On this day in 1859, John Brown launches a raid at Harpers Ferry. He hoped to incite a slave rebellion, but the effort fell flat on its face.
Brown was an abolitionist who had long been involved in attempts to end slavery. Nor did he mind a little violence, if it would help his objectives! “Not for him was the Christ-like martyrdom of Uncle Tom,” historian James M. McPherson writes. “Brown’s God was the Jehovah who drowned Pharaoh’s mercenaries in the Red Sea; his Jesus was the angry man who drove money-changers from the temple.”
In this spirit, Brown hatched a plan: He would seize a federal arsenal near Harpers Ferry. Once he captured the arsenal, with its arms and ammunition, he believed that slaves would flock to him and take up arms. They could fight their way to freedom.
As early as 1858, Brown tried to recruit men for his raid, but he kept running into problems. Even Frederick Douglass refused to help, advising Brown that he would “never get out alive” and the plan would “array the whole country against us.”
By October 1859, Brown was hiding on a farm near Harpers Ferry with 21 men. Frustrated by failed attempts to recruit more volunteers, Brown and his men decided not to wait any longer. They swung into action on the night of October 16.
Initially, things went smoothly. The raiders captured the federal complex with relative ease. They temporarily stopped trains. Ironically, a free black man at the train station became their first casualty.
Word soon got out about the raid. Local militia began flocking to the area. Before too long, Brown was trapped. He had hostages, one of whom was a great-grandnephew of George Washington! The President dispatched the Marines.
Those Marines were led by none other than Colonel Robert E. Lee!
By this point, Brown was holed up in the fire-engine house adjacent to the arsenal. Lee prepared to invade, using battering rams and bayonets. Bayonets would help his men to avoid inadvertently harming a hostage.
The federal force finally stormed the engine house on October 18. In a matter of minutes, Brown and his raiders were captured. Ten of Brown’s men had been killed over the course of the raid, including two of his sons.
The Justice system moved fast in those days! Brown was quickly tried and convicted of inciting a slave insurrection, murder, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was hanged mere weeks after his raid, on December 2.
Before his execution, Brown had written a letter: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.”
He was right, but had he contributed to the truth of the statement with his own decisions?
The effects of the raid would reverberate for years to come. Brown’s willingness to use violence seemed to confirm the worst fears of many Southerners. By contrast, many Northerners viewed Brown as a martyr.
The raid was yet another domino that fell, worsening the deep division between North and South.
Franny Nudelman, John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, & the Culture of War (2015)
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988)
Stephen B. Oates, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (2006)
Terry L. Jones, Historical Dictionary of the Civil War (2011) (Vol. 1)