Harpers Ferry

views updated May 09 2018


The Potomac drains the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains and flows southeast until, at Harpers Ferry, it confronts the Shenandoah, flowing north out of the Virginia Blue Ridge. The rivers converge, proceed through a mountain pass, and flow past Washington, D.C., into the Chesapeake Bay. In 1859 Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was a prosperous town, strategically situated at this river junction, on two rail lines, and almost midway along a canal that carried freight from the Chesapeake to Pennsylvania. The town, with a population of almost three thousand, had a military economy: it was home to a U.S. armory, a federal arsenal, and Hall's Rifle Works.


During the night of 16 October 1859, nineteen men walked into Harpers Ferry, captured the armory, and then commandeered the thousands of rifles stored at the arsenal. Three others waited outside town to provide a rear guard. Most members of this "multiracial alliance" were free-soil veterans of the Kansas civil war and were trained in guerrilla tactics. Their apparent plan was to capture the weapons and to quickly move them into improvised natural fortifications located at regular intervals along the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains. There the alliance would free slaves, arming some with pikes or rifles, and open a defendable route of ridgeline escape and logistical resupply from Alabama to Canada. Despite a last-minute shortage of volunteers and poor planning for food, ammunition, and transport, the raid quickly met its initial goal of capturing the weapons. But before the raiders could make a quiet escape, the mission's objectives were redrawn to include the capture of several prominent hostages and the theft of some symbolically charged weapons that had once belonged to George Washington.

John "Osawatomie" Brown (1800–1859), a fifty-nine-year-old radical abolitionist, led the raid. His growing reputation in the Kansas civil war had earned him enthusiastic support in preceding years as he lectured northerners on the need for armed resistance to slavery—although his audiences had probably assumed he meant further action in Kansas. Brown had met and corresponded with important literary figures, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. But in addition to the raiding party, his close conspirators included Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913), some influential and financial backers who have become known as the "Secret Six," his fifteen-year-old daughter, Annie Brown, and his daughter-in-law, Martha Brown.

In the early morning hours of 17 October, Brown awaited the return of the hostage-taking detachment he had sent five miles away to capture Lewis Washington and some Washington family heirlooms. But on two occasions sporadic shooting broke out in the town. The hostage detail finally returned to Harpers Ferry around 5:00 a.m., but lingering agitation over the inadvertent murder of a free black resident of Harpers Ferry delayed Brown from making a timely exit. By sunrise, with church bells pealing, the town's residents were becoming aware of the disturbance. Inconceivably, Brown and his men dawdled as units of the Virginia militia in nearby towns were notified. Forgoing his last clear chance of escaping with the captured rifles, Brown released a previously halted B&O passenger train, which then proceeded toward Baltimore without him as the townspeople began to put up a fledgling defense. Erratic gunfire kept Brown and his men engaged through the morning. By noon the raiders were pinned down with their hostages in a fire-engine garage under growing threat from units of the Virginia militia. By nightfall, Brown and five of the raiders defended the engine house against several hundred militiamen. The other raiders had been killed or wounded or had escaped into the nearby mountains.

Colonel Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), in temporary command of ninety marines, entered the fracas before midnight and ordered federal troops to form a perimeter around Brown and his demoralized raiders. Early the next morning, Lee offered to accept an unconditional surrender from Brown. During the ensuing negotiations over the terms of surrender, twelve marines stormed the building. Within three minutes, a seriously wounded Brown, along with four of his followers, had been captured alive.


Rumors of abolitionist conspiracies and slave insurrections spread throughout the slave states during the rest of the winter. Democratic and southern newspapers blamed the Republicans and abolitionists for the attack, accusing them of encouraging slaves to murder defenseless families. Even northern and Republican newspapers expressed shock and horror over the raid. Republican leaders reacted to the news by distancing themselves from Brown and his methods. William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), the editor of The Liberator, called the raid "misguided, wild, and apparently insane." Accurately concerned that the nation's moral outrage could result in their own arrest, many of Brown's coconspirators fled the country, entered an asylum, or otherwise avoided the public gaze. A few of the more courageous or defiant refused to flee.


Early support for John Brown and for his violent raid began in a surprising yet familiar place, Concord, Massachusetts, a town that "instigated the first American 'insurrection,'" according to James Redpath, a journalist who had befriended Brown during the Kansas war. One Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), learned of the Harpers Ferry incident a day after the engine house had been stormed. Thoreau was misinformed that Brown had been killed; in his journal entry that day he ranted for an unprecedented eleven pages against the federal government, the newspapers, Republicans, his neighbors, and humankind. Almost daily until 8 December Thoreau's journal dwelt upon Brown, and much of this invective was excerpted for lectures and later essays. Over the next several weeks, he gave fiery speeches in Concord, Boston, and Worcester that were culled from these journal entries. Later, Thoreau compiled these speeches into an essay that he titled "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

Meanwhile, a slowly healing Brown was charged with murder and treason and quickly put on trial. Throughout the very public and internationally reported proceedings, a passionate letter and lecture campaign blossomed. Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), a prolific abolitionist author, wrote to the governor of Virginia requesting permission to visit Brown and to act as his prison nurse. The governor used the opportunity of a public reply to belittle northern sympathy for Brown and his violence. To raise funds for Brown's legal defense and for his family's ongoing support, the Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips (1811–1884) made a powerful speech in Brooklyn on 1 November. Six days later, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) spoke at a well-attended and sympathetic Boston fund-raiser. To mixed applause, Emerson compared the prospect of Brown's execution on the gallows to the death of Jesus on the cross.

Others writers contributed essays, letters, and poems and were quoted in support of Brown in important newspapers. Victor Hugo (1802–1885) published a letter referring to Brown as "the liberator, the champion of Christ." On 2 December, the day of Brown's hanging near Charles Town, Virginia, sympathizers attended memorial services that were held throughout the North. The Concord event included readings, hymns, prayers, and eulogies. Thoreau, Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), and Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) participated. In another part of Concord, however, Brown was hanged in effigy. Popular sentiment across the nation was beginning to shift. From the day of Brown's execution, a regional divergence of public opinion developed as to the meaning of the raid. Northerners began to view the assault as a pious and heroic—if desperate—effort by a martyr in the cause of liberty; southerners blasted it as an insane act of terrorism against innocent citizens of Virginia.

Within months, James Redpath published a volume of poems, letters, and essays honoring Brown the martyr. Included in this collection were poems by Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lydia Maria Child, and William Dean Howells. Less than five months after Brown's hanging, the Democratic Party split into regional factions over its slavery platform. During the ensuing Civil War, Brown's legend grew with Union victories and benefited from the spirit of home-front sacrifice. Many Union soldiers marched to "John Brown's Body"—a rousing song with multiple versions—that inspired Julia Ward Howe to write "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the same tune.

After the war, lengthy biographies of Brown, written by devotees such as Richard Hinton and Franklin Sanborn, helped to preserve the John Brown legend. Borrowing a metaphor from Thoreau, both Herman Melville (1819–1891) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892) paid tribute to Brown the "meteor" in several poems about the war. In 1882 the American historian George Washington Williams (1849–1891) recognized that the view of John Brown as a "madman" had been corrected.

While much of the country reacted with shock and outrage to news of John Brown's raid, early justification for the radical action was voiced by Henry David Thoreau. Within a month of the raid, Thoreau's speeches in Boston, Concord, and Worcester, carried by the national press, compared Brown's heroic acts at Harpers Ferry to the horrific violence preserving slavery in the South.

There sits a tyrant holding fettered four millions of slaves; here comes their heroic liberator. This most hypocritical and diabolical government looks up from its seat on the gasping four millions, and inquires with an assumption of innocence, "What do you assault me for? Am I not an honest man? Cease agitation on this subject, or I will make a slave of you, too, or else hang you."

Henry David Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," in Henry David Thoreau: Reform Papers, edited by Wendell Glick (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 129.

Like West Virginia itself, which had abandoned its allegiance to Virginia at the outbreak of the Civil War, Harpers Ferry had also jettisoned the stigma it had gained as a site of violence. The town became an abolitionist shrine, a symbol of liberty in the national literary imagination. Seen within the context of the Civil War, the violence of the raid seemed less shocking and more justifiable. By 1900 the historical facts of John Brown's abortive raid, his indecisive leadership, his resort to violence, and his failure to incite an immediate slave insurrection had faded in importance and in meaning, while the almost-sacred ruins of the once-prosperous town had come to represent the continuing struggle for African American rights.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Battle-Pieces;Civil War; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson's Antislavery Writings. Edited by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Hinton, Richard J. John Brown and His Men. 1894. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Redpath, James. Echoes of Harper's Ferry. 1860. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Sanborn, F. B., ed. The Life and Letters of John Brown,Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia. 1885. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Lewis Hyde. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Secondary Works

Boyer, Richard O. The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Geier, Clarence R., Jr., and Susan E. Winter, eds. Look to theEarth: Historical Archaeology and the American Civil War. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: ACultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

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

Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Quarles, Benjamin. Allies for Freedom and Blacks on John Brown. 1972. Chicago: Da Capo Press, 1974.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Vols. 12–13. 1906. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. New York: Dover, 1962.

Joseph M. Petrulionis

Harpers Ferry

views updated May 18 2018

Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859, the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was captured by the abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859) and twenty-one of his followers. Although the rebels were quickly defeated—and their goal of inspiring local slaves to mount a full-scale rebellion came to nothing—the attack would have profound consequences for the national debate on the future of slavery in the United States.

Born in Connecticut on May 9, 1800, Brown first came to national attention in 1856 as a result of his activities during the guerilla warfare that broke out during the so-called "Bleeding Kansas" crisis. Long an ardent advocate of the antislavery movement, whose devoutly religious and fiery character led him to believe that the only way to defeat the proslavery movement was, indeed, to "fight fire with fire," Brown had traveled to Kansas in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act's passage through Congress. The act created the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska but allowed settlers in the territories to determine through popular sovereignty whether or not they would eventually enter the Union as slave or free states. Because it was a foregone conclusion that Nebraska would be a free state, many southerners believed that, in order to maintain the status quo in the Senate, Kansas had to allow slavery. This was anathema to the abolitionist movement, which resented the nullification of the Missouri Compromise's (1820) provision that slavery would be prohibited in all new states located north of the latitude 36° 30′. Both sides quickly realized that they could influence the outcome of the Kansas vote by encouraging hundreds of their supporters to move to the territory and participate in the upcoming ballot. With passions running high amongst proslavery and antislavery supporters alike, violence was inevitable. The spark came on May 21, 1856, when a posse of some 800 proslavery men from Missouri marched on the free-state town of Lawrence to arrest members of its government on charges of treason; although the accused men chose not to resist, the proslavery forces nevertheless sacked the town, destroying several buildings. News of this attack, coupled with word of the assault of Senator Charles Sumner (1811–1874) on the floor of the Senate, provoked Brown into leading an attack on the small pro-slavery community of families living near Pottawatomie Creek that resulted in five men being brutally murdered.

Brown continued to play a leading role amidst the escalating violence in Kansas until he took advantage of a general amnesty offered by Kansas's new territorial governor to all combatants willing to lay down their weapons. Brown returned to the northeast in September 1856 where he discovered that his newfound notoriety made it possible for him to interact at the abolitionist movement's highest levels. When Brown successfully organized a raid into Missouri that saw him liberate eleven slaves and lead them on a 1,000-mile journey to freedom in Canada, his reputation as a man capable of striking at the heart of the peculiar institution grew even further. In particular, Brown came into contact with the so-called "Secret Six," a group of radical abolitionists willing to fund his latest scheme—an incursion into the heart of Virginia that would inspire the state's slaves to rise up against their masters and fight for their own freedom.

Brown's plan was remarkably straightforward: He and his men would storm the federal armory at Harpers Ferry and use the 200,000 weapons that were stored there to arm the thousands of slaves that Brown was convinced would soon flock to his banner; this newly created army would then retreat to the nearby Appalachians from where they would operate a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the slave holding assets of Virginia and Maryland. Using the alias Isaac Smith, Brown rented a farm in nearby Maryland during the summer of 1859 and began to prepare for the rebellion. By late August, however, he had succeeded in persuading only twenty-one men to join his cause—and three of those were his own sons. In desperation, Brown turned to his friend and influential abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) for support. Despite Douglass's refusal to give his endorsement to a gambit that he thought was suicidal and certain to turn the nation's sympathies away from the abolitionist cause, Brown was resolved to see his plan through and, on the night of October 16, 1859, he and eighteen of his men launched their attack.

The initial stages of the assault went well: The rebels successfully isolated Harpers Ferry, cutting telegraph wires so news of the attack would not leak out and taking several residents hostage. With the armory secure, Brown dispatched several of his men to spread word of the rebellion amongst the local slaves and sat back to wait for the anticipated army of free slaves to come to him. But Brown's plans soon started to unravel. The anticipated slave uprising never materialized, with most not realizing what was happening. More disastrously, Brown first stopped and then inexplicably released an eastbound train that passed through the town, allowing word of the attack to reach Washington, DC, by early afternoon on October 17. As federal troops under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) made their way to Harpers Ferry, shots were exchanged between the rebels and the town's residents, killing three townsfolk and eight of Brown's men and forcing the survivors to retreat to the armory's fire engine house with nine hostages. With the arrival of Colonel Lee's U.S. marines that night, the raid was all but over. Its denouement came early the following morning when the marines forced their way into the engine house, killing two more of the rebels and capturing the others including Brown, who was seriously wounded. Charged with treason, Brown used his trial in late October as an opportunity to preach against the evils of slavery and claim that his actions were sanctioned by God. Embracing the fact that a conviction was inevitable, he declared that "if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done!" (Brown 1860, pp. 15-16).

Brown's execution on December 2 further split an already polarized nation. Brown's image of himself as a martyr to the greater cause of abolitionism was shared by many in the North, who admired the courage of his convictions and marked his death by ringing church bells and firing ceremonial gun salutes. This response bewildered and angered southerners, who had initially been reassured that not one slave voluntarily joined Brown's raid, seemingly confirming that their slaves were content with their lot in life and did not seek freedom. But, they asked themselves, if Brown had been tried and executed as a murderer and traitor, how could so many in the North openly celebrate his actions if not to challenge, and ultimately end, the South's way of life? As they mulled over this apparent paradox, many in the South decided that its resolution could only lie in disunion and bloodshed.


Brown, John. Testimonies of Capt. John Brown, at Harpers Ferry: with His Address to the Court. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860.

DeCaro, Louis A. "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

The Life, Trial, and Execution of Captain John Brown, Known as "Old Brown of Ossawatomie," with a Full Account of the Attempted Insurrection at Harpers Ferry. New York: R. M. DeWitt, 1859.

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

Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

                                   Simon J. Appleford

Harpers Ferry

views updated May 29 2018

Harpers Ferry a small town in Jefferson County, West Virginia, at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It is famous for a raid in October 1859 in which John Brown and a group of abolitionists captured a Federal arsenal located there.