On October 16, 1859, militant abolitionist John Brown led an ill-fated assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, that intensified the sectional dispute over slavery and hastened the nation toward civil war.
Early on Sunday, October 16, 1859, the ardent abolitionist John Brown assembled his small army of eighteen recruits for prayers and to deliver marching orders. That evening, Brown launched his grandiose plan to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and subsequently incite a slave insurrection in Virginia.
No Stranger to Violence
Brown was no stranger to violence. When a group of pro-slavery marauders sacked and looted the staunchly anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas on May 21, 1856, Brown led his four sons and two accomplices on a mission of revenge. On the night of May 24, Brown and his followers raided the homes of three families living near Pottawatomie Creek. They dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery supporters, from their homes and brutally hacked them to death. Brown’s leadership and participation in the Potawatomi Massacre aroused personal commendation from abolitionists and condemnation from slaveholders.
Search for Funding
Buoyed by his “success” in Kansas, Brown spent the next year-and-a-half planning bigger achievements in his personal crusade against slavery. In January 1857, he traveled east in where militant abolitionists received him as a celebrity. In Massachusetts, Brown met with financiers to support what were still ambiguous plans to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and then lead an armed slave insurrection in Virginia. By March, Brown had raised enough funds to bankroll the production of 1,000 pikes for mutinous slaves to use during the impending rebellion. Brown spent the late summer and early autumn of 1857 in Iowa and Kansas trying to recruit volunteers for his grand assault on slavery.
In January 1858, Brown visited Frederick Douglass at his home in Rochester, New York. He stayed with Douglass for several weeks unsuccessfully trying to convince Douglass to support his mission, which Douglass described as suicidal. Unable to secure Douglass’ endorsement, Brown returned to Massachusetts where he shared his plans with the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Sanborn, and George Stearns. Those five men, plus Gerrit Smith, made up Brown’s primary financial backers, known as the “Secret Six.”
The Chatham Convention
In May 1858, Brown was in Chatham, Ontario, a settlement for freed slaves escaping the United States via the Underground Railroad. On May 8, twelve whites and thirty-four blacks approved a constitution for the republic Brown planned to establish after the successful conclusion of his planned slave rebellion. The delegates to the Chatham Convention also elected Brown as commander-in-chief of the republic’s armed forces.
By December 1858, Brown was back in Kansas recruiting volunteers. On December 20, Brown again made headlines when he led a group of twenty men across the border into Missouri on a raid the liberated eleven slaves and resulted in the death of one slaveholder. Upon returning to Kansas, Brown led the rescued slaves on a grueling winter trek across Nebraska and Iowa before boarding a train that eventually led them to freedom in Canada.
Recruiting an Army
Although authorities wanted Brown for his actions in Missouri, he brazenly returned to the United States in early 1859 delivering anti-slavery speeches and recruiting for his army. In June, Brown visited his home in North Elba for the last time. On July 3, 1859, Brown traveled to Harpers Ferry with two of his sons (Oliver and Owen) to begin a reconnaissance on the federal arsenal. Using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, Brown rented a farm in Maryland near the facility large enough to quarter the projected army as it trained for the impending assault. By mid-October, Brown’s army comprised just twenty-one recruits—three free blacks, one freed slave, one fugitive slave, and sixteen whites, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson.
Raid on Harpers Ferry
By October 16, 1859, Brown was ready to bring years of planning to fruition. Leaving behind three men (including his son Owen) to guard supplies and ammunition, Brown began his short trek toward Harpers Ferry with his remaining eighteen recruits at 8 pm. Meeting little resistance, they easily occupied the U. S. Armory and Arsenal and the U. S. Rifle Works on Hall’s Island by 10:30.
At 1:25 the next morning, Brown’s men stopped a Baltimore & Ohio passenger train at the bridge leading into town. During an encounter on the tracks, Heyward Shepherd, a free black railroad employee who was investigating the delay, became the first victim of the invasion when Brown’s men shot and killed him.
When the arsenal’s employees began reporting to work in the morning, the raiders began taking hostages. Now aware that their town was under siege, residents began exchanging gunfire with Brown’s men. At about 7 a.m., the raiders killed a resident of the town during the shooting. Alerted by the gunfire, the local militia mobilized and surrounded the town by 10 a.m., cutting off any escape routes. At about that time, a militiaman shot and killed Dangerfield Newby, making him the first raider to die during the attack.
Death Toll Rises
Brown had expected that when news of his raid reached neighboring plantations, local slaves would abandon their masters and flock to his aid. When the hoped-for reinforcements did not materialize, Brown realized the gravity of his situation. He sent William Thompson out under a white flag to request a truce, but in no mood to negotiate, the militia took Thompson prisoner. At about noon, Brown sent out two more of his cohorts, Watson Brown and Aaron Stevens, under a second white flag. Ignoring the traditional symbol of surrender, the militia shot and killed both men. An hour later, the locals killed William Leeman as he attempted to escape across the Potomac River, raising the conspirators’ death toll to four.
At roughly 2 p.m., the townspeople stormed the U.S. Rifle Works, killing three more raiders and taking one prisoner. Near the same time, one of Brown’s men shot and killed the town’s mayor, Fontaine Beckham, as he moved, unarmed, within firing range of the armory. Enraged by Beckham’s death, the locals retaliated by murdering William Thompson and then using his body for target practice after tossing it into the Potomac River. About an hour later the militiamen stormed the armory, freeing most of the hostages and forcing Brown’s men to withdraw to the fire engine house. When darkness fell, militiamen killed one more raider as he tried to escape, and seven more, including those left behind in Maryland, melted into the surrounding hills.
News of the raid reached Washington DC when the B&O train Brown had detained earlier reached the capital. Federal officials responded quickly, deploying roughly ninety marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee to diffuse the situation. Lee arrived at Harpers Ferry at about 11 p.m. that night and positioned his troops. When the raiders refused to surrender to Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart the next morning, the marines stormed the engine house at roughly 7 a.m. During the ensuing melee, the marines killed two more raiders and captured five others, including Brown. No hostages were harmed, but one marine was killed and another was injured.
Brought to an end on October 18, 1859, Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry lasted less than two days. In retrospect, Frederick Douglass was correct—it was a suicidal mission. Of the twenty-two men involved in the conspiracy, ten died, including Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver. Federal forces captured Brown and four of his accomplices at the arsenal. Seven others escaped, but authorities later apprehended two of them and returned them to Virginia to stand trial. The remaining five, including Brown’s son Owen, eluded capture. Of the seven men captured, all stood trial in Virginia and received death sentences.
Killed or Mortally Wounded
- Jeremiah Anderson
- Oliver Brown
- Watson Brown
- John Henry Kagi
- Lewis Leary
- William Leeman
- Dangerﬁeld Newby
- Stewart Taylor
- Dauphin Thompson
- William Thompson
Captured and Executed
- John Brown
- John E. Cook
- John Anthony Copeland, Jr.
- Shields Green
- Edwin Coppoc
- Albert Hazlett
- Aaron Stephens
- Osbourne Perry Anderson
- Owen Brown
- Barclay Coppoc
- Francis Jackson Meriam
- Charles Plummer Tidd
John Brown’s Trial
Following Brown’s capture, Virginia authorities took him to nearby Charles Town to stand trial. On October 25, 1859, a grand jury began considering the charges against Brown. The next day, jailers brought Brown to the courthouse on a cot because he could not walk because of injuries he sustained during his capture. Lying on a mattress on the courtroom floor, Brown listened as the grand jury indicted him and his co-conspirators on three counts: conspiring with Negroes to produce an insurrection, treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and murder. Upon hearing the charges against him, Brown protested that “If you seek my blood, you can have it any moment, without this mockery of a trial.” Ignoring Brown’s objections, Circuit Judge Richard Parker announced that the trial would begin that afternoon.
Nearly 600 spectators crowded the courtroom when the trial began at 2 p.m. on October 26, 1859. For the next three-and-one-half days, the court heard testimony from prosecution and defense witnesses. On Monday, October 30, the state’s prosecutor, Andrew Hunter, and Brown’s lead defense attorney, Hiram Griswold, presented closing arguments. The jury deliberated only forty-five minutes before delivering verdicts of guilty on all counts. Judge Parker ordered a recess of one day before sentencing.
On Wednesday, November 2, 1859, Brown faced Judge Parker for sentencing. When asked whether he had anything to say before the judge pronounced his sentence, Brown delivered a brief statement to the court. During his remarks, Brown stated:
if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood farther with the blood of my children and the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.
Unmoved by Brown’s commentary, Judge Parker sentenced Brown to be hanged publicly on December 2, 1859.
On December 1, Brown’s wife visited him and the couple said their final farewells. At about 11 a.m. the next day, guards led Brown from his prison cell, placed him in a wagon and escorted him through a throng of roughly 2,000 people to the gallows. Fearing that abolitionists might make a last-minute attempt to rescue Brown, Virginia officials surrounded the gallows by cadets from the Virginia Military Academy. Authorities allowed very few members of the public to get close enough to the gallows to witness the execution.
One person who did witness the hanging was VMI professor Thomas J. Jackson who would earn the name “Stonewall” at the First Battle of Bull Run two years later. According to Jackson’s eyewitness account, Brown ascended the gallows with his hands tied and bravely offered his neck to the executioner. After about a ten-minute delay, hangman sprung the trap door and Brown fell roughly twenty-five inches, the fall snapping his neck. Jackson noted,
With the fall his arms below the elbow flew up, hands clenched, & his arms gradually fell by spasmodic motions—there was very little motion of his person for several minutes, after which the wind blew his lifeless body to & fro.
Brown died at about 11:30 a.m. on December 2, 1859. According to a New York Times reporter, Brown’s body swung for about half an hour before being removed from the gallows.
Following his execution, Virginia authorities shipped Brown’s body to Harpers Ferry, where they turned it over to his wife. Mrs. Brown returned to the family home at North Elba with her husband’s remains. Following a funeral on December 8, family members buried Brown on the family farm.
Immediately prior to his hanging, while standing on the gallows, Brown handed one of his jailers a prophetic note. It read,
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had . . .vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.
Brown was correct. Within two years, the nation was engaged in a civil war that rendered as many as 750,000 casualties.
John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry played no small role in the genesis of the American Civil War. His trial and execution cast a spotlight on slavery that polarized the nation. In the North, Brown became a martyr when luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau extolled his sacrifices for the abolitionist cause. Meanwhile, many Southerners demonized Brown and rejoiced in his execution. Brown became the face of the growing discord that divided two distinctly different cultures and economies. His actions and their subsequent consequences intensified the dispute over slavery and hastened the nation toward the carnage that Brown envisioned as he stood on the gallows.