John Brown’s Harpers Ferry

John Brown’s Harpers Ferry

In October 1859, the U.S. military arsenal at Harpers Ferry was the target of an assault by an armed band of abolitionists led by John Brown (1800-59). (Originally part of Virginia, Harpers Ferry is located in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia near the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.) The raid was intended to be the first stage in an elaborate plan to establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown was captured during the raid and later convicted of treason and hanged, but the raid inflamed white Southern fears of slave rebellions and increased the mounting tension between Northern and Southern states before the American Civil War (1861-65).

John Brown: Abolitionist Leader

Born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised in Ohio, John Brown came from a staunchly Calvinist and anti-slavery family. He spent much of his life failing at a variety of businesses–he declared bankruptcy in his early 40s and had more than 20 lawsuits filed against him. In 1837, his life changed irrevocably when he attended an abolition meeting in Cleveland, during which he was so moved that he publicly announced his dedication to destroying the institution of slavery. As early as 1848 he was formulating a plan to incite an insurrection.

In the 1850s, Brown traveled to Kansas with five of his sons to fight against the pro-slavery forces in the contest over that territory. After pro-slavery men raided the abolitionist town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, Brown personally sought revenge. Several days later, he and his sons attacked a group of cabins along Pottawatomie Creek. They killed five men with broad swords and triggered a summer of guerilla warfare in the troubled territory. One of Brown’s sons was killed in the fighting.

By 1857, Brown returned to the East and began raising money to carry out his vision of a mass uprising of slaves. He secured the backing of six prominent abolitionists, known as the “Secret Six,” andassembled an invasion force. His “army” grew to include more than 20 men, including several black men and three of Brown’s sons. The group rented a Maryland farm near Harpers Ferry and prepared for the assault.

Harpers Ferry Raid: October 16-18, 1859

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his band overran the federal arsenal. Some of his men rounded up a handful of hostages, including a few slaves. Word of the raid spread and by the following day Brown and his men were surrounded. On October 18, a company of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee (1808-70) and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart (1833-64), overran Brown and his followers. Brown was wounded and captured, while 10 of his men were killed, including two of his sons.

John Brown Executed: December 2, 1859

Brown was tried by the state of Virginia for treason and murder, and found guilty on November 2.The 59-year-old abolitionistwent to the gallows on December 2, 1859. Before his execution, he handed his guard a slip of paper that read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” It was a prophetic statement. Although the raid failed, it inflamed sectional tensions and raised the stakes for the 1860 presidential election. Brown’s raid helped make any further accommodation between North and South nearly impossible and thus became an important impetus of the Civil War.

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John Brown’s Harpers Ferry - HISTORY

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry
Digital History ID 1065

Author: Joseph Barry

Annotation: Who was John Brown? A fanatic, some say. A homicidal madman. A terrorist. A traitor. A hero, say others. A martyr, a color-blind egalitarian, a model of courage and self-sacrifice, a singular example of sanity in a nation awash with racism.

Was he the very model of a committed activist for social justice, or was he the forebear of Timothy McVeigh and the militant anti-abortionists?

What do we know about John Brown? He worshipped an angry, vengeful God. The biblical passage that best summed up his religious ideas is "…without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin" (Hebrews 9:22).

He was among the least racist of abolitionists. He helped abolitionist Gerritt Smith establish a community for African Americans in the Adirondack Mountains.

In business, he suffered repeated failures. He experienced many of the vicissitudes of America's emerging market economy, working as a surveyor, tanner, farmer, shepherd, cattle merchant, horse trader, land speculator, and wool broker. He experienced at least fifteen business failures, and was the target of at least twenty-one lawsuits – losing ten – and in at least one instance, he misappropriated funds.

As a father, he kept a ledger of the punishments he inflicted on his children:

John. Jr. For disobeying mother 8 lashes For unfaithfulness at work 3 lashes For telling a lie 8 lashes

When and why did John Brown turn his wrath against slavery? About a decade before his raid on Harpers Ferry, when he was in his late 40s, he began to consider leading an insurrection against slavery.

What were the factors that transformed Brown, already in his fifties, into an uncompromising agitator for slavery's abolition? A series of personal misfortunes, frustrations, and tragedies that culminated in the early 1850s. In the early 1840s, Brown was declared bankrupt, evicted from his farm, and lost four children to dysentery in a single month. Later in the '40s and the early '50s, his troubles continued. Brown was separated from his family for prolonged periods of time, he lost another child (the result of scalding), several sons abandoned their religious faith, and bitter litigation swirled around his business ventures.

Meanwhile, political events produced a mounting sense of frustration. The annexation of Texas, the Mexican war, and enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law convinced Brown and many other abolitionists that a vicious Slave Power had seized control of the federal government. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the last straw.

What happened in Kansas? Brown joined six of his sons in Osawatomie, a small settlement in eastern Kansas near Pottawatomie Creek, in the summer of 1855. He was named captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles company of the free-stater Liberty Guards. In May 1856, he and his men rushed to the pro-free-state capital in Lawrence to help fend off an attack by pro-slavery men, only to find the town in ruins. A day later, Brown received word that a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman had beaten Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts unconscious in retaliation against a speech that had insulted his uncle.

"Something must be done," Brown announced, "to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights." He and four of his sons, and three other men, dragged five unarmed men and boys from their homes along Kansas's Pottawatomie Creek, and hacked and dismembered their bodies as if they were cattle being butchered in a stockyard. As a result, a war of revenge swept across Kansas territory. Dozen died in the guerrilla warfare.

The Road to Harpers Ferry

The Kansas Nebraska Act transformed the political landscape. The Whig party collapsed. Anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs formed anti-Nebraska parties. In 1856, the new Republican party ran John C. Fremont for the presidency on a platform that denounced slavery as a relic of barbarism. Fremont carried eleven of the sixteen free states.

But Brown regarded politics as nothing more than “talk—talk—talk.” The Dred Scott decision increased the feeling of desperation among radical abolitionists.

Brown’s raiding party consisted of twenty-one soldiers, only five of whom were black. Brown tried to recruit Frederick Douglass, who called the plan suicidal. Harpers Ferry was “a perfect steel-trap.”

The raid itself was a fiasco. Brown sent no warnings to the slaves. He had no escape route out of Harpers Ferry. Ten members of Brown’s party died in the raid (including two of Brown's sons), four townsmen (including the black baggage-handler at the railroad station, mistaken for a watchman), and one marine. Seven of Brown's men escaped, but two were later captured. One of the slaves that John Brown’s men brought to Harpers Ferry was killed when Marines took the firehouse where Brown’s men were gathered.

In his closing speech before being sentenced to hang, Brown eloquently appealed to the laws of God, and expressed contentment that, in a just cause, he would "mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country." On the morning of his execution, December 2, he wrote out with a steady hand his final prophecy, 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."

At first, Brown was widely denounced in the North as a murderer, criminal, and madman, leading conservative unionists to feel confident that his actions would unite the nation against extremists, South and North. Even William Lloyd Garrison initially called Brown “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.”

But during the forty-five days between his capture and execution, he was transformed, in the eyes of thousands of Northerners, from a brutal terrorist into a prophet and avenging angel. The deification of Brown as a heroic martyr outraged many white Southerners, who felt that Brown expressed the North's secret will: to foment race war in the South.

Brown himself played a crucial role in reshaping his public image. His calm demeanor and fierce commitment to the antislavery cause persuaded many that he was a Christ-like martyr, not a murderer or traitor.

He was helped by abolitionists (who believed that his execution would do more for the antislavery cause than his acquittal or rescue), editorialists, eulogists, and speechmakers, as well as members of the clergy like the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and poets and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even Abraham Lincoln, who condemned Brown for committing "violence, bloodshed, and treason," also applauded the old man's motives and lauded his "great courage" and "rare unselfishness."

Meanwhile, Southern fire-eaters insisted that Brown's raid was rooted in the Republican Party's rhetoric about a "higher law" and an "irrepressible conflict." This argument was so successful that the Republican Party wrote off the South during the 1860 election. There were seven reported lynching in the South.

For fear of alienating moderate voters, the Republican party decided, in the wake of the raid, to nominate Abraham Lincoln rather than William Seward, who was perceived as more radical.

In a bid to spare their client from the gallows, Brown's attorneys gathered nineteen affidavits testifying to insanity in Brown's immediate family. The real-life Brown was considered enigmatic by many who knew him personally. He could be stubborn, selfish, cold, arbitrary, intolerant, and vindictive. Yet he could also be loving, compassionate, and tender-hearted. There is also no doubt that he exhibited certain signs of mental abnormality, including sudden mood swings, an inflated notion of his military skills, and, above all, an obsessive fury over the institution of slavery. Of course, at a time when many Americans accepted slavery as an inevitable part of the social order, a degree of mental abnormality may have been necessary to recognize slavery's evil.

Did John Brown spark the Civil War? It was Lincoln’s election, not Brown’s raid, that triggered secession. Still, it was John Brown's prophetic truth was that slavery could not be purged from America except with blood. In a 1949 essay, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. rejected the notion that Civil War was a "repressible conflict" caused by fanatics and blundering politicians. Writing in the wake of World War II, he argued that there are times when a society works itself "into a logjam and that logjam must be burst by violence."

By the mid-1850s, it was apparent that moral suasion and political institutions had failed to place slavery on the road to extinction. The nation had reached an increasingly violent impasse. Antislavery crowds sought to prevent slave catchers from transporting fugitives back to the South. "Bleeding Kansas" had revealed that popular sovereignty offered an illusory solution to the problem of slavery in the Western territories. The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision eliminated possible compromise solutions to the westward expansion of slavery. Ultimately, slavery could only be ended by force of arms.

Document: In the summer of 1859, a party of strangers made their appearance at Sandy Hook, a small village of Washington county, Maryland, in the immediate vicinity of Harper's Ferry. With them was an old man of venerable appearance and austere demeanor who called himself Isaac Smith. They represented themselves as being prospecting for minerals, and they took frequent and long rambles, with this ostensible purpose, over the various peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since the first settlement of Harper's Ferry, it has been believed that, in the earth beneath the wild crags of the Maryland and Loudoun Heights, mines of different metals and of fabulous value are hidden, awaiting the eye of science and the hand of industry to discover and develop them. Many of the Citizens of the place, from time to time, have supposed that they had found them and no small excitement has been aroused on this account by sanguine explorers. Specimens of different kinds of valuable ore or what was supposed to be such, were sent to Boston and subjected to chemical analysis and very favorable reports were returned by the most eminent chemists and geologists of the Athens of America. No wonder was felt, therefore, at the appearance of the party, and their expedition over the tortuous and difficult paths of the mountains excited no suspicion. At first, they boarded at the house of Mr. Ormond Butler, where their conduct was unexceptionable. They paid in gold for whatever they purchased and, as their manners were courteous to all, they were, on the whole, very much liked by Mr. Butler's family and his guests. After a week's stay at Sandy Hook, they removed to what is known as "the Kennedy Farm" about five miles from Harper's Ferry, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, where they established their headquarters. While at this place, Smith and his party, of whom three were his sons, made themselves very agreeable to their neighbors and they were as popular there as they had been at Sandy Hook. The father was regarded as a man of stern morality, devoted to church exercises, and the sons, with the others of the party, as good-natured, amiable, young men. Thus things continued 'till the night of Sunday, October 16th, 1859. On that night about 10 o'clock, Mr. William Williams, one of the watchmen on the railroad bridge, was surprised to find himself taken prisoner by an armed party, consisting of about twenty men, who suddenly made their appearance from the Maryland side of the river. Most of the party then proceeded to the armory enclosure, taking with them their prisoner, and leaving two men to guard the bridge. They next captured Daniel Whelan, one of the watchmen at the armory, who was posted at the front gate, and they took possession of that establishment. The party then separated into two bodies - one remaining in the armory and the other proceeding to the rifle factory, half a mile up the Shenandoah, where they captured Mr. Samuel Williams - father of William Williams before mentioned - an old and highly respected man, who was in charge of that place as night watchman. He, too, was conducted to the armory where the other prisoners were confined, and a detachment of the strangers was left to supply his place. About 12 o'clock - midnight - Mr. Patrick Higgins, of Sandy Hook, arrived on the bridge, for the purpose of relieving Mr. William Williams. They were both in the employment of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad company as watchmen, and each used to serve twelve hours of the twenty-four on duty. Higgins found all in darkness on the bridge and, suspecting that something had gone wrong with Williams, he called loudly for him. To his astonishment he was ordered to halt and two men presented guns at his breast, at the same time telling him that he was their prisoner. One of them undertook to conduct him to the armory, but, on their arriving at a point near the Virginia end of the bridge, the hot-blooded Celt struck his captor a stunning blow with his fist, and, before the stranger could recover from its effects, Higgins had succeeded in escaping to Fouke's hotel, where he eluded pursuit. Several shots were fired after him without effect, and he attributes his safety to the fact that his pursuers, while in the act of firing, stumbled in the darkness over some cross pieces in the bridge, and had their aim disconcerted. About this time a party of the invaders went to the houses of Messrs. Lewis Washington and John Alstadt, living a few miles from Harper's Ferry, and took them and some of their slaves prisoners, conducting them to the general rendezvous for themselves and their captives - the armory enclosure. From the house of the former they took some relies of the great Washington and the Revolution, which the proprietor, of course, very highly prized. Among them was a sword, said to be the same that was sent to the "Father of his Country" by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia - a present, as a legend inscribed on it said, "from the oldest General of the time to the best." All through the night, great excitement existed among such of the citizens as became cognizant of these facts. There happened to be, at the time, protracted meetings at nearly all of the Methodist churches in the town and neighborhood, and the members, returning home late, were taken prisoners in detail, until the armory enclosure contained a great many captives, who were unable to communicate to their friends an account of their situation.

About one o'clock a.m., Monday, the east bound express train, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, arrived in charge of Conductor Phelps. The train was detained by order of the leader of the band, and the telegraph wires were cut. The object of these orders was, of course, to prevent news of the invasion from being spread. The train was allowed to proceed, however, after a considerable delay. While the train was at Harper's Ferry, great alarm naturally existed among the passengers who could not understand these movements. Several shots were exchanged between the attacking force and a Mr. Throckmorton, clerk at Fouke's hotel, and some other parties unknown, but no person was injured. Some time in the course of the night, Heywood Shepherd, a colored porter at the railroad office, walked to the bridge, impelled, no doubt, by curiosity to understand the enigma. He was ordered to halt by the guards at the bridge and being seized with a panic and running back, he was shot through the body. He succeeded in reaching the railroad office, where he died next day at 3 o'clock, in great agony.

A little before daylight, some early risers were surprised to find themselves taken prisoners, as soon as they appeared on the streets. Among them was James Darrell, aged about sixty-five years, the bellringer at the armory, whose duties, of course, compelled him to be the first of the hands at his post. It being yet dark, he carried a lantern. When near the gate, he was halted by an armed negro, one of the invading party, and, Darrell, not dreaming of what was transpiring and mistaking his challenger for one of Mr. Fouke's slaves on a "drunk," struck the negro with his lantern and consigned his "black soul" to a climate of much higher temperature than that of Virginia. The negro presented a Sharp's rifle at Darrell and, no doubt, the situation of bellringer at Harper's Ferry armory would have been very soon vacant had not a white man of the stranger party who appeared to relish very highly the joke of the mistake, caught the gun and prevented the negro from carrying out his intention. Another white man of the party, however, came up and struck Darrell on the side with the butt of his gun, injuring him severely. Darrell was then dragged before "the captain" who, pitying his age and his bodily sufferings, dismissed him on a sort of parole. Mr. Walter Kemp, an aged, infirm man, bartender at Fouke's hotel, was taken prisoner about this time and consigned to Limbo with the others.

It was, now, daylight and the armorers proceeded singly or in parties of two or three from their various homes to work at the shops. They were gobbled up in detail and marched to prison, lost in astonishment at the strange doings and many, perhaps, doubting if they were not yet asleep and dreaming. Several of the officers of the armory were captured, but the superintendent not being in the town at the time, the invaders missed what, no doubt, would have been to them a rich prize. About this time, Mr. George W, Cutshaw, an old and estimable citizen of the place, proceeded from his house on High street, towards the Potomac bridge, in company with a lady who was on her way to Washington City and whom Mr. Cutshaw was escorting across the river, to the place where the canal packet boat on which she intended to travel, was tied up. He passed along unmolested until he disposed of his charge, but, on his return, he encountered on the bridge several armed apparitions - one of them, an old man of commanding presence, appearing to be the leader. Mr. Cutshaw, who was "a man of infinite jest," used to relate in the humorous manner peculiar to himself, how he, on first seeing them, took up the thought that a great robbery had been committed somewhere and that the tall, stern figure before him was some famous detective, employed to discover and arrest the perpetrators, while the minor personages were his assistants. He was halted, but, being in a hurry for his breakfast, he was moving on, when he received another and peremptory challenge. At last he said impatiently, "let me go on! What do I know about your robberies?" These were unfortunate words for Cutshaw, as they gave the chief to understand that his party were suspected of an intention to plunder - an imputation which the old warrior very highly resented. Mr. Cutshaw was, therefore, immediately marched off to the armory and placed among the other prisoners, where "the Captain" kept a close eye on him until his attention was engrossed by the subsequent skirmish.

A little before 7 o'clock a.m., Mr. Alexander Kelly approached the corner of High and Shenandoah streets, armed with a shotgun, for the purpose of discharging it at the invaders. No sooner did he turn the corner than two shots were fired at him and a bullet was sent through his hat. Immediately afterwards, Mr. Thomas Boerly approached the same corner with the same purpose. He was a man of Herculean strength and great personal courage. He discharged his gun at some of the enemy who were standing at the arsenal gate, when a shot was fired at him by one of the party who was crouching behind the arsenal fence. The bullet penetrated his groin, inflicting a ghastly wound, of which he died in a few hours.

The writer of these annals met with an adventure on this occasion which, though it partook largely of romance to which he is much addicted, was anything but agreeable. Sharing in the general curiosity to know what it was all about, he imprudently walked down High street to Shenandoah street. At the arsenal gate he encountered four armed men - two white and two black. Not being conscious of guilt he thought he had no reason to fear anybody. The four guards saluted him civilly and one of the white men asked him if he owned any slaves. On his answering in the negative, the strangers told him that there was a movement on foot that would benefit him and all persons who did not own such property. The writer passed on strongly impressed with the thought that, sure enough, there was something in the wind. He then looked in at the prisoners, among whom was Mr. Thomas Gallaher, to whom he spoke. The invaders had ceased some time before from making prisoners, as they thought they now had as many as they could well manage. This accounts for the writer's escape from arrest when he first exposed himself to capture. The leader of the party approached the writer on his speaking to Gallaher, and ordered him off the street, telling him, that it was against military law to talk with prisoners. Not conceiving that this stranger had a right to order him off so unceremoniously and not being at the best of times of a very patient temper, the historian refused to comply, when a pistol was presented at his breast by the captain, which obliged him to duck a little and take shelter behind a brick pillar in the wall that enclosed the armory grounds. The commander then called out to the same men whom the writer had encountered at the arsenal gate, on the opposite side of the street, and who were not thirty yards off when the encounter with the chief took place. He ordered them to shoot or to arrest the historian and they at once prepared to obey the order. Not relishing either alternative of death or imprisonment, the writer dodged up the alleyway that ran along the sidewall of the armory yard, and, in order to disconcert their aim, he took a zigzag course which probably would not have been enough to save him from four bullets shot after him in a narrow alley by experienced marksmen, had not aid come from an unexpected source. And, now, for the romance. A colored woman, who was crouching in a doorway in the alley, rushed out between him and the guns, and, extending her arms, begged of the men not to shoot. They did not shoot and the present generation has not lost and posterity will not be deprived of this history, a calamity which, without the intervention of a miracle, their shooting would have entailed. Ever since, the writer has claimed great credit to himself for presence of mind in thinking of the "zigzag," under these trying circumstances, but his friends maliciously insinuate that absence of body did more to save him than presence of mind. He takes consolation, however, by comparing himself to the great John Smith, the first white explorer of Virginia, who was once in an equally bad fix and was saved by the timely intervention of another dusky maiden. The heroine who, in the present case, conferred so great a blessing on posterity, was Hannah, a slave belonging to Mrs. Margaret Carroll, of Harper's Ferry, and her name will be embalmed in history, like that of Pocahontas, and it will be more gratefully remembered that that of the Indian maiden, by future readers of this veracious story, who will consider themselves - partly at least - indebted to her for an unparalleled intellectual treat.

It was now breakfast time and "the captain" sent an order to Fouke's hotel for refreshments for his men. The state of his exchequer is not known, but he did not pay for the meals in any usual species of currency. He released Walter, familiarly called "Watty" Kemp, the bartender at Fouke's and he announced this as the equivalent he was willing to pay. It is to be feared that the landlord did not duly appreciate the advantages he gained by this profitable bargain, and it may be that "Uncle Watty" himself did not feel much flattered at the estimate put on him in the terms of the ransom and his being valued at the price of twenty breakfasts. Be this as it may, the bargain was struck and the meals furnished. The leader of the raiders invited his prisoners to partake of the provisions as far as they would go 'round, but only a few accepted the hospitable offer for fear of the food's being drugged.

Up to this time no person in the town, except the prisoners, could tell who the strange party were. To the captives, as was ascertained afterwards, the strangers confessed their purpose of liberating the slaves of Virginia, and freedom was offered to any one in durance who would furnish a negro man as a recruit for the "army of the Lord." However, as there was little or no communication allowed between the prisoners and their friends outside, the people, generally, were yet ignorant of the names and purposes of the invaders and, as may be believed, Madam Rumor had plenty of employment for her hundred tongues. Soon, however, they were recognized by some one as the explorers for minerals and then suspicion at once rested on a young man named John E. Cook, who had sojourned at Harper's Ferry for some years, in the various capacities of schoolmaster, book agent and lock-keeper on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal and who had married into a reputable family at the place. He had been seen associating with the Smith party and, as he had been often heard to boast of his exploits in "the Kansas war," on the Free Soil side, it was instinctively guessed that he and the Smiths were connected in some project for freeing the slaves and this opinion was confirmed by the fact of there being Negroes in the party. Shortly after, a new light broke on the people and it was ascertained, in some way, that "the captain" was no other than the redoubtable John Brown, of Kansas fame, who had earned the title of "Ossawattomie Brown" from his exploits in the portion of Kansas along the banks of Ossawattomie river. The information came from one of the prisoners - Mr. Mills who was allowed to communicate with his family.

At the regular hour for commencing work in the morning, Mr. Daniel J. Young, master machinist at the rifle factory, approached the gate to these shops, expecting to find Mr. Samuel Williams at his post, as watchman, and little anticipating to find the place in possession of an enemy. He was met at the gate by a fierce looking fully armed, who refused him admittance, claiming that he and his companions - four or five of whom appeared at the watch house door, on hearing the conversation - had got possession by authority from the Great Jehovah. Mr. Young, being naturally astonished at hearing this, asked what the object of the strangers was and learned that they had come to give freedom to the slaves of Virginia that the friends of liberty had tried all constitutional and peaceable means to accomplish this end and had failed signally, but that, now the great evil of slavery must be eradicated at any risk and that there were resources enough ready for the accomplishment of this purpose. Mr. Young said in reply: "If you derive your authority from the Almighty I must yield as I get my right to enter only from an earthly power - the government of the United States. I warn you, however, that, before this day's sun shall have set, you and your companions will be corpses." Mr. Young then went back to stop the mechanics and laborers who were on their way to go to work and warn them of their danger. It appeared to be no part of the policy of the strangers to keep prisoners at the rifle works, as no attempt was made to arrest Mr. Young. This gentleman, it may be remarked, became conspicuous afterwards for his adhesion to the cause of the Union. During the war, he was in charge of the ordnance at Harper's Ferry, with the rank of captain. Soon after the close of hostilities he received a commission in the regular army with the same rank, and, after having served the government for a long time, at various points, he was retired some years ago, and took up his residence at Troy, New York, where he died in 1893.

About 9 o'clock, a.m., the people had recovered from their amazement and sought for arms wherever they thought they could find any. It was no easy matter to find effective weapons, as the arsenal and nearly all the storehouses were in possession of the enemy. It was remembered, however that, some time before, a lot of guns had been removed from the place where they were usually stored, in order to protect them from the river which, at the time, had overflowed its banks and encroached on the armory grounds and buildings. The arms were put away in a building situated far above high water mark and the strangers knew not of their existence. Enough was procured from this lot to equip a few small companies of citizens and a desultory skirmish commenced around the armory buildings and the adjacent streets which continued all day. A company under Captain Henry Medler crossed the Shenandoah on the bridge and took post on the Loudoun side of the river, opposite the rifle works. Another company under Captain Hezekiah Roderick, took position on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, northwest of the armory, and a third body, under Captain William H. Moore, crossed the Potomac about a mile above Harper's Ferry and marched down on the Maryland side to take possession of the railroad bridge. Thus Brown's party were hemmed in and all the citizens who were not enrolled in any of these companies engaged the invaders wherever they could meet them. The rifle factory was attacked and the strangers there posted were soon driven into the Shenandoah where they were met by the fire of Captain Medler's men who had crossed the river on the bridge, and, between the two fires, they all perished, except one - a negro named Copeland, who was taken prisoner. It is said that one of the citizens named James Holt, waded into the river after one of the enemy who had reached a rock in the stream, knocked him down with his fist and disarmed him. Whether it was Copeland or one of those who were afterwards killed that was thus knocked down the writer is not informed, but that Holt performed this feat is undoubted.

At the armory proper, however, where Brown commanded in person, a more determined resistance was made. Brown had told several of his prisoners in the course of the morning that he expected large re-enforcements and when, about noon, the company of citizens under Captain Moore, that had crossed into Maryland, was seen marching down the river road great excitement prevailed, it being supposed by the prisoners and such of the other citizens as were not aware of Captain Moore's movements and, perhaps, by Brown's party, that these were, sure enough, allies of the invaders. Soon, however, it was ascertained who they were and Brown now seeing that the fortune of the day was against him sent two of his prisoners, Archibald M. Kitzmiller and Rezin Cross, under guard of two of his men, to negotiate in his name with Captain Moore for permission to vacate the place with his surviving men without molestation. The two ambassadors proceeded with their guards towards the bridge, but when they came near the "Gault House" several shots were fired from that building by which both of the guards were wounded severely and put hors de combat. One of them contrived to make his way back to the armory, but the other was unable to move without assistance and Messrs. Kitzmiller and Cross helped him into Fouke's hotel, where his wounds were dressed. It will be believed that neither of the envoys was foolish enough, like Regulus of old, to return to captivity. Brown, finding that his doves did not come back with the olive branch and now despairing of success, called in from the streets the survivors of his party and, picking out nine of the most prominent of his prisoners as hostages, he retreated into a small brick building near the armory gate, called "the engine house," taking with him the nine citizens. This little building was afterwards famous under the name of "John Brown's Fort," and, from the time of the invasion until the spring of 1892, it was an object of great curiosity to strangers visiting the place. It was sold at the time last mentioned to a company of speculators for exhibition at the World's Fair in Chicago, and with it much of the glory of Harper's Ferry departed forever.

About the year 1895, it was repurchased and reshipped to Harper's Ferry by the late Miss Kate Fields, and it is now to be seen about two miles from its original site on the farm of Mr. Alexander Murphy. Of course, the bricks are not relaid in their original order and the death of Miss Fields makes its restoration to anything like its old self very improbable. About the time when Brown immured himself, a company of Berkeley county militia arrived from Martinsburg who, with some citizens of Harper's Ferry and the surrounding country made a rush on the armory and released the great mass of the prisoners outside of the engine house, not, however, without suffering some loss from a galling fire kept up by the enemy from "the fort." Brown's men had pierce e walls for musketry and through the holes kept a brisk fusilade by which they wounded many of the Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry people and some Charlestown men who, too, had come to take part in the fray. The sufferers were Messrs. Murphy, Richardson, Hammond, Dorsey, Hooper and Wollett, of Martinsburg Mr. Young, of Charlestown, and Mr. Edward McCabe, of Harper's Ferry. Mr. Dorsey was wounded very dangerously and several of the others were injured severely. All got well again, however, except one, whose hand was disabled permanently,

Before Brown's retreat to the fort, two of his men approached the corner of High and Shenandoah streets, where Mr. Boerley had been shot in the morning. It was then about 2 o'clock p.m. and Mr. George Turner a very respected gentleman of Jefferson county who had come to town on private business was standing at the door of Captain Moore's house on High street about seventy five yards from the corner above mentioned. He had armed himself with a musket and was in the act of resting it on a board fence near the door to take aim at one of those men. when a bullet from a Sharp's rifle struck him in the shoulder - the only part of him that was exposed. The ball after taking an eccentric course entered his neck and killed him almost instantly.

A physician who examined his body described the wound as having been of the strangest kind the bullet having taken a course entirely at variance with the laws supposed to prevail with such projectiles. It was thought by many that the shot was not aimed at Mr. Turner and that the man who fired it was not aware of that gentleman's being near. There were two citizens named MeClenan and Stedman in the middle of the street opposite to Captain Moore's house. They had guns in their bands and at one of them it is supposed was aimed the shot that proved fatal to Mr. Turner.

After this shooting the two strangers immediately retreated and a ludicrous occurrence took place if indeed, any event of that ill-omened day can be supposed to be calculated to excite merriment. Mr. John McClenan above mentioned - shot after them and his bullet striking the cartridge box of one of them, as he was approaching the armory gate, an explosion of his ammunition took place and he entered the gate amid a display of fireworks of a novel description. Apparently, he did not relish the honors paid him and, with accelerated pace, he took refuge with his company in the engine house.

The strangers continued to fire from their fortress and they now killed another very valuable citizen Fountain Beckham, for many years agent of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad company at Harper's Ferry, and long a magistrate of Jefferson county. Being a man of nervous temperament he was naturally much excited by the occurrences of the day. Moreover, Heywood Shepherd, the negro shot on the railroad bridge on the previous night, had been his faithful servant and he was much grieved and very indignant at his death. Against the remonstrances of several friends he determined to take a close look at the enemy. He crept along the railroad, under shelter of a watering station, which then stood there and peeped 'round the corner of the building at the engine house opposite, when a bullet from one of Brown's men penetrated his heart and he died instantly. A man named Thompson, said to be Brown's son-in-law, had been taken prisoner a short time before by the citizens and confined in Fouke's hotel under a guard. At first it was the intention of the people to hand him over to the regular authorities for trial, but the killing of Mr. Beckham so exasperated them that the current of their feelings was changed. They rushed into the hotel, seized Thompson and were dragging him out of the house to put him to death, when Miss Christina Fouke, a sister of the proprietor, with true feminine instinct, ran into the crowd and besought the infuriated multitude to spare the prisoner's life. This noble act has elicited the warmest commendations from every party and it may be considered the one redeeming incident in the gloomy history of that unfortunate day. Miss Fouke's entreaties were unheeded, however, and Thompson was hurried to the railroad bridge, where he was riddled with bullets. He tried to escape by letting himself drop through the bridge into the river. He had been left for dead, but he had vitality enough remaining to accomplish this feat. He was discovered and another shower of bullets was discharged at him. He was either killed by the shots or drowned and, for a day or two, his body could be seen lying at the bottom of the river, with his ghastly face still showing what a fearful death agony he had experienced.

Another of the invaders, named Lehman, attempted to escape from the upper end of the armory grounds by swimming or wading the Potomac. He had been seen shortly before conducting one of the armory watchmen, named Edward Murphy, towards the engine house. He kept his prisoner between himself and an armed party of citizens who were stationed on a hill near the government works. More than a dozen guns were raised to shoot him by the excited crowd and, no doubt, he and Murphy would have been killed had not Mr. Zedoc Butt, an old citizen, induced the party not to fire, in consideration of the danger to the innocent watchman. Immediately afterwards, Lehman disappeared for a while, but soon he was seen endeavoring to escape as above mentioned. A volley was fired after him and he must have been wounded, as he lay down and threw up both his arms, as if surrendering. A temporary resident of Harper's Ferry waded through the river to a rock on which Lehman lay, apparently disabled, and deliberately shot him through the head, killing him instantly. His body, too, lay for a considerable time where he fell, and it could be seen plainly from the high ground west of the armory. The slayer now asserts that Lehman first drew his pistol to shoot at him.

A little before night Brown asked if any of his captives would volunteer to go out among the citizens and induce them to cease firing on the fort, as they were endangering the lives of their friends - the prisoners. He promised on his part that, if there was no more firing on his men, there should be none by them on the besiegers. Mr. Israel Russel undertook the dangerous duty - the risk arose from the excited state of the people who would be likely to fire on anything seen stirring around the prison house - and the citizens were persuaded to stop firing in consideration of the danger incurred of injuring the prisoners. Like Messrs. Kitzmiller and Cross, Mr. Russel, it will be readily supposed, did not return to captivity. It is certain that the people of the place would have disposed of Brown and his party in a very short time, had they not been prevented all along from pushing the siege vigorously, by a regard for the lives of their fellow townsmen, who were prisoners. As it was, they had killed, wounded or dispersed more than three-fourths the raiders and, consequently, the sneers that were afterwards thrown out against their bravery, were entirely uncalled for and were by parties who, in the subsequent war, did not exhibit much of the reckless courage which they expected from peaceful citizens, taken by surprise and totally at a loss for information as to the numbers and resources of their enemies.

It was now dark and the wildest excitement existed in the town, especially among the friends of the killed, wounded and prisoners of the citizens' party. It had rained some little all day and the atmosphere was raw and cold. Now, a cloudy and moonless sky hung like a pall over the scene of war and, on the whole, a more dismal night cannot be imagined. Guards were stationed 'round the engine house to prevent Brown's escape and, as forces were constantly arriving from Winchester, Fred

Source: Joseph Barry, The Strange Story of Harper's Ferry (Martinsburg, West Virginia, Thompson Brothers, 1903 ).

John Brown’s Day of Reckoning

Harpers Ferry, Virginia, lay sleeping on the night of October 16, 1859, as 19 heavily armed men stole down mist-shrouded bluffs along the Potomac River where it joins the Shenandoah. Their leader was a rail-thin 59-year-old man with a shock of graying hair and penetrating steel-gray eyes. His name was John Brown. Some of those who strode across a covered railway bridge from Maryland into Virginia were callow farm boys others were seasoned veterans of the guerrilla war in disputed Kansas. Among them were Brown's youngest sons, Watson and Oliver a fugitive slave from Charleston, South Carolina an African-American student at Oberlin College a pair of Quaker brothers from Iowa who had abandoned their pacifist beliefs to follow Brown a former slave from Virginia and men from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana. They had come to Harpers Ferry to make war on slavery.

From This Story

Video: The Raid on Harpers Ferry

The raid that Sunday night would be the most daring instance on record of white men entering a Southern state to incite a slave rebellion. In military terms, it was barely a skirmish, but the incident electrified the nation. It also created, in John Brown, a figure who after a century and a half remains one of the most emotive touchstones of our racial history, lionized by some Americans and loathed by others: few are indifferent. Brown's mantle has been claimed by figures as diverse as Malcolm X, Timothy McVeigh, Socialist leader Eugene Debs and abortion protesters espousing violence. "Americans do not deliberate about John Brown—they feel him," says Dennis Frye, the National Park Service's chief historian at Harpers Ferry. "He is still alive today in the American soul. He represents something for each of us, but none of us is in agreement about what he means."

"The impact of Harpers Ferry quite literally transformed the nation," says Harvard historian John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. The tide of anger that flowed from Harpers Ferry traumatized Americans of all persuasions, terrorizing Southerners with the fear of massive slave rebellions, and radicalizing countless Northerners, who had hoped that violent confrontation over slavery could be indefinitely postponed. Before Harpers Ferry, leading politicians believed that the widening division between North and South would eventually yield to compromise. After it, the chasm appeared unbridgeable. Harpers Ferry splintered the Democratic Party, scrambled the leadership of the Republicans and produced the conditions that enabled Republican Abraham Lincoln to defeat two Democrats and a third-party candidate in the presidential election of 1860.

"Had John Brown's raid not occurred, it is very possible that the 1860 election would have been a regular two-party contest between antislavery Republicans and pro-slavery Democrats," says City University of New York historian David Reynolds, author of John Brown: Abolitionist. "The Democrats would probably have won, since Lincoln received just 40 percent of the popular vote, around one million votes less than his three opponents." While the Democrats split over slavery, Republican candidates such as William Seward were tarnished by their association with abolitionists Lincoln, at the time, was regarded as one of his party's more conservative options. "John Brown was, in effect, a hammer that shattered Lincoln's opponents into fragments," says Reynolds. "Because Brown helped to disrupt the party system, Lincoln was carried to victory, which in turn led 11 states to secede from the Union. This in turn led to the Civil War."

Well into the 20th century, it was common to dismiss Brown as an irrational fanatic, or worse. In the rousing pro-Southern 1940 classic film Santa Fe Trail, actor Raymond Massey portrayed him as a wild-eyed madman. But the civil rights movement and a more thoughtful acknowledgment of the nation's racial problems have occasioned a more nuanced view. "Brown was thought mad because he crossed the line of permissible dissent," Stauffer says. "He was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of blacks, and for this, in a culture that was simply marinated in racism, he was called mad."

Brown was a hard man, to be sure, "built for times of trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships," in the words of his close friend, the African-American orator Frederick Douglass. Brown felt a profound and lifelong empathy with the plight of slaves. "He stood apart from every other white in the historical record in his ability to burst free from the power of racism," says Stauffer. "Blacks were among his closest friends, and in some respects he felt more comfortable around blacks than he did around whites."

Brown was born with the century, in 1800, in Connecticut, and raised by loving if strict parents who believed (as did many, if not most, in that era) that righteous punishment was an instrument of the divine. When he was a small boy, the Browns moved west in an ox-drawn wagon to the raw wilderness of frontier Ohio, settling in the town of Hudson, where they became known as friends to the rapidly diminishing population of Native Americans, and as abolitionists who were always ready to help fugitive slaves. Like many restless 19th-century Americans, Brown tried many professions, failing at some and succeeding modestly at others: farmer, tanner, surveyor, wool merchant. He married twice—his first wife died from illness—and, in all, fathered 20 children, almost half of whom died in infancy 3 more would die in the war against slavery. Brown, whose beliefs were rooted in strict Calvinism, was convinced that he had been predestined to bring an end to slavery, which he believed with burning certitude was a sin against God. In his youth, both he and his father, Owen Brown, had served as "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. He had denounced racism within his own church, where African-Americans were required to sit in the back, and shocked neighbors by dining with blacks and addressing them as "Mr." and "Mrs." Douglass once described Brown as a man who "though a white gentleman, is in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery."

In 1848, the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith encouraged Brown and his family to live on land Smith had bestowed on black settlers in northern New York. Tucked away in the Adirondack Mountains, Brown concocted a plan to liberate slaves in numbers never before attempted: A "Subterranean Pass-Way"—the Underground Railroad writ large—would stretch south through the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains, linked by a chain of forts manned by armed abolitionists and free blacks. "These warriors would raid plantations and run fugitives north to Canada," says Stauffer. "The goal was to destroy the value of slave property." This scheme would form the template for the Harpers Ferry raid and, says Frye, under different circumstances "could have succeeded. [Brown] knew that he couldn't free four million people. But he understood economics and how much money was invested in slaves. There would be a panic—property values would dive. The slave economy would collapse."

Political events of the 1850s turned Brown from a fierce, if essentially garden-variety, abolitionist into a man willing to take up arms, even die, for his cause. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which imposed draconian penalties on anyone caught helping a runaway and required all citizens to cooperate in the capture of fugitive slaves, enraged Brown and other abolitionists. In 1854, another act of Congress pushed still more Northerners beyond their limits of tolerance. Under pressure from the South and its Democratic allies in the North, Congress opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to slavery under a concept called "popular sovereignty." The more northerly Nebraska was in little danger of becoming a slave state. Kansas, however, was up for grabs. Pro-slavery advocates—"the meanest and most desperate of men, armed to the teeth with Revolvers, Bowie Knives, Rifles & Cannon, while they are not only thoroughly organized, but under pay from Slaveholders," John Brown Jr. wrote to his father—poured into Kansas from Missouri. Antislavery settlers begged for guns and reinforcements. Among the thousands of abolitionists who left their farms, workshops or schools to respond to the call were John Brown and five of his sons. Brown himself arrived in Kansas in October 1855, driving a wagon loaded with rifles he had picked up in Ohio and Illinois, determined, he said, "to help defeat Satan and his legions."

In May 1856, pro-slavery raiders sacked Lawrence, Kansas, in an orgy of burning and looting. Almost simultaneously, Brown learned that Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the most outspoken abolitionist in the U.S. Senate, had been beaten senseless on the floor of the chamber by a cane-wielding congressman from South Carolina. Brown raged at the North's apparent helplessness. Advised to act with restraint, he retorted, "Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing the word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice." A party of Free-Staters led by Brown dragged five pro-slavery men out of their isolated cabins on eastern Kansas' Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with cutlasses. The horrific nature of the murders disturbed even abolitionists. Brown was unrepentant. "God is my judge," he laconically replied when asked to account for his actions. Though he was a wanted man who hid out for a time, Brown eluded capture in the anarchic conditions that pervaded Kansas. Indeed, almost no one—pro-slavery or antislavery—was ever arraigned in a court for killings that took place during the guerrilla war there.

The murders, however, ignited reprisals. Pro-slavery "border ruffians" raided Free- Staters' homesteads. Abolitionists fought back. Hamlets were burned, farms abandoned. Brown's son Frederick, who had participated in the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, was shot dead by a pro-slavery man. Although Brown survived many brushes with opponents, he seemed to sense his own fate. In August 1856 he told his son Jason, "I have only a short time to live—only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause."

By almost any definition, the Pottawatomie killings were a terrorist act, intended to sow fear in slavery's defenders. "Brown viewed slavery as a state of war against blacks—a system of torture, rape, oppression and murder—and saw himself as a soldier in the army of the Lord against slavery," says Reynolds. "Kansas was Brown's trial by fire, his initiation into violence, his preparation for real war," he says. "By 1859, when he raided Harpers Ferry, Brown was ready, in his own words, ‘to take the war into Africa'—that is, into the South."

In January 1858, Brown left Kansas to seek support for his planned Southern invasion. In April, he sought out a diminutive former slave, Harriet Tubman, who had made eight secret trips to Maryland's Eastern Shore to lead dozens of slaves north to freedom. Brown was so impressed that he began referring to her as "General Tubman." For her part, she embraced Brown as one of the few whites she had ever met who shared her belief that antislavery work was a life-and-death struggle. "Tubman thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived," says Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.

Having secured financial backing from wealthy abolitionists known as the "Secret Six," Brown returned to Kansas in mid-1858. In December, he led 12 fugitive slaves on an epic journey eastward, dodging pro-slavery guerrillas and marshals' posses and fighting and defeating a force of United States troops. Upon reaching Detroit, they were ferried across the Detroit River to Canada. Brown had covered nearly 1,500 miles in 82 days, proof to doubters, he felt sure, that he was capable of making the Subterranean Pass-Way a reality.

With his "Secret Six" war chest, Brown purchased hundreds of Sharps carbines and thousands of pikes, with which he planned to arm the first wave of slaves he expected to flock to his banner once he occupied Harpers Ferry. Many thousands more could then be armed with rifles stored at the federal arsenal there. "When I strike, the bees will swarm," Brown assured Frederick Douglass, whom he urged to sign on as president of a "Provisional Government." Brown also expected Tubman to help him recruit young men for his revolutionary army, and, says Larson, "to help infiltrate the countryside before the raid, encourage local blacks to join Brown and when the time came, to be at his side—like a soldier." Ultimately, neither Tubman nor Douglass participated in the raid. Douglass was sure the venture would fail. He warned Brown that he was "going into a perfect steel trap, and that he would not get out alive." Tubman may have concluded that if Brown's plan failed, the Underground Railroad would be destroyed, its routes, methods and participants exposed.

Sixty-one miles northwest of Washington, D.C., at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry was the site of a major federal armory, including a musket factory and rifle works, an arsenal, several large mills and an important railroad junction. "It was one of the most heavily industrialized towns south of the Mason-Dixon line," says Frye. "It was also a cosmopolitan town, with a lot of Irish and German immigrants, and even Yankees who worked in the industrial facilities." The town and its environs' population of 3,000 included about 300 African-Americans, evenly divided between slave and free. But more than 18,000 slaves—the "bees" Brown expected to swarm—lived in the surrounding counties.

As his men stepped off the railway bridge into town that October night in 1859, Brown dispatched contingents to seize the musket factory, rifle works, arsenal and adjacent brick fire-engine house. (Three men remained in Maryland to guard weapons that Brown hoped to distribute to slaves who joined him.) "I want to free all the negroes in this state," he told one of his first hostages, a night watchman. "If the citizens interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood." Guards were posted at the bridges. Telegraph lines were cut. The railroad station was seized. It was there that the raid's first casualty occurred, when a porter, a free black man named Hayward Shepherd, challenged Brown's men and was shot dead in the dark. Once key locations had been secured, Brown sent a detachment to seize several prominent local slave owners, including Col. Lewis W. Washington, a great-grandnephew of the first president.

Early reports claimed that Harpers Ferry had been taken by 50, then 150, then 200 white "insurrectionists" and "six hundred runaway negroes." Brown expected to have 1,500 men under his command by midday Monday. He later said he believed that he would eventually have armed as many as 5,000 slaves. But the bees did not swarm. (Only a handful of slaves lent Brown assistance.) Instead, as Brown's band watched dawn break over the craggy ridges enclosing Harpers Ferry, local white militias—similar to today's National Guard—were hastening to arms.

First to arrive were the Jefferson Guards, from nearby Charles Town. Uniformed in blue, with tall black Mexican War-era shakos on their heads and brandishing .58-caliber rifles, they seized the railway bridge, killing a former slave named Dangerfield Newby and cutting Brown off from his route of escape. Newby had gone north in a failed attempt to earn enough money to buy freedom for his wife and six children. In his pocket was a letter from his wife: "It is said Master is in want of money," she had written. "I know not what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hopes of the future are blasted, for their [sic] has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you."

As the day progressed, armed units poured in from Frederick, Maryland Martinsburg and Shepherdstown, Virginia and elsewhere. Brown and his raiders were soon surrounded. He and a dozen of his men held out in the engine house, a small but formidable brick building, with stout oak doors in front. Other small groups remained holed up in the musket factory and rifle works. Acknowledging their increasingly dire predicament, Brown sent out New Yorker William Thompson, bearing a white flag, to propose a cease-fire. But Thompson was captured and held in the Galt House, a local hotel. Brown then dispatched his son, Watson, 24, and ex-cavalryman Aaron Stevens, also under a white flag, but the militiamen shot them down in the street. Watson, although fatally wounded, managed to crawl back to the engine house. Stevens, shot four times, was arrested.

When the militia stormed the rifle works, the three men inside dashed for the shallow Shenandoah, hoping to wade across. Two of them—John Kagi, vice president of Brown's provisional government, and Lewis Leary, an African-American—were shot dead in the water. The black Oberlin student, John Copeland, reached a rock in the middle of the river, where he threw down his gun and surrendered. Twenty-year-old William Leeman slipped out of the engine house, hoping to make contact with the three men Brown had left as backup in Maryland. Leeman plunged into the Potomac and swam for his life. Trapped on an islet, he was shot dead as he tried to surrender. Throughout the afternoon, bystanders took potshots at his body.

Through loopholes—small openings through which guns could be fired—that they had drilled in the engine house's thick doors, Brown's men tried to pick off their attackers, without much success. One of their shots, however, killed the town's mayor, Fontaine Beckham, enraging the local citizenry. "The anger at that moment was uncontrollable," says Frye. "A tornado of rage swept over them." A vengeful mob pushed its way into the Galt House, where William Thompson was being held prisoner. They dragged him onto the railroad trestle, shot him in the head as he begged for his life and tossed him over the railing into the Potomac.

By nightfall, conditions inside the engine house had grown desperate. Brown's men had not eaten for more than 24 hours. Only four remained unwounded. The bloody corpses of slain raiders, including Brown's 20-year-old son, Oliver, lay at their feet. They knew there was no hope of escape. Eleven white hostages and two or three of their slaves were pressed against the back wall, utterly terrified. Two pumpers and hose carts were pushed against the doors, to brace against an assault expected at any moment. Yet if Brown felt defeated, he didn't show it. As his son Watson writhed in agony, Brown told him to die "as becomes a man."

Soon perhaps a thousand men—many uniformed and disciplined, others drunk and brandishing weapons from shotguns to old muskets—would fill the narrow lanes of Harpers Ferry, surrounding Brown's tiny band. President James Buchanan had dispatched a company of Marines from Washington, under the command of one of the Army's most promising officers: Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. Himself a slave owner, Lee had only disdain for abolitionists, who "he believed were exacerbating tensions by agitating among slaves and angering masters," says Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. "He held that although slavery was regrettable, it was an institution sanctioned by God and as such would disappear only when God ordained it." Dressed in civilian clothes, Lee reached Harpers Ferry around midnight. He gathered the 90 Marines behind a nearby warehouse and worked out a plan of attack. In the predawn darkness, Lee's aide, a flamboyant young cavalry lieutenant, boldly approached the engine house, carrying a white flag. He was met at the door by Brown, who asked that he and his men be allowed to retreat across the river to Maryland, where they would free their hostages. The soldier promised only that the raiders would be protected from the mob and put on trial. "Well, lieutenant, I see we can't agree," replied Brown. The lieutenant stepped aside, and with his hand gave a prearranged signal to attack. Brown could have shot him dead—"just as easily as I could kill a musquito," he recalled later. Had he done so, the course of the Civil War might have been different. The lieutenant was J.E.B. Stuart, who would go on to serve brilliantly as Lee's cavalry commander.

Lee first sent several men crawling below the loopholes, to smash the door with sledgehammers. When that failed, a larger party charged the weakened door, using a ladder as a battering ram, punching through on their second try. Lt. Israel Green squirmed through the hole to find himself beneath one of the pumpers. According to Frye, as Green emerged into the darkened room, one of the hostages pointed at Brown. The abolitionist turned just as Green lunged forward with his saber, striking Brown in the gut with what should have been a death blow. Brown fell, stunned but astonishingly unharmed: the sword had struck a buckle and bent itself double. With the sword's hilt, Green then hammered Brown's skull until he passed out. Although severely injured, Brown would survive. "History may be a matter of a quarter of an inch," says Frye. "If the blade had struck a quarter inch to the left or right, up or down, Brown would have been a corpse, and there would have been no story for him to tell, and there would have been no martyr."

Meanwhile, the Marines poured through the breach. Brown's men were overwhelmed. One Marine impaled Indianan Jeremiah Anderson against a wall. Another bayoneted young Dauphin Thompson, where he lay under a fire engine. It was over in less than three minutes. Of the 19 men who strode into Harpers Ferry less than 36 hours before, five were now prisoners ten had been killed or fatally injured. Four townspeople had also died more than a dozen militiamen were wounded.

Only two of Brown's men escaped the siege. Amid the commotion, Osborne Anderson and Albert Hazlett slipped out the back of the armory, climbed a wall and scuttled behind the embankment of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to the bank of the Potomac, where they found a boat and paddled to the Maryland shore. Hazlett and another of the men whom Brown had left behind to guard supplies were later captured in Pennsylvania and extradited to Virginia. Of the total, five members of the raiding party would eventually make their way to safety in the North or Canada.

Brown and his captured men were charged with treason, first-degree murder and "conspiring with Negroes to produce insurrection." All of the charges carried the death penalty. The trial, held in Charles Town, Virginia, began on October 26 the verdict was guilty, and Brown was sentenced on November 2. Brown met his death stoically on the morning of December 2, 1859. He was led out of the Charles Town jail, where he had been held since his capture, and seated on a small wagon carrying a white pine coffin. He handed a note to one of his guards: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away but with blood." Escorted by six companies of infantry, he was transported to a scaffold where, at 11:15, a sack was placed over his head and a rope fitted around his neck. Brown told his guard, "Don't keep me waiting longer than necessary. Be quick." These were his last words. Among the witnesses to his death were Robert E. Lee and two other men whose lives would be irrevocably changed by the events at Harpers Ferry. One was a Presbyterian professor from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, who would earn the nickname "Stonewall" less than two years later at the Battle of Bull Run. The other was a young actor with seductive eyes and curly hair, already a fanatical believer in Southern nationalism: John Wilkes Booth. The remaining convicted raiders would be hanged, one by one.

Brown's death stirred blood in the North and the South for opposing reasons. "We shall be a thousand times more Anti-Slavery than we ever dared to think of being before," proclaimed the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald. "Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified," Henry David Thoreau opined in a speech in Concord on the day of Brown's execution, "This morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer he is an angel of light." In 1861, Yankee soldiers would march to battle singing: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on."

On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, "this was the South's Pearl Harbor, its ground zero," says Frye. "There was a heightened sense of paranoia, a fear of more abolitionist attacks—that more Browns were coming any day, at any moment. The South's greatest fear was slave insurrection. They all knew that if you held four million people in bondage, you're vulnerable to attack." Militias sprang up across the South. In town after town, units organized, armed and drilled. When war broke out in 1861, they would provide the Confederacy with tens of thousands of well-trained soldiers. "In effect, 18 months before Fort Sumter, the South was already declaring war against the North," says Frye. "Brown gave them the unifying momentum they needed, a common cause based on preserving the chains of slavery."

Fergus M. Bordewich, a frequent contributor of articles on history, is profiled in the "From the Editor" column.

Boots on the Ground to Support John Brown

Merritt Anthony, the youngest sibling of the group, moved to Kansas to fight with John Brown (1856). Then son Daniel (D.R.) also relocated to the border of Bleeding Kansas (1857) and is thought to have protected Brown as Brown was leaving for the East in January 1859. Therefore, it seems likely that this pacifist family considered the institution of slavery a greater evil than the violence Brown thought necessary to stamp it out.

When Brown was captured at Harper’s Ferry, he carried a note in his pocket with Douglass’ name on it, and federal officials quickly began searching Rochester to arrest Douglass. The orator escaped via the Underground Railroad on a horse borrowed from Henry Selden, who would later defend Susan for her “crime” of voting.

John Brown

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John Brown, (born May 9, 1800, Torrington, Connecticut, U.S.—died December 2, 1859, Charles Town, Virginia [now in West Virginia]), militant American abolitionist whose raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), in 1859 made him a martyr to the antislavery cause and was instrumental in heightening sectional animosities that led to the American Civil War (1861–65).

Why is John Brown significant?

Militant American abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), in 1859 that he hoped would spark a slave rebellion. It made him a martyr to the antislavery cause and was instrumental in heightening sectional animosities that led to the American Civil War (1861–65).

What was John Brown’s life like?

John Brown relocated his large family frequently, moving restlessly through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York and working as a tanner, sheep drover, wool merchant, farmer, and land speculator. In 1849 he settled his family in a Black community in North Elba, New York, on land donated by abolitionist Gerrit Smith.

How did John Brown become famous?

Long before the Harpers Ferry Raid, John Brown earned a measure of fame as the leader of antislavery guerrillas in Bleeding Kansas, the small civil war fought between proslavery and antislavery advocates for control of the new territory of Kansas. Brown was feared after he led the retaliatory raid that resulted in the Pottawatomie Massacre.

How did John Brown die?

After the Harpers Ferry Raid, John Brown was tried for murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state. He was convicted and hanged on December 2, 1859, in Charles Town, Virginia (now in West Virginia). John Wilkes Booth, later Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, was present at the execution as a militiaman.

What was John Brown’s legacy?

When he learned that John Brown had been executed, Henry David Thoreau said, “Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries, it seems to me that John Brown is the only one who has not died.” Marching into battle during the American Civil War, Union soldiers sang the song “John Brown’s Body.”

Moving about restlessly through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, Brown was barely able to support his large family in any of several vocations at which he tried his hand: tanner, sheep drover, wool merchant, farmer, and land speculator. Though he was white, in 1849 Brown settled with his family in a Black community founded at North Elba, New York, on land donated by the New York antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith. Long a foe of slavery, Brown became obsessed with the idea of taking overt action to help win justice for enslaved Black people. In 1855 he followed five of his sons to the Kansas Territory to assist antislavery forces struggling for control there, a conflict that became known as Bleeding Kansas. With a wagon laden with guns and ammunition, Brown settled in Osawatomie and soon became the leader of antislavery guerrillas in the area.

Brooding over the sack of the town of Lawrence by a mob of slavery sympathizers (May 21, 1856), Brown concluded that he had a divine mission to take vengeance. Three days later he led a nighttime retaliatory raid on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, in which five men were dragged out of their cabins and hacked to death. After this raid, which became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, the name of “Old Osawatomie Brown” conjured up a fearful image among local slavery apologists.

In the spring of 1858, Brown convened a meeting of Black and white supporters in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, at which he announced his intention of establishing in the Maryland and Virginia mountains a stronghold for escaping slaves. He proposed, and the convention adopted, a provisional constitution for the people of the United States. He was elected commander in chief of this paper government while gaining the moral and financial support of Gerrit Smith and several prominent Boston abolitionists. In addition to Smith, this group, later referred to as the “Secret Six,” comprised physician and educator Samuel Gridley Howe, teacher and later journalist Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, industrialist George L. Stearns, and ministers Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker. Some of them had provided financial support for Brown’s efforts in Kansas, and they would back his next and most famous undertaking, too.

In the summer of 1859, with an armed band of 16 white and 5 Black abolitionists, Brown set up a headquarters in a rented farmhouse in Maryland, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, the site of a federal armoury. On the night of October 16, he quickly took the armoury and rounded up some 60 leading men of the area as hostages. Brown took this desperate action in the hope that escaped slaves would join his rebellion, forming an “army of emancipation” with which to liberate their fellow slaves. Throughout the next day and night he and his men held out against the local militia, but on the following morning he surrendered to a contingency of troops under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee, including a small force of U.S. Marines that had broken into the armoury and overpowered Brown and his comrades. Brown himself was wounded, and 10 of his followers (including two sons) were killed. He was tried for murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state and was convicted and hanged (John Wilkes Booth, later Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, was present at the execution as a militiaman.) .

Although Brown failed to spark a general slave revolt, the high moral tone of his defense helped to immortalize him and to hasten the war that would bring emancipation. Noting that the gaze of Europe was fixed on America, French novelist Victor Hugo wrote that Brown’s hanging would “open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder.” As they marched into battle during the Civil War, Union soldiers sang a song called “John Brown’s Body” that would later provide the tune for the “ Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

John Brown died that the slaves might be free,

But his soul goes marching on.


The geographical and physical features of Harpers Ferry were the principal reasons for its settlement and eventual industrial development. It is a natural transportation hub. A major river, the Shenandoah, joins the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. It guarded the entrance to Virginia's large Shenandoah Valley, and the Potomac provided easy access to Washington. The rivers' valleys made it possible to build the never-completed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and then the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and shortly after the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. The first railroad junction in the United States was at Harpers Ferry. Essential telegraph lines passed through the town.

The Arsenal, and later other industries, were located in Harpers Ferry because of the abundant water power available from the rivers.

The word "ferry" in the town's name—the ferry ended in 1824, when a covered wooden road bridge, Wager's Bridge, was built–conceals the fact that Harpers Ferry is the site of the first and for many years the only railroad bridge across the Potomac River, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's bridge, built in 1836–37. None of Washington D.C.'s bridges connecting it with Virginia carried more than horse traffic, until after the Civil War.

In 1851, a second bridge was built, across the Shenandoah, one of the earliest Bollman trusses. [11] : 67 A newer Bollman truss bridge, which carried both rail and highway traffic, opened in 1870. It was washed away in a flood in 1936.

Historically, Harpers Ferry is best known for John Brown's raid in 1859, in which he attempted to use the town and the weapons in its Federal Armory (munitions plant) as the base for a slave revolt, to expand south into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. [12]

Harpers Ferry was a natural conduit for Union incursions into the South. One of Stonewall Jackson's first actions for the Confederacy was the Great Train Raid of 1861, in which he disabled the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for almost a year by destroying infrastructure and stealing rolling stock.

The town's original, lower section is on a flood plain created by the two rivers. It is surrounded by higher ground, and since the 20th century has been part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Most of the remainder, which includes the more elevated populated area, is included in the separate Harpers Ferry Historic District. Two other National Register of Historic Places properties adjoin the town: the B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters is in Harpers Ferry. The Appalachian Trail passes directly through town, which some consider the psychological midpoint of the trail, [13] [14] although the exact physical midpoint is farther north, in Pennsylvania. Uniquely, the towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar partnered with the ATC to be declared a united Appalachian Trail Community. [15] Other popular outdoor activities include white water rafting, fishing, mountain biking, tubing, canoeing, hiking, zip lining, and rock climbing.

18th century Edit

In 1733, Peter Stephens, a squatter, had settled on land near "The Point" (the area where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet), and established a ferry from Virginia (now West Virginia) to Maryland, across the Potomac.

Robert Harper Edit

Robert Harper, from whom the town takes its name, was born in 1718 in Oxford Township, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Since he was a builder, Harper was asked by a group of Quakers in 1747 to build a meeting house in the Shenandoah Valley, near the present site of Winchester, Virginia. [16] [ dead link ] Traveling through Maryland on his way to the Shenandoah Valley, Harper, who was also a millwright, realized the potential of the latent waterpower from the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, at an easily accessible location. He paid Stephens 30 guineas for his squatting rights to the ferry, since the land actually belonged to Lord Fairfax. [17] : 12

Harper purchased 126 acres (0.51 km 2 ) of land from Lord Fairfax in 1751. [18] In 1761, the Virginia General Assembly granted him the right to establish and maintain a ferry across the Potomac River (even though a ferry had already been functioning since before Harper arrived). In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry." [19] : 100

Thomas Jefferson Edit

On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed "the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge" from a rock that is now named for him. This stop took place as Jefferson was traveling to Philadelphia and passed through Harpers Ferry with his daughter Patsy. Jefferson called the site "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature," [20] : 22 and stated that, "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic." [21] It was one of his favorite retreats, and tradition says that much of his Notes on the State of Virginia was written there. [22]

George Washington Edit

George Washington, as president of the Patowmack Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries), traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals. In 1794, Washington's familiarity with the area led him to propose the site for a new United States armory and arsenal. Some of Washington's family moved to the area his great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown's raid in 1859, and George's brother Charles Washington founded the nearby Jefferson County town of Charles Town. [23] : 13

The federal armory Edit

In 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acre (0.5 km 2 ) parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Construction began on what would become the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799. [24] [ dead link ] This was one of only two such facilities in the U.S., the other being in Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army. The town was transformed into a water-powered industrial center between 1801 and 1861, when it was destroyed to prevent capture during the Civil War, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Inventor Captain John H. Hall pioneered the use of interchangeable parts in firearms manufactured at his rifle works at the armory between 1820 and 1840 his M1819 Hall rifle was the first breech-loading weapon adopted by the U.S. Army. [25] : 151

Canals built Edit

Harpers Ferry's first man-made transportation facility, that is, other than the rivers themselves, was the Potomac Canal. An identifiable ssction of it can be seen in the picture of Island Park, nelow. As a transportstion medium tbe Canal ceased operation in 1828, but a portion of the canal in front of Harpers Ferry channeled river water to run Armory machinery.

The Potomac Canal ran, at Harpers Ferry, on the Virginia side of the river. On the Maryland side, the later Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad competed for right-of-way on a very narrow patch of land downstream from Harpers Ferry.

Arrival of the railroads Edit

Industrialization continued in 1833 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (which never reached the Ohio River) reached Harpers Ferry, linking it with Washington, D.C. A year later, after a protracted dispute with the Canal company he Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began service from Harpers Ferry via a small bridge, the Wager Bridge the same family later built the Wager Hotel across from Harpers Ferry's B&O train ststion. The bridge connected the town across the Potomac with Sandy Hook, Maryland, which for a few years in the 1830s was the western terminus of the railroad. The railroad crossed the Potomac into Harpers Ferry with the opening of the B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing began service through the town. [26] The first railroad junction in the country began service in 1836 when the Winchester and Potomac Railroad opened its line from Harpers Ferry southwest to Charles Town and then to Winchester, Virginia.

Virginius Island Edit

Taking advantage of the good routes to markets and the available water power on the Shenandoah, mills and other water-powered industry were built on Virginius Island. Except for the Arsenal, Virginius Island housed Harpers Ferry's manufacturing. It also provided working-class housing at a boarding house and in row houses. No structure survives on Virginius Island, as 20th-century floods have destroyed everything. The Arsenal of course used the Potomac for power, but also built a rifle plant some distance upstream using the Shenandoah's power.

John Brown's raid Edit

On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men (counting himself) in a raid on the arsenal. Five of the men were black: three free black men, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave. Brown attacked and captured several buildings, hoping to secure the weapons depot and arm the slaves, starting a revolt across the South. Brown also brought 1,000 steel pikes, which were forged in Connecticut by a blacksmith and abolitionist sympathizer, Charles Blair however, the pikes, a weapon that does not require training, were never used as Brown failed to rally the slaves to revolt. [27] The first shot of the raid mortally wounded Heyward Shepherd, [28] a free black man who was a baggage porter for the B&O Railroad.

The noise from that shot alerted Dr. John Starry shortly after 1:00 am. He walked from his nearby home to investigate the shooting and was confronted by Brown's men. Starry stated that he was a doctor but could do nothing more for Shepherd, and Brown's men allowed him to leave. Starry went to the livery and rode to neighboring towns and villages, alerting residents to the raid. John Brown's men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the fire engine house (later called John Brown's Fort), at the entrance to the armory. [29]

The Secretary of War asked the Navy Department for a unit of United States Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, the nearest troops. [30] Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take a force of 86 Marines to the town. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was found on leave at his home in nearby Arlington, and he was assigned as commander, along with Lt. J. E. B. Stuart as his aide-de-camp. Lee led the unit in civilian clothes, as none of his uniforms were available. The contingent arrived by train on October 18, and after negotiations failed, they stormed the fire house and captured most of the raiders, killing a few and suffering a single casualty. Lee submitted a report on October 19. [31]

Brown was quickly tried in Charles Town, county seat of Jefferson County, for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and fomenting a slave insurrection. Convicted of all charges, he was hanged December 2, 1859. (See Virginia v. John Brown.) Starry's testimony was integral to his conviction. John Brown's words, both from his interview by Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise and his famous "last speech", "captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before or since." [32] : 174

Civil War Edit

The town was "easy to seize, and hard to hold". [33] : 284 The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. [34] It was described thus in March of 1862:

Harper's Ferry presents quite a gloomy picture. The best buildings have been shelled to the ground, and nothing now remains but their foundations to mark the spot where they once stood. The old Arsenal has been burnt to the ground that part of the building where old John Brown made such a fatal stand, still stands as a monument to his memory. Before the destruction of the town, it contained near 3000 inhabitants, but at the present time there are not more than 300 or 400 families there. [35]

Because of the town's strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town's garrison of 14,000 Federal troops attracted 1,500 contrabands (escaped slaves) by the summer of 1862. [36] They were returned to slavery when Confederate forces took Harpers Ferry in 1862.

Harpers Ferry played a key role in the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862. Gen. Robert E. Lee did not want to continue on to Maryland without capturing the town. It was on his supply line and could control one of his possible routes of retreat if the invasion did not go well. [37]

Dividing his army of approximately 40,000 into four sections, Lee used the cover of the mountains to send three columns under Stonewall Jackson to surround and capture the town. [38] The Battle of Harpers Ferry started with light fighting September 13 as the Confederates tried to capture the Maryland Heights to the northeast, while John Walker moved back over the Potomac to capture Loudoun Heights south of town. After a Confederate artillery bombardment on September 14 and 15, the Federal garrison surrendered. With 12,419 Federal troops captured by Jackson, the surrender at Harpers Ferry was the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the Battle of Bataan in World War II. [37]

Because of the delay in capturing Harpers Ferry and the movement of Federal forces to the west, Lee was forced to regroup at the town of Sharpsburg. Two days later he commanded troops in the Battle of Antietam, which had the highest number of deaths among troops of any single day in United States military history. By July 1864, the Union again had control of Harpers Ferry. On 4 July 1864, the Union commanding Gen. Franz Sigel withdrew his troops to Maryland Heights. From there he resisted Jubal Anderson Early's attempt to enter the town and drive the Federal garrison from Maryland Heights. [39]

In 1862, the paymaster`s quarters (Lockwood House) and superintendent`s clerk`s quarters (Brackett House) were used as hospitals. [40] : 23 Lockwood House did not have that name intil later in 1863 Union general Henry Hayes Lockwood briefly made the paymaster's quarters his home. [40] : 24

After the Civil War Edit

Inspired by John Brown, both runaway and freed slaves came to Harpers Ferry during and after the Civil War. This created social tensions between white and black residents of the community and generated a growing need for services for the increasing African-American population. Accordingly, a freedman’s school was opened on Camp Hill by Freewill Baptist missionaries following the Civil War. [40] : 4

Storer College Edit

The town and the Armory, except John Brown's Fort, were destroyed during the Civil War. "The larger portion of the houses all lie in ruins and the whole place is not actually worth $10", wrote a Massachusetts soldier to his mother in 1863. [33] : 285 A visitor in 1878 found the town "antiquated, dingy, and rather squalid" [41] another, in 1879, described it as "shabby and ruined". [33] : 286 The Arsenal had been Harpers Ferry's largest employer since it was never rebuilt, the population never recovered to pre-Civil War levels.

Storer College, devoted to training teachers for freedmen, opened in 1868, much to the displeasire of many residents of Harpers Ferry, who did not want a "nigger college" and petitioned the Legislature to revoke its charter. The War Department gave to the Freedmen's Bureau its remaining assets in Harpers Ferry, principally four sturdy residences for the managers of the Armory, structurally sound but in need of repairs from Civil War damage, and the Bureau gave them to Storer College. A one-man school for Blacks was already operating informally in one of them.

A Black destination Edit

Storer, the only Black college located at a location historically important to American Blacks, became a civil rights center and a destination for Black tourists and excursionists. Frederick Douglass spoke in 1881, as part of an unsuccessful campaign to fund a "John Brown professorship", to be held by an African American. The Niagara Movement, predecessor of NAACP, whose first meeting was in Niagara Falls, Canada, held its first meeting in the United States at Storer, in 1906.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad wanted the land where the Fort was located, so as to make the line less vulnerable to flooding, and some white townspeople were eager to get rid of it [42] : 181 [43] : 19 it was dismantled and moved to Chicago for display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Abandoned there, it was rescued and moved back to Harpers Ferry. The Baltimore and Ohio moved it back for free, motivated by their expectation that having it back in Harpers Ferry, it would be a tourist attraction and a way to build ridership on the railroad. [42] : 183 Most whites were opposed to any commemoration of John Brown. [42] : 182 For lack of a better location (the town was not much interested) it was placed on a nearby farm.

Now Harpers Ferry, easily accessible by rail, began its conversion to its new industry, tourism. Many Blacks visited Harpers Ferry there was a black-owned hotel to accommodate them, the Hilltop House, and in the summer Storer rented rooms to Black vacationers, until 1896. [44] : 183 The Fort was the great monument where the end of slavery began. There were so many tourists that they were a nuisance to the farmer on whose lands the Fort sat. It was moved from the farm to Storer in 1909, and there it remained until several years after the College closed in 1955. It functioned as the College Museum. Male students practiced their public speaking by giving tours of it.

Visits by tourists, then, many of them Black, slowly turned the town into a tourist center. As early as 1878 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was running excursion trains to Harpers Ferry from Baltimore and Washington. [45] [46] Tourism was cited as a reason for the town's recovering population growth.

Island Park Edit

In 1879, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, to increase ridership, built a park they called Island Park, on Byrne Island, in the Potomac, which the railroad bought. The railroad built a footbridge to the island. It was a site for outings and church picnics, suitable also for holding political rallies. A list of events held there would be long, but as examples, in 1880 there was a reunion of 4,000 Odd Fellows, and there were six special trains to Harpers Ferry from various points. [47] on October 19, 1892, there was a "Grand Tri-State Democratic Mass Meeting". [48]

The Park was large enough that parades could be held. There were a steam-powered Ferris wheel and carousel, a pavilion for dancing, swings, a merry-go-round, and a bandstand. All were free. [49] There was a midway. Visitors could also play croquet, rent boats, fish, or wade in the river. It operated until 1909. [50] The bandstand, the only surviving structure, has been moved twice. In 1909 it was moved first to the Arsenal Square (current location of John Brown's Fort), then later to the park at Washington and Gilmore Streets, where it is now The Bandstand or the Town Gazebo. [51]

The bridge was destroyed by flooding first in 1896, [52] and a rebuilt bridge in 1924. Remaining structures on the island were destroyed by flooding in 1942. [51]

20th century Edit

2nd Niagara Movement Cobference Edit

On August 15, 1906, author and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois led the first meeting on American soil of the newly-founded Niagara Movement. The conference was held at the campus of Storer College, an integrated, primarily Black collegethat operated until 1955. (After it closed, the campus became part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.) The three-day gathering, which was held to work for civil rights for African Americans, was later described by DuBois as "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held." Attendees of the 1906 meeting walked from Storer College to the farm of the Murphy family, location at the time of John Brown's historic "fort", the arsenal's firehouse. As a direct result, the Fort was soon moved to the Storer campus, where it was the College's central icon. After the College closed in 1955, the National Park Service moved it back to as close as possible to its original location. [54]

Harpers Ferry National Monument Edit

The combined effects of Civil War damage and flooding left lower Harpers Ferry in poor condition. The devastating effects of the 1936 flood left the lower town "shabby and almost uninhabited", with no bridge across the Shenandoah to Virginia and no highway bridge to Maryland. All remaining structures on Virginius Island were destroyed. [55]

The backbone of the effort to preserve and commemorate Harpers Ferry was Henry T. MacDonald, President of Storer, an amateur historian West Virginia Governor Okey Patteson appointed him head of the Harpers Ferry National Monument Commission. [43] : 45 He was assisted by the Representative from West Virginia's Second District, Jennings Randolph. In 1935 Randolph introduced a bill to establish Harpers Ferry National Military Park in "the area where the most important events of [John Brown's raid] took place. [43] : 35–36 This bill did not pass, but the flood of 1936 made the project more feasible by destroying buildings not historically important, freeing land. After several other attempts, a bill creating Harpers Ferry National Monument was passed and signed by President Roosevelt in 1944, subject to the proviso that nothing would be done until the war ended. [43] : 39

An urgent priority was the new highway which is today U.S. Route 340. A new bridge connecting Sandy Hook, Maryland with Loudoun County, Virginia opened in October 1947 work had begun in 1941, but was interrupted by the war. [56] Another new bridge over the Shenandoah connecting Virginia to Bolivar, West Virginia, opened two years later now federal highway traffic bypassed Harpers Ferry entirely. [57]

Land acquisition started in lower Harpers Ferry the project was supported both by Harpers Ferry mayor Gilbert Perry and Governor Patteson. Twenty-two eviction notices were served in the lower town, and two taverns closed. [43] : 57 Property acquisition, not all of which was unproblematic, was completed in 1952 and was presented to the United States in January 1953. [43] : 46 The National Monument's first on-site employee, John T. Willett, began in 1954.

In 1957 the Baltimore Sun said that the lower town was "a sagging and rotted ghost town". The idea of making Harpers Ferry into a National Monument was to prevent the further deterioration and to rebuild the tourist industry. [58] [59] The first task of the Park Service was to stabilize the buildings on Shenandoah Street, the main commercial street of lower Harpers Ferry. Roofs were covered, missing windows replaced, walls on the verge of collapse reinforced, debris removed. Post-1859 buildings were not restored, and most were removed. [60] The NPS built a Visitor's Center and a John Brown Museum. [61]

"Recreationists" who wanted a park and did not care about the history were a problem. Local residents did not want to lose recreational opportunities, but swiming and fishing on the Shenandoah shore, formerly common, were prohibited. In order to keep recreationists out of the historic area, and especially Virginius Island, lower town parking was removed and a shuttle bus service bwgun. : 62 Tensions between the NPS and town residents were ongoing.

The NPS did help the town achieve Main Street Status from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2001. [43] : 64

The population of Harpers Ferry continued to decline in the 20th century. The majority of the surviving homes in Harpers Ferry are historic. Some are registered in the National Register of Historic Places.

21st century Edit

On July 23, 2015, a fire broke out in downtown Harpers Ferry, destroying eight or nine businesses and two apartments in two historic buildings. The buildings are being rebuilt. [62] [63]

In the early morning of December 21, 2019, multiple cars of a train owned by CSX derailed from the railroad bridge crossing the Potomac River. The derailment damaged a portion of the Goodloe E. Byron Memorial Pedestrian Walkway, which is attached to the railroad bridge and connects the Appalachian Trail between West Virginia and Maryland. The accident did not result in any injuries or fatalities but effectively inhibited all pedestrian access across the Potomac River. [64] The bridge reopened in early July 2020. [65]

Under the auspices of the National Park Service, the archeology of the town of Harpers Ferry, as well as that of Virginius Island, have been studied in depth. The journal Historical Archeology in 1994 published an entire issue on Harpers Ferry.


Family and childhood

John Brown was born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. [16] The fourth of the eight children of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808), he described his parents as "poor but respectable". [17] : 7 Owen Brown's father was Capt. John Brown (1728–1776), who died in the Revolutionary Army, at New York, Sept. 3, 1776. [18] According to the inscription on his tombstone, now in North Elba, New York, he was of the fourth generation, in regular descent, from Peter Brown, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed from the Mayflower, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December 22, 1620." [19] Ruth Mills was the daughter of Gideon Mills, also an officer in the Revolutionary Army. [18] She was of Dutch and Welsh descent. [17] : 5 While Brown was very young, his father moved the family briefly to his home town, West Simsbury, Connecticut. [18]

In 1805, the family moved, again, to Hudson, Ohio, in the Western Reserve, which at the time was mostly wilderness, [17] : 5, 7 which went on to become arguably the most anti-slavery region of the country. [20] The founder of Hudson, David Hudson, with whom John's father had frequent contact, was not only an abolitionist but an advocate of "forcible resistance by the slaves". [17] : 17 Owen Brown became a leading and wealthy citizen of Hudson. [18] [21] He opened a tannery. Jesse Grant, father of President Ulysses S. Grant, was his employee and lived with the family for some years. [21] Owen hated slavery [22] and participated in Hudson's anti-slavery activity and debate, offering a safe house to Underground Railroad fugitives. [ citation needed ] With no school beyond the elementary level in Hudson at that time, John studied at the school of the abolitionist Elizur Wright, father of the famous Elizur Wright, in nearby Tallmadge. [23] : 17 John's mother Ruth died in 1808. In his memoir he wrote that he pined after her for years. While he respected his father's new wife, he never felt an emotional bond with her. [17] : 8

Young adulthood

At 16, Brown left his family and came east with the design of acquiring a liberal education. His ambition was the Gospel ministry: "at one time [I] hoped to be a minister myself". [24] In pursuance of this object, he consulted and conferred with the Rev. Jeremiah Hallock, then clergyman at Canton, Connecticut, whose wife was a relative of Brown's, and in accordance with advice there obtained, proceeded to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where, under the instruction of the late Rev. Moses Hallock, he prepared for college. He would have continued at Amherst College, [11] : 13 [23] : 17 but he suffered from inflammation of the eyes which ultimately became chronic, and precluded him from the possibility of the further pursuit of his studies, whereupon he returned to Hudson. [18]

Back In Hudson, Brown taught himself surveying from a book, [25] : 31 and in his will he had surveyor's implements. He worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside of town with his adopted brother Levi Blakeslee. [23] : 17 The two kept bachelor's quarters, and Brown was a good cook. [23] : 17 However, he had been having his bread baked by a widow, Mrs. Amos Lusk, and as the tanning business had grown to include journeymen and apprentices, Brown persuaded her to take charge of his housekeeping, "mov[ing] into his log cabin" with her daughter Dianthe, whom Brown married in 1820. [23] : 18 He described her as "a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious and economical girl, of excellent character, earnest piety, and practical common sense." [25] : 32 She was also "as deeply religious as her husband". Their first child, John Jr., was born 13 months later. During 12 years of married life Dianthe gave birth to 7 children, but she died from complications of childbirth in 1832. [23] : 18–19

Time in Pennsylvania

John Brown lived longer in Pennsylvania than he did anywhere else, including Hudson and North Elba. According to a Pennsylvania friend who visited him in jail in Charles Town just before his execution, "he alluded to Crawford [County] as being very dear to him, as its soil was hallowed as the resting place of his former wife and two beloved children". [26]

In 1825, despite the success of the tannery and having built a substantial house the year before, Brown and his family, seeking a safer location for fugitive slaves, moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania. There he bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of land, cleared an eighth of it, and quickly built a cabin, a two-story tannery with 18 vats, and a barn in the latter was a secret, well-ventilated room to hide escaping slaves. [27] : 4–5 [28] From 1825 to 1835, the tannery was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and during this time, "Brown aided in the passing [to Canada] of an estimated 2,500 slaves." [29]

Brown made money surveying new roads, and was involved in erecting a school, which first met in his home, and attracting a preacher. [23] : 23 He also helped to establish a post office, and in 1828 President John Quincy Adams named him the first postmaster of Randolph, Pennsylvania he was reappointed by President Andrew Jackson, serving until he left Pennsylvania in 1835. [23] : 23 [30] : 325 He carried the mail for some years from Meadville, Pennsylvania, through Randolph to Riceville, some 20 miles (32 km). He paid a fine at Meadville for declining to serve in the militia. During this period, Brown operated an interstate cattle and leather business along with a kinsman, Seth Thompson, from eastern Ohio. [27] : 7

In 1829, some white families asked Brown to help them drive off Native Americans who hunted annually in the area. Brown replied, "I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country." [31] : 168–69 As a child in Hudson, John not only came into contact with the local Indians, he "hung about them. & learned a trifle of their talk". [17] : 7 Throughout his life, Brown maintained peaceful relations with Native Americans, even accompanying them on hunting excursions and inviting them to eat in his home. [32] [3]

Brown was involved in setting up a Congregational Society in Richmond, whose first meetings were held in the tannery. [27] : 6

In 1831 Brown's youngest son died, at the age of 4. Brown fell ill, and his businesses began to suffer, leaving him in severe debt. In the summer of 1832, shortly after the death of a newborn son, his wife Dianthe also died, either in childbirth or as an immediate consequence of it. [33] : 35 He was left with the children John Jr., Jason, Owen, and Ruth. On July 14, 1833, Brown married 17-year-old Mary Ann Day (1817–1884), originally from Washington County, New York [34] she was the younger sister of Brown's housekeeper at the time. [27] : 8 They would eventually have 13 children. [35] [36] "He evinced a good deal of pride in stating that he had seven sons to help him in the cause" of abolishing slavery. [37]

In 1836, Brown moved his family from Pennsylvania to Franklin Mills, Ohio (now Kent, Ohio). There he borrowed heavily to buy land in the area, land along canals being built, building and operating a tannery along the Cuyahoga River in partnership with Zenas Kent. [38] He became a bank director and was estimated to be worth $20,000 (equivalent to $501,742 in 2020). [25] : 50 Brown, like many businessmen in Ohio, trusted too heavily in credit and state bonds and suffered great financial losses in the Panic of 1837. In one episode of property loss, Brown was jailed when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by occupying it against the claims of the new owner. [ citation needed ]

In Franklin Mills, according to Henry Thompson, husband of Brown's eldest daughter Ruth, whose brother was killed at Harpers Ferry: [ contradictory ]

[H]e and his three sons, John, Jason, and Owen, were expelled from the Congregational church at Kent, then called Franklin. Ohio, for taking a colored man into their own pew and the deacons of the church tried to persuade him to concede his error. My wife and various members of the family afterward joined the Wesley Methodists, but John Brown never connected himself with any church again. [39]

For three or four years he seemed to flounder hopelessly, moving from one activity to another without plan. Like other determined men of his time and background, he tried many different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. He bred race horses briefly, did some surveying, farmed, and did some tanning. [25] : 50–51 In 1837, in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown publicly vowed: "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!" [40] Brown declared bankruptcy in federal court on September 28, 1842. In 1843, four of his children died of dysentery three were buried in a single grave.

As Louis DeCaro Jr shows in his biographical sketch (2007), [ full citation needed ] from the mid-1840s Brown had built a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool, and entered into a partnership with Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, whose flocks and farms were managed by Brown and sons. Brown eventually moved into a home with his family across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion on Perkins Hill.

Time in Springfield, Massachusetts

In 1846, Brown and his business partner Simon Perkins moved to the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts. There Brown found a community whose white leadership—from the community's most prominent churches, to its wealthiest businessmen, to its most popular politicians, to its local jurists, and even to the publisher of one of the nation's most influential newspapers—were deeply involved and emotionally invested in the anti-slavery movement. [42] Brown's and Perkins' intent was to represent the interests of the Ohio's wool growers as opposed to those of New England's wool manufacturers—thus Brown and Perkins set up a wool commission operation. While in Springfield, Brown lived in a house at 51 Franklin Street. [43]

Two years before Brown's arrival in Springfield, in 1844, the city's African-American abolitionists had founded the Sanford Street Free Church—now known as St. John's Congregational Church—which went on to become one of the United States' most prominent platforms for abolitionists. From 1846 until he left Springfield in 1850, Brown was a parishioner at the Free Church, where he witnessed abolitionist lectures by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. [44] In 1847, after speaking at the Free Church, Douglass spent a night speaking with Brown, after which Douglass wrote, "From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. [in] 1847[,] while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions." [42] During Brown's time in Springfield, he became deeply involved in transforming the city into a major center of abolitionism, and one of the safest and most significant stops on the Underground Railroad. [45] Brown contributed to the 1848 republication, by his friend Henry Highland Garnet, of David Walker's Appeal. to the Colored Citizens. of the United States of America, semi-forgotten as it had not been reprinted since Walker's death in 1830.

Brown also learned much about Massachusetts' mercantile elite while he initially considered this knowledge a curse, [ citation needed ] [ why? ] it proved to be a boon [ how? ] to his later activities in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. The business community had reacted with hesitation when Brown asked them to change their highly profitable practice of selling low-quality wool en masse at low prices. Initially, Brown naïvely trusted them, but he soon realized they were determined to maintain their control of price-setting. Also, on the outskirts of Springfield, the Connecticut River Valley's sheep farmers were largely unorganized and hesitant to change their methods of production to meet higher standards. In the Ohio Cultivator, Brown and other wool growers complained that the Connecticut River Valley's farmers' tendencies were lowering all U.S. wool prices abroad. In reaction, Brown made a last-ditch effort to overcome the wool mercantile elite by seeking an alliance with European manufacturers. Ultimately, Brown was disappointed to learn that Europe preferred to buy Western Massachusetts wools en masse at the cheap prices they had been getting. Brown then traveled to England to seek a higher price for Springfield's wool. The trip was a disaster, as the firm incurred a loss of $40,000, of which Perkins bore the brunt. With this misfortune, the Perkins and Brown wool commission operation closed in Springfield in late 1849. Subsequent lawsuits tied up the partners for several more years. [ citation needed ]

Before Brown left Springfield in 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law mandating that authorities in free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposing penalties on those who aid in their escape. In response Brown founded a militant group to prevent the recapture of fugitives, the League of Gileadites. [46] In the Bible, Mount Gilead was the place where only the bravest of Israelites gathered to face an invading enemy. Brown founded the League with the words, "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. [Blacks] would have ten times the number [of white friends than] they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury." [47] Upon leaving Springfield in 1850, he instructed the League to act "quickly, quietly, and efficiently" to protect slaves that escaped to Springfield—words that would foreshadow Brown's later actions preceding Harpers Ferry. [47] From Brown's founding of the League of Gileadites onward, not one person was ever taken back into slavery from Springfield. Brown gave his rocking chair to the mother of his beloved black porter, Thomas Thomas, as a gesture of affection. [42]

Some popular narrators [ who? ] have exaggerated the impact of the demise of Brown and Perkins' wool commission in Springfield on Brown's later life choices. In actuality, Perkins absorbed much of the financial loss, and their partnership continued for several more years, with Brown nearly breaking even by 1854. [ citation needed ] Brown's time in Springfield sowed the seeds [ how? ] for the future financial support he received from New England's great merchants, allowed him to hear and meet nationally famous abolitionists like Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and included the foundation of the League of Gileadites. [42] [43] During this time, Brown also helped publicize David Walker's speech Appeal. [48] Brown's personal attitudes evolved in Springfield, as he observed the success of the city's Underground Railroad and made his first venture into militant, anti-slavery community organizing. In speeches, he pointed to the martyrs Elijah Lovejoy and Charles Turner Torrey as whites "ready to help blacks challenge slave-catchers." [49] In Springfield, Brown found a city that shared his own anti-slavery passions, and each seemed to educate the other. Certainly, with both successes and failures, Brown's Springfield years were a transformative period of his life that catalyzed many of his later actions. [42]

Time in New York

In 1848, Brown heard of Gerrit Smith's Adirondack land grants to poor black men, called Timbuctoo, and decided to move his family there to establish a farm where he could provide guidance and assistance to the blacks who were attempting to establish farms in the area. [50] He bought from Smith land in the town of North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid), for $1 an acre ($2/ha), and spent two years there. [51] It has a magnificent view [10] and has been called "the highest arable spot of land in the State, if, indeed, soil so hard and sterile can be called arable." [52]

After he was executed on December 2, 1859, his widow took his body there for burial the trip took three days, and he was buried on December 7. Watson's body was located and buried there in 1882. In 1899 the remains of 12 of Brown's other collaborators, including his son Oliver, were located and brought to North Elba. They could not be identified well enough for separate burials, so they are buried together in a single casket, with a collective plaque. Since 1895, the John Brown Farm State Historic Site has been owned by New York State and it is now a National Historic Landmark. [50]

Kansas Territory was in the midst of a state-level civil war from 1854 to 1860, referred to as the Bleeding Kansas period, between pro- and anti-slavery forces. The issue was to be decided by the voters of Kansas, but who these voters were was not clear there was widespread voting fraud in favor of the pro-slavery forces, as a Congressional investigation confirmed. [53]

Move to Kansas

In 1855, Brown learned from his adult sons in Kansas that their families were completely unprepared to face attack, and that pro-slavery forces there were militant. Determined to protect his family and oppose the advances of slavery supporters, Brown left for Kansas, enlisting a son-in-law and making several stops to collect funds and weapons. As reported by the New York Tribune, Brown stopped en route to participate in an anti-slavery convention that took place in June 1855 in Albany, New York. Despite the controversy that ensued on the convention floor regarding the support of violent efforts on behalf of the free state cause, several people gave Brown financial support. As he went westward, Brown found more militant support in his home state of Ohio, particularly in the strongly anti-slavery Western Reserve section, where his boyhood home of Hudson is located. [ citation needed ]


Brown and the free-state settlers were optimistic that they could bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state. [54] After the winter snows thawed in 1856, the pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the sacking of Lawrence, the center of anti-slavery activity in Kansas, on May 21, 1856. A sheriff-led posse from Lecompton, the center of pro-slavery activity in Kansas, destroyed two abolitionist newspapers and the Free State Hotel. Only one man, a Border Ruffian, was killed. Preston Brooks's May 22 caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate also fueled Brown's anger. A pro-slavery writer, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, of the Squatter Sovereign, wrote that "[pro-slavery forces] are determined to repel this Northern invasion, and make Kansas a slave state though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose". [55] Brown was outraged by both the violence of the pro-slavery forces and what he saw as a weak and cowardly response by the antislavery partisans and the Free State settlers, whom he described as "cowards, or worse". [56]

The Pottawatomie massacre occurred during the night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856. Using swords, Brown and a band of abolitionist settlers took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery" [57] settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek, in Franklin County, Kansas.

In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in "Bleeding Kansas" history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died. [58]

Palmyra and Osawatomie

In 1856, a force of Missourians, led by Captain Henry Clay Pate, captured John Jr. and Jason, destroyed the Brown family homestead, and later participated in the Sack of Lawrence. On June 2, in the Battle of Black Jack, John Brown, nine of his followers, and 20 local men successfully defended a Free State settlement at Palmyra, Kansas, against an attack by Pate. Pate and 22 of his men were taken prisoner. [59] After capture, they were taken to Brown's camp, and received all the food Brown could find. Brown forced Pate to sign a treaty, exchanging the freedom of Pate and his men for the promised release of Brown's two captured sons. Brown released Pate to Colonel Edwin Sumner, but was furious to discover that the release of his sons was delayed until September. [ citation needed ]

In August, a company of over 300 Missourians under the command of General John W. Reid crossed into Kansas and headed towards Osawatomie, intending to destroy the Free State settlements there, and then march on Topeka and Lawrence. [60]

On the morning of August 30, 1856, they shot and killed Brown's son Frederick and his neighbor David Garrison on the outskirts of Osawatomie. Brown, outnumbered more than seven to one, arranged his 38 men behind natural defenses along the road. Firing from cover, they managed to kill at least 20 of Reid's men and wounded 40 more. [61] Reid regrouped, ordering his men to dismount and charge into the woods. Brown's small group scattered and fled across the Marais des Cygnes River. One of Brown's men was killed during the retreat and four were captured. While Brown and his surviving men hid in the woods nearby, the Missourians plundered and burned Osawatomie. Despite his defeat, Brown's bravery and military shrewdness in the face of overwhelming odds brought him national attention and made him a hero to many Northern abolitionists. [62]

On September 7, Brown entered Lawrence to meet with Free State leaders and help fortify against a feared assault. At least 2,700 pro-slavery Missourians were once again invading Kansas. On September 14, they skirmished near Lawrence. Brown prepared for battle, but serious violence was averted when the new governor of Kansas, John W. Geary, ordered the warring parties to disarm and disband, and offered clemency to former fighters on both sides. [63] Brown, taking advantage of the fragile peace, left Kansas with three of his sons to raise money from supporters in the North. [ citation needed ]

Brown's plans

Brown's plans for a major attack on American slavery go back at least 20 years before the raid. He spent the years between 1842 and 1849 winding up his business affairs, settling his family in the Negro community at Timbuctoo, New York, and organizing in his own mind an anti-slavery raid that would strike a significant blow against the entire slave system, running slaves off Southern plantations. [64]

As put by Frederick Douglass, "His own statement, that he had been contemplating a bold strike for the freedom of the slaves for ten years, proves that he had resolved upon his present course long before he, or his sons, ever set foot in Kansas." [65] According to his first biographer James Redpath, "for thirty years, he secretly cherished the idea of being the leader of a servile insurrection: the American Moses, predestined by Omnipotence to lead the servile nations in our Southern States to freedom." [66]

Brown was careful about whom he talked to. "Captain Brown was careful to keep his plans from his men", according to Jeremiah Anderson, one of the participants in the raid. [67] : 358 According to his son Owen, the only one who survived of Brown's three participating sons, interviewed in 1873, "John Brown's entire plan has never, I think, been published." [68]

He did discuss his plans at length, for over a day, with Frederick Douglass, trying unsuccessfully to persuade Douglass, a Black leader, to accompany him to Harpers Ferry (which Douglass thought a suicidal mission that could not succeed). [67] : 350–351 [67] : 355–356

Brown thought that "A few men in the right, and knowing that they are right, can overturn a mighty king. Fifty men, twenty men, in the Alleghenies would break slavery to pieces in two years". [11] : 426 As he put it later, after the failure of his raid, "I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed [through the revolt supposed to start with Harpers Ferry] it [ending slavery] might be done." [11] : 398


Brown returned to the East by November 1856, and spent the next two years in New England raising funds. Initially he returned to Springfield, where he received contributions, and also a letter of recommendation from a prominent and wealthy merchant, George Walker. Walker was the brother-in-law of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, who introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January 1857. [43] [17]

Amos Adams Lawrence, a prominent Boston merchant, secretly gave Brown a large amount of cash. William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe also supported Brown. A group of six wealthy abolitionists—Sanborn, Higginson, Parker, Stearns, Howe, and Gerrit Smith—agreed to offer Brown financial support for his antislavery activities they eventually provided most of the financial backing for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and came to be known as the Secret Six [69] or the Committee of Six. Brown often requested help from them with "no questions asked", and it remains unclear how much of Brown's scheme the Secret Six were aware. [ citation needed ]

In December 1857, an anti-slavery Mock Legislature, organized by Brown, met in Springdale, Iowa. [4] On several of Brown's trips across Iowa he preached at Hitchcock House, an Underground Railroad stop in Lewis, Iowa. [70]

On January 7, 1858, the Massachusetts Committee pledged to provide 200 Sharps Rifles and ammunition, which were being stored at Tabor, Iowa. In March, Brown contracted with Charles Blair, through an intermediary friend, Horatio N. Rust of Collinsville, Connecticut (1828–1906), [71] for 1,000 pikes. [72]

In the following months, Brown continued to raise funds, visiting Worcester, Springfield, New Haven, Syracuse, and Boston. In Boston, he met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He received many pledges but little cash. In March, while in New York City, he was introduced to Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary, who had experience as a military tactician fighting with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy in 1848. Brown hired him as his men's drillmaster and to write their tactical handbook. They agreed to meet in Tabor that summer. Using the alias Nelson Hawkins, Brown traveled through the Northeast and then visited his family in Hudson, Ohio. On August 7, he arrived in Tabor. Forbes arrived two days later. Over several weeks, the two men put together a "Well-Matured Plan" for fighting slavery in the South. The men quarreled over many of the details. In November, their troops left for Kansas. Forbes had not received his salary and was still feuding with Brown, so he returned to the East instead of venturing into Kansas. He soon threatened to expose the plot to the government. [ citation needed ]

As the October elections saw a free-state victory, Kansas was quiet. Brown made his men return to Iowa, where he told them tidbits of his Virginia scheme. [73] In January 1858, Brown left his men in Springdale, Iowa, and set off to visit Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. There he discussed his plans with Douglass, and reconsidered Forbes' criticisms. [74] Brown wrote a Provisional Constitution that would create a government for a new state in the region of his invasion. He then traveled to Peterboro, New York, and Boston to discuss matters with the Secret Six. In letters to them, he indicated that, along with recruits, he would go into the South equipped with weapons to do "Kansas work". [75] While in Boston making secret preparations for his operation on Harper's Ferry. He was raising money for weapons that were manufactured in Connecticut. Abolitionist Chaplain Photius Fisk gave him a sizable donation and obtained his autograph which he later gave to the Kansas Historical Society. [76]

Brown and 12 of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham, Ontario, where he convened on May 10 a Constitutional Convention. [77] The convention, with several dozen delegates including his friend James Madison Bell, was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany. [78] One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves, and it was here that Brown was introduced to Harriet Tubman, who helped him recruit. [79] The convention's 34 blacks and 12 whites adopted Brown's Provisional Constitution. Brown had long used the terminology of the Subterranean Pass Way from the late 1840s, so it is possible that Delany conflated Brown's statements over the years. Regardless, Brown was elected commander-in-chief and named John Henrie Kagi his "Secretary of War". Richard Realf was named "Secretary of State". Elder Monroe, a black minister, was to act as president until another was chosen. A. M. Chapman was the acting vice president Delany, the corresponding secretary. In 1859, "A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America" was written. [80] [81]

Although nearly all of the delegates signed the constitution, few volunteered to join Brown's forces, although it will never be clear how many Canadian expatriates actually intended to join Brown because of a subsequent "security leak" that threw off plans for the raid, creating a hiatus in which Brown lost contact with many of the Canadian leaders. This crisis occurred when Hugh Forbes, Brown's mercenary, tried to expose the plans to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson and others. The Secret Six feared their names would be made public. Howe and Higginson wanted no delays in Brown's progress, while Parker, Stearns, Smith and Sanborn insisted on postponement. Stearns and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight. To throw Forbes off the trail and invalidate his assertions, Brown returned to Kansas in June, and remained in that vicinity for six months. There he joined forces with James Montgomery, who was leading raids into Missouri.

On December 20, Brown led his own raid, in which he liberated 11 slaves, took captive two white men, and looted horses and wagons. (See Battle of the Spurs.) The Governor of Missouri announced a reward of $3,000 (equivalent to $86,411 in 2020) for his capture. On January 20, 1859, he embarked on a lengthy journey to take the liberated slaves to Detroit and then on a ferry to Canada. While passing through Chicago, Brown met with abolitionists Allan Pinkerton, John Jones, and Henry O. Wagoner who arranged and raised the fare for the passage to Detroit [82] and purchase clothes and supplies for Brown. Jones's wife, Mary, guessed that the supplies included the suit Brown was later hanged in. [83] On March 12, 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and Detroit abolitionists George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, and others at William Webb's house in Detroit to discuss emancipation. [84] DeBaptiste proposed that conspirators blow up some of the South's largest churches. The suggestion was opposed by Brown, who felt humanity precluded such unnecessary bloodshed. [85]

Over the course of the next few months, he traveled again through Ohio, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to drum up more support for the cause. On May 9, he delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts, that Amos Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau attended. Brown reconnoitered with the Secret Six. In June he paid his last visit to his family in North Elba before departing for Harpers Ferry. He stayed one night en route in Hagerstown, Maryland, at the Washington House, on West Washington Street. On June 30, 1859, the hotel had at least 25 guests, including I. Smith and Sons, Oliver Smith and Owen Smith, and Jeremiah Anderson, all from New York. From papers found in the Kennedy Farmhouse after the raid, it is known that Brown wrote to Kagi that he would sign into a hotel as I. Smith and Sons. [86]

As he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, Brown was joined by Harriet Tubman, "General Tubman," as he called her. [87] Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Some abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, opposed his tactics, but Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed, slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the South. [88]

Brown asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did. [89] He arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late August he met with Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. Douglass had known of Brown's plans since early 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.

In late September, the 950 pikes arrived from Charles Blair. Kagi's draft plan called for a brigade of 4,500 men, but Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve had been with Brown in Kansas raids. On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher's Bibles—breechloading .52 (13.2 mm) caliber Sharps rifles—and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. [ citation needed ]

The raid

Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Two of the hostages' slaves also died in the raid. [90]

Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. After holding the train, Brown inexplicably allowed it to continue on its way. At the next station where the telegraph still worked, the conductor sent a telegram to B&O headquarters in Baltimore. [91] The railroad sent telegrams to President Buchanan and Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise.

News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown's men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the fire engine house, a small brick building at the armory's entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury. Brown sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later, Oliver was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day. [ citation needed ]

By the morning of October 18 the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of First Lieutenant Israel Greene, USMC, with Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army in overall command. [92] Army First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart approached under a white flag and told the raiders their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledgehammers and a makeshift battering ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives. [ citation needed ]

Altogether, Brown's men killed four people and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed, including his sons Watson and Oliver. Five escaped, including his son Owen, and seven were captured along with Brown they were quickly tried and hanged two weeks after John. Among the raiders killed were John Henry Kagi, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby those hanged besides Brown included John Copeland, Edwin Coppock, Aaron Stevens, and Shields Green. [93] [94]

Brown and the others captured were held in the office of the armory. On October 18, 1859, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Virginia Senator James M. Mason, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrived in Harpers Ferry. Mason led the three-hour questioning session of Brown. [ citation needed ]

Although the attack had taken place on federal property, Wise wanted him tried in Virginia, and President Buchanan did not object. Murder was not a federal crime, nor was inciting a slave insurrection, and federal action would bring abolitionist protests. Brown and his men were tried in Charles Town, the nearby seat of Jefferson County, just 7 miles (11 km) west of Harpers Ferry. The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced the still-wounded Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black, inciting a slave insurrection, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to him, including Lawson Botts, Thomas C. Green, Samuel Chilton, a lawyer from Washington D.C., and George Hoyt, but it was Hiram Griswold, a lawyer from Cleveland, who concluded the defense on October 31. In his closing statement, Griswold argued that Brown could not be found guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty and of which he was not a resident, that Brown had not killed anyone himself, and that the raid's failure indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Andrew Hunter, the leading attorney in Charles Town and Governor Wise's personal lawyer, presented the closing arguments for the prosecution. [ citation needed ]

On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. He was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. [ citation needed ]

The trial attracted reporters who were able to send their articles via the new telegraph. They were reprinted in numerous papers. It was the first trial in the U.S. to be nationally reported. [95] : 291

November 2 to December 2, 1859

Under Virginia law, a month had to elapse before the death sentence could be carried out. Governor Wise resisted pressures to move up the execution date because, he said, he wanted everyone to see that Brown's rights had been thoroughly respected.

Brown made it clear repeatedly in his letters and conversations that these were the happiest days of his life. He would be publicly murdered, as he put it, but he was an old man and, he said, near death anyway. Brown was politically shrewd and realized his execution would strike a massive blow against Slave Power, a greater blow than he had made so far or had prospects of making otherwise. His death now had a purpose. In the meantime, the death sentence allowed him to publicize his anti-slavery views through the reporters constantly present in Charles Town, and through his voluminous correspondence.

Before his conviction, reporters were not allowed access to Brown, as the judge and Andrew Hunter feared that his statements, if quickly published, would exacerbate tensions, especially among the enslaved. This was much to Brown's frustration, as he stated that he wanted to make a full statement of his motives and intentions through the press. [33] : 212 Once he had been convicted, the restriction was lifted, and, glad for the publicity, he talked with reporters and anyone else who wanted to see him, except pro-slavery clergy. [26]

Brown received more letters than he ever had in his life. He wrote replies constantly, hundreds of eloquent letters, often published in newspapers, [96] : 43 and expressed regret that he could not answer every one of the hundreds more he received. His words exuded spirituality and conviction. Letters picked up by the Northern press won him more supporters in the North while infuriating many white people in the South.

Rescue plans

There were well-documented and specific plans to rescue Brown, as Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise wrote to President Buchanan. Throughout the weeks Brown and six of his collaborators were in the Jefferson County Jail in Charles Town, the town was filled with various types of troops and militia, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them. Brown's trips from the jail to the courthouse and back, and especially the short trip from the jail to the gallows, were heavily guarded. Wise halted all non-military transportation on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad (from Maryland south through Harpers Ferry to Charles Town and Winchester), from the day before through the day after the execution. Jefferson County was under martial law, [97] and the military orders in Charles Town for the execution day had 14 points. [98]

However, Brown said several times that he did not want to be rescued. He refused the assistance of Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who somehow infiltrated the Jefferson County Jail one day and offered to break him out during the night and flee northward to New York State and possibly Canada. Brown told Silas that, aged 59, he was too old to live a life on the run from the federal authorities as a fugitive. As he wrote his wife and children from jail, he believed that his "blood will do vastly more towards advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote, than all I have done in my life before." [99] "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose." [100]

On December 1, Brown's wife arrived by train in Charles Town, where she joined him at the county jail for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure and temper for the only time during the ordeal. [ citation needed ]

Victor Hugo's reaction

Victor Hugo, from exile on Guernsey, tried to obtain a pardon for John Brown: he sent an open letter that was published by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. This text, written at Hauteville-House on December 2, 1859, warned of a possible civil war:

Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself.

The letter was initially published in the London News and was widely reprinted. After Brown's execution, Hugo wrote a number of additional letters about Brown and the abolitionist cause. [31] : 408–10

Abolitionists in the United States saw Hugo's writings as evidence of international support for the anti-slavery cause. The most widely publicized commentary on Brown to reach America from Europe was an 1861 pamphlet, John Brown par Victor Hugo, that included a brief biography and reprinted two letters by Hugo, including that of December 9, 1859. The pamphlet's frontispiece was an engraving of a hanged man by Hugo that became widely associated with the execution. [101]

History & Culture

The history of Harpers Ferry has few parallels in the American drama.

It is more than one event, one date, or one individual. It is multi-layered - involving a diverse number of people and events that influenced the course of our nation's history. Harpers Ferry witnessed the first successful application of interchangeable manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown's attack on slavery, the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War, and the education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States.

To explore this history in-depth, check out the links below.


Learn about the people who shaped the history of Harpers Ferry.


Explore the many places in Harpers Ferry that offer views, hiking, and history.

John Brown’s Harpers Ferry - HISTORY

(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

John Brown at Harpers Ferry: A Contemporary Analysis

By Lawrence F. Barmann, S. J.

Volume 22, Number 3 (April 1961), pp. 141-158

When the temper of a people is taut and the national emotions have been so aroused as to subordinate reason to their passion, then incidents, which in another time would hardly have been remembered, assume proportions and significance far beyond their essential merit. When John Brown, old Osawatomie Brown of Kansas notoriety, captured the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in the autumn of 1859, he proved, more than anything else, how highly strung the nation's nerves really were. The incident at Harpers Ferry, in itself, was a complete fiasco but this incident, placed against the backdrop of American social and political life in the late 1850's, was disastrous. In considering Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and the national uproar which it created, one must keep always in mind a long train of incidents Uncle Tom, "Bully" Brooks, Kansas-Nebraska, Black Republicanism, Dred Scott which preceded it and which helped both to indicate the extent of separation already existing between North and South and to widen the rapidly expanding gulf. The public reaction in the different sections of the United States to the Harpers Ferry affair made Seward's "irresponsible conflict" seem not at all unlikely.

To shed some light on the thoughts and fears and passions of those troubled days and to attempt to indicate the historical significance of John Brown's work will be the goal of these pages. the primary means for achieving this end will be through an analysis of the contemporary editorials on Brown's raid written in the New York Times. Henry Jarvis Raymond, the editor of the Times when the affair at Harpers Ferry took place, while politically affiliated with Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward, was rapidly gaining a reputation in both the political and journalistic worlds for his editorial independence. Raymond's newspaper was conspicuously conservative in the journalistic New York of Horace Greeley's Tribune and James Gordon Bennett's Herald. Because of the growth in circulation and prestige which the Times had gained in the eight years from its precarious inception in 1851 to the Brown raid in 1859, the position taken by its editors can safely be assumed as representative of a considerable number of Northern conservatives. While not attempting to generalize on the basis of merely the Times editorials, some insight can be gained, nevertheless, into the mind of the era through a careful scrutiny of the reaction of this particular organ to the Harpers Ferry affair. Before analyzing the Times editorials, however, a brief resume of the raid itself, with its previous and subsequent ramifications, must be made.

John Brown's fate at the hands of historians has been interesting and varied. And this fate is simply an extension of the fate of the man himself. While this bearded, tall old man, reminiscent of the Jewish prophets, spent his final days in a back-county jail in Virginia, the people of the nation and their presses passed judgement. In Boston, the Liberator taunted the South with verse:

So you've convicted old John Brown! brave old

And you gave him a chivalrous trial, lying

With his body ripped with gashes, deaf with

Over the head received, when the deadly

Round him guns with lighted matches, judge

and lawyers pale as ashes

For he might, perhaps, come to again, and put

Or surround you, as before!

In Richmond, on the other hand, the Whig advised Governor Wise to "put to immediate death all the white villains engaged in the Harpers Ferry affair, and dispose of the question of jurisdiction afterwards." And the Fredericksburg Herald had warned that "shooting is a mercy they should be denied." Was john Brown, then, a villain or a martyr? To Wendell Phillips and the others in the North he was "St. John the Just" to many in the South he was a traitor and a murderer. While this difference in judgement is based proximately on the sectional prejudices and fears of the men judging, the remote basis for the judgement is the man himself. Many in the North agreed with the sentiment which motivated Brown and consequently they overlooked the manner in which he carried out his conviction the South, on the other hand, while not agreeing with his sentiment, tended to concentrate entirely on the misguided deed to which it led.

John Brown had fought the pro-slavery men in Kansas in 1856. He had lost a son there his property, too, had been attacked, and his conviction that Slavery was a moral evil had deepened with his experience of its effects extended into section strife. One who knew him well, both in the Kansas days and later, wrote that this man, who "was always an enigma, a strange compound of enthusiasm and cold, methodic stolidity, a volcano beneath a mountain of snow," was deeply sensitive to the national selfishness which characterized this expanding nation of the fifties. He was depressed by the political corruption, by the land speculation, and especially the flourishing institution of Slavery which were problems of the times. He saw in all of these evils, but especially in Slavery, an irreconcilable opposition to his notion of Christianity, and he dedicated himself to its eradication. During the winter of 1858-'59, Brown led a quiet raid into Missouri where he freed some few Negroes, without bloodshed or battle, and saw them safely into Canada. He later returned to New England, visited with certain Abolitionists, even speaking in Concord's Town Hall, and eventually, moving through Pennsylvania, he took up residence at a farmstead known as Kennedy Farm, located just across the Maryland border a few miles above Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).

Apparently, during the summer of 1859 Brown determined the form his opposition to Slavery would take. According to the testimony of one of Brown's own men, and to the judgement made in the "Mason Report" to the Senate, Brown confided the details of his plan to no one. A colored clergyman, however, who attended a meeting in the West in the summer of 1858 at which Brown spoke and developed his idea of how he hoped to counteract Slavery, quotes Brown as saying:

I design to make a few midnight raids upon the plantations, in order to give those who are willing among the slaves an opportunity of joining us or escaping and it matters little whether we begin with many or few. Having done this for two or three times, until the neighborhood becomes alarmed and the generality of the slaves encouraged, we will retire to the fastnesses of the mountains, and, ever and anon, strike unexpected though bloodless blows upon the Old Dominion in the meantime sending away those slaves who may desire to go to the North. We shall by this means conquer without bloodshed, awaken the slaves to the possibility of escape, and frighten the slaveholders into a desire to get rid of slavery.

The ideas quoted by the clergyman coincided with Brown's own testimony regarding his intentions when questioned after his arrest. Too, this plan of action, as outlined in the summer of 1858, while vague enough to be adaptable to many circumstances, was also specific enough to explain why he chose Harpers ferry as the place to begin. Harpers Ferry was at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains into whose "fastnesses" Brown, his men, and the liberated slaves, might "retire." At the same time it was on the Maryland border at a spot where it would be easy enough to move "those slaves who may desire to go to the North" through the mountains into Pennsylvania and eventually further. But Harpers Ferry could also become a trap for an invader who tarried too long. The town was flanked on the south and north by the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers which came into confluence at its eastern extremity. One bridge crossed the Potomac into Maryland. A delay in the town which would allow the bridge to fall into the hands of an alerted enemy would leave only the alien highlands of western Virginia as an avenue of escape. Time was essential to even so far-fetched a plan as the one Brown intended to implement, and time was the one element of which he failed utterly to take cognizance.

During the early days of May, 1858, Brown and a number of his supporters and followers had held a "Convention" at Chatham, Canada, across the border from Detroit. The purpose of the meeting had been to express their mutual animosity toward Slavery and to draw up a platform or plan for putting into action the common desire to destroy the hated institution. Brown was commissioned Captain of the movement several of his sons and others of the group were created Lieutenants. The sole survivor of the Harpers Ferry raid wrote in 1861 of the convictions which motivated the meeting and its subsequent results at Harpers Ferry.

He (Brown) regards Slavery as a state of perpetual war against the slave, and was fully impressed with the idea that himself and his friends had the right to take liberty, and to use arms in defending the same. Being a devout Bible Christian, he sustained his views and shaped his plans in conformity to the Bible and when setting them forth, he quoted freely from the Scripture to sustain his position. He realized and enforced the doctrine of destroying the tree that bringeth forth corrupt fruit. Slavery was to him the corrupt tree, and the duty of every Christian man was to strike down slavery, and to commit its fragments to the flames. He was listened to with profound attention, his views were adopted, and the men whose names form a part of the minutes of that in many respects extraordinary meeting aided yet further in completing the work.

Thus it was that the Kennedy Farm in Maryland was leased by Brown in the summer of 1859, and from July to October men and arms drifted in to help him in his crusade against Slavery. The war was about to begin, though only Brown himself knew the place and the hour.

On Sunday morning, October 16, 1859, John Brown and his little band of twenty-one followers rose early and began the day with Scripture reading and a commentary by the Captain. The remainder of the day, until dusk, was spent in preparing arms and equipment which all now understood would be used within the next twenty-four hours. Under the concealment of night, the group loaded a single farm wagon with guns, ammunition, and pikes (to put into the hands of the liberated Negroes), and set off down the road towards Harpers Ferry, two by two, each man carrying a rifle. Brown's final charge to his men reiterated his naive belief that his intentions were capable of fulfillment without bloodshed.

And now, Gentlemen, let me impress this one thing upon your minds. You all know how dear life is to you, and how dear your life is to your friends. And in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of anyone, if you can possibly avoid it but if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it.

A strange command, surely, to be issued by the man who, but three short years before, had thought five lives at Pottawatomie a cheap thing to use as a warning to his enemies!

Four of his men left on the Maryland side of the bridge over the Potomac into Harpers Ferry. Those four were to guard the supply of guns left at that spot and to bring up fresh supplies from the Kennedy Farm. The others crossed the bridge, securing it, cutting the telegraph wires on both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the River, and heading for the Arsenal of the Federal Government located not very many yards from the bridge. Aside from the fact that Harpers Ferry was geographically ideal for Brown's plans, it also contained the Arsenal which, to Brown's way of thinking, would forever relieve him of any anxiety for arms. The guard at the Arsenal was easily taken prisoner one of the baggage attendants at the Baltimore and Ohio station close by the bridge was mortally wounded when he refused to "halt" at the command of one of the raiders. When the Baltimore and Ohio's night train came into Harpers Ferry from the west, on its journey to Baltimore, Brown's men detained it until morning, then allowed the locomotive to proceed on its way. At the first telegraph stop, the news of the raid at Harpers Ferry was wired to railroad authorities and through them to state and national authorities. Brown must have realized that this would be the case, and should have foreseen that his precarious position in the town could be maintained but briefly. As the townspeople of Harpers Ferry awoke that morning of October 17th, they found themselves in the hands of invaders and compelled to remain off the streets. A local doctor rode to the nearby village and spread the alarm. Church bells were set ringing throughout the area, and so, while Governor Wise ordered out the state militia at Richmond, and Major-General George H. Stewart ordered out the First Light Division, Maryland Volunteers, at Baltimore, and President Buchanan ordered out the national marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee at Washington, local groups, too, prepared to march for Harpers Ferry, or at least to straggle in with their squirrel rifles. Still Brown delayed. During the night, before the town realized that it had been invaded, he had made prisoners of many of the town's leading citizens, among them Colonel Lewis Washington the great-grandnephew of the First President, to hold as hostages. Although the invaders had spread the word among slaves on local plantations and farms that they were being liberated, the rush to arms or to freedom which Brown had expected was not forthcoming. With the coming of dawn, Brown's men had entrenched themselves behind the heavy masonry of several buildings in the Federal Arsenal group, the engine-house, containing two large fire engines, being the central point.

From late morning until early evening casual shots were exchanged between Brown's men and the local and neighboring militia men. Several of the raiders were killed and wounded, and several townspeople were also killed, including the unarmed mayor. At

11 P. M. Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived in the town to take charge of the marines who had arrived early with Lieutenant Israel Green. The night was spent in plan-making, and, at the first light of dawn on Tuesday, October 18th, Lieutenant Jeb Stuart, Lee's aide on this expedition, carried the Colonel's terms to Brown at the enginehouse. Brown refused the conditions, demanding to be allowed to cross into Maryland carrying the prisoners with him as assurance

of safe-conduct. With the refusal, Stuart signaled Lee who gave the command for Green to charge the engine-house. A small group of marines knocked in the door with a heavy ladder lying in the vicinity and after three minutes of battle had subdued the "insurgents." One marine was killed, several wounded ten of Brown's men had been killed in the fighting at Harpers Ferry, including two of his own sons, and five were captured at the engine-house. Two escaped from the Arsenal only to be captured and executed later. Those yet alive were carried to the nearby county jail at Charles Town, Virginia to await trial.

With the capture of the engine-house and the Captain, the effectiveness of Brown's anti-Slavery activity would seem to be at an end. However, such was not to be the case, for these were no ordinary times. John Brown in prison, on trial, on the scaffold, and in the grave, was to be far more effective than John Brown alive and free. When Thomas Brigham Bishop was later to write that although John Brown's body was "a-mouldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on," he was recording an historical fact. For an examination and evaluation of that fact, the New York Times editorial response to the affair at Harpers Ferry will act as guide.

Since the Times would have been going to press at the same time that Brown was entering Harpers Ferry under cover of night and, therefore, before anyone but the raiders themselves was aware of the movement, the issue of Monday morning, October 17th, has no mention of John Brown whose name will fill its columns for days to come. Even on Tuesday, October 18th, the remarks are few, since, again, the outcome of the movement would not even yet have been decided with the printing of this issue. The front page of the Tuesday issue carried no information on the affair, though the editorial page did have a few sentences under the heading "News of the Day." Readers were told that a "threatening insurrection" had broken out at Harpers Ferry led by Negroes and white men "numbering two hundred and fifty." The exaggerated numbers attributed to Brown's group were not manufactured by the Times. These numbers were the estimates of the first frantic telegraph messages sent from Monocacy and other towns near Harpers Ferry to Baltimore, Richmond, and Washington, and from those centers to the rest of the nation. The Times went on to say that, although the town was at the time of printing held by the insurgents, Government troops were on their way from Washington. The reason for the insurrection was not yet known, but the paper gave two opinions which were apparently current alternatives: either an Abolitionist movement or a robbery attempt on the large amount of Government money recently deposited at the pay-house of the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The Brown raid for the only time in many weeks ahead played a very secondary roll on the Times editorial page, subordinated to considerations of the New Orleans sponsored filibuster attempt against Nicaragua on the steamer Philadelphia, of Kossuth's remarks on the Villafranca arrangements, and even of the Episcopal General Convention at Richmond and the Fireman's Parade in New York.

The front page news on Wednesday, October 19th, in type as bold as the paper used at that time, told of "servile insurrection," "general stampede of slaves," and "Federal troops on the march." Telegrams from Washington, Baltimore, and Monocacy were printed in full, each one registering the fear and imaginative exaggeration which would eventually give the affair its tragic undue influence. The editorial page carried a lengthy comment. From the very first paragraph of its first editorial on John Brown's raid, the Times reduced the affair to its due proportion. The raid had been terrifying at first, the newspaper reported, but only because its real size and influence were unknown. It was not the result of any movement among the slaves it was only the "clumsy plot" concocted by the "fearless, fanatical, energetic, old man" of Kansas notoriety and it was extremely short-lived. There was as yet no evidence that the plot had any extensive connections or support. Probably, as happened in Missouri after Brown's raids, the Times surmised, Virginians would feel the insecurity of their slave property in a border State and would make arrangements to transfer the slaves further south. The editorial concluded on a pessimistic note by acknowledging that the violently partisan journals would undoubtedly make the most of the affair. As yet, however, no political party was implicated, and the Times felt certain that the raid was the effort of one fanatic who "will probably pay the penalty of his rash insanity with his life, and leave, we trust, no inheritors of his passion or his fate."

By Thursday the motives of Brown's raid and much evidence to support his testimony was front page news. After his capture Brown had made several statements regarding his purpose both to the press and to the military authorities who had thwarted his plans. A search of the Kennedy Farm had also revealed a considerable amount of correspondence between Brown and Northern Abolitionists and various documents such as the minutes of the Chatham Convention. In its editorial the Times took occasion to rebuke the attitudes taken by other New York papers towards the Harpers Ferry incident and to point up what it considered to be the real lesson of the affair. All of these papers had used this occasion to make a point against the South and its "peculiar institution" and the Times felt this to be but a partial and unjust approach to the affair. The Tribune had even gone so far as to agree with Brown in principle and to censure him only for his lack of prudence in the manner of carrying out his convictions. Aside from all considerations of rights and of law, the Times found the insurrection unjustifiable even in its aims. For, said the paper, an insurrection would be justified only if it were assured of resulting in a better state of society than that now existing. And if the slaves were to throw off their servitude at once, they could not possibly initiate a state of society better than that in which they now exist. The final paragraph of the editorial attacked the Herald for trying to alarm the South and make her think that Brown's raid was only a small part of a great Northern crusade about to descend on the Southern States. The Times repudiated this pose of much of the Northern political press, and insisted that "the people of the North have neither agency in this movement, nor excuse, apology, or an instant's toleration for it." And the South was assured that the people of the North were not assassins and conspirators, nor did they have sympathy for such. Finally, if any New Yorker be shown to have contributed by money or any other way to Brown's efforts, the paper hoped that Governor Morgan would see that he be surrendered "for trial by a jury of his country."

The Times, perhaps, was too optimistic. Its own evaluation of the Harpers Ferry raid was balanced and clear-headed, and, while realizing the radicalism existing in both North and South, hoped that clear thinking would rule the day and that the hot-heads could be silenced. The Times realized the potential dynamite of the Brown raid for intensifying sectional strife to the breaking point. In the succeeding days the paper's optimism was to give way to less hopeful thoughts as it commented on the course that North and South pursued in their blind interpretation of the symbol of John Brown.

On October 21st the Times took the opportunity to comment on "Party Spirit and the Insurrection in Virginia." The position taken here, that matters of life and death and disruptions of whole communities are affairs of higher consideration than partisan supremacy, is one that the paper would stress over and over again. As the Republicans had made capital of Senator Broderick's death by accusing the Buchanan Administration of responsibility, so now the Democrats were making the most of the opportunity to link the Republican Party with Brown's raid and Abolitionism. There was some basis for each accusation the Times admitted, especially in the latter case. Senator Seward had had an obligation to make

himself perfectly clear when he spoke at Rochester and not to use "vague and enigmatical phrases upon topics so vitally important to the peace and well being of the community." But he had not made himself clear, and people were alarmed. Since the Rochester meeting, the Abolitionists and the Republican Party had become closer and closer identified in the public mind. Nevertheless, urged the Times, everyone in the North, regardless of party affiliations, should condemn and be ashamed of the recent Virginia affair. People like Gerrit Smith, Fred Douglass, William L. Garrison, who, the Times asserted, do not love the slave so much as they hate the white, could be expected to support Brown. But, aside from that small group of fanatics, any Northerner who sincerely has his country's interests at heart should decry all such movements and should refrain from making them politically significant.

With these comments on the Northern reaction to Harpers Ferry, the Times turned to review and judge the reaction in the South in its editorial for October 22nd entitled "The South and the Insurrection." In the South, and especially in Virginia, a real panic followed upon Brown's raid this was understandable. Southerners live in the midst of a huge slave population, and the possibility of a slave insurrection with all its terrible consequences was always a remote fear (and sometimes not so remote). The Harpers Ferry insurrection brought that fear to the surface. But now that the affair was settled, that it was shown to have been the work of a single fanatic with less than two dozen followers, the South was only harming herself by listening to those who would have her believe that the whole of the North agreed with Brown's action or that his raid was but part of a great crusade movement against the South. The New York Herald was one of the most vociferous Northern journals in trying thus to frighten the South. But what was even worse, the Times thought, was that Southern newspapers seemed united in their effort to exaggerate and misrepresent the affair to such an extent that they would seriously harm themselves by giving their own people a false view of Northern sentiment and by encouraging other Northern fanatics to renew the endeavor in which Brown had failed.

The arrest of one of the escaped Harpers Ferry insurgents in Pennsylvania, selections from the letters of Brown's group and from the diary of one of Brown's sons, together with remarks from the Southern press which indicated that the Brown raid would figure prominently in the presidential campaign of 1860, all made front page reading for the Monday morning Times public on October 24th. The day's editorial on the Brown affair, brief, but following the same line the paper had thus far taken, consisted mainly in

offering congratulations to the Judiciary of Virginia for its very just and dispassionate charge to the Grand Jury which was to find the bill against Brown and his companions. The actual trial would soon be under way, and with its progress the Times would lose all hope of saving the Brown affair from the worst distortion and misuse by both sides. The editorial exhorted Virginia to continue throughout the trial in the same calm and just manner in which it had begun, well realizing, no doubt, how difficult and unlikely that would be. In closing it commented on how wrong and impolitic the efforts of certain Democratic groups in Washington and Philadelphia were to encourage the sacking of offices of Anti-Slavery groups in those cities. "If the history of this Slavery agitation teaches anything clearly," concluded the Times, "it teaches the folly of endeavoring to combat it by illegal force."

For the first time in a week, the affair at Harpers Ferry was not front page headline news when the Times came off the presses on October 25th. A brief editorial under that date advised Times readers that Brown's trial would probably begin that day and that the Times would carry the telegraphic reports of the proceedings received by the Associated Press. It went on to urge the Southern press to cease its ranting and raving, since this was doing a great deal of harm to the South herself by turning these men into martyrs instead of murderers in Northern opinion. Again the idea that Brown's raid had extensive Northern support and approval was rejected, and the hope that the investigations made at the trial would clarify this issue once and for all was stressed.

Since Brown's trial did not, as a matter of fact, get underway until October 27th, European news of the Italian nationalistic movement and of the new steamer the Great Eastern furnished the main news items for October 26th. On the 27th the Times carried a resume editorial on the real significance of Harpers Ferry under the heading "John Brown's Work." This particular editorial was almost prophetic in its clear delineation of the national condition at the time and of the results which would necessarily issue from such national policy unless it should be acted against at once. When the Brown raid first took place, said the Times, Virginians were almost insane with terror as their telegraph lines hummed with exaggerated and frantic alarms. Now that the event was seen in its entirety and with perspective, Southerners tended to go to the opposite extreme of complacency in pointing out the harmlessness in holding slaves since none joined the insurrection whose very success depended entirely on the cooperation of the slaves. But the Harpers Ferry story, in itself, proves nothing of immediate political or social significance, warns the Times. "It neither establishes the predominance of Abolitionism at the North, nor the security of Slavery at the South." Its real meaning is much deeper.

It is a portent certainly not to be lightly pondered, that such a grotesquely frightful episode should have been possible in our current history but if we are to profit by the shock it has administered, we must honestly look the fact in the face, that this occurrence shows us, as nothing else could, what vast possibilities of evil sleep in our angry sectional politics. We have been suffering the extremists of one or another party to go on trading for years in the fiercest of internecine passions as composedly as if no mischief could ever come of such light matters to so great a nation as ours. Mad john Brown has done the State this service at least, that he has dashed this false and foolish confidence in pieces. If we are not really the blindest people that ever existed, and judicially set apart for destruction, we ought now to begin to see that the most important political work we have to do is to combine as one people in the resolve to put this tremendous Social question of Slavery out of reach of parttisan [sic] agitators. It is a madness, to which the madness of John Brown was statesmanlike good sense, to trifle any longer in caucuses and conventions with issues so full of the very life blood of one great section of the Confederacy. The South owes it to herself to press this view of the matter calmly upon the Northern mind and she may rest assured that her appeal to the practical conservatism of the Free States will not be made in vain, if it be made temperately, earnestly, and in good faith.

Although the Times was, as it were, but a "voice crying in the wilderness" as far as its own era was concerned, this editorial passage cannot be surpassed today, with a hundred years of perspective and infinitely less passion, for its deep insight into the significance of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. From the vantage point of a century, contemporary historians find little difficulty in concurring in the judgment of that editorial. But for one in the middle of the conflict, with Brown still alive and on trial, such a dispassionate and penetrating appraisal is extraordinary. From this editorial forward the Times would continue to appeal to the conservatives of the South as alone being able to save the nation from the terrible situation into which she had drifted. The specter of civil war was, indeed, stalking the land.

John Brown's trial got underway in Charles Town, Virginia on Thursday, October 27th, and the Times for Friday morning carried its first report of the proceedings. In connection with the trial, letters of Northern Abolitionists to John Brown, found at the Kennedy Farm after the raid, had been published in the various newspapers of the nation, and the Times took occasion on the 28th to editorialize on "Practical Abolitionism." For years past now, said the paper, certain New England Abolitionists had been playing a little game of make-believe. On the 4th of July and other such appropriate occasions they would meet together in "some pleasant piny grove" where they would denounce the Constitution and the Union for allowing Slavery to exist and would work themselves into a frenzy of self-pity as though they were the tribe of Israel in exile in an idolatrous nation. This little game, they felt, was all well and good, since they were convinced, really, that the Union was strong and would endure. However, the question of Slavery was not a holiday topic. In accord with the principle of Popular Sovereignty, the Times asserted, the question of Slavery should never have been brought "into the political arena at all beyond the borders of the sovereign communities which it immediately concerns." The Times went on to explain how Slavery had become the bete noire of the national political arena. Somehow, a few decades previous to the Brown affair, New Englanders tampered with the subject and helped the notion get abroad that the institution of Slavery depended on the Federal Government for its existence and that therefore the Slavery question was open to national debate. Thus sectional disputes, based on this question, arose. "Abolitionism did duty as the locomotive of the Republican train." The attack on Sumner and the Kansas question of '56 only aided the sectional drifting apart. And though, even yet, the Times went on, in spite of the damage already done, Abolitionism still existed. These fanatics were fully capable of organizing a military crusade and leading a servile insurrection against the South, though, judging from the published letters to Brown, the present numbers and resources of these men gave little cause of alarm. But the fact that these men were allowed to continue unchecked alarmed the Times. "The virtue of patriotism has not yet succumbed to the violence of fanaticism and public men will never find it safe to wink at schemes which menace the peace of the country and the integrity of the Union."

On October 29th the Times editorial criticized the State of Virginia for not allowing Brown the delays and opportunities pleaded for by his counsel. It criticized Governor Wise for his harsh words to the people of Harpers Ferry for their terrified conduct at the time of Brown's raid. But the chief point of the editorial comment was to indicate to Virginia and the South in general that Brown's raid was really a "blessing in disguise" if they would just use it. The North, said the Times, had been as shocked by Brown's raid as the South had been terrified. If only the South would now capitalize on this majority pro-South sympathy in the North by carrying out Brown's trial in a calm and judicious manner, they could do themselves and the nation a great amount of good. The peace of the Union, as the Times saw it, was now in the hands of the South. Again the Times appealed to Southern conservatism to take the lead. If the South would only unite with the conservative North in keeping the whole question of Slavery out of Congress and beyond national dispute, Brown's interference in Virginia would prove to be an occasion of greater national unity. The appeal of the Times was sane and judicious, but the Slavery question was out of control and the men who could have, perhaps, controlled it were not always as sane, judicious, and especially as objective, as the Times.

Brief mention was made in the Times on October 31st of documents and papers belonging to Brown which had been discovered. His Constitutions, drawn up at the Chatham Convention, were mentioned and dismissed as implicating no other public man in the North than Gerrit Smith. Smith's implication was not a new revelation, though it was after this revelation that Smith went temporarily insane. On the following day the Times told its public in front page headlines that Brown had been found guilty of treason, insurrection, and murder. The editorial page bitterly criticized Virginia for the type of trial that had been accorded Brown and had thereby allowed the fanatics in the North to make a martyr of him. Brown had been quite seriously wounded by sabre and bayonet when his group was captured, and, although his wounds healed surprisingly rapidly, rather than delay the trial until he was capable of attending on his own he had been brought to court on a pallet on which he lay throughout the proceedings. Moreover, he had not at first been allowed to procure counsel from the North which made any Southern counsel given him practically useless. And when friendly counsel was forthcoming, the man was made to address the jury late Saturday night upon evidence he had not even heard. The reasons which the court gave for refusing the plea of Brown's counsel for adjournment until Monday was that the jurors wanted to go home to their families over the weekend and that every female in Virginia "was trembling with anxiety and apprehension." The Times rather bitterly pointed out the absurdity and injustice of these excuses, and remarked that a man's life was weighed against men's desires for a week-end picnic and trembling females, and lost! "Talk like this used to be heard in England in the days of Jeffries and in Scotland when Lord Braxfield adorned the Court of Sessions but it is something new on this side of the water, and we hope we shall hear no more of it."

On the evening of Tuesday, November 1, 1859, Wendell Phillips delivered a lecture from the pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher's Church in Brooklyn, New York. The talk made the point that the majority of Americans did not live up to the principles they professed. They were accused of hiding behind the forms of Church, Government, Community Society, and so forth, but they did not in fact operate on the principles which these institutions stood for. John Brown was different, Phillips said. He, at least, was not afraid to act upon the truth. And having made his point, Phillips asserted that "John Brown has twice as much right to hang Governor Wise, as Governor Wise has to hang him." The Times editorial the following morning was a peculiar thing. Disavowing all belief in any deep seriousness on Phillips' part in delivering the lecture, the Times asserted that the audience was amused at the speaker's sarcasm, wit, and brilliance, but could hardly take him seriously. Phillips had remarked that the New York press would probably blast him for what he had to say. The Times remarked that "he did both himself and the press scanty justice in this prediction," and then proceeded to take all of the sting out of Phillips' well-tempered barbs.

John Brown was sentenced to death on November 2nd. Before the Court was dismissed Brown delivered an address to the Judge and assembled Court with a simplicity and calm sincerity which was quite unnerving for all concerned. The Times on November 3rd commented on Brown's speech. His intentions,it said, were those of a fanatic, but his devotion to his principles was heroic. One could not read his address without a "half-compassionate admiration," but realizing Brown's genuine faith in his cause one must also realize his great intellectual blindness in the carrying out of his principles. The Times thought Brown a fanatic sui generis. "He is simply John Brown of Kansas a man logical after the narrow fashion of the Puritan individualism a law unto himself, and a believer with all his might in theological abstractions as applied to human society and politics." Unfortunately, lamented the paper, there was no way his execution could now be carried out without its being converted to inflammatory purposes by sectional partisans.

Throughout the month of November Brown's cause faded from headline and editorial commentary, although the affair at Harpers Ferry was frequently referred to in connection with other matters. The Times continued to deplore the attitude of the Southern press and fanatics who seemed bent on convincing the world that the whole North was one armed camp merely awaiting the signal to descend upon the South.

On December 2nd, late in the morning, John Brown was hanged. The morning Times told New Yorkers that the execution would take place that morning with a guard of 5,000 soldiers and cadets around the Southern gallows, while the bells in Northern church-towers tolled in mournful cadence and thousands prayed and wept as they received their new "martyr." The Times, of course, condemned both extremes and again bemoaned the fact that Virginia had made possible the martyr approach of Northern radicals.

The following morning's headlines told of Brown's execution, his final visit with his wife, and of the general reaction in the North. Editorially the Times commented on Northern reaction and Southern obligations. Although many people in the North sympathized with Brown, it was not his actions but his sincerity which won them. With sectional differences at the pitch they then were, the remedy seemed to the Times to be entirely in the hands of the Southern conservatives. They must resist and stem heated ultraism, insisted the Times, and they must give the North evidence that reason and patriotic feelings are still alive in the South and that they feel the Union worth preserving. Concluding on an alarming note, the paper told the South that if she desired disunion she could probably have it, but she should weigh the cost in advance instead of learning it only at the terrible price of experience.

Shortly after Brown's execution, Governor Wise sent a formal message to the Virginia Legislature. The Times printed the whole message, and editorially attacked the Governor for the great disservice he had done the South and the nation. At least one recent author believes that Wise, out of favor in Virginia for his stand against Buchanan on the Lecompton Constitution, attempted to regain his lost popularity by his "melodramatic handling of the John Brown Raid." At any rate, the Times told its readers that Wise's

message occupied more space than all the messages, addresses, orders of the day, and official reports of Napoleon III during the whole course of the Italian War, and that it would not be the Governor's fault if Brown's raid did not assume a larger place on History's pages than the march of the French armies through the Plains of Lombardy. The Times accused Wise of magnifying facts to justify his official acts to the point of making the speech a piece of imaginative literature. Wise accused the entire North of supporting Brown's raid, and the Times, admitting the complicity of Howe, Smith, Forbes, and a few others, told the Governor that "he cannot be so utterly demented as to regard them as in any sense, or to any extent, representatives of the people of the Northern States." The only Northerners who countenanced Brown's acts were the Abolitionists, and these men did not represent the North. In short, the Governor completely misrepresented the North at the expense of considerable harm to the South and the country as a whole. "But," asserted the Times, "we are confident that time will dissipate the delusion under which he labors, and prevent the most serious of the calamities which his official action is so well calculated to involve." But the optimism of the Times was destined to be shattered on the rocks of partisan politics and sectional emotions after all.

Brown's raid and execution were but the culminating symbol of a long series of events which had shattered all hope of agreement between North and South. The Times in its editorial commentary during the excitement of the Brown affair had been a beacon, pointing out, at times even brilliantly, the rocks and shoals upon which the Ship of State might wreck herself, and the channels through which safe harbor could be reached. But the winds of the fanatics blew too violently, and the shock of one more rock, the Republican victory of 1860, was all that was needed to hurl the nation into civil conflict. On the very day of Brown's execution, Victor Hugo had written from his exile on Jersey that "viewed in a political light, the murder of Brown would be an irreparable fault. It would penetrate the Union with a gaping fissure which would lead in the end to its entire disruption." And in the Senate of the United States, on February 29, 1860, in his speech on "The Admission of Kansas" Seward told his audience that "this attempt to execute an unlawful purpose in Virginia by invasion, involving servile war, was an act of sedition and treason, and criminal in just the extent that it affected the public peace and was destructive of human happiness and human life." He went on to declare that posterity would decide where political responsibility for Brown's act lay and to insist that posterity would vindicate the Republican Party from the charge of hostility to the South. But even now, after a hundred years, the lines of innocence and guilt are not clearly drawn. The issue was too complex, and it was an issue of emotions rather than of reason. In this atmosphere of strife appeared old John Brown. In his act he summed up and symbolized all the conflicts of the time. In summarizing and symbolizing the issues he also hastened their bloody struggle. John Brown had, indeed, succeeded.

1 Francis Brown, Raymond of the TIMES (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1951), pp. 159, 160, 318.

2 The circulation of the Times by 1854 surpassed 28,000, and within the first few weeks of the Civil War circulation jumped from 45,000 to 75,000. Cf Brown, op. Cit., pp. 123 and 276.

3 Quoted at the end of: Osborne P. Anderson, A Voice From Harper's Ferry (Boston: 1861).

4 New York Times, Saturday, October 22, 1859, p. 4. (Quoted in an editorial.)

6 W. A. Phillips, "Three Interviews with Old John Brown," The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1879 , pp. 738-739.

7 These sentiments of Brown's are recalled from a talk which W. A. Phillips had with him in Kansas. Cf. Phillips, Ibid.

8 Brown himself told of this event in his final speech before the Court in Charles Town, Virginia after his condemnation in November, 1859. Cf. John Brown, "Testimonies of Captain John Brown, at Harper's Ferry, with His Address to the Court," Anti-Slavery Tracts, #7 (New York: The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860).

9 New York Times, Monday, October 24, 1859, p. 1.

10 Anderson, op. cit., p. 19. Although Anderson, as one of Brown's men, would be expected to be prejudiced in his testimony, and though many of his statements are inaccurage, this article frequently uses his pamphlet A Voice From Harper's Ferry in those matters which agree with statements from the New York Times and from the Report of the Select Committee of the Senate appointed to inquire into the Harper's Ferry affair and commonly known as the "Mason Report."

11 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.

12 This evidence is given by a friend and enthusiastic supporter of Brown: F. B. Sanborn, "the Virginia Campaign of John Brown," The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1875, p. 706.

13 New York Times, Thursday, October 20, 1859, p. 1.

14 Anderson, op. cit., pp. 39-43.

18 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.

19 Anderson, op. cit., p. 28.

22 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.

23 Anderson, op. cit., pp. 30-35.

24 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.

25 Anderson, op. cit., pp. 37-39.

27 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.

28 New York Times, Thursday, October 20, 1859, p. 1.

29 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006

31 John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956), p. 669b.

32 New York Times, Tuesday, October 18, 1859, p. 4.

33 New York Times, Wednesday, October 19, 1859, p. 1.

34 New York Times, Tuesday, October 18, 1859, p. 4.

35 New York Times, Tuesday, October 18, 1859, p. 1.

36 New York Times, Wednesday, October 19, 1859, p. 1.

39 New York Times, Thursday, October 20, 1859, p. 1.

43 New York Times, Friday, October 21, 1859, p. 4.

45 New York Times, Saturday, Oct. 22, 1859, p. 4.

46 New York Times, Monday, Oct. 24, 1859, p. 1.

49 New York Times, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 1859, p. 4.

50 New York Times, Thursday, Oct 27, 1859, p. 4.

53 New York Times, Friday, Oct. 28, 1859, p. 4.

59 New York Times, Saturday, Oct. 29, 1859, p. 4.

61 Ralph Volney Harlow, "Gerrit Smith and the John Brown Raid," The American Historical Review, Oct., 1932, p. 55.

62 New York Times, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 1859, p. 1.

67 Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures and Letters (Boston: Walker, Wise and Co., 1864) p. 269 ff.

69 New York Times, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1859, p. 4.

71 John Brown, "Testimonies of Captain John Brown, at Harper's Ferry, with His Address to the Court," Anti-Slavery Tracts, #7, (New York: The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860, pp. 15-16.

72 "John Brown is as valiant in soul as he is vagrant in mind." New York Times, Thursday, Nov. 3, 1859, p. 4.

75 New York Times, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 1859, p. 4.

76 New York Times, Friday, Dec. 2, 1859, p. 1.

77 New York Times, Saturday, Dec. 3, 1859, p. 1.

79 New York Times, Thursday, Dec. 8, 1859, p. 4.

80 Clement Eaton, "Henry A. Wise: A Study in Virginia Leadership, 1850-1861," West Virginia History, April 1942, p. 197.

81 New York Times, Thursday, Dec. 8, 1859, p. 4.

84 This letter was written to the Editor of the London News from Hauteville House on Jersey on December 2nd. It was printed within a mattger of months by the American Anti-Slavery Society of Boston.

85 William H. Seward, "The Admission of Kansas: A Speech Delivered in the Senate of the United States, February 29, 1860," (New York. Office of the New York Tribune, 1860). Pages 10 through 12 deal with this matter especially.

On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and several followers seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The actions of Brown's men brought national attention to the emotional divisions concerning slavery.

John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800 and became interested in the abolitionist movement around 1835. In 1855, Brown and several of his sons moved to Kansas, a territory deeply divided over the slavery issue. On Pottawotamie Creek, on the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and his sons murdered five men who supported slavery, although none actually owned slaves. Brown and his sons escaped. Brown spent the next three years collecting money from wealthy abolitionists in order to establish a colony for runaway slaves. To accomplish this, Brown needed weapons and decided to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

In 1794, President George Washington had selected Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts, as the sites of the new national armories. In choosing Harpers Ferry, he noted the benefit of great waterpower provided by both the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. In 1817, the federal government contracted with John H. Hall to manufacture his patented rifles at Harpers Ferry. The armory and arsenal continued producing weapons until its destruction at the outbreak of the Civil War.

In the summer of 1859, John Brown, using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, took up residence near Harpers Ferry at a farm in Maryland. He trained a group of twenty-two men, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson, in military maneuvers. On the night of Sunday, October 16, Brown and all but three of the men marched into Harpers Ferry, capturing several watchmen. The first victim of the raid was an African-American railroad baggage handler named Hayward Shepherd, who was shot and killed after confronting the raiders. During the night, Brown captured several other prisoners, including Lewis Washington, the great-grand-nephew of George Washington.

There were two keys to the success of the raid. First, the men needed to capture the weapons and escape before word reached Washington, D. C. The raiders cut the telegraph lines but allowed a Baltimore and Ohio train to pass through Harpers Ferry after detaining it for five hours. When the train reached Baltimore the next day at noon, the conductor contacted authorities in Washington. Second, Brown expected local slaves to rise up against their owners and join the raid. Not only did this fail to happen, but townspeople began shooting at the raiders.

Armory workers discovered Brown's men in control of the building on Monday morning, October 17. Local militia companies surrounded the armory, cutting off Brown's escape routes. Shortly after seven o'clock, a Harpers Ferry townsperson, Thomas Boerly, was shot and killed near the corner of High and Shenandoah streets. During the day, two other citizens were killed, George W. Turner and Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham. When Brown realized he had no way to escape, he selected nine prisoners and moved them to the armory's small fire engine house, which later became known as John Brown's Fort.

With their plans falling apart, the raiders panicked. William H. Leeman tried to escape by swimming across the Potomac River, but was shot and killed. The townspeople, many of whom had been drinking all day on this unofficial holiday, used Leeman's body for target practice. At 3:30 on Monday afternoon, authorities in Washington ordered Colonel Robert E. Lee to Harpers Ferry with a force of Marines to capture Brown. Lee's first action was to close the town's saloons in order to curb the random violence. At 6:30 on the morning of Tuesday, October 18, Lee ordered Lieutenant Israel Green and a group of men to storm the engine house. At a signal from Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, the engine house door was knocked down and and the Marines began taking prisoners. Green seriously wounded Brown with his sword. Brown was taken to the Jefferson County seat of Charles Town for trial.

Of Brown's original twenty-two men, John H. Kagi, Jeremiah G. Anderson, William Thompson, Dauphin Thompson, Brown's sons Oliver and Watson, Stewart Taylor, Leeman, and free African Americans Lewis S. Leary and Dangerfield Newby had been killed during the raid. John E. Cook and Albert Hazlett escaped into Pennsylvania, but were captured and brought back to Charles Town. Brown, Aaron D. Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, and free African Americans John A. Copeland and Shields Green were all captured and imprisoned. Five raiders escaped and were never captured: Brown's son Owen, Charles P. Tidd, Barclay Coppoc, Francis J. Merriam, and free African American Osborne P. Anderson. One Marine, Luke Quinn, was killed during the storming the engine house. Two slaves, belonging to Brown's prisoners Colonel Lewis Washington and John Allstadt, also lost their lives. It is unknown whether or not they voluntarily took up arms with Brown. One drowned while trying to escape and the other died in the Charles Town prison following the raid. Local residents at the time believed the two took part in the raid. To discredit Brown, residents later claimed that these two slaves had been taken prisoner and that no slaves actually participated in the raid.

John Brown, still recovering from a sword wound, stood trial at the Jefferson County Courthouse on October 26. Five days later, a jury found him guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Judge Richard Parker sentenced Brown to death and he was hanged in Charles Town on December 2. Before walking to the scaffold, he noted the inevitability of a national civil war: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Following additional trials, Shields Green, John A. Copeland, John E. Cook, and Edwin Coppoc were executed on December 16, and Aaron D. Stevens and Albert Hazlett were hanged on March 16, 1860.

Watch the video: Johnny Cash is John Brown! (January 2022).