John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid: Abolitionist Leader Tried to Start a Slave Rebellion in the South

John Brown

On October 16, 1859, John Brown and a handfull of followers tried to seize the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The Raid failed, but helped start the American Civil War.

John Brown was an abolitionist, but he advocated ending slavery by more direct, even violent, means. He first emerged as a well-known figure in Kansas, where free soil northerners and pro-slavery southerners fought a vicious and bloody contest for control of the territory. He was most infamous for masterminding a “retaliation” against the “slave-hounds” by leading a group of men against a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie. In the dead of night five pro-slave men were taken from their homes and hacked to death with sabers. This was in 1856, and for the next few years Brown kept a relatively low profile. He even grew a long beard as a disguise.

Planning a Raid on Harpers Ferry

Some thought Brown was literally insane, but his plans showed more method than madness. He was a zealot, an man utterly convinced he was an instrument of God, so obsessed with his mission, that he seemed a madman.

In the summer of 1859 he planned to capture the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) and seize the arms stored there. This would be the preliminary step to a slave insurrection he planned to lead in the south. In his view, slaves would flock to his banner, and once they were armed, freedom would be at hand.

While not clinically insane, Brown was perhaps a little unbalanced by this time. He tried to get his friend Frederick Douglass to join him in the venture, assuring him that “when I strike, the bees will begin to swarm.” In other words, thousands of slaves would come to join his insurgent “army.” It was a bizarre fantasy, because he would be initially leading just 21 raiders, seventeen whites and five blacks.

Frederick Douglass refused to go, and tried to dissuade Brown. The idea that a couple of dozen men or so could form the nucleus of a great slave army was absurd. A raid on a federal arsenal and armory would be violence against the government of the United States, and possibly discredit the abolitionist cause. But Brown was too obsessed to listen; he continued to plan

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

The raid began on the night of October 16, 1859. Brown showed himself to be a poor planner and even worse tactician. Harpers Ferry is at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and is also surrounded by hills. It can easily be made into a trap, but Brown seems to have given little thought as to an escape route. His men also carried no rations in case there was a siege.

The initial phases seemed to go well. The Harpers Ferry arsenal, armory, and rifle works were quickly taken. Brown then sat down, waiting for slaves to come in. This was odd, in that he had not taken the trouble to spread the word. The abolitionist sent out patrols, and they gathered up a few white hostages and managed to pick up a few bewildered local slaves.

It almost seemed like he wanted to fail, so he could become some kind of martyr He held up a train for several hours, only to let it go. The train quickly spread the alarm, and the authorities were notified. In the meantime, ironically, an African American was shot and killed by one of Brown’s men. Local citizens and militia mobilized, and on the 17th recaptured some of the buildings. Brown and his men were driven to the engine house.

During the night of October 17-18 a detachment of U.S. Marines arrived under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart was also on hand. Brown refused to surrender, so the Marines stormed the building. In a brief but bloody action, one Marine was killed, as were two raiders. Brown himself was badly wounded.

The entire raid was over after 36 hours. The grand total was seventeen dead, including ten raiders. Brown and six raiders would be tried and eventually hanged

John Brown’s Trial and Execution

John Brown was going to be tried in Virginia, which made the outcome a foregone conclusion. He didn’t care about the court where his trial was held. The tough old abolitionist was more interested in the court of northern, and perhaps world, opinion. He conducted his defense with a calm courage that impressed many. He gave reasoned, even articulate, statements during the course of his trial. The verdict was guilty, and the sentence was death by hanging.

The Abolitionist was hanged on December 2, 1859. To the North, he became a hero, to the South, a villain. His death further polarized the nation, and in 1861 the Civil War broke out.


  1. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (Ballantine Books, 1988)
  2. James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (McGraw-Hill, 1992)