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The 1859 Raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, USA

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I, John Brown, am now quite certain 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 much bloodshed it might be done.

- from John Brown's final public statement, on the day of his execution

The Setting

In 1859, Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia) was the site of a national armoury and arsenal. The government of the United States had an ongoing contract with John H Hall to manufacture rifles at that location. It was also within the slave-holding South.

The question of whether or not slavery was legal was, at that time, left to the individual States, although the abolition movement was demanding that the country eliminate the right of all people in the country to own human chattels.

The Man

John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised by fundamentalist Christian parents who were firmly against slavery, a belief Brown shared his entire life. His zealotry for the anti-slavery movement was so extreme and, at times, violent, that most members of that movement distanced themselves from him and many people questioned his sanity. He is said to have believed that God had appointed him 'a special agent of death' and given him a mandate to 'break the jaws of the wicked' and deal a deathblow to the 'wicked curse of slavery'. He is known to have murdered at least five men for their pro-slavery position before leading the raid on Harpers Ferry.

The Plan

In 1858 Brown began gathering followers for a mission intended to signal the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. He convinced some wealthy abolitionists that his plan would work, and gained funding and weapons from them.

The plan was to raid Harpers Ferry, attack the arsenal and seize the more than 100,000 weapons, which would then be given to the slaves who would rally around them and form the nucleus of an emancipation army that would lead a general insurrection by the slaves.

In the Summer of 1859, using the name 'Isaac Smith', Brown rented a Maryland farm located close to Harpers Ferry and began training a group of 21 followers, including three of his sons, 13 other whites and five blacks, in military manoeuvres. On 16 October, 1859, he decided that the time was right.

The Assault

While Brown was a charismatic speaker, both in conversation with individuals and when addressing groups, it soon became evident that he was less than brilliant as a military strategist and tactician.

The first stage of the plan went flawlessly. Brown's minuscule 'army' quickly seized the federal arsenal and the armoury. They had cut the telegraph lines, with the intent of completing their mission before word reached Washington, DC. Sensing that their mission might not be completed quickly, they also took a group of the town's citizens hostage, including Colonel Lewis Washington, a great-grand-nephew of George Washington. As anticipated, news of the raid spread through the town quickly. The local slaves, however, failed to revolt and join Brown's group.

When a train began its approach to the town, Brown's men opened fire and brought it to a halt. The first fatality of the raid on Harpers Ferry was Hayward Shepherd, the town's baggage master, who had tried to warn the occupants of the inbound train about what was happening. Shepherd was a free black man. After five hours, they allowed the train to go on its way, which resulted in news of the raid reaching Washington, DC.

The Siege

If the expected mass of slaves did not materialise, the outraged citizens of the town did not fail to do so. Brown soon realised that the well-armed citizenry had his group outnumbered and outgunned. The first of member of Brown's 'army' to be killed by the townsmen was a former slave who had joined the in the hope that they would free his wife and children.

Realising that he was trapped, Brown picked out nine hostages and moved them and those members of his group that were still living into the armoury's fire engine house.

Brown's men were trapped in the engine house and the townsmen made sure that they stayed there. The atmosphere degenerated into one of a bloody carnival, with drunken townsmen using the bodies of two dead raiders for target practice.

Defeat and Capture

On 18 October, a force of 100 U.S. Marines, under the command of an Army colonel named Robert E Lee, arrived at Harpers Ferry. Lee immediately closed the town's saloon to reduce random violence. He waited until daylight the next morning before taking any action against the men in the firehouse, hoping to be able to identify and avoiding harming the hostages.

At 6:30am on 19 October, Lee's aide, Lieutenant J E B 'Jeb' Stuart, approached the firehouse under a white flag, in the hopes that a surrender could be negotiated without further bloodshed. When it became clear that Brown and his men had no intention of surrendering, Lee ordered Lieutenant Israel Green and a group of men to storm the engine house, using bayonets only, so none of the hostages would accidentally be shot. Brown and his men were overwhelmed in a battle that lasted about three minutes. Five of the original 22 raiders escaped and seven were captured, including John Brown, who was seriously injured. The other ten had been killed, either during the siege or over the course of the battle at the engine house. Two of Brown's sons were among the dead.


John Brown was transported to Charlestown, Virginia, where he was tried and convicted of insurrection, treason and murder. The jury deliberated for only 45 minutes after a trial that lasted less than a week. John Brown was hanged on 2 December, 1859.

At that trial, Brown spoke eloquently of the need to revolt against 'this slave country' with its 'wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments' and captured the imagination of the world with his faith in God and his own beliefs, and the serenity with which he accepted his fate. It is said that one slave-owning minister offered to pray for Brown's soul, resulting in Brown's only loss of composure while he was awaiting execution. In his opinion, slavery was a sin, and John Brown refused to allow this sinner to endanger his salvation.

The assault on Harpers Ferry focused the nation's attention on the issue of slavery. In the North, abolitionists made John Brown into a martyr, a man who was killed solely because of his belief that slavery was an evil that had to be eliminated. That the charges brought against him and those of his men who were captured related to their having taken over a government facility became secondary in the minds of their supporters.

Although Brown's ill-conceived and ill-executed raid at Harpers Ferry ended in abject failure, the controversy surrounding his trial split the Democratic Party and helped the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, win the 1860 election.

With the execution of John Brown, the anti-slavery movement gained a martyr. Perhaps his spirit looked down, content at last, when slavery was finally abolished in the United States after so many of its citizens had shed their blood in the American Civil War.

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