Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Although abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to liberate and arm Virginia slaves by raiding a federal armory failed, it helped to make civil war almost inevitable and created an enduring legend.

Summary of Event

John Brown’s abortive raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in October, 1859, stands out as a critical episode in the spiraling sequence of events that led northerners and southerners into the Civil War Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Harpers Ferry raid in 1861. Long a militant abolitionist, Brown emigrated Brown, John
[p]Brown, John;and Kansas[Kansas]
Bleeding Kansas to Kansas Territory in 1855 with five of his sons to participate in the struggle that pitted proslavery against Free State Party Free State Party forces for control of the territory. Brown’s little insurrection was in the same spirit as earlier violence perpetrated by abolitionist, Free State militias such as the Border Ruffians following election of a proslavery, territorial legislature in 1854. With a small band of Free State men, Brown helped initiate civil war in Kansas by murdering five allegedly proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek, in May, 1856. Historians would later dub this era “Bleeding Kansas.” Harpers Ferry raid (1859)
Brown, John
Abolitionism;Harpers Ferry raid (1859)
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[kw]Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry (Oct. 16-18, 1859)
[kw]Raid on Harpers Ferry, Brown’s (Oct. 16-18, 1859)
[kw]Harpers Ferry, Brown’s Raid on (Oct. 16-18, 1859)
Harpers Ferry raid (1859)
Brown, John
Abolitionism;Harpers Ferry raid (1859)
West Virginia;Harpers Ferry raid
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[g]United States;Oct. 16-18, 1859: Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry[3330]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 16-18, 1859: Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry[3330]
Kagi, John H.
Lee, Robert E.
[p]Lee, Robert E.;Harpers Ferry raid
Sanborn, Franklin Benjamin
Wise, Henry Alexander

Brown’s experience in the Kansas civil war convinced him that a conspiracy existed to seize U.S. territories for slavery. Having long since lost faith in combating slavery by peaceful means, Brown vowed to strike a violent blow at the heart of the institution. An intense Calvinist, Calvinism;and John Brown[Brown] he had come to believe that he was God’s personal instrument to eradicate the inhuman institution. Slave rebellions;and John Brown[Brown] As early as 1857, he had decided to seize a mountain fortress in Virginia Virginia;slave rebellions with a small guerrilla force and incite a bloody slave rebellion that would overthrow the slave powers throughout the South.

To that end, Brown sought funds and arms from abolitionists in the North. Under the guise of seeking money to continue the Free State fight in Kansas, Brown secured the friendship and financial aid of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee—a body dedicated to helping the free-soil forces in Kansas and elsewhere. The resolute and persuasive Brown won the support of six prominent antislavery figures, who agreed to form a secret committee of six men to advise him and raise money for his still-secret mission. The Secret Six consisted of a well-educated group of dedicated abolitionists and reformers: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn Sanborn, Franklin Benjamin , a young Concord schoolteacher and secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee; Thomas Wentworth Higginson Higginson, Thomas Wentworth , a “disunion abolitionist” and outspoken Unitarian minister; Theodore Parker Parker, Theodore , a controversial theologian-preacher; Samuel Gridley Howe Howe, Samuel Gridley , a prominent physician and educator; George Luther Stearns Stearns, George Luther , a prosperous merchant and chairman of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee; and Gerrit Smith Smith, Gerrit , a wealthy New York landowner and reformer.

Throughout the remainder of 1857, Brown trained a small group of adventurers and militant abolitionists in preparation for his mission. In May, 1858, he moved on to Chatham, Canada, holding a secret constitutional convention that was attended by thirty-four African Americans and twelve whites. There, he outlined his plans to invade Virginia, liberate and arm the slaves, defeat any military force brought against them, organize the African Americans into a government, and force the southern states to concede emancipation. Under Brown’s leadership, the convention approved a constitution State constitutions for the new state that would be created after the slaves were freed, and elected Brown commander in chief with John Kagi Kagi, John H. , his chief lieutenant, as secretary of war.

Brown’s proposed invasion was delayed in 1858, when a disgruntled follower partially betrayed the plans to several prominent politicians. The exposé so frightened the Secret Six that they urged Brown to return to Kansas and create a diversionary operation until rumors of the Virginia plan dissipated. Brown also agreed not to inform the Secret Six of the details of his plans, so that they could not be held responsible in case his invasion failed. In December, 1858, Brown conducted the diversion as planned, by leading a raid into Missouri, liberating eleven slaves, and escorting them to Canada. He then began final preparations for the invasion of Virginia.

Late nineteenth century depiction of John Brown as he was being led to his execution in Charles Town, Virginia (now in West Virginia).

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Harpers Ferry, situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in northern Virginia, was the initial target in Brown’s plan because he needed weapons from the federal arsenal to arm the liberated slaves. On July 3, 1859, Brown and three of his men arrived there and then set up headquarters at the Kennedy farm, seven miles east of Harpers Ferry in Maryland. The rest of Brown’s sixteen white and five black young recruits slowly trickled in. On the night of October 16, 1859, after several months of refining his plans, Brown led eighteen of his followers in a direct assault on the arsenal and rifle works at Harpers Ferry. The raiders quickly captured the arsenal, the armory, and a nearby rifle works, and then seized hostages from the town and surrounding countryside.

Fearing a slave insurrection, the townspeople armed themselves and gathered in the streets, and church bells tolled the alarm over the countryside. Meanwhile, Brown stood his ground, anxiously waiting for the slaves from the countryside to rally to his cause. By the next morning, Brown’s men—holed up in the small fire-engine house of the armory—engaged in a pitched battle with the assembled townspeople, farmers, and militia. By dawn the following morning, a company of horse Marines under the command of U.S. Army colonel Robert E. Lee Lee, Robert E.
[p]Lee, Robert E.;Harpers Ferry raid took up positions in front of the armory. When Brown refused Lee’s summons to surrender unconditionally, the Marines stormed the armory, wounded Brown, and routed his followers. Seventeen people died in the raid. Ten of the dead, including two of Brown’s sons, were raiders. Five raiders were captured, two were taken prisoner several days later, but five escaped without a trace.

Governor Henry Alexander Wise Wise, Henry Alexander of Virginia decided that Brown and his coconspirators should be tried in Virginia rather than by federal authorities, even though their attack had been against federal property. Brown and the captured raiders stood trial at Charles Town, Virginia; on October 31, the jury found them guilty of inciting a slave rebellion, murder, and treason Treason;and Brown’s Raid[Browns Raid] against the state of Virginia. After the trial, in a final attempt to save his life, Brown’s lawyers collected affidavits from many of his friends and relatives alleging that Brown suffered from hereditary insanity and monomania. Brown rejected this defense, however, claiming that he was sane. He knew that he would better serve the abolitionist cause if he were to die as a martyr, a sentiment shared by northern abolitionists. Governor Wise Wise, Henry Alexander agreed that Brown was sane, and on December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged at Charles Town. Six of his fellow conspirators met similar fates.


Brown’s Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Harpers Ferry raid raid intensified the sectional bitterness that led to the Civil War. Although the vast majority of northerners condemned the incident as the work of a fanatic, the outraged South, racked by rumors of a slave insurrection, suspected all northerners of abetting Brown’s crime. Republican denials of any link with Brown were of little avail. Northern abolitionists, including the Secret Six, who had been cleared of complicity, gathered by the hundreds throughout the North to honor and acclaim Brown’s martyrdom. The South was in no mood to distinguish between the northern Republicans who wanted to contain slavery and the small group of abolitionists who sought to destroy the institution. The South withdrew even further into a defense of slavery, stifled internal criticism, and intensified its hatred and suspicion of the “Black Republican” Party. In 1861, northerners marched to war to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”—fulfilling Brown’s prophecy that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood.”

Further Reading

  • Benét, Stephen Vincent. John Brown’s Body. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1990. First published in 1928, this popular epic poem about John Brown has helped to keep his legend alive.
  • Boyer, Richard O. The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. Basic reference for scholars. Covers not only the events but also the temper of the era that culminated in the Civil War.
  • Oates, Stephen B. Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979. Shows how President Abraham Lincoln, Brown, and the slave rebellion leader Nat Turner were interconnected in the events that hurled the United States toward civil war.
  • ________. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. Balanced account of Brown and the events he precipitated, by an eminent historian. Provides maps and pictures of Brown’s associates.
  • Quarles, Benjamin, comp. Blacks on John Brown. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972. Includes a variety of poems, letters, and reports written by African Americans from 1858 to 1972 about John Brown, including selections by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.
  • Renehan, Edward J. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. New York: Crown, 1995. Lively and detailed accounts of the lives of the six unlikely revolutionaries—five aristocratic Bostonians and one moneyed New Yorker—who financed John Brown’s bloody raid.
  • 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. Generally sympathetic biography that portrays Brown as a Puritan in the tradition of Oliver Cromwell and Jonathan Edwards who simply sought to avenge the evil of slavery.
  • Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. During the 1850’s, John Brown, Gerrit Smith, and two African American leaders, Frederick Douglas and James McCune Smith, formed an interracial alliance to abolish slavery. Stauffer describes how the men worked to promote abolition and other social issues, and how their revolutionary zeal waned after Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.

Turner Launches Slave Insurrection

Underground Railroad Flourishes

Bleeding Kansas

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile

U.S. Civil War

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

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