Harpers Ferry Raid

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)
Date Event
John Brown arrives in Chatham, Ontario for a series of secret meetings
At the Chatham Convention in Ontario, John Brown sets up his Provisional Constitution
John Brown attacks Harpers Ferry
John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry continues with the townspeople fighting back
John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry ends when Marines storm the Engine House
John Brown and his surviving raiders are taken to Charlestown, Virginia under heavy guard
- John Brown and his fellow prisoners are held at Charlestown, Virginia pending trial
John Brown appears before a Virginia court for the first time
John Brown and his fellow prisoners are held at Charlestown pending trial before a Virginia court
- John Brown stands trial in Charlestown, Virginia
- Mob destroys the office of Abolitionist newspaper in Newport, Kentucky
At the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Wendell Phillips praises John Brown in a speech
The Commonwealth of Virginia sentences John Brown to death
John Copeland, African-American Harpers Ferry raider, convicted in Charlestown, Virginia
Gerrit Smith, one of the "Secret Six," confined in mental institution at Utica, New York
Mary Brown arrives at James Miller McKim's home in Philadelphia
Burning haystack panics Virginians anticipating an attempt to rescue John Brown
Newspaper feud in Nashville over Harpers Ferry results in murder on the street
Kentucky man sends Governor Wise the rope with which to hang John Brown
Governor of Virginia warns Governor of Pennsylvania over possible John Brown rescue attempts
John Brown writes a letter of farewell to his sisters from his cell in Charlestown, Virginia
President Buchanan rejects Virginia's call for federal forces to police neighboring states
Governor Wise takes over the Winchester and Potomac Railroad in preparation for the execution of John Brown
Colonel Robert E. Lee leads federal troops back to Harpers Ferry to support Virginia's execution of John Brown
John Brown writes his last letter to his family
U.S. Senate votes unanimously for a committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry Raid
Four Harpers Ferry raiders hanged in Charlestown, Virginia
John Rogers finds no New York art dealer will display his new sculpture on slavery
William Lloyd Garrison writes to a friend about the impact of John Brown's death.
Southern students from Philadelphia's medical schools meet and vote to leave for the South
Southern students make a mass exodus from Philadelphia's medical schools
Governor Wise of Virginia meets with southern medical students returned from Philadelphia
Governor Chase of Ohio responds to Virginia Governor Wise's accusations against his northern neighbors
Cassius Clay speaks for more than three hours from the Capitol steps in Frankfort, Kentucky
Hazlett and Stevens, the last of John Brown's captured co-conspirators, go on trial in Virginia
Thaddeus Hyatt arrives in Washington but defies the Senate Harpers Ferry Committee
Aaron Stevens found guilty in Virginia for his part in Harpers Ferry Raid
Albert Hazlett convicted of murder in Charlestown, Virginia
Stevens and Hazlett, the last of the convicted Harpers Ferry raiders, sentenced to hang
Senate Committee investigating Harpers Ferry issues warrant for arrest of Frank Sanborn
The U.S. Senate orders arrest of Thaddeus Hyatt for failure to appear before Harpers Ferry Committee
Oliver Brown's young widow dies in childbirth at North Elba, New York
Governor of Virginia requests Ohio for the extradition of two Harpers Ferry Raiders
Governor of Ohio refuses the extradition of two Harpers Ferry Raiders to Virginia
The U.S. Senate imprisons Thaddeus Hyatt for failure to appear before Harpers Ferry Committee
Virginia executes Harpers Ferry raiders Albert Hazlett and Aaron Dwight Stevens
Virginia State legislature finishes its 1859-1860 session
Local officials foil U.S. Senate attempt to arrest Frank Sanborn for failure to appear to testify on Harpers Ferry
Theodore Parker, famous abolitionist and member of the "Secret Six," dies in Florence, Italy
After more than three months, the U.S. Senate releases Thaddeus Hyatt from the Washington Jail
Abolitionist meeting to commemorate John Brown broken up in Boston
Southern saboteurs cause the wreck of a civilian express train in Missouri, killing twenty
George Luther Stearns, leading abolitionist and member of "the Secret Six' dies of pneumonia in New York City.
Date Title
“Old Brown and his Friends,” Richmond (VA) Dispatch, November 10, 1859.
Anne Lynch Botta to Henry Whitney Bellows, December 6, 1858
Samuel Gridley Howe to John Murray Forbes, February 5, 1859
New York Times, "News of the Day," October 18, 1859
Lowell (MA) Citizen & News, “Riot at Harper’s Ferry,” October 18, 1859
Entry by Edmund Ruffin, October 19, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, “So Perish All The Enemies of Our Country!,” October 20, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, “Negro Insurrection!," October 20, 1859
Charles H. Ray to Abraham Lincoln, October 20, 1859
New York Times, “Latest Dispatches,” October 21, 1859
Atchison (KS) Freedom’s Champion, “Old John Brown,” October 22, 1859
New Orleans (LA) Picayune, "The Harper's Ferry Outbreak," October 22, 1859
Ralph Waldo Emerson to William Emerson, October 23, 1859
New York Herald, “The Slave Population in the Vicinity of the Outbreak,” October 23, 1859
Richmond (VA) Dispatch, "Northern Impertinences with Regard to the Late Affair at Harpers Ferry," October 24, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "Dissolution of the Union," October 25, 1859
Cleveland (OH) Herald, “From Carlisle,” October 25, 1859
Richmond (VA) Dispatch, “The Madness of Brown,” October 25, 1859
New Orleans (LA) Picayune, "The Harper's Ferry Affair," October 25, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American, “Arrest of a Supposed ‘Harper’s Ferry Insurrectionist,’” October 26, 1859
Lydia Maria Child to Henry Alexander Wise, October 26, 1859
Lydia Maria Child to John Brown, October 26, 1859
Ralph Waldo Emerson to Sarah Hathaway Forbes, October 26, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Governor Wise on the Harper's Ferry Insurrection," October 27, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Good Out of Evil," October 27, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Sketch of Captain John Brown," October 27, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "The Slave Insurrection at Harper's Ferry," October 27, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "The Provisional Government of the Insurrectionists," October 27, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Additional Particulars of the Insurrection," October 27, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Bleeding Kansas," October 27, 1859
Philadelphia (PA) Christian Observer, "A Regular Abolition Conspiracy," October 27, 1859
Entry by Susan Bradford Eppes, October 28, 1859
Atchison (KS) Freedom’s Champion, “Capt. Cook – Wrong Man Arrested,” October 29, 1859
Lawrence (KS) Herald of Freedom, “Old John Brown,” October 29, 1859
William T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, October 29, 1859
New York Herald, “Political Excitement on the Rise,” October 30, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "A Game that Will Not Win," October 31, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Untitled," October 31, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Political Effect," October 31, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "The Harpers Ferry Insurgent at Carlisle," November 1, 1859
New York Herald, "Runaway Slaves in Canada," November 1, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "They Have Overdone It!," November 2, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "A Good Sign," November 3, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Trial of Brown, the Insurgent," November 3, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Tenderly Sensitive," November 3, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Conviction of Brown!," November 3, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Black Republican Ingratitude," November 3, 1859
Jonathan Worth to J. Grier Ralston, November 4, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercury, “Mr. Douglas’ New Book,” November 4, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "Old Brown's Speech," November 4, 1859
Jonathan Worth to Edward Jones Hale, November 5, 1859
New York Times, "The Brown Invasion Transplanted From Kansas," November 5, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer,“Another Ray of Light,” November 7, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "How Shall Brown Be Punished?," November 7, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, "Untitled," November 8, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercury, “The Democratic Party and Old Brown,” November 8, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, "Untitled," November 9, 1859
New Orleans (LA) Picayune, "Frederick Douglass's Letter," November 9, 1859
Raleigh (NC) Register, “Brown’s Virginia Counsel,” November 9, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, "Untitled," November 9, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercuy, "Insanity of Gerrit Smith," November 10, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Harper's Ferry Trouble," November 10, 1859
Philadelphia (PA) Christian Observer, "Character of John Brown," November 10, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Untitled," November 10, 1859
Eliza Margaretta Chew Mason to Lydia Maria Child, November 11, 1859
Boston (MA) Liberator, "Bad News for the Abolitionists," November 11, 1859
William E. Frazer to Abraham Lincoln, November 12, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer,"Old Brown," November 14, 1859
Frances Watkins Harper to Mary Ann Day Brown, November 14, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercury, “Insurrectionists in West Tennessee,” November 15, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “Is It True or False?,” November 16, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Brown's Gang," November 17, 1859
Savannah (GA) News, “Incendiarism in the South,” November 17, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Reward for Fugitive Insurgents," November 17, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "The Plea Will Not Avail Them," November 17, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Gov. Wise to Mrs. Child," November 17, 1859
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Trial of the Harper's Ferry Insurgents," November 17, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "A Recoil of the Gun," November 18, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "The Virginia Panic," November 19, 1859
New York Herald, “Intense Alarm and Excitement in Virginia,” November 20, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, "Untitled," November 21, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “The Straw Stack War,” November 22, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "The Devil Not As Black As He Is Painted," November 24, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercury, “Rail Riding,” November 24, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "Well Done, Old Brown," November 26, 1859
New York Herald, “A Suggestion to Governor Wise About Old Brown,” November 27, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Two Incendiaries Caught in Salisbury," November 28, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "Old Brown to be Gagged," November 30, 1859
Entry by Edmund Ruffin, November 30, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "The Other Brown," December 1, 1859
Greensboro (NC) Patriot, "Salisbury Items," December 2, 1859
Entry by Susan Bradford Eppes, December 2, 1859
Entry by Thomas Jonathan Jackson, December 2, 1859
John Thomas Lewis Preston to Margaret Junkin Preston, December 2, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "Opinions of the People," December 3, 1859
Atchison (KS) Freedom’s Champion, “Walker vs. Brown,” December 3, 1859
New York Herald, “The South and Southern Safety,” December 4, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, “Untitled,” December 5, 1859
Abby Howland Woolsey to Eliza Newton Woolsey Howland, December 5, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “The Beginning of Sorrows,” December 5, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "How a Brave Man Dies," December 6, 1859
San Francisco (CA) Bulletin, “Organization of the United States House of Representatives,” December 7, 1859
Mrs. M. Brooks to William Still, December 7, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, "Arrest of a Militia Officer," December 8, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, "Virginia Wants the Nation to Foot Her Bills," December 8, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Gov. Seward and Harpers Ferry," December 8, 1859
New York Herald, “Anti-Slavery Theatres and Litterateurs,” December 9, 1859
New York Herald, "The Slavery Agitation," December 10, 1859
Frances Watkins Harper to William Still, December 12, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, "Untitled,” December 14, 1859
Entry by Susan Bradford Eppes, December 15, 1859
Columbus (OH) Gazette, "For the Columbus Gazette," December 16, 1859
New York Herald, “The New York Herald in the South,” December 18, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercury, “Northern Sentiment,” December 19, 1859
Hartford (CT) Courant, “Untitled,” December 20, 1859
New York Times, “Practical Secession,” December 21, 1859
Lowell (MA) Citizen & News, “Frederick Douglass,” December 21, 1859
New York Times, "Southern Students in New York," December 22, 1859
New York Times, "The Southern Medical Students," December 23, 1859
Ripley (OH) Bee, “Abolition School Teachers,” December 24, 1859
New York Herald, “Seward Nominated for the Presidency by the Abolitionists,” December 25, 1859
Charleston (SC) Mercury, “The Medical Students,” December 26, 1859
New York Evangelist, "A Time to Pray," December 29, 1859
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "Suspicious Characters," December 29, 1859
San Francisco (CA) Evening Bulletin, “The New Crusade against the Union,” December 29, 1859
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “A Fearful Slave Insurrection in Missouri,” December 30, 1859
Boston (MA) Liberator, "John Brown is Dead!," December 31, 1859
New York Times, “The Southern Students,” January 2, 1860
New York Times, “The Trial of Stevens,” January 4, 1860
New York Herald, "The Underground Railroad and Its Victims," January 5, 1860
New York Herald, “The Runaway Slaves,” January 5, 1860
Greensboro (NC) Patriot, "Secession of the Medical Students," January 6, 1860
Milwaukee (WI) Sentinel, “Another Grievance for Virginia,” January 11, 1860
Charlestown (VA) Free Press, “The Re-Interment of Coppic [Coppoc],” January 12, 1860
New York Times, "The Exodus of Southern Medical Students," January 17, 1860
New York Times,“The Colored People and John Brown’s Widow,” January 23, 1860
Boston (MA) Herald, “Telegraph to the Herald,” January 24, 1860
Atchison (KS) Freedom’s Champion, “Paying the Piper,” January 28, 1860
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, “Harper’s Ferry Items,” January 30, 1860
Boston (MA) Herald, "Where Shall They Go?," February 1, 1860
Milwaukee (WI) Sentinel,“Two More Teachers Expelled Without Cause Shown,” February 2, 1860
New York Herald, “A Competent Witness in the John Brown Investigation,” February 5, 1860
Charlestown (VA) Free Press, “Harper’s Ferry Outrage,” February 9, 1860
Boston (MA) Liberator, “Trial of Stevens at Charlestown,” February 10, 1860
Atchison (KS) Freedom’s Champion, “Thaddeus Hyatt,” February 11, 1860
New York Times, “The Senatorial Inquisition,” February 11, 1860
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “Sedition Laws,” February 14, 1860
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “The Harper’s Ferry Inquisition,” February 15, 1860
New York Times, “Manufacturing Martyrs,” February 16, 1860
Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, “Attempt to Lynch a Pennsylvanian in Virginia,” February 18, 1860
Lowell (MA) Citizen & News, “The Senate’s Inquisition,” February 24, 1860
Boston (MA) Advertiser, “The Power to Compel Witnesses,” February 24, 1860
New York Herald, “The Senate and Messrs Hyatt and Howe,” February 25, 1860
Boston (MA) Advertiser, “Mr. Hyatt’s Case,” February 29, 1860
Charleston (SC) Courier, “John Brown’s Private Secretary,” March 8, 1860
Cleveland (OH) Herald, “Gov. Dennison Refuses to Surrender Them,” March 10, 1860
Lowell (MA) Citizen & News, “George Sennot’s Speech,” March 14, 1860
Carlisle (PA) Herald, "Hazlett and Stevens,” March 14, 1860
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, “The Harper’s Ferry Insurgents,” March 15, 1860
Robert Toombs to Alexander H. Stephens, March 16, 1860
New York Times, “The Last of the Harper’s Ferry Slaughter,” March 17, 1860
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, “Execution of Hazlett and Stephens,” March 22, 1860
Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, “Another Harper’s Ferry Victim,” March 22, 1860
R. Tansill to Robert Hunter, March 22, 1860
William Wilkins to James Watson Webb, March 26, 1860
(Omaha) Nebraskian, “Monument to John Brown,” May 5, 1860
New York Times, “Disunion Plots,” May 10, 1860
Chillicothe (OH) Scioto Gazette, “Can Locofocos Explain It?,” June 5, 1860
(Jackson) Mississippian, “Violations of the Constitution,” June 15, 1860
(Jackson) Mississippian, “The Fourth at John Brown’s Home,” June 20, 1860
Ripley (OH) Bee, “The John Brown Investigation,” July 5, 1860
New York Herald, “A Curious Fourth of July Celebration,” July 8, 1860
Lowell (MA) Citizen & News, "Who Are For Disunion?," August 8, 1860
Charlestown (VA) Free Press, "Precipitate A Revolution," August 9, 1860
New York Times, "Gov. Seward and John Brown," August 18, 1860
New York Herald, “The Reign of Terror in Texas,” September 16, 1860
(Jackson) Mississippian, "The 'Coercion' Issue," October 5, 1860
Charleston (SC) Mercury, "The Terrors of Submission," October 11, 1860
New York Times, “Very Suspicious,” October 15, 1860
Charleston (SC) Mercury, "Harper's Ferry Anniversary Celebration," October 22, 1860
Fayetteville (NC) Observer, "The U. S. Arsenal," November 15, 1860
Fayetteville (NC) Observer,"U. S. Arsenal," November 26, 1860
New York Herald, “The Meeting of Congress,” November 28, 1860
Chicago (IL) Tribune, "Montgomery," December 1, 1860
Charleston (SC) Mercury, "The John Brown Pike," December 5, 1860
Charlestown (VA) Free Press, “John Brown Anniversary,” December 13, 1860
New York Times, “Rumored Invasion of the South,” January 25, 1861
Newark (OH) Advocate, “Abolition Threat of John P. Hale,” February 8, 1861
Richmond (VA) Dispatch, “Another John Brown Raid,” April 16, 1861
Cleveland (OH) Herald, “A Submissionist Answered,” June 17, 1861
Cleveland (OH) Herald, “Military Printers Having Their Joke,” July 15, 1861
Chicago Style Entry Link

Acton, Richard. "An Iowan's Death at Harpers Ferry." Palimpsest 70, no. 4 (1989): 186-197.

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