October 16, 1859 — John Brown’s Raid On Harpers Ferry Begins

Early on Sunday, October 16, 1859, the ardent abolitionist John Brown assembled his small army of 18 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. Brown had a long history of fighting to end slavery in America, but it was a violent history, that was fueled by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and events that took place in Kansas in 1856. Those events included the Pottawatomi Massacre, where Brown and his followers raided the homes of three families — believed to be supporters of slavery — and brutally killed the unarmed men and boys.

Brown Makes Plans to Capture the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry

Afterward, Brown devised a plan to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and then lead an armed slave insurrection in Virginia. He spent time in 1857 and 1858 meeting with influential abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas, looking for money to fund his plan. In January 1858, he found the support he needed from 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.”

John Brown's Fort, Harpers Ferry
This 1880s photograph shows the fire engine house used by John Brown in his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, painted with “John Brown’s Fort” to attract tourists. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Firefight at 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 18 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.

Essential Facts About John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

  • Brown’s group was made up of 22 men – three free blacks, one freed slave, one fugitive slave, and sixteen whites, including himself and his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson.
  • When news of John Brown’s Raid reached Washington DC, federal officials responded quickly, deploying roughly ninety marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, to diffuse the situation.
  • Of the twenty-two men involved in John Brown’s Raid, ten were killed, including Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver.
  • John Brown and four of his raiders were captured at the arsenal.
  • Seven of John Brown’s raiders escaped, but two of them were later apprehended and returned to Virginia to stand trial. The remaining five, including Brown’s son Owen, eluded authorities and were never captured.
  • Of the seven of John Brown’s raiders who were eventually captured, all stood trial in Virginia and were sentenced to death.
  • The ten raiders killed or mortally wounded during John Brown’s Raid included Jeremiah Anderson, Oliver Brown, Watson Brown, John Henry Kagi, Lewis Leary, William Leeman, Dangerfield Newby, Stewart Taylor, Dauphin Thompson, and William Thompson.
  • John Brown’s raiders killed six civilians and one U.S. marine during the raid on Harpers Ferry.

What Happened After John Brown’s Raid?

  • The seven raiders eventually captured and executed following John Brown’s Raid included John Brown, John E. Cook, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Shields Green, Edwin Coppoc, Albert Hazlett, and Aaron Stephens.
  • The five raiders who eluded capture after John Brown’s Raid included Osbourne Perry Anderson, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, Francis Jackson Meriam, and Charles Plummer Tidd.

John Brown’s Trial and Sentence

  • Following Brown’s capture, Virginia authorities took him to nearby Charles Town to stand trial.
  • On October 26, 1859, a grand jury indicted John Brown and his co-conspirators on three counts: conspiring with Negroes to produce insurrection, treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and murder.
  • On Monday, October 30, 1859, John Brown’s jury deliberated only forty-five minutes before finding him guilty on all counts.
  • On Wednesday, November 2, 1859, Circuit Judge Richard Parker sentenced John Brown to be publicly hanged on December 2, 1859.
  • John Brown was hanged for his raid on Harpers Ferry at roughly 11 a.m. on December 2, 1859.
John Brown, Kissing Baby, Illustration
John Brown is led from jail on the way to his execution. He stops on the steps to kiss an African American infant. A delegation of sheriff and deputies follow him and the way is lined with soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets. Image Source: Library of Congress.

How Did John Brown’s Raid Help Cause the Civil War?

  • The raid on Harpers Ferry placed a spotlight on slavery that polarized the nation.
  • Following his raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown became a martyr in the North when luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau extolled his sacrifices for the abolitionist cause.
  • Following John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, many Southerners demonized Brown and rejoiced in his execution.
  • John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry intensified the dispute over slavery in the United States and hastened the nation toward civil war.

Overview of the Raid on Harpers Ferry

Learn More About the Abolition Movement on American History Central