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Harpers Ferry Raid

John Brown, Harpers Ferry topic image
John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 has long been regarded as one of the pivotal events in the coming of the Civil War, but both the nature of the attack and its impact on American society were more complicated than most people or some textbooks acknowledge.  On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, John Brown and eighteen other men walked from a farmhouse in western Maryland a few miles into the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia in order to seize weapons from the largely unguarded federal arsenal.  Three others from the group stayed behind and guarded their headquarters.  What the raiders planned to do with the federal rifles, and the hundreds of menacing pikes that Brown had ordered in advance of the attack, remains a subject of some dispute.  John Brown had been an agent in the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape to freedom for decades before he came to Harpers Ferry.  He hated slavery and had spent much of his adult life fighting against the institution with words and deeds, sometimes quite violent deeds.  For example, Brown and some of his sons had participated in the small-scale wars over slavery that had ripped apart the Kansas territory and had mudered at least five pro-slavery settlers in a notorious incident in 1856.  They had also helped nearly a dozen slaves, including a pregnant woman,  escape from Missouri in December 1858, escorting them safely to Detroit by March 1859 in what might have been a dress rehearsal for another "slave-stealing" raid into Virginia later that year.  But during this time, Brown and his Provisional Army, as they called themselves, also seemed to be hatching wild plans for a revolution, what a Virginia court would later declare as a treasonous attempt to launch a slave insurrection.  Partly because of these sweeping and grandiose schemes, and partly because the tactical planning for the actual raid at Harpers Ferry later seemed so inadequate to those purposes, Brown gained a reputation as crazed.  Yet he was also a charismatic leader whose courage impressed everyone from former slaves to New England intellectuals (some of whom funded the raid) and even to some southern journalists and politicians who later encountered him in prison.  The raid itself did fail. Despite initial success on Sunday evening in capturing rifles at the arsenal and in rounding up prominent local hostages, Brown's forces soon got separated and surrounded without any hope of reinforcements.  Several of Brown's men were killed in the attack which lasted nearly 36 hours.  Others, including Brown himself, who was wounded in the final assault at the arsenal's engine house, were captured.  But some escaped.  And Brown's behavior during his subsequent trial at Charlestown, Virginia (later West Virginia) captivated public attention, thrilling anti-slavery audiences in the North and horrifying many pro-slavery southerners.  The Commonwealth of Virginia executed Brown on December 2, 1859, but the man and his failed raid remained a subject of intense public debate throughout the 1860 presidential campaign.  Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln even felt compelled to denounce Brown in order to separate himself from the violence.  Yet within a couple of years later, Union soldiers would sing "John Brown's Body" as they marched into battle.  The memory of John Brown's actions remains controversial and widely debated. (By Matthew Pinsker)

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How to Cite This Page: "Harpers Ferry Raid," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/9603.