Facts, information and articles about John Brown’s Raid On Harpers Ferry, a one of the causes of the civil war
Raid On Harpers Ferry Facts
October 16–18, 1859
Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia
88 US Marines (USA)
Raid On Harpers Ferry Articles
Explore articles from the History Net archives about Raid On Harpers Ferry
» See all Raid On Harpers Ferry Articles
Raid On Harpers Ferry summary: The Harpers Ferry raid conducted by fanatical abolitionist John Brown and 21 followers in October 1859 is considered one of the major events that ultimately led to the American Civil War. Brown was hanged December 2 for murder and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
John Brown Assembles An Army
The 21 men accompanying Brown in what he dubbed the "Provisional Army" were a mixed lot, united only in their hatred of slavery. Five were black and 16 white. The raiders’ second-in-command was John Henry Kagi, a former schoolteacher. William Leeman was a shoemaker from the state of Maine. Stewart Taylor was Canadian-born. John E. Cook came from a well-to-do family. One of the black men, Dangerfield Newby, hoped Brown’s actions would help him to rescue his wife from slavery. Two others, John Copeland and Lewis Leary, were former slaves like Newby.
Brown himself had operated tanneries, attempted (unsuccessfully) to become a minister, and had tried and failed at various other business enterprises. In Kansas Territory, he and a small group of fellow abolitionists had killed five pro-slavery men near Pottowatamie Creek. When he discussed his plans for a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry with Frederick Douglass, in August 1859, Douglass warned him, "You’ll never get out alive."
John Brown at Harpers Ferry
After sundown on Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown and his men left a farm he had rented under the name "Isaac Smith" in Western Maryland, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry. Walking through a heavy rain, they reached the town in darkness, capturing several watchmen and cutting telegraph wires. Hayward Shepherd, a black man who was a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad baggage handler, confronted them and was killed, the first fatality of the raid.
They seized the arsenal and armory, as well as Hall’s Rifle Works, a private enterprise, and took 60 hostages from among prominent men of the area, including Lewis Washington, a great-grand nephew of George Washington. If Brown hoped the slaves of these men would join his revolution, he was disappointed; none did. The raiders also made a serious mistake when they detained a B&O train for five hours, but then let it go on to Baltimore. The conductor notified authorities in Washington after the train reached Baltimore around noon on the 17th.
The Occupation of Harpers Ferry
When armory workers arrived on Monday morning and discovered Brown and his raiders had taken over the buildings, word went out and local militia companies assembled. They surrounded the armory. The raid’s second fatality occurred around 7 a.m., when Thomas Boerly of Harpers Ferry was shot and killed. Before the day ended, two more local residents, George W. Turner and the mayor of Harpers Ferry, Fontaine Beckham, were also killed.
Brown, with one of his sons and four other riflemen, took nine of the prisoners and holed up in the armory’s fire engine house, a smaller structure about 30×35 feet. Later, this became known as "John Brown’s Fort." Several of his accomplices tried to escape; some succeeded, others were killed in the attempt.
Robert E. Lee Takes Command at Harpers Ferry
When the B&O conductor’s message about what was happening at Harpers Ferry reached President James Buchanan in Washington. A detachment of 86 U.S. Marines was dispatched to Harpers Ferry, led by First Lieutenant Israel Green and accompanied by Major William W. Russell. The major was the paymaster for the Marine Corps, but as a staff officer he could not command the force. Secretary of War John B. Floyd had placed overall command in the hands of a former superintendent of West Point, Army Lieutenant Colonel (brevetted colonel) Robert E. Lee, who had come up from Washington, accompanied by Lt. J.E.B. (Jeb) Stuart of the 1st U.S. Cavalry, who had carried Floyd’s message to Arlington to summon Lee. The two Army officers, riding a special train ordered for them by B&O president John W. Garrett, caught up with the Marines at Sandy Hook, about a mile and a half east of Harpers Ferry.
Upon reaching Harpers Ferry, Lee determined that many of the local militia soldiers in the town were drunk. He promptly ordered all saloons closed.
On the morning of the 18th, Lee sent a summons to the insurgents ordering them to lay down their arms and surrender. When, as he expected, they rejected his demands, he sent Lt. Green, clad in his dress uniform, and 12 of the Marines to storm the fire engine house; Major Russell accompanied them, armed with nothing but a rattan stick. Three of them were furnished sledge hammers for breaking in the door. Once inside, they were to attack with bayonets, lest stray bullets hit some of the hostages. Lee explained to the Marines how they could distinguish the insurgents from the captives and ordered the storming party "not to injure the blacks detained in custody unless they resisted." Several slaves had been taken along with their owners and armed when Brown’s men rounded up hostages.
In his report to the Secretary of War the following day, Lee described the action of the storming party:
"At the concerted signal the storming party moved quickly to the door and commenced the attack. The fire-engines within the house had been placed by the besieged close to the doors. The doors were fastened by ropes, the spring of which prevented their being broken by the blows of the hammers. The men were therefore ordered to drop the hammers, and, with a portion of the reserve, to use as a battering-ram a heavy ladder, with which they dashed in a part of the door and gave admittance to the storming party. The fire of the insurgents up to this time had been harmless. At the threshold one marine fell mortally wounded. The rest, led by Lieutenant Green and Major Russell, quickly ended the contest. The insurgents that resisted were bayoneted. Their leader, John Brown, was cut down by the sword of Lieutenant Green, and our citizens were protected by both officers and men. The whole was over in a few minutes."
Casualties in John Brown’s Raid
The Marine killed was Private Luke Quinn, the third man through the door, shot through the abdomen. The man behind him, Pvt. Mathew Ruppert, suffered a slight facial wound. Lieutenant Green inflicted a deep cut on the back of John Brown’s neck, but the fanatical abolitionist was still alive. No captives were harmed, and there were no further deaths among the townspeople.
Among the raiders, two were bayoneted to death in the fire house. In all, 10 raiders died of wounds received during the raid on Harpers Ferry; the first to die was Dangerfield Newby, who had hoped to win his wife’s freedom. Six more were hanged, and five escaped, several of them later serving in Union regiments during the Civil War.
Stuart, with a few Marines, was sent to the farm Brown had rented. They found Sharp’s carbines, revolvers, "a number of sword pikes, blankets, shoes, tents, and all the necessaries for a campaign," as Lee described it.
Robert E. Lee on John Brown’s Motives
Of Brown, Lee wrote, "He avows that his object was the liberation of the slaves of Virginia, and of the whole South; and acknowledges that he has been disappointed in his expectations of aid from the black as well as white population, both in the Southern and Northern States. The blacks, whom he forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance. The servants of Messrs. Washington and Allstadt, retained at the armory, took no part in the conflict, and those carried to Maryland returned to their homes as soon as released. The result proves that the plan was the attempt of a fanatic or madman, who could only end in failure; and its temporary success, was owing to the panic and confusion he succeeded in creating by magnifying his numbers."
That evening, a false rumor that a band of men had attacked a home in Pleasant Valley, Maryland, sent a number of families scurrying to Harpers Ferry for protection.
In The Aftermath Of John Brown’s Raid On Harpers Ferry
Brown was convicted of murder, insurrection and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was hanged at Charles Town, the seat of Jefferson County, near Harpers Ferry on December 2, 1859. His attempts to capture the federal arsenal and free "all the slaves in the South" had failed, but abolitionists quickly made him into a martyr for freedom. It is often said he accomplished with his death what he could not have accomplished while living.
Robert E. Lee would leave the U.S. Army in the spring of 1861 and win eternal fame as the commander of the largest Confederate army. His chief of cavalry with that army would be Jeb Stuart. Israel Green would also resign his commission to join the Confederacy, though he was offered a colonelcy in the militia of his native Wisconsin. He also rejected an offer to be a lieutenant colonel in Virginia’s Confederate infantry, choosing instead to accept the rank of captain in the Confederate States Marine Corps. He rose to the rank of major and became adjutant and inspector.
Of the principal U.S. military officers at Harpers Ferry, only Maj. Russell did not go to the Confederacy. He was still Paymaster of the United States Marine Corps when he died in October 1862, three years after John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Learn more about John Brown
Articles Featuring Raid On Harpers Ferry From History Net Magazines
Churchill Imagines How the South Won the Civil WarIn Winston Churchill’s fanciful alternative history, Robert E. Lee wins at Gettysburg, and Jeb Stuart prevents World War I
The Ultimate Political Action CommitteeA congressional war panel proves too many cooks can poison the pot By any standard, Ball’s Bluff was a fiasco. What began as a raid in October 1861 escalated into an unintended battle for Leesburg, Va. The Yankees so badly mismanaged the assault that the Union commander, Colonel Edward D. Baker, would almost certainly have …
Irreconcilable DifferencesWinston Groom, author of Vicksburg 1863, explores the reasons the North and South found themselves at war.
Battle of Black Jack Battlefield 155th Anniversary Events PlannedPRESS RELEASE Baldwin City, KS – Four events organized by the Black Jack Battlefield Trust will commemorate the 155th Anniversary of the Battle of Black Jack. On Thursday, June 2nd at 5:00am the actual date and time of the battle, a free guided tour will be given. Also on Thursday, June 2nd Shared Stories of …
Harold Holzer on the best and worst civil war booksWar Stories It’s time to remember good Civil War lit—and close the door on the bad stuff Several months ago, literary critic Adam Kirsch—full disclosure: he’s my son-in-law—published an essay in the New York Times voicing concern about recent decisions to omit offensive, outdated sections of the Constitution when read aloud in the House of …
Union Cavalry Escapes from Besieged Harpers FerryIn September 1862 some 1,600 Union cavalrymen seemingly trapped at Harpers Ferry carried out one of the Civil War's most successful missions of stealth and deception.
Stonewall Jackson at Harpers FerryJackson, Johnston and conflicting interests The fate of strategic Harpers Ferry hung on the leadership styles of two Southern commanders Confederate Battery at Harper's Ferry. Courtesy of the Harper's Ferry National Historic Park. Ten weeks before earning the sobriquet “Stonewall” on Henry Hill at the First Battle of Manassas, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was standing like …
Calm Before the Storm: 8th Georgia Infantry Regiment in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, 1861After Virginia's secession in 1861 and the start of the Civil War, General Joseph E. Johnston and his men experienced an idyllic summer in the northern Shenandoah Valley.
The Civil War in the New York TimesThe New York Times Complete Civil War, 1861-1865 Edited by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds Black Dog & Leventhal Publishing, 2010, $40 It is no stretch to say the New York Times was the nation’s most powerful newspaper during the Civil War. The paper’s youthful founder and editor, Henry Jarvis Raymond, had inroads not …
Union Spy in Confederate TerritoryUnion agent Pryce Lewis had his share of close calls
Pre Civil War Peace ConferenceAs secession fever spreads through the South, political patriarchs try to avert war—-but at what price?
True Causes of the Civil WarIrreconcilable Differences Simmering animosities between North and South signaled an American apocalypse Any man who takes it upon himself to explain the causes of the Civil War deserves whatever grief comes his way, regardless of his good intentions. Having acknowledged that, let me also say I have long believed there is no more concise or …
Nocona’s Raid and Cynthia Ann Parker’s RecaptureTaken by Comanches at age 9 in 1836, Cynthia Ann Parker was recaptured by whites nearly 24 years later when she returned to Texas with a raiding party led by her Indian husband.
New Missouri Park to Honor 1st Kansas Colored Infantry: October/November 2009State officials as well as volunteers are working to establish a state park in an area of Bates County, Mo., where the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry skirmished with Confederate guerrillas in October 1862. The encounter is known today as the skirmish of Island Mound. The 250-man 1st Kansas, believed to have been the first African-American …
Riverside resort threatens Harpers Ferry’s viewshedA developer hoping to build a resort near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., faces several regulatory roadblocks. The developer, Rattling Springs Associates of McLean, Va., has submitted plans for a 50-room lodge and as many as 60 cottages along the banks of the Potomac River, not far from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the 19th-century downtown. …
Shot by Cupid’s Bow – Fanny and John Brown GordonConfederate General John Brown Gordon and his wife Fanny shared a loyal and passionate marriage for nearly 50 years. She spent much of the Civil War nursing him as he recovered from wounds and illness.
Reimaginining the SouthA Southerner learns the skeleton in her family closet wore a coat of Union blue.
Boston Combusts: The Fugitive Slave Case of Anthony BurnsAn eruption in the nation's abolitionist capital nearly seven years before Fort Sumter foreshadowed the irreconcilable divide between North and South and the fracture to come.
By Chuck Leddy
Battle of Antietam: 7th Maine’s Senseless Charge On the Piper FarmIt had no effect on the battle — other than adding to the casualty lists — and there was no good reason for ordering it in the first place. But for the whim of a subpar brigade commander, whose sobriety some held in question, it never would have happened. Yet late on the afternoon of …
More Raid On Harpers Ferry Articles
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad: The Union’s Most Important Supply LineThe Baltimore & Ohio Railroad survived numerous hardships of the Civil War in its service to the Union.
Silas Soule: Massachusetts AbolitionistDedicated Massachusetts abolitionist Silas Soule ironically gave his life for the red man, not the black.
From Under Iron Eyelids: The Biography of James Henry Burton, Armorer to Three Nations (Book Review)Reviewed by Robert K. KrickBy Thomas K. TateAuthorHouse, www.authorhouse.com, Bloomington, Ind., 2005 Keeping ordnance supplied to its soldiers in the field must rank among the most amazing achievements of the nascent Confederate military establishment. The genius, efficiency and unflagg-ing energy that Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas displayed in meeting the needs of Southern armies makes …
America’s Civil War Comes to West PointThough the Corps of Cadets was forced apart by political differences in 1860-61, and passions grew intense, there were more tears than hurrahs among the Northerners when their Southern friends resigned. The last institution to divide, the Academy was one of the first to reunite.
Firebrand in a Powder Keg: Nathaniel Lyon in St. LouisWhen secession fever threatened Missouri, a hotheaded gesture by a Yankee touched off riots but helped keep the state in the Union.
37th North Carolina Infantry Regiment in the American Civil WarThe service of the 37th North Carolina epitomized the grit and determination of Tar Heel fighters.
John Brown’s Family: A Living LegacyFor decades after John Brown swung from the gallows in 1859, his family lived in the long shadow of the notoriety he had generated.
America’s Civil War: Missouri and KansasFor half a decade before the Civil War, residents of the neighboring states of Missouri and Kansas waged their own civil war. It was a conflict whose scars were a long time in healing.
Picture of the Day: November 20Julia Ward Howe & The Battle Hymn of the Republic On November 18, 1861, poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe accompanied her husband, Dr. Samuel Howe, to Fort Griffin, Virginia to review Union troops defending the capital. The ceremony was cut short when the Federals were forced to give chase to a nearby party of …
Picture of the Day: October 16On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown and a tiny army of five black and 13 white supporters seized the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Convinced that local slaves would rise up behind him, Brown planned to establish a new republic of fugitives in the Appalachian Mountains. Brown’s …
Robert Smalls: Commander of the Planter During the American Civil WarWhen opportunity knocked, an imaginative Charleston slave sailed himself, his family, and some friends to freedom -- and set to work for the Union cause.
Battle of Brawner’s Farm: Black Hat Brigade’s Baptism of FireJohn Gibbon's mostly green Midwestern troops found themselves in quite a scrape as the sun set on August 28, 1862.
Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Turning Point in the Pacific WarThe Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the United States in the Pacific war.
Book Review: The Valley of the Shadow: The Eve of War–Two Communities in the American Civil War (by Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin): CWTThe Valley of the Shadow: The Eve of War–Two Communities in the American Civil War, by Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin, W.W. Norton, 103-page book and CD-ROM, $49.95. It is called the Great Valley and runs up and down the eastern seaboard from New York to Alabama. The part that stretches from Virginia …
The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 (Stephen B. Oates) : ACWThe Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861, by Stephen B. Oates, HarperCollins, New York, 1997, $28. The vast pantheon of Civil War literature is graced with titles focusing on the underlying causes of America’s bloodiest conflict. Politics and economics, racial and social undercurrents, states’ rights and Manifest Destiny–all have received minute scrutiny. Far too …
Book Review: Raising Holy Hell (Bruce Olds) : ACWRaising Holy Hell, by Bruce Olds, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995, $22.50. The story of John Brown is disturbing in a democracy. We comfort ourselves with the belief that, despite our differences, weare a humane and sensitive society that makes the need for violent actions unnecessary or even insane. Bruce Olds jolts ourcomplacency …
they paid to enter Libby Prison – February 1999 Civil War Times Featurethey paid to enter Libby Prison A drafty Richmond deathtrap for captured Yankees became a tourist trap after the war–600 miles away! BY BRUCE KLEE The Union officers who stepped into the huge brick prison’s reception room knew all too well what this chamber was. It was the proverbial lion’s mouth. Here, men were swallowed …
Travelers to Wartime Richmond – Sept. ’96 America’s Civil War FeatureTravelers to wartime Richmond had a wide choiceof luxurious hotels, inns and taverns. By John K. Trammell The outbreak of the Civil War ushered in an era of radical change in Virginia. Starting with fanatical John Brown’s failed revolution at Harpers Ferry, and ending with a devastating defeat and painful reconstruction six years later, citizens …
Massachusetts Abolitionist Silas Soule – March ’96 America’s Civil War FeatureDedicated Massachusetts abolitionist Silas Soule ironically gave his life for the red man, not the black.By Bruce M. Lawlor Fate consigns most people to lives of quiet anonymity, choosing only a favored few to shape an era’s epochal events. In the case of Silas S. Soule, a young Massachusetts abolitionist, fate was unusually fickle. It …
Second Eyewitness to War LetterCharles Town, West Virginia October 8, 1862 Dear Wife, I seat myself to write you a few lines to inform you how I am. I wrote to you and Father some time ago, but I did not know whether you received it or not. I thought I would write again. I am very poorly at …