John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry
Part of pre-Civil War conflicts

Harper's Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort" Teresa Baine
DateOctober 16–18, 1859
LocationHarpers Ferry, (West) Virginia
Result U.S. victory
 United States Abolitionist insurgents
Commanders and leaders
Robert E. Lee
Israel Greene
John Brown 
88 U.S. Marines
Unknown number of Virginia Militia and Maryland Militia
8 white men
12 free black men
1 freed slave
1 fugitive slave[1]
Casualties and losses
U.S. Marines:
1 killed
1 wounded
Virginia and Maryland Militia: Unknown
10 killed
7 captured
5 escaped
6 killed
9 wounded

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry (also known as John Brown's raid or The raid on Harpers Ferry; in many books the town is called "Harper's Ferry")[2] was an effort by white abolitionist John Brown to initiate an armed slave revolt in 1859 by taking over a United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown's raid, accompanied by 21 men in his party,[1] was defeated by a company of U.S. Marines from the Marine Barracks, 8th And I, Washington, DC, led by First Lieutenant Israel Greene, USMC.[3] Colonel Robert E. Lee, USA, was in overall command of the operation to retake the arsenal. John Brown had originally asked Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom he had met in his formative years as an abolitionist in Springfield, Massachusetts, to join him in his raid, but Tubman was prevented by illness, and Douglass declined, as he believed Brown's plan would fail.[4]

Brown's preparation

An illustration of Brown trying to persuade abolitionist Frederick Douglass to join him in the raid on Harpers Ferry. Douglass refused.

John Brown rented the Kennedy Farmhouse, with a small cabin nearby, 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Harpers Ferry in Washington County, Maryland,[5] and took up residence under the name Isaac Smith. Brown came with a small group of men minimally trained for military action. His group included 18 men besides himself (13 white men, 5 black men). Northern abolitionist groups sent 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines ("Beecher's Bibles") and 950 pikes (obtained from Charles Blair (Collinsville Axe Co., Collinsville, CT), in late September), in preparation for the raid. The United States Armory was a huge complex of buildings that manufactured small arms for the U.S.Army (1801–1861), with an Arsenal (storehouse) that was thought to contain 100,000 muskets and rifles at the time.[6] Brown attempted to attract more black recruits. He tried recruiting Frederick Douglass as a liaison officer to the slaves in a meeting held in a quarry at Chambersburg, Pa.. It was at this meeting that ex-slave "Emperor" Shields Green consented to join with John Brown on his attack on the United States Armory, Green stating to Douglass "I believe I will go with the old man". Douglass declined, indicating to Brown that he believed the raid was a suicide mission. The plan was "an attack on the federal government" that "would array the whole country against us." You "will never get out alive," he warned.[7]

The Kennedy Farmhouse served as "barracks, arsenal, supply depot, mess hall, debate club, and home." It was very crowded and life there was tedious. Brown was worried about arousing neighbors' suspicions. As a result, the raiders had to stay indoors during the daytime, without much to do but study, drill, argue politics, discuss religion, and play cards and checkers. Brown's daughter-in-law Martha served as cook and housekeeper. His daughter Annie served as lookout. Brown wanted women at the farm, to prevent suspicions of a large all-male group. The raiders went outside at night to drill and get fresh air. Thunderstorms were welcome since they concealed noise from Brown's neighbors.[8]

Brown did not plan to have a sudden raid and escape to the mountains. Rather, he intended to use those rifles and pikes he captured at the arsenal, in addition to those he brought along, to arm rebellious slaves with the aim of striking terror in the slaveholders in Virginia. He believed that on the first night of action, 200-500 black slaves would join his line. He ridiculed the militia and regular army that might oppose him. He planned to send agents to nearby plantations, rallying the slaves. He planned to hold Harpers Ferry for a short time, expecting that as many volunteers, white and black, would join him as would form against him. He would move rapidly southward, sending out armed bands along the way. They would free more slaves, obtain food, horses and hostages, and destroy slaveholders' morale. Brown planned to follow the Appalachian Mountains south into Tennessee and even Alabama, the heart of the South, making forays into the plains on either side.[9]

Advance knowledge of raid

North American slave revolts

Brown paid Hugh Forbes $600 to be his drillmaster. Forbes was an English mercenary who served Garibaldi in Italy. Forbes' Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer was found in Brown's papers after the raid. Brown and Forbes argued over strategy and money. Forbes wanted more money so that his family in Europe could join him.[10] Forbes sent threatening letters to Brown's backers in an attempt to get money. Failing in this effort, Forbes traveled to Washington, DC, and met with Senators William Seward and Henry Wilson. He denounced Brown to Seward as a "vicious man" who needed to be restrained, but did not disclose any plans for the raid. Forbes partially exposed the plan to Senator Wilson and others. Wilson wrote to Samuel Howe, a Brown backer, advising him to get Brown's backers to retrieve the weapons intended for use in Kansas. Brown's backers told him that the weapons should not be used "for other purposes, as rumor says they may be."[11] In response to warnings, Brown had to return to Kansas to shore up support and discredit Forbes. Some historians believe that this trip cost Brown valuable time and momentum.[12]

Estimates are that at least eighty people knew about Brown's planned raid in advance. Many others had reasons to believe that Brown was contemplating a move against the South. One of those who knew was David J. Gue of Springdale, Iowa. Gue was a Quaker who believed that Brown and his men would be killed. Gue, his brother, and another man decided to warn the government "to protect Brown from the consequences of his own rashness." Gue sent an anonymous letter dated August 20, 1859 to Secretary of War John B Floyd. The letter said that "old John Brown,' late of Kansas," was planning to organize a slave uprising in the South. It said that Brown had a secret agent "in an armory" in Maryland. The letter said that Brown was stockpiling weapons at a secret location in Maryland. Gue warned that Brown planned to leave Maryland and enter Virginia at Harpers Ferry. Gue acknowledged that he was afraid to disclose his identity but asked Floyd not to ignore his warning "on that account." He was hoping that Floyd would send soldiers to Harpers Ferry. He hoped that the extra security would motivate Brown to call off his plans.[13]

Even though President Buchanan offered a $250 reward for Brown, Floyd did not connect the John Brown of Gue's letter to the John Brown of Pottawatomie, Kansas fame. He knew that Maryland did not have an armory (Harpers Ferry is just across the river from Maryland). Floyd figured that the letter writer was a crank and forgot about it. He later said that "a scheme of such wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any citizen of the United States."[14]

The raid

October 16

A modern reproduction of the 1848 fire engine house that became known as John Brown's Fort. c. 2007

On Sunday night, October 16, 1859, Brown left four of his men behind as a rear-guard: his son, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppock, and Frank Meriam; he led the rest into the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown detached a party under John Cook Jr. to capture Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington, at his nearby Beall-Air estate, some of his slaves, and two relics of George Washington: a sword allegedly presented to Washington by Frederick the Great and two pistols given by the Marquis de Lafayette, which Brown considered talismans.[15] The party carried out its mission and returned via the Allstadt House, where they took more hostages.[16] Brown's main party captured several watchmen and townspeople in Harpers Ferry.

Brown's men needed to capture the weapons and escape before word could be sent to Washington. The raid was going well for Brown's men. They cut the telegraph wire and seized a Baltimore & Ohio train passing through. A free black man was the first casualty of the raid. Hayward Shepherd, an African-American baggage handler on the train, confronted the raiders; they shot and killed him.[17] For some reason, Brown let the train continue, and the conductor alerted the authorities down the line. Brown had been sure that he would win the support of local slaves in joining the rebellion, but a massive uprising did not occur, because word had not been spread about the uprising, so the slaves nearby did not know about it. Although the white townspeople soon began to fight back against the raiders, Brown's men succeeded in capturing the armory that evening.

October 17

Army workers discovered Brown's men early on the morning of October 17. Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers surrounded the armory. When a company of militia captured the bridge across the Potomac River, any route of escape for the raiders was cut off. During the day, four townspeople were killed, including the mayor. Realizing his escape was cut, Brown took nine of his captives and moved into the smaller engine house, which would come to be known as John Brown's Fort. The raiders blocked entry of the windows and doors and traded sporadic gunfire with surrounding forces. At one point Brown sent out his son, Watson, and Aaron Dwight Stevens with a white flag, but Watson was mortally wounded and Stevens was shot and captured. The raid was rapidly deteriorating. One of Brown's men, William H. Leeman, panicked and made an attempt to flee by swimming across the Potomac River, but he was shot and fatally injured while doing so. During the intermittent shooting, Brown's other son, Oliver, was also shot; he died after a brief period.[18]

At around 3:00 p.m. a militia company led by Captain E.G. Alburtis arrived by train from Martinsburg, Virginia. Most of the militia members were Baltimore & Ohio Railroad employees. The militia forced the raiders inside the engine house. They broke into the guardroom and freed over two dozen prisoners. Eight militia men were wounded. Alburtis said that he could have ended the raid with help from other citizens.[19]

By 3:30 that afternoon, President James Buchanan ordered a company of U.S. Marines (the only government troops in the immediate area) to march on Harpers Ferry under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Lee had been on leave from his regiment, stationed in Texas, when he was hastily recalled to lead the detachment and had to command it while wearing his civilian clothes.

October 18

A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house immediately before the door is broken down by US Marines.

Lee first offered the role of attacking the engine house to the local militia units on the spot. Both militia commanders declined, and Lee turned to the Marines. On the morning of October 18, Colonel Lee sent Lt. J.E.B. Stuart, serving as a volunteer aide-de-camp, under a white flag of truce to negotiate a surrender of John Brown and his followers. Colonel Lee informed Lt. Israel Greene that if Brown did not surrender, he was to direct the Marines in attacking the engine house. Stuart walked towards the front of the engine house where he told Brown that his men would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused and as Stuart walked away, he signaled a "thumbs down" to Lt. Greene and his men standing nearby.

Soon after, Greene led a detachment of Marines to attack the engine house. Marines equipped with sledgehammers, tried to break through the door, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Greene found a wooden ladder, and he and about 10 Marines used it as a battering ram to force the front doors open. Greene was the first through the door and with the assistance of Lewis Washington, identified and singled out John Brown. Greene later recounted what events occurred next:

Quicker than thought I brought my saber down with all my strength upon [Brown's] head. He was moving as the blow fell, and I suppose I did not strike him where I intended, for he received a deep saber cut in the back of the neck. He fell senseless on his side, then rolled over on his back. He had in his hand a short Sharpe's cavalry carbine. I think he had just fired as I reached Colonel Washington, for the Marine who followed me into the aperture made by the ladder received a bullet in the abdomen, from which he died in a few minutes. The shot might have been fired by someone else in the insurgent party, but I think it was from Brown. Instinctively as Brown fell I gave him a saber thrust in the left breast. The sword I carried was a light uniform weapon, and, either not having a point or striking something hard in Brown's accouterments, did not penetrate. The blade bent double.[20]

In three minutes, all of the raiders still alive were taken prisoner and the action was over.

October 19

Robert E. Lee made a synopsis of the events that took place at Harpers Ferry. According to Lee's notes, Lee believed John Brown was a madman, "...the plan [raiding the Harpers Ferry Arsenal] was the attempt of a fanatic or madman." Lee also believed that the blacks in the raid were forced by Brown. "The blacks, whom he [John Brown] forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance." Lee attributed John Brown's "temporary success" by creating panic and confusion and by "magnifying" the number of participants involved in the raid.[21]


John Brown's last prophecy
John Brown wrote his last prophecy on December 2 of 1859.

Colonel Lee and John Stuart searched the surrounding country for fugitives who had participated in the attack. Few of Brown's associates escaped, and among those who did, some were sheltered by abolitionists in the north, including William Still.[22] Brown was taken to the court house in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia and was hanged on December 2. (This execution was witnessed by the actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.) On the day of his execution, Brown wrote his last prophecy, which said,

'I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.'[23]

Four other raiders were executed on December 16 and two more on March 16, 1860.

In his last speech, at his trial, he said to the court:

'...had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.'[24]

Southerners had a mixed attitude towards their slaves. Many southern whites lived in fear of a slave insurrection. Paradoxically, whites claimed that slaves were well treated and content in bondage. After the raid southerners initially lived in fear of slave uprisings and invasion by armed abolitionists. The South's reaction entered a second phase at around the time of Brown's execution. Southerners were relieved that no slaves had volunteered to help Brown. Southerners felt vindicated in their claims that slaves were content. After Northerners had expressed admiration for Brown's motives, with some treating him as a martyr, Southern opinion evolved into what James M. McPherson called "unreasoning fury."[25]

The first Northern reaction among antislavery advocates to Brown's Raid was one of baffled reproach. William Lloyd Garrison called the raid "misguided, wild, and apparently insane." But through the trial, Brown transformed into a martyr. Henry David Thoreau, in A Plea for Captain John Brown, said, "I think that for once the Sharp's rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them," and said of Brown, "He has a spark of divinity in him."[26] Though "Harper's Ferry was insane," wrote the religious weekly the Independent, "the controlling motive of his demonstration was sublime." To the South, he was a murderer who wanted to deprive them of their property. The North "has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, and treason," said De Bow's Review.[27][28]


John Brown's raiders

John Brown in 1859.



Four raiders escaped and were captured about six months later.

Escaped and never captured



(Some claim the two slaves voluntarily joined Brown's raiders, others say Brown forced them to fight. Regardless, one was killed trying to escape across the Potomac River, the other was wounded and later died in the Charles Town jail.)

9 other civilians were wounded.


Liberated slaves

Mayor Beckham's Will Book called for the liberation of Isaac Gilbert, his wife, and three children upon his death. When Edwin Coppock killed Beckham the five slaves were free.[31]

See also



  1. 1 2 "John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry". Retrieved 1 May 2015.
  2. For example, "Col. Robert E. Lee's Report Concerning the Attack at Harper's Ferry, October 19, 1859,"; Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860–64. Volume: 1. (1866), p. 279; French Ensor Chadwick, Causes of the Civil War, 1859–1861 (1906) p. 74; Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (1950) vol 2 ch 3; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), p. 201; Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (2003) p. 116.
  3. Hoffman, Colonel Jon T., USMC: A Complete History, Marine Corps Association, Quantico, VA, (2002), p. 84.
  4. Taylor, Marian (2004). Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist (New ed.). Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-0-7910-8340-6.
  5. "The Kennedy Farmhouse", John Brown website
  6. "The Harpers Ferry Raid". Retrieved 2014-12-09.
  7. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2003) p. 205
  8. National Park Service History Series. John Brown's Raid (2009), pp. 22–30
  9. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prelude to Civil War, 1859–1861 (1950), vol. 4, pp. 72–73
  10. National Park Service History Series. John Brown's Raid (2009), p. 16
  11. Oates (1984), p. 248
  12. National Park Service. John Brown's Raid (2009), p. 16
  13. Oates (1984), pp. 284–85
  14. Oates (1984), p. 285
  15. Ted McGee (April 5, 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Nomination: Beall-Air" (pdf). National Park Service
  16. Frances D. Ruth (July 1984). "National Register of Historic Places Nomination: Allstadt House and Ordinary" (pdf). National Park Service
  17. Horton, James Oliver; Lois E. Horton (2006). Slavery and the Making of America. Oxford University Press USA. p. 162. ISBN 978-0195304510.
  18. Greeley, Horace (1864). The American Conflict: A History:Part One. p. 292.
  19. National Park Service History Series. John Brown's Raid (2009), pp. 49–50
  20. Israel Green, Eyewitness Account, University of Virginia
  21. Col. Robert E. Lee, Report to the Adjutant General Concerning the Attack at Harper's Ferry, University of Missouri Kansas City, Law School
  22. Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. p. 160
  23. Oates 1984, p. 351
  24. Horowitz 2011, p. 212
  25. James M. McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press (1988), pp. 207–08.
  26. Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B. p. 2057.
  27. Reynolds, John Brown (2006), p. 340
  28. James M. McPherson, Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era (2003) p. 210
  29. 1 2 "John Brown's Men Disinterred.". New York Times. August 29, 1899.
  30. Stephen Vincent Benet. John Brown's Body. New York. Rinehart & Co. (1927), p. 33
  31. Stephen B. Oates (1984). To Purge this Land with Blood, p. 296



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