Harper’s Ferry and the Prelude to the Civil War
Before John Brown was hanged on December 2nd, 1859, for leading a raid on Harper’s Ferry to arm West Virginia slaves to kill their masters and take their freedom by force, his last written words foreshadowed the Civil War soon to come.
“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.” — John Brown
As a militant abolitionist, John Brown was a radical, but he had a deep conviction against slavery. His attack on Harper’s Ferry wasn’t his first time taking up arms to fight for his beliefs.
In 1856, John Brown was summoned to the Kansas Territory by a couple of his sons who had settled their families there. They knew imminent violence was ahead and called on their father to help defend anti-slavery settlers from pro-slavery militias.
John Brown hurried to help but was too late to save the town of Lawrence, which was attacked and looted just before he arrived. To avenge Lawrence, John Brown murdered five pro-slavery men on the banks of Pottawatomie Creek. It became known as the Pottawatomie massacre and kicked off years of bloodshed in Kansas’ journey to statehood as a non-slave state.
John Brown’s allies denied his role in the massacre and went as far as to deny he was there. Therefore, he got away with his actions and was further emboldened. He continued to fight bravely for Kansas and became a hero to northern abolitionists.
John Brown’s Raid
By the summer of 1859, John Brown had fleshed out a new plan to push back against slavery violently. His target was the armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. John Brown rented a nearby farmhouse five miles from Harper’s Ferry and spent the summer with his twenty-one men planning the raid.
The group included three of John Brown’s sons, three free black men, and a current and fugitive slave. Their goal was simple, emancipation for all slaves.
Harper’s Ferry is a small town on a steep mountainside. The Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers border it. So from almost anywhere in the city, you can simultaneously look across the rivers to see Maryland and Virginia while standing in West Virginia.
But the beautiful landscape turned into a warzone for three days. The raid began on October 16, 1859. It was a surprise attack on a Sunday night and started according to plan.
John Brown’sHarper’s men took control of both bridges, the armory, and other essential buildings. They began to take hostages as well. Then, when a train came through the town, they killed a black employee, the first bloodshed of the raid, but later let the train on its way.
By daybreak on the 17th, news begins to spread of the raid. Townspeople start firing on the raiders, and they return fire, killing a grocery store owner.
By 10:00 am, the raiders, apart from a few in the rear guard across in Maryland, are surrounded by militia on all sides. The first of the raiders is killed. Already outnumbered and outgunned, John Brown made two attempts at peace. Both attempts were denied, two men were captured, and his son was mortally wounded holding the white flag. A raider was killed trying to flee, and a stray bullet from the raiders struck and killed the mayor of Harper’s Ferry.
The militias gained the upper hand over the raiders as fighting wore on. First, surviving raiders, including John Brown, were forced into the engine house, taking a few hostages. Then, as darkness fell, the rear guard in Maryland, including John Brown’s eldest son participating in the raid, fled, recognizing the raid’s futility.
At 11:00 pm, the U.S. Marines, commanded by Robert E. Lee, arrived by train. However, they decided not to rush in, fearing the hostages would be killed.
Early in the morning, John Brown’s son succumbs to his wounds. It was his second son to die during the raid. Before his death, John Brown said to him.
“If you die, you die in a good cause, fighting for liberty. If you must die, die like a man.”
As the sun rose, Lee and his men prepared to storm the engine room to end the raid once and for all. At around 7:00 am, a group of Marines breached the engine room. They overpowered John Brown and his men, killing and capturing some. John Brown was wounded in the process but ultimately captured. The hostages were saved, but the raiders took one more person to the grave in their fight for emancipation.
All in all, twenty-two people lost their lives due to the raid. Ten of Brown’s men were killed during the attack, and five were captured. Two men who escaped were later arrested, bringing the total to seven. All were tried, convicted, and hanged. In addition, the raiders killed five people and injured others.
Walking through Harper’s Ferry gives you a sense of history. Memorials to the raid and historical structures mark the town, but more so, the landscape of the rivers and mountains make you feel like you are hundreds of years in the past.
John Brown’s Raid shows what the U.S. was like in the lead-up to the Civil War. Then, the issue of slavery brought both abolitionists and pro-slavery people to violence and bloodshed.
There are two distinct sides to the story. On the one hand, John Brown and his men were unhinged criminals. But, on the other hand, they were men of deep conviction and willing to give their lives for their beliefs. Their goal of emancipation for all in slavery was noble, but their violent methods were not.
What are your thoughts on John Brown’s actions and their impact on American history?