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John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry
Part of the Origins of the American Civil War

Harper's Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort"
DateOctober 16–18, 1859
Location39°19′23″N 77°43′49″W / 39.32306°N 77.73028°W / 39.32306; -77.73028
Result Government victory
 United States Abolitionist insurgents
Commanders and leaders
John Brown Executed
  • 88 U.S. Marines
  • Unknown number of Virginia Militia and Maryland Militia
  • 16 white men
  • 5 free black men
  • 1 freed slave
  • 1 fugitive slave[1]
Casualties and losses
U.S. Marines:
  • 1 killed
  • 1 wounded
Virginia and Maryland Militia:
  • 8 wounded
  • 10 killed
  • 7 captured and later executed
  • 5 escaped
  • 6 killed
  • 9 wounded
Location within West Virginia

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry (also spelled Harper's Ferry)[2] was an effort by abolitionist John Brown, from October 16 to 18, 1859, to initiate a slave revolt in Southern states by taking over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It has been called the dress rehearsal for or Tragic Prelude to the Civil War.[3]:5

Brown's party of 22[1] was defeated by a company of U.S. Marines, led by First Lieutenant Israel Greene.[4] Several of those present at the raid would later be involved in the Civil War: Colonel Robert E. Lee was in overall command of the operation to retake the arsenal. Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart were part of the troops guarding the arrested Brown,[3]:5 and John Wilkes Booth was a spectator at his execution. John Brown had originally asked Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom he had met in his transformative years as an abolitionist in Springfield, Massachusetts, to join him in his raid, but Tubman was prevented by illness and Douglass declined, as he believed Brown's plan was suicidal.[5]

The events were extensively covered in the press nationwide. It was the first such national crisis to be publicized using the new electrical telegraph. Reporters were on the first train leaving for Harpers Ferry after news of the raid was received, at 4 PM on Monday the 17th. It carried Maryland militia, and parked on the Maryland side of the Harpers Ferry bridge, just 3 miles (4.8 km) east of the town (at the hamlet of Sandy Hook, Maryland). As there were few official messages to send or receive, the telegraph carried on the next train, connected to the cut telegraph wires, was "given up to reporters", who "are in force strong as military".[6]:17 By Tuesday morning the telegraph line had been repaired,[6]:21 and there were reporters from the New York Times "and other distant papers".[6]:23

The label "raid" was not used at the time. A month after the attack, a Baltimore newspaper listed 26 terms used, including "insurrection", "rebellion", "treason", and "crusade". "Raid" was not among them.[3]:4

Brown's raid was at first viewed as madness, the work of a fanatic. It was his words after the raid, and especially at his trial, Virginia v. John Brown, that turned him into a national hero and icon for the Union.

Brown's preparation

John Brown rented the Kennedy Farmhouse, with a small cabin nearby, 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Harpers Ferry near the community of Dargan in Washington County, Maryland,[7] and took up residence under the name Isaac Smith. Brown came with a small group of men minimally trained for military action. His group included 18 men besides himself (13 white men, 5 black men). Northern abolitionist groups sent 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines ("Beecher's Bibles") and 950 pikes (obtained in late September from Charles Blair of Collinsville Axe Company in Collinsville, Connecticut), in preparation for the raid. The pikes were never used, and after the action was over and most of the principals dead or imprisoned, they were sold at high prices as souvenirs. When all had been sold, an enterprising mechanic started making and selling new ones.[8]

The United States Armory was a large complex of buildings that manufactured small arms for the U.S. Army (1801–1861), with an Arsenal (weapons storehouse) that was thought to contain at the time 100,000 muskets and rifles.[9]

An artist's conception of Brown trying to persuade abolitionist Frederick Douglass to join him in the raid on Harpers Ferry. Douglass refused, as he believed Brown would fail.

Brown attempted to attract more black recruits. He tried recruiting Frederick Douglass as a liaison officer to the slaves in a meeting held (for safety) in a quarry at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It was at this meeting that ex-slave "Emperor" Shields Green consented to join with John Brown on his attack on the United States Armory, Green stating to Douglass "I believe I will go with the old man". Douglass declined, indicating to Brown that he believed the raid was a suicide mission. The plan was "an attack on the federal government" that "would array the whole country against us. ...You will never get out alive", he warned.[10]

The Kennedy Farmhouse served as "barracks, arsenal, supply depot, mess hall, debate club, and home". It was very crowded and life there was tedious. Brown was worried about arousing neighbors' suspicions. As a result, the raiders had to stay indoors during the daytime, without much to do but study, drill, argue politics, discuss religion, and play cards and checkers. Brown's daughter-in-law Martha served as cook and housekeeper. His daughter Annie served as lookout. Brown wanted women at the farm, to prevent suspicions of a large all-male group. The raiders went outside at night to drill and get fresh air. Thunderstorms were welcome since they concealed noise from Brown's neighbors.[11]

Brown did not plan to have a quick raid and immediate escape to the mountains. Rather, he intended to use those rifles and pikes he captured at the arsenal, in addition to those he brought along, to arm rebellious slaves with the aim of striking terror in the slaveholders in Virginia. He believed that on the first night of action, 200–500 black slaves would join his line. He ridiculed the militia and regular army that might oppose him. He planned to send agents to nearby plantations, rallying the slaves. He planned to hold Harpers Ferry for a short time, expecting that as many volunteers, white and black, would join him as would form against him. He would move rapidly southward, sending out armed bands along the way. They would free more slaves, obtain food, horses and hostages, and destroy slaveholders' morale. Brown planned to follow the Appalachian Mountains south into Tennessee and even Alabama, the heart of the South, making forays into the plains on either side.[12]

Advance knowledge of the raid

John Brown in 1859
John Brown in 1859

Brown paid Hugh Forbes $600 (equivalent to $16,464 in 2019) to be his drillmaster. Forbes was an English mercenary who served Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy. Forbes' Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer was found in Brown's papers after the raid. Brown and Forbes argued over strategy and money. Forbes wanted more money so that his family in Europe could join him.[13] Forbes sent threatening letters to Brown's backers in an attempt to get money. Failing in this effort, Forbes traveled to Washington, DC, and met with U.S. Senators William H. Seward and Henry Wilson. He denounced Brown to Seward as a "vicious man" who needed to be restrained, but did not disclose any plans for the raid. Forbes partially exposed the plan to Senator Wilson and others. Wilson wrote to Samuel Gridley Howe, a Brown backer, advising him to get Brown's backers to retrieve the weapons intended for use in Kansas. Brown's backers told him that the weapons should not be used "for other purposes, as rumor says they may be".[14]:248 In response to warnings, Brown had to return to Kansas to shore up support and discredit Forbes. Some historians believe that this trip cost Brown valuable time and momentum.[15]

Estimates are that at least eighty people knew about Brown's planned raid in advance, although Brown did not reveal his total plan to anyone. Many others had reasons to believe that Brown was contemplating a move against the South. One of those who knew was David J. Gue of Springdale, Iowa. Gue was a Quaker who believed that Brown and his men would be killed. Gue, his brother, and another man decided to warn the government "to protect Brown from the consequences of his own rashness". Gue sent an anonymous letter dated August 20, 1859, to Secretary of War John B. Floyd. The letter said that "old John Brown, late of Kansas," was planning to organize a slave uprising in the South. It said that Brown had a secret agent "in an armory" in Maryland, and that he was stockpiling weapons at a secret location in Maryland. Gue warned that Brown planned to leave Maryland and enter Virginia at Harpers Ferry. Gue acknowledged that he was afraid to disclose his identity but asked Floyd not to ignore his warning "on that account". He was hoping that Floyd would send soldiers to Harpers Ferry. He hoped that the extra security would motivate Brown to call off his plans.[14]:284–285

Even though President Buchanan offered a $250 reward for Brown, Floyd did not connect the John Brown of Gue's letter to the John Brown of Pottawatomie, Kansas, fame. He knew that Maryland did not have an armory (Harpers Ferry is in Virginia, today West Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Maryland.) Floyd concluded that the letter writer was a crackpot, and disregarded it. He later said that "a scheme of such wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any citizen of the United States".[14]:285

Timeline of the raid

Sunday, October 16

1862 photograph of the Harpers Ferry arsenal; the "engine house" (John Brown's Fort) is on the left.
1862 photograph of the Harpers Ferry arsenal; the "engine house" (John Brown's Fort) is on the left.
A modern reproduction of the 1848 fire engine house that became known as John Brown's Fort, c. 2007
A modern reproduction of the 1848 fire engine house that became known as John Brown's Fort, c. 2007

On Sunday night, October 16, 1859, Brown left four of his men behind as a rear-guard: his son, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppock, Frank Meriam, and one other; he led the rest into the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown detached a party under John Cook Jr. to capture Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington, at his nearby Beall-Air estate, free some of his slaves, and seize two relics of George Washington: a sword allegedly presented to Washington by Frederick the Great and two pistols given by Marquis de Lafayette, which Brown considered talismans.[16] The party carried out its mission and returned via the Allstadt House, where they took more hostages.[17] Brown's main party captured several watchmen and townspeople in Harpers Ferry.

Brown's men needed to capture the weapons and escape before word could be sent to Washington. The raid was going well for Brown's men. They cut the telegraph wire.

A free black man was the first casualty of the raid: Heyward Shepherd, a baggage handler at the Harpers Ferry train station. He was shot from behind when he by chance encountered the first of the raiders, refused to freeze, and headed back to the station.[18] (See Heyward Shepherd monument.) That a black man was the first casualty of an insurrection whose purpose was to aid blacks, and that he disobeyed the raiders, made him a hero of the "Lost Cause" pro-Confederacy movement.

Brown had been sure that he would get major support from slaves ready to rebel; his followers said to a man that he had told them that. But they did not arrive, and Brown waited too long for them. Even the local slaves that Brown had taken from the Kennedy farm did not want to revolt and did not want weapons. That a white man would encourage them to revolt and give them arms was something unheard of, and that they had no reason to take at face value. (As most enslaved people were illiterate, they did not know who Brown was.) Some believed they were about to be sold. Others ran away from Brown.[19]:314 The Southern press reported Brown's lack of support from the local "faithful" slaves.

Although the white townspeople soon began to fight back against the raiders, Brown's men succeeded in capturing the federal armory.

Monday, October 17

1859 map showing railroads going through Harpers Ferry; "W.&P.R.R." is the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. Second map shows relevant buildings of Harpers Ferry; note the key below the drawing.
1859 map showing railroads going through Harpers Ferry; "W.&P.R.R." is the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. Second map shows relevant buildings of Harpers Ferry; note the key below the drawing.

About 1:15 AM an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train from Wheeling was to pass through towards Baltimore. The night watchman ran to warn of trouble ahead; the engineer stopped and then backed up the train. Two train crew members who stepped down to reconnoitre were shot at.[19]:316 Brown boarded the train and talked with passengers for over an hour, not concealing his identity. (Because of his abolitionist work in Kansas, Brown was a "notorious" celebrity;[20][21] he was well known to any newspaper reader.) Brown then told the train crew they could continue. According to the conductor's telegram they had been detained for five hours,[6]:5 but according to other sources the conductor did not think it prudent to procede until sunrise, when it could more easily be verified that no damage had been done to the tracks or bridge, and that no one would shoot at them.[19]:317[22][23] The passengers were cold on the stopped train, with the engine shut down; at that time the temperature would have been around 5 °C, 41 °F.[24] They were allowed to get off and they "went into the hotel and remained there, in great alarm, for four or five hours."[25]:175

Brown later spoke of this incident as his "one mistake": "not detaining the train on Sunday night or else permitting it to go on unmolested".[26][27]

The train departed at dawn, and at about 7 AM arrived at the first station with a working telegraph,[28] Monocacy, near Frederick, Maryland, about 23 miles (37 km) east of Harpers Ferry. The conductor sent a telegram to W. P. Smith, Master of Transportation at B&O headquarters in Baltimore. Smith's reply to the conductor rejected his report as "exaggerated", but by 10:30 AM he had received confirmation from Martinsburg, Virginia, the next station west of Harpers Ferry. No westbound trains were arriving and three eastbound trains were backed up on the Virginia side of the bridge; because of the cut telegraph line the message had to take a long, roundabout route via the other end of the line in Wheeling, and from there back east via Pittsburgh, causing delay.[6]:7, 15 At that point Smith informed the railroad president, John W. Garrett, who sent telegrams to Major General George H. Steuart of the First Light Division, Maryland Volunteers, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, U.S. Secretary of War John B. Floyd, and U.S. President James Buchanan.[6]:5–9

At about this time Armory workers, arriving to change shifts, discovered Brown's party. Brown told John E.P. Daingerfield, Acting Paymaster at the Armory, after taking him hostage, that by noon he would have 1,500 armed men with him.[29]:266 Local residents surrounded the armory with what arms they could muster. During the day four townspeople were killed, including the mayor, who managed the Harpers Ferry station.

Expecting that three to five thousand slaves would soon join him,[30] Brown stayed too long in Harpers Ferry.[19]:311 By noon any chance of escape was gone, as his men had lost control of both bridges leading out of town, which because of the terrain—Harpers Ferry is on a narrow peninsula, almost an island[31]:xix—were the only escape routes.[19]:319 The other bridge, of which only the pillars remain, went east over the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry.

Realizing he could no longer escape, Brown took nine of his captives and moved into the small engine house of the Armory, which would be known later as John Brown's Fort. (The engines in question were fire engines.[32]) The raiders blocked entry of the windows and doors and traded sporadic gunfire with surrounding forces.

At around 3:00 PM a militia company, led by Captain E.G. Alburtis, arrived by train from Martinsburg. Most of the militia members were Baltimore & Ohio Railroad employees. They broke into the guardroom of the Armory and freed over two dozen hostages. Eight militiamen were wounded.

At one point Brown sent out his son Watson and Aaron Dwight Stevens with a white flag, but Watson was mortally wounded and Stevens was shot and captured. The raid was clearly failing. One of Brown's men, William H. Leeman, panicked and made an attempt to flee by swimming across the Potomac River, but he was shot and fatally injured while doing so. During the intermittent shooting, another son of Brown, Oliver, was also hit; he died, next to his father, after a brief period.[33] Brown's third son present escaped into Pennsylvania.

By 3:30 PM President Buchanan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, the only federal troops in the immediate area,[31] under the command of lieutenant colonel (with the honorific of Brevet Colonel[31]:xv) Robert E. Lee, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment, to "repair" to Harpers Ferry. Lee was at his home in Arlington, Virginia, on leave from his regiment in Texas, when he was hastily summoned to lead the detachment.[31][34]

Tuesday, October 18

A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house immediately before the door is broken down by U.S. Marines. Note hostages on the left.
A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house immediately before the door is broken down by U.S. Marines. Note hostages on the left.
John Brown inside the Engine House
John Brown inside the Engine House

The Marines arrived in Harpers Ferry by train in the early morning hours before dawn. Lee first offered the role of attacking the engine house to the local militia units on the spot. Both militia commanders declined, and Lee turned to the Marines. By daylight on the morning of October 18, Colonel Lee sent Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, serving as a volunteer aide-de-camp, under a white flag of truce to the front of the engine house to negotiate a surrender of John Brown and his followers. Colonel Lee informed Lt. Israel Greene that if Brown did not surrender, he was to direct the Marines in attacking the engine house. Stuart walked towards the front of the engine house where he told Brown that his men would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused and as Stuart walked away, he signaled a "thumbs down" to Lt. Greene and his men standing nearby.

Soon after, Greene led a detachment of Marines to attack the engine house with fixed bayonets. Marines equipped with sledgehammers tried to break through the door, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Greene found a wooden ladder nearby, and he and about ten Marines used it as a battering ram to force the front doors open. Greene was the first through the door and with the assistance of Lewis Washington, identified and singled out John Brown. Greene later recounted what events occurred next:

Quicker than thought I brought my saber down with all my strength upon [Brown's] head. He was moving as the blow fell, and I suppose I did not strike him where I intended, for he received a deep saber cut in the back of the neck. He fell senseless on his side, then rolled over on his back. He had in his hand a short Sharpe's cavalry carbine. I think he had just fired as I reached Colonel Washington, for the Marine who followed me into the aperture made by the ladder received a bullet in the abdomen, from which he died in a few minutes. The shot might have been fired by someone else in the insurgent party, but I think it was from Brown. Instinctively as Brown fell I gave him a saber thrust in the left breast. The sword I carried was a light uniform weapon, and, either not having a point or striking something hard in Brown's accouterments, did not penetrate. The blade bent double.[35]

The Marine assault on the engine house lasted three minutes. All of the raiders still alive were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The hostages were freed and the action was over. The Marines escorted Brown and the others still alive to the Jefferson County jail in Charles Town, "whose connection with the matter then ceased".[36]:8 but there are multiple reports on it. :7

Colonel Lee and Jeb Stuart searched the surrounding country for fugitives who had participated in the attack. Few of Brown's associates escaped, and among those who did, some were sheltered by abolitionists in the North, including William Still.[37]

Wednesday, October 19

Robert E. Lee made a synopsis of the events that took place at Harpers Ferry. According to Lee's notes, Lee believed John Brown was a madman: "the plan [raiding the Harpers Ferry Arsenal] was the attempt of a fanatic or madman". Lee also believed that the Blacks in the raid were forced by Brown. "The blacks, whom he [John Brown] forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance." Lee attributed John Brown's "temporary success" to the panic and confusion and to "magnifying" the number of participants involved in the raid.[38]

On Wednesday evening the prisoners were moved from Harpers Ferry to the Jefferson County jail in Charles Town.[25]:205

Interview by Governor Wise

Virginia Governor Wise, in command of a force of 60 men, traveled immediately from Richmond to Harpers Ferry, arriving Tuesday morning.[39] He expressed his "mortification at the disgrace that had been visited upon his state. ...That fourteen white men and five negroes should have captured the government works and all Harper's Ferry, and have found it possible to retain them for [even] one hour..."[40]

Wise visited and interviewed Brown at length in Harpers Ferry, while Brown was still lying on the ground at the engine house.[41] He was accompanied by Virginia Senator James M. Mason, who lived in nearby Winchester and would later chair the Select Senate committee investigating the raid.[42] At least two reporters were present. It was at this point that the public perception of Brown began to change, led by Governor Wise, who called Brown "the gamest man I ever saw".[43]

Franklin B. Sanborn, also present at the interview, remarked that: "Governor Wise was astonished at the answers he received from Brown."[44]:559 Back in Richmond, on Saturday, October 22, in a speech widely reported in the newspapers, Wise himself stated:

They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman. He is a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw, cut and thrust, bleeding and in bonds. He is a man of clear head, of courage, fortitude and simple ingenuousness. He is cool, collected and indomitable, and it is but just to him to say, that he was humane to his prisoners, as attested to me by Col. Washington and Mr. Mills; and he inspired me with great trust in his integrity, as a man of truth. He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, and truthful, and intelligent.[45][46][47]

Some of Brown's words to Wise that inspired the above comment:

Governor, I have from all appearances not more than fifteen or twenty years the start of you in the journey to that eternity of which you kindly warn me; and whether my time here shall be fifteen months or fifteen days or fifteen hours, I am equally prepared to go. There is an eternity behind and an eternity before; and this little speck in the centre, however long, is but comparatively a minute. The difference between your tenure and mine is trifling, and I therefore tell you to be prepared. I am prepared. You all have a heavy responsibility, and it behooves you to prepare more than it does me.[48]:15

Wise also reported the opinion of Lewis Washington, in a passage called "well known" in 1874: "Colonel Washington says that he, Brown, was the coolest and firmest man he ever saw in defying danger and death. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm, and to sell their lives as dearly as they could."[47][46]

On the 26th, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child sent Wise a letter to deliver to Brown, and asked to be permitted to nurse him.[49] Wise responded that she was free to go to Charles Town, that he had forwarded her letter there, but only the court could allow her access.[50][51]

Child's letter did reach Brown, who replied that he was recovering and did not need nursing. He suggested instead that she raise funds for the support of his wife and the wives and children of his dead sons.[48]:19–20 Child sold her piano to raise funds for Brown's family.[52]

Trial and execution

John Brown's last prophecy
John Brown wrote a final statement on December 2 of 1859.

Brown was taken to the courthouse in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and inciting a slave insurrection, and was hanged on December 2. (This execution was witnessed by the poet Walt Whitman and the actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.) At the hanging and en route to it, authorities prevented spectators from getting close enough to Brown to hear a final speech. His last words are on a scrap of paper given in response to a request for an autograph to his jailer Capt. John Avis, whose treatment Brown spoke well of in his letters:

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 very much bloodshed; it might be done.[3]:256

Four other raiders were executed on December 16 and two more on March 16, 1860.

In his last speech, at his sentencing, he said to the court:

[H]ad I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.[3]:212

Southerners had a mixed attitude towards their slaves. Many Southern whites lived in constant fear of another slave insurrection; almost paradoxically, whites claimed that slaves were content in bondage, blaming slave unrest on Northern abolitionists. After the raid Southerners initially lived in fear of slave uprisings and invasion by armed abolitionists. The South's reaction entered the second phase at around the time of Brown's execution. Southerners were relieved that no slaves had volunteered to help Brown, and felt vindicated in their claims that slaves were content. After Northerners had expressed admiration for Brown's motives, with some treating him as a martyr, Southern opinion evolved into what James M. McPherson called "unreasoning fury".[53]

The first Northern reaction among antislavery advocates to Brown's raid was one of baffled reproach. William Lloyd Garrison called the raid "misguided, wild, and apparently insane". But through the trial and his execution, Brown was transformed into a martyr. Henry David Thoreau, in A Plea for Captain John Brown, said, "I think that for once the Sharp's rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them", and said of Brown, "He has a spark of divinity in him."[54] Though "Harper's Ferry was insane", wrote the religious weekly the Independent, "the controlling motive of his demonstration was sublime". To the South, Brown was a murderer who wanted to deprive them of their property (slaves). The North "has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, and treason", said De Bow's Review.[19]:340[55]

Consequences of Brown's raid

When examining the events which led to the Civil War, Brown's raid is the last major event (see sidebar, above). It is frequently said that his well-publicized raid, a failure in the short term, contributed to Lincoln's election in 1860, and Jefferson Davis "cited the attack as grounds for Southerners to leave the Union, 'even if it rushes us into a sea of blood'".[3]:5 Seven Southern states seceded to form the Confederacy. The Civil War followed; Brown seemed to be calling for war in his last message before his execution: "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood".

However, as put by David Reynolds, "The raid on Harpers Ferry helped dislodge slavery, but not in the way Brown had foreseen. It did not ignite slave uprisings throughout the South. Instead, it had an immense impact because of the way Brown behaved during and after it, and the way it was perceived by key figures on both sides of the slavery divide. The raid did not cause the storm. John Brown and the reaction to him did."[19]:309


John Brown's raiders

None of those killed (10) or executed (7) is buried in Harpers Ferry, Charles Town, or anywhere else in Jefferson County. Governor Wise said he did not want those executed to be buried anywhere in Virginia, and none were.

‡ The bodies of the 4 so marked were taken to Winchester Medical College for dissection by medical students. This includes two who died during the raid (Anderson and Watson Brown), and two who were tried and executed (Green and Copeland); all but Watson were Black. Except for Watson, the location of their remains is unknown. Medical schools in the South routinely used bodies of the enslaved for this purpose, citing the availability of such bodies as an incentive to enroll.[56]:183–184

† marks the 12 buried in a single coffin on the John Brown Farm in North Elba, New York, according to a plaque in North Elba. This includes the remaining 8 of the 10 killed during the raid itself. Unwelcome in local cemeteries, they were thrown into two "store boxes", and a man was paid $5.00 to bury them, without ceremony, clergy, or marker, on the far side of the Shenandoah (in Loudoun County). Forty years later (1899), this unmarked burial was located, and the remains, which in most cases could not be matched to specific individuals, were taken to North Elba and buried in a single coffin.[57] With those 8, in the same coffin and ceremony, were the remains of Hazlitt and Stevens, who had been executed, and whose bodies had been buried at the Eagleswood Military Academy in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.[58] A relative of Stevens had them disinterred so they could be buried with the others.

¶ indicates an African American.

  • Killed (in Harpers Ferry, during the raid, October 17–18, 1859)
    • Body taken to Charles Town for dissection by medical students
      • ‡ Watson Brown, 24, John Brown's son, was mortally wounded outside the engine house while carrying a white flag to negotiate with the opposing militia; he died two days later. His body was taken by Winchester Medical College, skinned, and preserved as anatomical specimen. Buried in North Elba in 1882. See Burning of Winchester Medical College.
      • ‡¶ Jeremiah G. Anderson, 26, was killed by a Marine's bayonet during the final assault on the engine house. His body was claimed by Winchester Medical College,[57]:133 Last resting place unknown. In retaliation for its treatment of his body and those of three others listed below, especially Watson Brown, Union troops burned the Medical College in 1862; it never re-opened.[59]
    • First buried in an unmarked box near Harpers Ferry; re-interred in a common coffin in North Elba
      • John Henry Kagi was shot and killed while attrmpting to cross the Shenandoah River. One report says mistakenly that his body was taken for dissection.[57]:133
      • † William Thompson.
      • † Dauphin Thompson was killed in the storming of the engine house.
      • † Oliver Brown, 21, the youngest of John Brown's three sons to participate in the action. He was mortally wounded on the 17th inside the engine house and died the next day.
      • † Stewart Taylor, from Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada.
      • † William Leeman was shot while trying to escape across the Potomac River.
      • †¶Lewis Sheridan Leary, a 24-year-old free black, was mortally wounded while trying to escape across the Shenandoah River. He was stationed in the rifle factory with Kagi. There is a cenotaph memorial in Oberlin, Ohio.
      • †¶ Dangerfield Newby, about 35, was born into slavery, with a white father who was not his owner. He was given permission to move to Ohio along with his mother and siblings, but when he tried to gain freedom for his wife and children, their owner refused. This inspired Newby to join Brown's raid. He was the first raider killed. His body was mutilated: his ears and genitals were cut off as souvenirs.[31]:xxix
Plaque on cenotaph in cemetery in Oberlin, Ohio, commemorating Green, Copeland, and Leary
Plaque on cenotaph in cemetery in Oberlin, Ohio, commemorating Green, Copeland, and Leary
  • Captured (Tried, convicted, and executed by hanging in Charles Town: Brown on December 2, the others on December 16, 1859, and March 16, 1860)
    • Buried by relatives
      • John Brown. His widow took his body to North Elba, and buried him there.
      • Edwin Coppock 24, shot and killed the mayor of Harpers Ferry, Fontaine Beckham, during the raid. He was later executed at Charles Town on December 16, 1859. A newspaper report says that his body was sent to his mother in Springdale, Iowa.[60], but reports that he was buried in Salem, Ohio, where there is a plaque on a commemorative pillar.[61]
      • John Edwin Cook escaped into Pennsylvania but was soon captured. Hanged December 16, 1859 in Charles Town. Two of his sisters were present.[60] Body sent to an undisclosed location in New York.
    • Body taken to Winchester Medical College for dissection by students
      • ‡¶ John Anthony Copeland, Jr., a 25-year-old free black, joined the raiders along with his uncle Lewis Leary. He was captured during the raid and executed on December 16, 1859, in Charles Town. The body was claimed by Winchester Medical College as a teaching cadaver. The last resting place is unknown. Cenotaph memorial in Oberlin, Ohio.
      • ‡¶ Shields Green, mid-30s, was an escaped slave from South Carolina. He was captured in the engine house on October 18, 1859 and hanged December 16, 1859 in Charles Town. The body was claimed by Winchester Medical College as a teaching cadaver. The last resting place is unknown. Cenotaph memorial in Oberlin, Ohio.
    • Buried at Eagleswood Military Academy, then reinterred with the others in North Elba[58]
      • † Albert E. Hazlett escaped into Pennsylvania but was soon captured. Executed March 16, 1860.
      • Aaron Dwight Stevens, 29, shot and captured October 18. Executed March 16, 1860"
  • Escaped and never captured

Other casualties, civilian and military

  • Killed
    • Heyward Shepherd, a free African-American B&O baggage master. He was buried in African-American cemetery on Rt. 11 in Winchester, Virginia; the grave is unmarked).[63]
    • Private Luke Quinn, U.S. Marines, was killed during the storming of the engine house. He was buried in Harpers Ferry Catholic Cemetery on Rte. 340.
    • Thomas Boerly, townsperson.
    • George W. Turner, townsperson.
    • Fontaine Beckham, Harpers Ferry mayor, B&O stationmaster. Mayor Beckham's Will Book called for the liberation of Isaac Gilbert, his wife, and their three children upon his death. When Edwin Coppock killed Beckham the five slaves were freed.[14]:296
    • ¶ A enslaved man belonging to Colonel Washington was killed.
    • ¶ A enslaved man belonging to hostage John Allstad was killed. Some claim that both men voluntarily joined Brown's raiders, others say Brown forced them to fight. Regardless, one was killed trying to escape across the Potomac River; the other was wounded and later died in the Charles Town jail.
  • Wounded but survived
    • Private Matthew Ruppert, U. S. Marines, was shot in the face during the storming of the engine house.
    • Edward McCabe, Harpers Ferry laborer.
    • Samuel Young, Charles Town militia.
    • Martinsburg, Virginia, militia:
      • George Murphy
      • George Richardson
      • G. N. Hammond
      • Evan Dorsey
      • Nelson Hooper
      • George Woollett[3]:292

Gallery (alphabetical)


National Historical Park

In 1944, Harpers Ferry and some surrounding areas were designated as a National Monument. Congress later designated it as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in 1963. It is managed by the National Park Service. The park includes the historic town of Harpers Ferry, notable as a center of 19th-century industry and as the scene of the uprising.

Conflicting interpretations

In his day, Brown was seen by abolitionists as admirable in principles, though misguided and ultimately unsuccessful. For the Southern slave states he was a traitor and a threat to the nation.[citation needed]

Even after 160 years there is no consensus on how he is to be seen.[citation needed] The National Park Service plays down Brown and the raid in its literature concerning the Historical Park; Brown is not even mentioned on the home page of the Park. The conflicts over meaning of the events are particularly clear with regard to the Heyward Shepherd monument.[original research?]

Doubt has been raised as to whether Brown believed his implausible, undermanned attack could succeed, or whether he knew it was doomed yet wanted the publicity it would generate for the abolitionist cause. Certainly he "fail[ed] to take the steps necessary"[3]:239 to make it succeed: he never called on nearby slaves to join the uprising, for example.[3]:236 According to Garrison, "His raid into Virginia looks utterly lacking in common sense—a desperate self-sacrifice for the purpose of giving an earthquake shock to the slave system, and thus hastening the day for a universal catastrophe."[3]:234 Brown's Provisional Constitution, of which he had thousands of copies printed, "was not just a governing document. It was a scare tactic".[3]:238

As Brown wrote in 1851: "The trial for life of one bold and to some extent successful man, for defending his rights in good earnest, would arouse more sympathy throughout the nation than the accumulated wrongs and suffering of more than three millions of our submissive colored population."[3]:240 According to his son Salmon, fifty years later: "He wanted to bring on the war. I have heard him talk of it many times."[3]:238 Certainly Brown saw to it that his arrest, trial, and execution received as much publicity as possible. He "ask[ed] that the incendiary constitution he carried with him be read aloud."[3]:240 "He seemed very fond of talking."[3]:240 Authorities deliberately prevented spectators from being close enough to Brown to hear him speak during his short trip to the gallows, but he did give what became his famous final message to a jailer who had asked for his autograph.[3]:256

See also



  1. ^ a b "John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry". Archived from the original on April 1, 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  2. ^ In many books the town is called "Harper's Ferry." For example, "Col. Robert E. Lee's Report Concerning the Attack at Harper's Ferry, October 19, 1859,"; Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860–64. Volume: 1. (1866), p. 279; French Ensor Chadwick, Causes of the Civil War, 1859–1861 (1906) p. 74; Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (1950) vol 2 ch 3; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), p. 201; Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (2003) p. 116.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Horwitz, Tony (2011). Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-0805091533.
  4. ^ Hoffman, Colonel Jon T., USMC: A Complete History, Marine Corps Association, Quantico, Virginia, (2002), p. 84.
  5. ^ Taylor, Marian (2004). Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist (New ed.). Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-0-7910-8340-6.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Correspondence relating to the Insurrection at Harper's Ferry, 17th October, 1859. Annapolis: Senate of Maryland. 1860.
  7. ^ "The Kennedy Farmhouse" Archived August 22, 2020, at the Wayback Machine, John Brown website
  8. ^ "News, &c". Oswego Daily Palladium, Oswego, New York. December 5, 1859. p. 6.
  9. ^ "The Harpers Ferry Raid". Archived from the original on January 9, 2017. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
  10. ^ James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2003) p. 205
  11. ^ National Park Service History Series. John Brown's Raid (2009), pp. 22–30.
  12. ^ Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prelude to Civil War, 1859–1861 (1950), vol. 4, pp. 72–73
  13. ^ National Park Service History Series. John Brown's Raid (2009), p. 16
  14. ^ a b c d Oates, Stephen B. (1984). To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (2nd ed.). Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0870234587. Archived from the original on August 4, 2020. Retrieved November 14, 2018.
  15. ^ National Park Service. John Brown's Raid (2009), p. 16
  16. ^ Ted McGee (April 5, 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Nomination: Beall-Air" (PDF). National Park Service. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 3, 2013. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. ^ Frances D. Ruth (July 1984). "National Register of Historic Places Nomination: Allstadt House and Ordinary" (PDF). National Park Service. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 4, 2011. Retrieved March 16, 2009. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ Horton, James Oliver; Lois E. Horton (2006). Slavery and the Making of America. Oxford University Press USA. p. 162. ISBN 978-0195304510. Archived from the original on August 4, 2020. Retrieved November 26, 2015.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Reynolds, David S. (2005). John Brown, Abolitionist. The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Vintage Books. ISBN 0375726152.
  20. ^ "Commander of the insurrectionists". Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia). October 20, 1859. p. 1. Archived from the original on August 29, 2020. Retrieved August 27, 2020 – via
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  22. ^ "Fearful and exciting intelligence". New York Herald. October 18, 1859. p. 3. Archived from the original on August 29, 2020. Retrieved August 18, 2020.
  23. ^ "The Inserrection at Harpers Ferry". Alexandria Gazette. October 19, 1859. p. 2. Archived from the original on August 29, 2020. Retrieved August 18, 2020 – via
  24. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 8, 2015. Retrieved August 26, 2020.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  33. ^ Greeley, Horace (1864). The American Conflict: A History: Part One. p. 292. ISBN 978-1417908288.
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  64. ^ Both Coppack photos from A topical history of Cedar County, Iowa, Volume 1 (1910) Clarence Ray Aurner, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company

Further reading

External links

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