched their assault on the arsenal and took a number of watchmen prisoner, including Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington. In spite of his planning, though, Brown made two serious tactical errors. One was to allow a train that had stopped at Harpers Ferry to proceed to Baltimore; Brown expressed concern both for the passengers and for those awaiting them. When the train arrived in Baltimore, those aboard notified the authorities of what they had seen, and the government dispatched federal troops from Washington, D.C. The other mistake was to await the arrival of a wagonful of guns that two of the raiders were to bring from Brown's Maryland farmhouse. The men were delayed, but Brown insisted on waiting for them rather than taking the opportunity to flee.

By the morning of 17 October, local militia had surrounded the arsenal. During the day, at least three citizens, including the mayor of Harpers Ferry, were killed in sporadic gunfire. Brown, his escape routes cut off, selected nine prisoners and moved with them to the arsenal's fire-engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort. From this position he tried to negotiate the release of the prisoners in exchange for the freedom of the raiders, but without success. By this time, townspeople were enjoying an unofficial holiday, much of it spent in the saloons. When Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived with federal troops, his first action was to close the saloons and restore some order. Then at 6:30 on the morning of 18 October, Lee's troops stormed the engine house, and the raid ended as quickly as it had begun. Among Brown's men, 10 were killed, including two of Brown's sons; two escaped but were caught and brought back for trial; five escaped and were never caught; and five, including Brown, were captured and imprisoned.

Reactions to the Harpers Ferry Raid

Many Northerners were deeply disturbed by Brown's execution. They had been impressed by his dignity and eloquence during his trial, his almost quiet insistence that slavery was an evil that had to be ended. In cities throughout the North, people held memorials and gathered in churches to pay tribute to Brown as a fallen martyr and to condemn his hanging. The city of Albany, New York, fired a hundred-gun salute in his honor; businesses and government offices were closed on 2 December in Akron, Ohio. An outpouring of songs, poems, essays, and public addresses flowed from sympathizers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his journal that day, "This will be a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution—quite as much needed as the old one."

Reaction was markedly different through much of the South. The South had long feared a slave revolt, and those fears were enflamed by the Harpers Ferry raid, led, many felt, by a dangerous fanatic. In the weeks and months that followed the raid, the South was rife with rumor and speculation. The governor of Virginia received letters and telegrams claiming that bands of antislavery marauders were invading the state; reports circulated that armed men from Kansas were on their way to Virginia to rescue Brown. Crowds publicly burned books that were critical of the South; suspicious people were jailed or run out of town; anytime a house caught fire, rumors flew that the slave revolt had begun. Calls for secession from the Union grew louder.

Brown's raid fostered a new militancy among abolitionists. Many abandoned the belief that slavery could be ended by moral suasion. Pacifists were fired by determination and anger and began to accept that force was the only solution. As Frederick Douglass wrote in the November 1859 issue of the Liberator, "Moral considerations have long since been exhausted upon Slaveholders. It is in vain to reason with them. … Slavery is a system of brute force. It shields itself behind might, rather than right. It must be met with its own weapons."

After the Civil War, Storer College, a school for African Americans, was established at Harpers Ferry. Later, the college became the site of the Second Niagara Movement, a precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. John Brown's Fort stands now in the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, near where it originally stood.

Key Players

Douglass, Frederick (1817-1895): Born a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland, Douglass later was able to buy his freedom and became the leading African American spokesman against slavery, both as a lecturer and as editor of abolitionist newspapers. In 1845 he published his autobiography, later titled Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth (1823-1911): Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Higginson was a Unitarian minister and an active abolitionist. During the Civil War he commanded an African American regiment of the Union Army. He is most remembered for inspiring and supporting Emily Dickinson, and he edited a collection of her poetry after her death.

Howe, Samuel Gridley (1801-1876): Born in Boston, Howe was a physician and active social reformer, lending his support to education for the blind, humane treatment for the mentally ill, prison reform, abolition, and the Underground Railroad. With his wife, Julia Ward Howe, he edited the abolitionist newspaper Commonwealth.

Lee, Robert E. (1807-1870): Lee was born in Westmoreland Country, Virginia, and attended West Point. He opposed secession but resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederate Army. He commanded troops at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg before surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.

Smith, Gerrit (1797-1874): Born in Utica, New York, Smith managed an inherited family fortune. He opposed the Fugitive Slave Act, and after 1835 his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives (1853-1855). After the Civil War, he opposed voting rights for African Americans.

See also: Abolition of Slavery: United States



Frederickson, George M. The Inner Civil War. New York:Harper and Row, 1965.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Stavis, Barrie. John Brown: The Sword and the Word. New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1970.

Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.


"West Virginia History: Articles on John Brown." West Virginia Archives and History [cited 21 September 2002]. <www.wvculture.org/history/jbrown.html>.

—Michael J. O'Neal

Harpers Ferry Raid

views updated May 23 2018


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" .

Harpers Ferry Raid

views updated May 23 2018


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.

Harpers Ferry Raid

views updated May 21 2018

Harpers Ferry Raid

John Brown (1800–1859) was an American abolitionist and insurrectionist who planned an all-out war on slavery beginning with a violent raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia , in 1859. Brown's unsuccessful raid played a key role in heightening the tensions between the North and South that led to the American Civil War (1861–65).

Violence in Kansas

Brown was a militant abolitionist (a person with an aggressive, or warlike, mission to end slavery ) from Ohio . By 1855, his antislavery convictions were so strong he believed that God had chosen him to free the slaves from bondage. He therefore traveled to Kansas Territory to join the growing struggle between proslavery and Free Soil forces over the legal status of slavery in Kansas. (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 violent action of proslavery forces in the Free Soil town of Lawrence, Kansas, in May 1856, Brown and four of his sons launched a brutal raid in revenge. In a nighttime attack on a proslavery settlement, Brown and his followers killed five settlers. Learning of his attack, hundreds of settlers rushed to arm themselves. By the end of 1856, at least two hundred Kansans had died.

Brown prepares for war

Brown had long since lost faith in combating slavery by peaceful means, and the trouble in Kansas did not change his mind. He vowed to strike a violent blow at the heart of slavery. In 1857, Brown developed a plan in which he would seize a mountain fortress in Virginia with a small combat force and launch a slave rebellion . Once the rebellion had begun, Brown intended to establish an African American 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.

To that end, Brown began to campaign among the abolitionists in the North. Outwardly, he was seeking money to continue the Free State fight in Kansas. In secret, though, Brown won the support of six prominent antislavery figures who agreed to advise him and raise money for his mission to overthrow slavery. The “Secret Six” was a group of dedicated and well-educated abolitionists and reformers.

Throughout the remainder of 1857, Brown collected and trained a small group of abolitionists in preparation for his mission. In May 1858, Brown held a secret “Constitutional Convention” in Canada attended by a small band of thirty-four blacks and eleven whites. There he outlined his plans to invade Virginia, liberate and arm the slaves, defeat any military force brought against them, organize the blacks into a government, and force the southern states to concede emancipation (freeing the slaves). Under Brown's leadership, the convention approved a constitution for the new state and elected Brown commander in chief of the army.

Brown's proposed invasion was delayed in 1858, when one of his followers partially divulged the plans to several prominent politicians. Brown was forced to go into hiding for a year. It was a disastrous time for postponement. While he waited out the danger, some of the most ardent supporters of his plan lost interest and he lost many of the soldiers he had trained.

The raid

Harpers Ferry, a town in northern Virginia (now located in West Virginia ), was the site of a federal armory and arsenal (government buildings for storing arms and ammunition). The Harpers Ferry arsenal was the initial target in Brown's plan because he needed weapons to arm the slaves he planned to liberate. On July 3, 1859, Brown set up headquarters at a farm seven miles east of Harpers Ferry. Soon the rest of his twenty-one young recruits (sixteen whites and five blacks) arrived at the headquarters. On the night of October 16, 1859, after several months of refining his plans, Brown led eighteen of his followers on the Harpers Ferry raid. They quickly captured the arsenal, the armory, and a nearby rifle works, and then seized several hostages from the townspeople and surrounding countryside.

Fearing a slave rebellion, the people of Harpers Ferry armed themselves and gathered in the streets. Church bells tolled the alarm over the countryside. Brown stood his ground and anxiously waited for the slaves from the countryside to rally to his cause. Not a single slave arrived. By 11:00 AM the next day, a general battle was in progress between Brown's men, holed up in the small fire engine house of the armory, and the assembled townspeople, farmers, and militia. The raid's fate was sealed when a company of U.S. Marines under the command of army colonel Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) charged the engine house. Ten of his men were killed and Brown was wounded and captured.

Brown and his co-conspirators were tried in Virginia rather than by federal authorities, even though their attack had been against federal property. The jury found them guilty of inciting a slave rebellion, murder, and treason against the state of Virginia. After the trial, in a final attempt to save his life, Brown's lawyers collected statements from his friends and relatives alleging that Brown was suffering from insanity. Brown rejected this defense, claiming that he was as sane as anybody. He knew that he could better serve the abolitionist cause as a martyr (someone who suffers or dies for his or her beliefs). He conducted his defense and went to his death with great dignity and conviction, inspiring sympathy among many Northern abolitionists.

Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry intensified the sectional bitterness that led to the American Civil War. The outraged South suspected all Northerners of participating in Brown's crime. In truth, the vast majority of Northerners condemned the incident as the work of a fanatic. The Republican Party , the political party that was calling for a stop to the expansion of slavery, had no links with Brown. On the other hand, some Northern abolitionists, including the Secret Six, gathered by the hundreds throughout the North to honor and acclaim Brown's martyrdom. Two years later, Northerners marched to war to the tune of a popular war song called “John Brown's Body.”

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