Americas,  ER,  United States

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

The Last Moments of John Brown (1882–1884) by Thomas Hovenden. Photo Credit- Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Brown had failed at everything he had ever done.  Born on May 9, 1800, he had failed 20 times in six states and defaulted on all his debts.  Yet somehow, he believed he was God’s instrument in to end slavery.  In 1837 after the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, an Abolitionist newspaper owner in Alton, Il, Brown declared, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

In Massachusetts, he formed the militant group The League of Gileadites to prevent the capture of escaped slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act.  In Kansas, he and his sons hacked 5 proslavery adherents to death with broadswords at Pottawatomie Creek in response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, an Abolitionist stronghold.  This was all to defeat “Satan and his legions”.  But he felt more needed to be done.

On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown led thirteen whites and five freed slaves in a raid they believed would be the start of a great slave rebellion.  They brought additional arms for the slaves who would rise to join them, and planned to leave the newly freed slave army south down the Apalachians.  They planned on taking the arsenal, armory and rifle manufacturing plant at Harper’s Ferry to add to their munitions.

Things went to plan at first.  They took the arsenal and the gatehouse easily as well as 60 hostages.  One hostage was George Washington’s great grand nephew.  They cut telegraph wires to prevent word of the uprising.  Unfortunately, word got out through a train allowed to pass through the depot.  It had been detained, but was eventually let go and they raised the alarm.

The slaves did not rise up, however, the angry towns people did.  In the firefight that followed the town’s baggage master was killed as well as one of the black men with Brown.  Someone in the crowd sliced off his ears to keep as a souvenir.

Colonel Robert E. Lee led Federal troops in an attack on Brown’s forces.  They stormed their posotion in the engine house and 9 more of Brown’s followers, including 2 of his sons.  Brown was severely wounded and captured.  He went on trial for treason in the state of Virginia.  Unsurprisingly, he was convicted.

John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.  He had no last words, but he handed a note to one of the guards that read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

The attack on Harper’s Ferry hardened the battle lines being drawn between North and South.  The militia system in the South began shifting into high gear against the threat of Northern agitators fomenting slave rebellions.  It was the beginning of the Confederate Army.  People on the other side of the divide compared Brown to Jesus Christ, a martyr for the cause.  However, I believe Herman Melville said it best when he said Brown was “a meteor of the coming war”.


Sources available on request