1859 John Brown and Harper’s Ferry


On the night of October 1859, John Brown and 21 of his followers raided the Harper’s Ferry Federal Arsenal in Virginia.  In 1855 Brown had also perpetrated the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre in Kansas as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, resulting in five deaths. He was said to be acting on God’s orders. His goals were to free slaves and overthrow the white government to establish a free black state.

Who was John Brown?

John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800. His family moved to Ohio where he spent his childhood, his father owned a successful tannery.  At age 16 he moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts and then to Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania he opened his own tannery and raised cattle, a business learned from his father.  From his first marriage he had seven children and from his second, thirteen more.

The economic crisis of 1839 left him in great financial loss and in order to get out of debt he tried different business ventures. In 1846 he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts where he met Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. These were his transformative years where he learned and got involved in abolitionist activities. He believed that peaceful resistance by the abolitionist movement and the incremental abolition policy of its supporters had shown to be ineffective in the fight against slavery. He considered that insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in America. As a response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act Brown founded the League of Gileadites, a militant group to prevent the capture of fugitive slaves.

The Harper’s Ferry raid

His radicalization led him to a plan to recruit an army of 50 to 100 guerrilla fighters to attack slaveholders in Virginia and Maryland. Slaves would flee to the mountains and in turn free more slaves. Eventually white slaveholders would flee and the institution of slavery would collapse. According to his plans a domino effect would continue south and further undermine slavery there.

At the end of 1856 Brown returned to New England to raise funds from merchants and affluent abolitionist to purchase ammunition and weapons to carry on with his plans. He prepared a constitution that would create a government in the freed territories. John Brown confided in Frederick Douglass asking him for help recruit fighters. Douglass refused arguing that it was a suicidal attempt.

On October 1859 Brown and 21 of his followers were ready to attack the Federal Arsenal. He left 3 of his men as guards and led 18 of them to the attack. At the beginning they were successful as they met almost no resistance. They captured the federal armory and arsenal holding 60 hostages. News of the raid reached Baltimore and soldiers were dispatched. Brown was seriously wounded but captured alive. Ten of his men were killed including two of his sons, six were captured and five escaped.

John Brown was taken to Virginia where he was tried for treason, sentenced and hanged. His statements during his trial inspired the nation and Brown became a martyr and hero of the abolitionist movement.

“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”

–John Brown, statement at his sentencing on Nov. 2, 1859


The Raid of Harper’s Ferry

Video by Smithsonian Magazine



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