The John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry

The John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry

John Brown in 1859
US Civil War

John Brown’s raid has been the subject of great controversy over the years.  The object to start a slave liberation movement that would spread throughout the south. He believed that a raid on  the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry would provide both publicity to abolitionism and weapons to initiate a slave revolt. The raid was terminated after just 36 hours, but the implications of inciting violence and the reactions of people in both sections became a major cause of the Civil War. Historically, he has been portrayed in conflicting ways, including as a hero, a martyr, a visionary, a terrorist and a maniac.

The Background

John Brown became an avowed abolitionist in the late 1840s. His career in terrorism to support his beliefs began in “Bleeding Kansas”, where he was an active participant. He was involved in a violent action at Palmyra. On May 21, 1856, the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas became the target of violence led by a proslavery force. Brown personally sought revenge, and on May 25, Brown and his sons attacked three cabins along Pottawatomie Creek. They killed five men, starting a summer of guerrilla warfare in the deeply divided Kansas territory. 

The Planning

Brown knew that the southern planters’ nightmare was a slave insurrection, based on the 1791 Haitian slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture. Brown went to New England in late 1856 with a  vision of initiating an uprising of southern enslaved people. He raised funds for the plot from a number of contributors, including six prominent abolitionists, known as the “Secret Six,” as will be described later. He met with a number of dignitaries including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Harriet Tubman assisted him in recruitment efforts. He assembled a group of 22 men, including five Black men and three of Brown’s sons. The group relocated to a farm near Harpers Ferry and prepared for the assault.

The Raid

Title: The Harper’s Ferry insurrection

Brown and his supporters approached Harper’s Ferry town early on October 17th. They cut telegraph lines and then seized the US Armory and Arsenal, capturing several watchmen, with little resistance. The first victim was Hayward Shepherd, an African-American railroad baggage handler named, who was shot and killed. Brown then sent a patrol out into the country to contact slaves, and collected several hostages. Brown expected the local slave population to join the raid, but they were convinced the plot would fail and did not join. 

To be successful, Brown needed to seize the weapons in the armory and escape before word spread. Harpers Ferry is a peninsula with only one way out, over a bridge. The plot began to unravel when Brown held an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train, then released it. When it reached Baltimore at noon the next day, the conductor sent a message to B&O headquarters, who informed Governor Wise of Virginia and President Buchanan.

Meanwhile, the local townsmen and militia surrounded the arsenal. Exchanging gunfire,  Brown took refuge in its engine house. In the fighting, three townspeople were killed. The escape route over the bridge was blocked by militia. One of the raiders tried to escape by swimming across the Potomac River, but was killed.

Word of the raid spread. On the morning of October 18th, a company of US Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee and 1st Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart arrived and surrounded the armory. Under a white flag, Stuart offered to accept their surrender and spare their lives, but Brown refused. At Stuart’s pre-arranged signal – waving his hat — the Marines stormed the engine house, capturing Brown in about 3 minutes. 

Ten men in the raiding party were killed, including two of Brown’s sons.  Brown was wounded in the fight. Seven escaped; two were later captured, but 5, including one of Brown’s sons, were never apprehended. Two of the hostages’ slaves were killed The seven men captured along with Brown were turned over to Virginia authorities to be tried for treason. In the raiding party, 5 marines were killed and 9 wounded.

It is an interesting coincidence of history that Colonel Lee and Lieutenant Stuart commanded the detachment of Marines sent to Harper’s Ferry. How that came about is an interesting story.  On leave that morning was Lieutenant Stuart, a cavalry officer waiting to see Secretary of War John Floyd. Instead, Floyd sent Stuart to Arlington to deliver peremptory orders for Lee to take command. Lee was coincidentally at Arlington, on leave.

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.

That two army officers were placed in charge of a contingent of Marines (Navy Department) is also notable. No army soldiers were available that morning so President Buchanan authorized his Navy Secretary, Isaac Toucey, to find men at the Washington Navy Yard. Lt. Israel Greene, Major William Russell and 86 marines were sent.  Greene was the man who hit Brown over the head with his sword, giving him a saber cut in the neck. Despite the wound, Brown shot a marine behind Greene.; Greene then stabbed Brown in the chest.

The Trial

John Brown and his men were held under Virginia auspices.  He was charged with murder of 4 whites and 1 black, treason and conspiring with the enslaved to incite an insurrection. Governor Wise wanted the trial to be in Virginia and President Buchanan assented because murder and slave insurrection were not federal crimes, and because any federal action would cause abolitionist protests.

The trial was a sensation, as Brown stood trial still suffering from his wounds. His defense was that since he was not citizen of Virginia, he could not be found guilty of treason against that state, that he had not killed anyone himself, and that the failure of the raid proved he had not conspired with slaves. Nevertheless, Brown was found guilty.  He was sentenced to death, to be carried out 30 days later. During that time, he gave numerous interviews to reporters, and his responses to many letters were published in newspapers to wide acclaim. He predicted that violence was the only way slavery would come to an end. He proved to be an astute observer of his times, knowing that his public execution would not be popular in the north and thus be a powerful argument against slavery.  His last words were: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Four of the imprisoned conspirators were hanged on December 16, 1859 and two others on March 16, 1860.


John Brown’s Fort, drawing published in 1883. Note the hill.

The US Senate opened a bipartisan investigation to determine who contributed to the scheme. Democrats suggested the Republicans were responsible, while the Republicans denied any responsibility. Senator James Mason from Virginia convened the committee to investigate Brown’s financial backers.

John Brown needed money for his raid on the federal armory. He obtained it from six abolitionists in the northeast. When Brown was captured, a carpet bag filled with documents was recovered, and among these were letters that demonstrated who his benefactors had been. Obviously, this was prima facie evidence of conspiracy and perhaps treason. All had been involved with the Underground Railroad and all believed the Fugitive Slave Law was morally reprehensible. 

The “Secret Six” was composed of: 

Gerrit Smith:  A strong financial backer of the  abolition movement from a wealthy family in upstate New York.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson: A minister and author. He eventually commanded a regiment of Black troops in the war. He wrote a memoir of his experiences after the war.

Theodore Parker: A minister and reformist. Educated at Harvard and affiliated with the Transcendentalist movement.

Samuel Gridley Howe: A physician who advocated for the blind. A strong supporter of  abolitionism. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, was a poet who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn: A Harvard graduate, connected to the Transcendentalist movement. 

George Luther Stearns:  A manufacturer and wealthy businessman who was a strong abolitionist supporter.

Three of these men (Sanborn, Howe, and Stearns) fled to Canada temporarily. Parker was already in Europe and remained there. Gerrit Smith, claiming a nervous breakdown, admitted himself to a sanitarium in New York State. Higginson remained in Boston, defying arrest. Howe and Stearns testified that they had met Brown but denied being involved or that they fully comprehended what his plans were. Probably, several of these men had been involved in Brown’s Kansas activities.  None of the Secret Six were ever formally charged. The matter was dropped with secession. 

Lieutenant Greene resigned when Virginia seceded and spent the war in Richmond as captain and later major, and adjutant of the Confederate Marine Corps. After the war, he worked in South Dakota as a pioneer, civil engineer and surveyor.

Lee went on to command the Army of Northern Virginia with Stuart his chief of cavalry.

Political Implications

Artist Jacob Lawrence’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.

Despite the failure of the raid, the political consequences were as impactful as Brown had hoped. In the North, his raid was praised by abolitionists. Although recognizing it was the act of a lunatic, some northerners expressed admiration for his passion and courage. Church bells pealed on the day of his execution and songs and paintings created in his honor. Nevertheless, most northern newspapers denounced the raid and condemned violence. The Republican Party adopted a specific plank condemning John Brown and his raid. 

But Southerners were stunned at the northern response.  They were outraged that anyone would be supportive of a fanatic who threatened their lives. Southern slaveowners feared other initiatives to attempt to lead slave rebellions would be supported by abolitionists. Senator Jefferson Davis expressed concern that there were potentially “thousands of John Browns”.  In response, the South upgraded their militia system, which in 1861 became a fully trained Confederate army.

1862 photograph of the Harpers Ferry arsenal; the “engine house”, later called “John Brown’s Fort”, is on the left.

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein


  • Potter David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976).

The John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry

US Civil War