John Brown Raid on Harper's Ferry


By Joseph E. Holloway Ph.D

The year eighteen hundred was a watershed event in American history, marking several important events in the history of slavery, such as the birth John Brown, followed by the birth of Nat Turner, who inspired Brown to do great things.  In that same year Gabriel Prosser planned his revolution in Richmond, and finally Demark Vesey arrived from Haiti flesh from the Haitian revolution, and purchased his freedom.  These related events were turning points in planting the seeds of freedom that would germinate and lead to the demise of slavery. Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey were seed planters. Three seeds, three dreams that would change the course of slavery in the United States of America by inspiring a white man to fight and die for Black freedom, his fight and struggle would inspire a nation to action.

John Brown regarded Nat Turner as his spiritual father and studied his movement well.  Like Nat Turner, John Brown was a visionary prophet and knew that his God had a mission for him.  He struggled much of his life in search of his destiny not knowing, but believing that his God had a purpose for him.  He had always been a deeply religious man, and believed that God intended a mission for him to free the slaves by becoming the sacrificial lamb for the sins of the nation, knowing that his death would bring the demise of slavery.

Brown first gained attention when he led small groups of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Unlike most other Northerners, who advocated peaceful resistance to the pro-slavery faction, Brown believed that peaceful resistance was shown to be ineffective and that the only way to defeat the oppressive system of slavery was through violent insurrection. He believed he was the instrument of God's wrath in punishing men for the sin of owning slaves. Dissatisfied with the pacifism encouraged by the organized abolitionist movement, he said, "These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!" During the Kansas campaign he and his supporters killed five pro-slavery southerners in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre in May 1856 in response to the raid of the "free soil" city of Lawrence.

In May 1858, along with 11 white followers, John Brown met with 34 African Americans led by Martin Delany at Chatham in Canada (present-day Ontario). Brown wanted their support and asked them to join him in an effort to liberate the slaves.  Brown also asked Frederick Douglass to join him. He revealed to Douglass that he wanted to capture the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry by force and start a slave revolution to liberate slaves. He was convinced that enslaved Africans across the South were ready and willing to emancipate themselves.  All they needed, he concluded was the moral and military guidance of an inspired leader, who would accept nothing less than “death or liberty.” Douglass opposed Brown’s plan.  He believed “that such a measure would be fatal to running off slaves [the original plan] and fatal to all engaged.” John Brown then begged Douglass, “Come with me Douglass, I will defend you with my life.  I want you for a special purpose.  When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.”

Refusing for the last time Frederick Douglass turned to a man named Shields Green, and asked if he was ready to go.  Green replied: “B’lieve I go wid de old man.” Douglass gave his blessing and asked Brown not to mention his name if he was captured.  Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. Douglass had actually known about Brown's plans from early in 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.Brown wanted to create a slave army to move down the Appalachian Mountains and strike at the heart of the plantation system.  He sought to establish an autonomous state within the United States for both Black and white citizens. Brown returned to the United States and received support from some prosperous white abolitionists. The abolitionists who contributed money came to be known as the Secret Six because they wanted their identities concealed. They were: Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, George L. Sterns, Theodore Parker and Franklin Sanborn.

Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late September, the 950 pikes arrived from Charles Blair. Kagi's draft plan called for a brigade of 4,500 men, but Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve of them had been with Brown in Kansas raids.

On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher's Bibles—breech loading .52 caliber Sharps rifles—and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations. As Frederick Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one state after another, until the movement spread into the South, essentially wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. Brown's plan was to ignite a slave insurrection into a revolution that would free the slaves. A veteran of the violent struggles between pro and antislavery forces in Kansas.  Brown intended to provoke a general uprising of African Americans that would lead to a revolution and war against slavery.  John Brown and his men seized the federal building and cut the telegraph wires.  Expecting local enslaved Africans to rebel and join him.  The invasion of the federal arsenal was flawed from the beginning. Brown’s group first killed a free Black man, Heyward Sheppard, who was a baggage handler at the train station. A fight broke out  and eight of Brown’s men, including Sheridan Leary, Dangerfield Newby and two of his sons, were killed. [1] Brown managed to take a man named Lewis W. Washington, a great grandnephew of George Washington, hostage.  Brown and his men waited at the armory for the slaves to rise up while the townspeople surrounded them.  By daybreak on October 18, the United States Marines under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee Brown who stormed Brown’s in the arsenal’s engine house and captured and killed most of his force.  Five of the rebels, including his son Owen escaped to Canada.  Brown was severely wounded and taken to Charles Town, Virginia for trial where he stood trial for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia for murder and conspiring with the slaves to rebel.  He was convicted by a jury on November the 2nd and sentenced to death by hanging.  John Brown readily accepted the sentence and declared that he acted in accordance with God’s commandments was captured by General Lee. He was convicted and hanged for treason, but not before giving a speech which ignited the emotional spark needed as a prelude to the Civil War.

The Harpers Ferry raid confirmed for many Southerners the existence of a widespread Northern plot against slavery.  In fact, Brown had raised funds for his raid from Northern abolitionist. To arm the enslaved Africans, Brown ordered one thousand pikes from a Connecticut manufactory.   Responding to persistent rumors  and written threats, Henry A. Wise,  Governor of Virginia, called out state militia companies to guard against a possible rescue of Brown and his followers.  On December 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged in Charles Town.

American history books have long been void of any detailed mention of John Brown’s slave uprisings in the years and in the decades before the American Civil War. John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 has been glamorized and Robert E. Lee's role magnified. John Brown was the man who killed slavery, sparked the civil war, and seeded civil rights" and an American, who gave his life that millions of other Americans might be free.

The song "John Brown's Body" made him a heroic martyr and was a popular Union marching song during the Civil War. As Union troops march to battle they sung on their lips the “Battle Hymn of the Republic," the first verse and chorus are: John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, But his soul goes marching on. Chorus: Glory, glory, hallelujah, Glory, glory, hallelujah, His soul goes marching on.

We know now that John Brown's deeds were but a tiny blip when viewed against the larger picture of the prolonged rebellion by enslaved Africans against their captors to end their captivity. Not all enslaved Africans, by any means, were placid "Step and Fetch it" types. Not all were obese, smiling, mammies. Not all were good-hearted, simple-minded flunkies. But, men and women, who fought and died for the freedom and liberation from bondage.  John Brown now needs to take his rightful place in history as the father of the Civil Rights’ movement, which led to the abolition of slavery, and the man who planted the seed for the modern Civil Rights’ Movement.

l The following were killed:  John Anderson, Jeremiah Goldsmith, Anderson (killed during the storming of John Brown’s Fort), Oliver Brown, Watson Brown, John Henry Kagi, Lewis Sheridan Leary, William H. Leeman, Dangerfield Newby Steward, Taylor (died of wounds), Dauphin Thompson (killed during the storming of John Brown Fort), William Thompson captured and killed by the militia.  Hanged in 1859 following the raid:  John Brown, John E. Cook, Edwin Coppock and Shields Green. Hanged in 1860: Albert Hazlett, Aaron D. Stevens.  Died during US Civil War: Barclay Coppock, Charles Plummer Tidd.  Survived Harper’s Ferry: Osborne Perry Anderson, Owen Brown and Francis Jackson Meriam.