Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty-one armed followers stole into the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, (now West Virginia) as most of its residents slept. The men–among them three free blacks, one freed enslaved person, and one fugitive enslaved person–hoped to spark a rebellion of freed enslaved persons and to lead an “army of emancipation” to overturn the institution of slavery by force. To these ends the insurgents took some sixty prominent locals including Colonel Lewis Washington (great-grand nephew of George Washington) as hostages and seized the town’s United States arsenal and its rifle works.
That a man might do something very audacious and desperate for money, power or fame, was to the general apprehension quite possible; but…that nineteen men could invade a great State to liberate a despised and hated race, was to the average intellect and conscience, too monstrous for belief.
“John Brown.” An Address by Frederick Douglass,… Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881. Dover, N.H.: Morning Star Job Printing House, 1881. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
The upper hand which nighttime surprise had afforded the raiders quickly eroded, and by the evening of October 17, the conspirators who were still alive were holed-up in an engine house. In order to be able to distinguish between insurgents and hostages, marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee waited for daylight on October 18 to storm the building.
Brown and most of his men were veteran foes of slavery. In 1849, he and his family had settled in a black community at North Elba in New York State. Brown had become increasingly militant during the 1850s in his quest to eradicate slavery. In 1855, he had migrated to the Kansas Territory to become the leader of a band of anti-slavery guerrillas. He led a nighttime raid in retaliation for the sack of Lawrence, Kansas, by pro-slavery forces and helped to liberate the enslaved and to transport them safely to Canada.
In 1858, Brown drafted a constitution for a provisional United States government of which he was elected president. He intended to establish an effective means of freeing the enslaved people of Maryland and Virginia. Most of his raiders held commissions in the government’s army. Apparently, only the black conspirators held no commissions. Even the ill-conceived plan for the raid had been germinating in Brown’s thoughts for some time; he had moved to nearby Kennedy Farm in July to prepare for the raid.
Brown claimed he, “knew the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders, and that they would never consent to give up their slaves, till they felt a big stick about their heads,” and that a slave-holding community was, by its nature, in a state of war and, thus drastic actions were necessary and justified. His supporters felt they had a moral imperative to take action:
Millions of fellow-beings require it of us; their cries for help go out to the universe daily and hourly. Whose duty is it to help them? Is it yours? Is it mine? It is every man’s, but how few there are to help. But there are a few who dare to answer this call and dare to answer it in a manner that will make this land of liberty and equality shake to the centre.
Jeramiah Goldsmith Anderson External, July 5, 1859.
In his account of the raid for Century Magazine, Alexander Boteler pointed out that, “…the usages of ordinary warfare had been more than once disregarded, during the day, by the belligerents on both sides.” Harper’s Ferry mayor Fountain Beckham was clearly unarmed and his hands were in his pockets when he was shot by the insurgents; raider Dangerfield Newby’s ears were cut off as trophies; and Jeramiah Anderson was tortured and beaten as he lay dying. Some considered the Harper’s Ferry raid to have been the first skirmish of the Civil War:
then and there the first shot was fired and the first blood was shed–the blood of an unoffending free negro…that there and then occurred the first forcible seizure of public property; the first attempt to “hold, occupy, and possess” a military post of the Government; the first outrage perpetrated on the old flag; the first armed resistance to national troops; the first organized effort to establish a Provisional Government at the South, in opposition to that of the United States; the first overt movements to subvert the authority of the constitution and to destroy the integrity of the Union.
“Recollections of the John Brown Raid by a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight,” External by Andrew R. Boteler. The Century; a popular quarterly. Vol.26, issue 3 (July 1883): 399-411. Making of AmericaExternal
The raid enflamed the emotions of parties on both sides of the conflict while Northern and Southern press fanned the flames that had been smoldering hotter and hotter with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Dred Scott decision, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Fear and anger totally eclipsed any other motivations that had been factors in the battle over slavery.
Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized in Brown an unparalleled devotion, “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.” Brown had lost two sons in the raid. Another son had already sacrificed his life for the anti-slavery cause in the Osawatomie raid.
Now, 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 say LET IT BE DONE.
Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court, when about to receive the sentence of death…. Boston, 1859. Printed Emphemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
For his actions, Brown was quickly tried and convicted of murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state and sentenced to death by hanging. The simplicity and sincerity of Brown’s address after his sentencing astounded listeners on both sides of the issue. While awaiting his fate in the Harper’s Ferry jail, he received a sympathetic letter from Massachusetts’ writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. “I think of you night and day,” she wrote, “bleeding in prison, surrounded by hostile faces, sustained only by trust in God and your own heart. I long to nurse you–to speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation.”
Brown declined her offer, asking instead that she contribute to the financial support of his surviving family that included two daughters-in-law whose husbands had been killed in the raid. “Would you not,” he wrote, “as soon contribute fifty cents now, and a like sum yearly, for the relief of those very poor and deeply afflicted persons, to enable them to supply themselves and their children with bread and very plain clothing, and to enable the children to receive a common English education?”
Child’s support of Brown occasioned a bitter exchange of letters that reveals the depth of animosity between abolitionists and Southern slaveholders in the wake of Brown’s raid. “I and thousands of others,” Child wrote Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, “feel a natural impulse of sympathy for the brave and suffering man. Perhaps God, who sees the inmost of our souls, perceives some such sentiment in your heart also.”
“I could not permit an insult even to woman in her walk of charity among us,” Governor Wise responded, “though it to be to one who whetted knives of butchery for our mothers, sisters, daughters and babes. We have no sympathy with your sentiments of sympathy with Brown.”
These letters were published on the editorial page of the New York Tribune and are preserved in the collection African-American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection as Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia.
John Brown’s actions made him a martyr to abolitionists. Of the five conspirators who escaped from the engine house and were never caught, four served in the Union Army during the Civil War (only Brown’s son Owen did not.) The Harper’s Ferry raid remains one of the more controversial events of the country’s history. Frederick Douglass sums up his assessment of his friend’s actions:
Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out of Harper’s Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harper’s Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause.
“John Brown.” An Address by Frederick Douglass,…Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881. Dover, N.H.: Morning Star Job Printing House, 1881. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
- Child and Wise continued their debate, trading quotations from the Bible in defense of their contrasting points of view. To read more, go to Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia” and view the “LETTER FROM MRS. MASON.”
- Learn more about the fate of John Brown and the historical significance of the Harper’s Ferry raid. Read the text of Frederick Douglass’ address, “John Brown,” in African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Also, scroll down to the Militant Abolition section of The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship online exhibition, which includes John Brown’s court address and drafts of Douglass’ tribute to Brown. For a full text transcript of the address, see John Brown’s court address in Printed Emphemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera.
- Read newspaper accounts about the raid on Harper’s Ferry and the trial of John Brown through Chronicling America, a collection of historic American newspapers. Start with Harper’s Ferry: Topics in Chronicling America to identify important dates and suggested search strategies.
- Go to the Abolition section of The African American Odyssey or the Abolition section of The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture for material on the abolition movement.
- A search across the Library’s website on John Brown and Harper’s Ferry results in numerous items of interest.
- John Brown’s fort (the engine house) was the only armory to escape destruction during the Civil War. After the war it was moved several times before the National Park Service bought it and brought it back fairly close to its original site. See the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park home page to learn more about the rich and varied history of Harper’s Ferry.
- Visit historian Edward L. Ayers’ John Brown home page External to see images of the insurgents and read more about this compelling story. This page is part of The Valley of the Shadow External Project which follows two communities, one Northern and one Southern, through the experience of the Civil War. The project is one of many conducted under the auspices of the University of Virginia’s External Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities External.