On this day in 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and a group of over 20 men, raided the US Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in an attempt to start a slave uprising and destroy slavery in the United States.
His plan would fail and Brown would ultimately be hanged his actions, even while considered foolish by even the most fervent anti-slavery people in the north was generally approved of by most on the northern side of the Mason-Dixon Line. It showed how deeply divided this country had become and soon the nation would be thrust into Civil War. While his plan failed, his ultimate aim, to erase slavery would come to fruition just a few years later.
Brown was born in Connecticut but was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts as well as Ohio. He was raised in a very strict Calvinist, anti-slavery household. Brown in his early life had tried…and failed at several business ventures. He had as many as 20 lawsuits against him when he claimed bankruptcy. But all of that changed once Brown attended an anti-slavery meeting in 1842. That thought would consume him the rest of his days. Reportedly, he planned on conducting a slave insurrection as early as 1848.
Brown went from the planning and talking phase to taking an active role in hostilities. After having moved to Kansas, Brown, his sons and others retaliated for a pro-slavery raid in Lawrence, Kansas in 1856. Looking for blood, Brown and his men crossed the Pottawatomie Creek and attacked three family cabins, murdering five men with swords. These actions kicked off a summer of guerrilla-style attacks that would present an omen of what was to come in the area for several years.
He moved back east and dreamed a grandiose plan of igniting a slave insurrection. He secured the backing of six influential anti-slavery abolitionists who became known as the “Secret Six” His raiding party grew to a 22-man assault team and would consist of himself, five free Blacks and his three sons. His Harpers Ferry mission became a reality.
The Raid Plan: Brown and his men rented a small farm 4 miles away in Dargan, Maryland in the name of Isaac Smith and waited to raid the arsenal until they were ready. He tried to recruit Frederick Douglass as a liaison with the slaves they hoped to free and arm. Douglass declined, believing that Brown was making a futile attempt. Brown’s plan was “an attack on the federal government” that “would array the whole country against us.” “You will never get out alive,” he said to Brown to no avail.
Brown was well-armed with 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and 950 pikes that Northern abolitionists furnished him. The arsenal, one of six for the United States Army and had about 100,000 muskets and rifles. Brown didn’t plan on raiding the arsenal and melting away into the mountains. His plan was to use the weapons they would take in the raid and lead an uprising of slaves in the area (up to 250 he believed would join his force) and lead them into Tennessee and perhaps all the way to Alabama.
The small farmhouse was crowded and the men kept indoors during daylight hours. His daughter and daughter-in-law would cook and keep watch. The men would only leave the house in darkness to drill. He was convinced the slaves would flock to his banner and fight the slaveholders of the area. He was wrong.
The Raid on Harpers Ferry: On the night of October 16, Brown set off with his plan. He left four men as a rearguard at the farm, including one of his sons. He sent a small detachment under John Cook Jr. to grab capture Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington, at his Beall-Air estate and take him hostage. Brown also wanted some of his slaves, and two relics of General George Washington, a sword allegedly presented to Washington by Frederick the Great and two pistols that were given by Marquis de Lafayette. Brown considered these two prizes as talismans.
The rest of the men went with him into Harpers Ferry where initially things went well. The raiders captured several night watchmen, cut the telegraph wires, and grabbed a train that had pulled into the station. The first casualty of the raid was a harbinger of the bad things to come. In a cruel twist of fate, Hayward Shepherd, a free black man was working as a baggage handler on the train was shot and killed by the raiders. Brown let the train continue on, believing that word of their raid would ignite the slaves in the area, with them rushing to his aid…he was wrong again.
Brown’s men were able to take the armory although the townspeople were beginning to array against him.
On October 17, the local militia was alerted and captured the bridge across the Potomac. Brown’s escape route was cut. The locals and militia soon were pushing around the armory in an attempt to surround the raiders. The shooting began and four civilians, including Harpers Ferry’s mayor, were killed.
Realizing his situation was becoming hopeless, Brown took nine hostages and moved into the small engine house, which later became known as John Brown’s Fort. He and his men barricaded the doors and windows and began sporadic gunfire with the militia. Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag for an official parlay. The militia was having none of it and shot them down, mortally wounding Watson and taking the other man, Aaron Dwight Stevens prisoner. During the following firing, Brown’s other son, Oliver was also mortally wounded and would die the next day. One of his men, William Leeman, just 20 years old, panicked and tried to swim the Potomac to safety. He was killed without getting far.
A second militia company arrived at 1500 hrs and freed the hostages (about 24) from the guardroom while suffering eight men wounded. By 1530 hrs, President James Buchanan had ordered Marines (the closest Federal troops) to Harpers Ferry to put down the raid. Under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was on leave from Texas with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, Lee arrived with the Marines to take charge of the situation. Accompanying Lee was another officer who would also gain fame in the Civil War, for the Confederacy. Lt. J.E.B. Stuart was assigned to the new 1st Cavalry in the west. He was under the command of John Sedgwick, who would be the highest ranking officer killed in the upcoming Civil War. Stuart had designed a new saber attachment for the cavalry and was given a patent. Sedgwick granted him leave so that Stuart could sell his patent to the Army. When Stuart heard what was going on in Harpers Ferry, he volunteered as the aide de camp for Lee, an officer at that time, he had never met. But the two would be inexorably intertwined in the war soon after.
On the morning of the 18th, Lee sent Stuart under a white flag to offer Brown’s men a chance to surrender. If they refused, the Marines under the command of Lt. Greene were to attack the small engine house. Brown refused to surrender and walking away, Stuart waved his cap signaling their refusal. Greene’s men stormed the small engine house and Brown and the remaining surviving raiders were taken prisoner.
Lee sent an after-action report to Washington, stating that Brown was “a madman” and that the plan to raid the arsenal was that of a madman. Lee also exonerated the blacks and slaves in Brown’s presence stating, “The blacks, whom he (Brown) forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance.”
A letter that Stuart wrote to his mother after the incident gave some incredible insight into what happened. Some historians argued that it was Stuart who led the attack on the final fort of Brown’s. Stuart quickly put that to rest and his recollections to his mother could be from really any time frame.
Colonel Lee was sent to command the forces at Harper’s Ferry. I volunteered as his aid. I had no command whatever. The United States Marines are a branch of the naval force,–there was not an enlisted man of the army on hand. Lieutenant Green was sent in command. Major Russell had been requested by the Secretary of the Navy to accompany the marines, but, being a paymaster, could exercise no command; yet it was his corps. For Colonel Lee to have put me in command of the storming party would have been an outrage to Lieutenant Green, which would have rung through the navy for twenty years. As well might they send him out here to command my company of cavalry ….
I, too, had a part to perform, which prevented me in a measure from participating in the very brief onset made so gallantly by Green and Russell, well backed by their men. I was deputed by Colonel Lee to read to the leader, then called Smith, a demand to surrender immediately; and I was instructed to leave the door after his refusal, which was expected, and wave my cap; at which signal the storming party was to advance, batter open the doors, and capture the insurgents at the point of the bayonet. Colonel Lee cautioned the stormers particularly to discriminate between the insurgents and their prisoners.
I approached the door in the presence of perhaps two thousand spectators, and told Mr. Smith that I had a communication for him from Colonel Lee. He opened the door about four inches, and placed his body against the crack, with a cocked carbine in his hand: hence his remark after his capture that he could have wiped me out like a mosquito. The parley was a long one. He presented his propositions in every possible shape, and with admirable tact; but all amounted to this: that the only condition upon which he would surrender was that he and his party should be allowed to escape. Some of his prisoners begged me to ask Colonel Lee to come and see him. I told them he would never accede to any terms but those he had offered; and as soon as I could tear myself away from their importunities I left the door and waved my cap, and Colonel Lee’s plan was carried out ….
When Smith first came to the door I recognized old Osawatomie Brown, who had given us so much trouble in Kansas. No one present but myself could have performed that service. I got his bowie-knife from his person, and have it yet.
The same day, about eleven or twelve o’clock, Colonel Lee requested me, as Lieutenant Green had charge of the prisoners and was officer of the guard, to take a few marines and go over to old Brown’s house, four and a half miles distant, in Maryland, and see what was there. I did so, and discovered the magazine of pikes, blankets, clothing, and utensils of every sort. I could only carry off the pikes, as I had but one wagon. The next day I was occupied in delivering the various orders of Colonel Lee, and in other duties devolving on an aid-de-camp. The night after, Colonel Lee, Green, and myself, with thirty marines, marched six miles and back on a false alarm among the inhabitants of a district called Pleasant Valley.
The prisoners having been turned over to the United States Marshal, Colonel Lee and the marines were ordered back to Washington. I went with him, and this terminated my connection with the Harper’s Ferry affair.
Trial And Execution: John Brown was brought to Charles Town and was put on trial for treason against the State of Virginia. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. On the day of his execution, December 2, he wrote his final will where he stated an omen that would come true: ‘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’
Four other raiders were executed on December 16, two more on March 16, 1860.