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John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

an attempt to start a slave revolt which would result in an end to slavery

In 1855, John Brown and several of his sons moved to Kansas, a territory deeply divided over the slavery issue. On Pottawotamie Creek, on the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and his sons murdered five men who supported slavery, although none actually owned slaves. Brown and his sons escaped. Brown spent the next three years collecting money from wealthy abolitionists in order to establish a colony for runaway slaves. To accomplish this, Brown needed weapons. History does not record why, but Brown decided that the best place for him to get those weapons was the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia.

In the summer of 1859, Brown, using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, took up residence at a farm near Harpers Ferry. Over the course of about two to three months he endeavored to gather as many "followers" as he could in order to carry out his bold plan. He truly believed that a successful raid on the armory would spur slaves into revolting against their masters. He even tried to get the noted abolitonist Frederick Douglass to join him, but Douglass worried that a raid on a federal installation could only be destined to failure. Despite Douglass' warning, Brown continued with his plans.

On the night of October 15, 1859, Brown and 21 other men gathered at his farmhouse. The group included three of Brown's sons, a college student, some free blacks, and a fugitive slave who hoped to free his wife who was still in slavery.

Brown's party reached town at 4 am. After cutting the telegraph wires, they overpowered the lone watchman and easily captured the federal armory and arsenal. They then rounded up 60 prominent citizens as hostages, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grand-nephew of George Washington, and waited for their slaves to join the fight. No slaves ever came forth.

Brown's plan had worked well up to this point, despite no slaves having taken up arms with him. But the situation quickly grew tense. As a train came into town one of the baggage masters ran to warn the conductor. Brown's men shouted at the man to stop. When he refused, they shot and killed him. Ironically, the first casualty in the raid was a free black man. After holding the train for a few hours Brown allowed it to go on its way. Upon reaching Baltimore, the conductor informed federal authorities of the situation in Harpers Ferry.

By the middle of the morning the local militia had surrounded the armory and cut off any chance of escape. As the day passed shots were exchanged between Brown's men and townspeople. One of Brown's men tried to escape by swimming across the Potomac River but was shot and killed. Three citizens were also killed. Seeing his great plan going seriously awry, Brown selected nine prisoners and moved them to the armory's fire engine house, where he awaited what he expected to be a rescue by slaves.

The next morning, the armory yard was lined with a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was offered the chance to surrender, but he refused. Marines finally stormed the building. By the time it was over, 10 of the raiders, including two blacks and two of Brown's sons, had been killed, 5 had been captured, and 5 had escaped. Brown received a stab wound and was beaten unconscious. Two other raiders were captured a few days later. In addition, two slaves belonging to two of Brown's prisoners also lost their lives.

Brown and four other raiders were taken to Charlestown, Virginia. All were subsequently convicted of treason and executed.

News of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry stunned northerners and southerners alike. Adding to the hysteria were early newspaper reports with their sensational headlines, including the one at left, from the October 18 issue of the New York Herald, which spoke of "Extensive Negro Conspiracy in Virginia and Maryland." Southerners were especially frightened, fearing that widespread insurrection was imminent. They drove out northerners and suspected antislavery sympathisers,1 and when they learned that northerners were mourning Brown's death and even depicted him as a martyr, they became incensed. The raid prompted the Richmond Enquirer to state that, "[the] invasion has advanced the cause of disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of [our] government."

headline telling of the raid

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John Brown's Holy War

John Brown
Frederick Douglass
George Washington
Robert E. Lee

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Slavery in the United States

This page was last updated on November 18, 2017.