The Raid on Harpers Ferry

Depiction of the Raid on Harpers Ferry.

For the bulk of the early 19th Century, slaveholders in the South had a deep fear that a slave revolt would erupt and metastasize, leading to an eradication of the institution, similar to what happened in Haiti in the first years of the 19th Century. In 1859, John Brown, one of the instigators in Bleeding Kansas, would attempt to lead such a revolt, starting at a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The immediate effects of his raid would pale in comparison to its impact over the course of the following two years.

John Brown in 1859.

Brown was a man that thoroughly despised slavery, particularly as a moral, religious matter, and he funneled much of his life’s energy toward abolishing it. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 356. He had a checkered past, occasionally engaging in fraudulent activity, which led to him being personally sued at least 21 times, typically for “defaulting on financial obligations.” Id. at 356-57 citing Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown (New York, 1970), 35-39, 44-45, 48-49, 76. Regardless, by the mid-1850s, he had become dedicated to leading a military operation against slavery wherever possible. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 358.

He toured the country visiting financial backers, particularly in the Northeast, to raise funds for his idea of leading a small antislavery militia. Brown had a loyal group of about a dozen young men, who went to the Kansas territory and fought, as many bands of militiamen were doing at the time to influence the slavery issue there. See id. at 359. Funding the operation of his band of men was necessary for Brown, and the bankrollers in the Northeast were the primary source of his funding. See id. at 360. Brown’s “stiff angularity of posture, of manners, and of speech” created a romantic imagery in the financiers’ minds, making Brown appear to be a principled man of action. See id. While Bostonian financiers attempted to lobby the Massachusetts legislature to give $100,000 to Brown and his followers, this fell through and relegated the financiers to giving Brown numerous small gifts. See id. at 361.

By 1855, he had begun studying past slave insurrections for inspiration. See id. at 363. Two years later, he began to verbalize a plan of invading Virginia and freeing slaves, but getting massive funding from any legislature was out of the question with such a grandiose plan. See id. Realizing support would need to come from individuals capable of participating in the operation, he proposed to two men, Gerrit Smith and Franklin Sanborn, to campaign through proslavery territory to carve out an abolitionist area of the country with its own government. See id. Sanborn, upon hearing Brown’s plan, found it to be “an amazing proposition, desperate in its character, wholly inadequate in its provision of means.” Id. Regardless, when Brown insisted on the execution of his plan, Smith and Sanborn pledged their support. See id.

Depiction of John Brown.

Brown’s plan, despite his passion and its support from others, did not have a clear aim. He sought to appropriate any property he could to support the insurrection and to ultimately free slaves, which was his “only goal.” See id. at 365. However, Sanborn framed the operation differently: “The Union is evidently on its last legs and Buchanan is laboring to tear it in pieces. Treason will not be treason much longer, but patriotism.” Sanborn to Higginson, Feb. 11, 1858, quoted in Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm: A Life of Thomas Wentworth, (1968), 209. In fact, while Brown and his accomplices would later attempt to make their plan seem modest, Brown in 1858 had presented a group of 35 black men in Ontario a draft constitution he authored. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 367. With his proposed constitution, he sought to establish a wide-reaching government that confiscated all property of slaveholders and enforced martial law with a sustained military occupation of the territory. Id. at 368.

Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

In late 1858, Brown traveled to Maryland, approximately five miles from Harpers Ferry, a fully-stocked federal armory, and rented a farm there, waiting for the plan’s pieces to fall into place. Ultimately, 22 followers came to the farm to participate in the plan. On October 16, 1858, Brown and 19 of his armed followers began their march to Harpers Ferry. See id. at 369. Cutting telegraph wires along the way, they crossed the Potomac River and captured the armory. Brown dispatched a group of men to “capture two slaveholders of the neighborhood along with their slaves.” Id. The detail was successful, and they had their first prisoners. Then, Brown and his accomplices took as prisoners the employees of the armory as they arrived for work the following morning. Id. at 370.

Word spread that there was an insurrection underway at Harpers Ferry, and local Maryland and Virginia militia sprung into action. After taking control of the surrounding area, the militia closed in on the armory and pinned Brown and his men in the engine works of the armory. See id. Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Cavalry and his Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart also arrived at the scene with federal forces. The Virginia militia was reluctant to act, and Lee sent Stuart and a detachment into the armory. Id.

Depiction of the Raid on Harpers Ferry.

Stuart and his men, charging with fixed bayonets, quelled the insurrection without expending any ammunition. One of Stuart’s men and two of Brown’s men died in the action. Brown’s short-lived rebellion was over, at least partially due to his poor planning of raiding an armory that was walled in by two rivers and prone to being surrounded by federal and Virginian troops. Further, he had planned for months but did not bring any food supplies for his men, which took a toll on the men as the raid lasted a full 24 hours. Perhaps most surprisingly, Brown planned a slave insurrection without informing slaves in the surrounding area. Only after he and his men took the armory did a detail venture out and only managed to take slaves. He merely hoped that his insurrection would draw as many as 200 or 250 slaves to the armory on the first day and gain momentum from there. See id.

The Last Moments of John Brown. By: Thomas Hovendon.

Brown was not alone in his hope for a widespread insurrection in slave states. Many abolitionists viewed the South as being ripe for explosion. J. C. Furnas, a historian, stated:

“It is not easy, though necessary, to grasp that Abolitionism could, in the same breath warn the South of arson, rape, and murder and sentimentally admire the implied Negro mob leaders brandishing axes, torches, and human heads.” J. C. Furnas, The Road to Harpers Ferry (New York, 1959), 232.

Painting of John Brown. By: Ole Peter Hansen Balling.

The raid on Harpers Ferry was an attempt to light a match and hope an inferno erupted throughout the South, which Brown and his men dreamt would result in the abolition of slavery altogether. While many Americans were sure that Brown must have been mentally ill to conduct his raid, the Boston Post proclaimed, “John Brown may be a lunatic [but if so] then one-fourth of the people of Massachusetts are madmen.” Quoted in C. Vann Woodward, “John Brown’s Private War,” in The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge, 1960), 48. As much as Brown and other abolitionists hoped that the slaves were itching for a revolt, Brown had done nothing to prove or disprove that notion, as he did not prepare for such a possibility by notifying or inviting slaves to participate.

After his capture, Brown became a sort of cult figure even earning the respect of his captors and jailers. His trial and sentencing were remarkably accelerated, but he and others agreed that it was fairly conducted. He spoke at his death sentencing:

“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done. Let me say one word further. I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the liberty of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason or incite slaves to rebel or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.” Brown, reported in New York Herald, Nov. 3, 1859.

Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Streams of supporters in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia gathered for memorial meetings. Brown had not only endeared himself to his southern captors; he had empowered abolitionists and struck a chord in the hearts of northerners. In fact, David Potter labeled Brown as being “mourned more than any American since Washington.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 382.

Tragic Prelude. By: John Steuart Curry.

The outpouring of emotion from the North reinforced southern concerns that the country was too deeply divided to be called a Union. The Richmond Enquirer wrote that “the Northern people have aided and abetted this treasonable invasion of a Southern state.” Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (Boston, 1910), 565-67. Further, the newspaper Watchman, based in Sumter, South Carolina, wrote: “Never before, since the Declaration of Independence has the South been more united in sentiment.” Dec. 24, 1859, quoted in Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950),  II, 110. The Baltimore Sun echoed this sentiment and built on it by arguing that the South could not afford to “live under a government, the majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero, rather than a murderer and robber.” Nov. 28, 1859, quoted in Villard, Brown, 568. The Richmond Whig wrote:

“Recent events have wrought almost a complete revolution in the sentiments, the thoughts, the hopes, of the oldest and steadiest conservatives in all the Southern states. In Virginia, particularly, this revolution has been really wonderful. There are thousands upon . . . thousands of men in our midst who, a month ago, scoffed at the idea of a dissolution of the Union as a madman’s dream, but who now hold the opinion that its days are numbered, its glory perished.” Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (Richmond, 1934), 90, quoting Whig, Nov. 22, 1859.

A newspaper in Mobile, Alabama questioned whether the republic continued to exist as a single nation or had split into two nations following Brown’s raid and the reactions to it. Mobile Register, Oct. 25, 1859, quoted in Avery O. Craven, The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848-1861 (Baton Rouge, 1953), 309. While at the time of its writing, the American republic was technically one nation, there were but a handful of threads holding the northern portion to the southern as the Election of 1860 approached.


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