October, 1859: Harpers Ferry Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 in 1861. Brown, long a militant abolitionist, emigrated to Kansas Territory in 1855 with five of his sons to participate in the struggle between proslavery and antislavery forces for control of the territory. Their 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.”

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 in 1861. Brown, long a militant abolitionist, emigrated to Kansas Territory in 1855 with five of his sons to participate in the struggle between proslavery and antislavery forces for control of the territory. Their 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.”

John Brown

Brown’s experience in the Kansas civil war convinced him that a conspiracy existed to seize the national 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 slavery. An intense Calvinist, Brown had come to believe that he was God’s personal instrument to eradicate the inhuman institution. As early as 1857, he had decided to seize a mountain fortress in Virginia 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 group 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 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 B. Sanborn, a young Concord schoolteacher and secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a “disunion abolitionist” and outspoken Unitarian minister; Theodore Parker, a controversial theologian-preacher; Samuel Gridley Howe, a prominent physician and educator; George Luther Stearns, a prosperous merchant and chairman of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee; and Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New York landowner and reformer.

Preparations

Throughout the remainder of 1857, the indefatigable Brown trained a small group of adventurers and militant abolitionists in preparation for his mission. In May, 1858, Brown moved on to Chatham, Canada, holding a secret “constitutional convention” 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 for a new state once the slaves were freed, and elected Brown commander in chief with John Kagi, his chief lieutenant, as secretary of war.

John Brown, from a daguerreotype made around 1856. (National Archives)

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 the 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.

The Raid

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. Brown and three of his men arrived at Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859, and set up headquarters at the Kennedy farm, seven miles east of Harpers Ferry in Maryland. The rest of Brown’s twenty-one young recruits (sixteen whites and five African Americans) slowly trickled in. On the night of October 16, 1859, after several months of refining his plans, Brown led eighteen of his followers in an assault on the arsenal and rifle works at Harpers Ferry. They quickly captured the arsenal, the armory, and a nearby rifle works, and then seized hostages from among the townspeople and surrounding countryside.

Confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harpers Ferry, in 1865. (National Archives)

Fearing a slave insurrection, the armed townspeople gathered in the streets, and church bells tolled the alarm. Brown stood his ground, anxiously waiting for the slaves from the countryside to rally to his cause. By 11:00 a.m. the next day, Brown’s men—holed up in the small fire-enginehouse 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 Colonel Robert E. Lee 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.

Aftermath

Governor Henry A. Wise 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 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 mono-mania. Brown rejected his defense, claiming that he was sane. He knew that he could better serve the abolitionist cause as a martyr, a sentiment shared by Northern abolitionists. Governor Wise agreed that Brown was sane, and on December 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged at Charles Town. Six of his fellow conspirators met a similar fate.

Brown’s 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 its peculiar institution, 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.”

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