On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and several followers seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The actions of Brown’s men brought national attention to the emotional divisions concerning slavery.
John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800 and became interested in the abolitionist movement around 1835. In 1855, Brown and several of his sons moved to Kansas, a territory deeply divided over the slavery issue. On Pottawotamie Creek, on the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and his sons murdered five men who supported slavery, although none actually owned slaves. Brown and his sons escaped. Brown spent the next three years collecting money from wealthy abolitionists in order to establish a colony for runaway slaves. To accomplish this, Brown needed weapons and decided to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
In 1794, President George Washington had selected Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts, as the sites of the new national armories. In choosing Harpers Ferry, he noted the benefit of great waterpower provided by both the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. In 1817, the federal government contracted with John H. Hall to manufacture his patented rifles at Harpers Ferry. The armory and arsenal continued producing weapons until its destruction at the outbreak of the Civil War.
In the summer of 1859, John Brown, using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, took up residence near Harpers Ferry at a farm in Maryland. He trained a group of twenty-two men, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson, in military maneuvers. On the night of Sunday, October 16, Brown and all but three of the men marched into Harpers Ferry, capturing several watchmen. The first victim of the raid was an African-American railroad baggage handler named Hayward Shepherd, who was shot and killed after confronting the raiders. During the night, Brown captured several other prisoners, including Lewis Washington, the great-grand-nephew of George Washington.
There were two keys to the success of the raid. First, the men needed to capture the weapons and escape before word reached Washington, D. C. The raiders cut the telegraph lines but allowed a Baltimore and Ohio train to pass through Harpers Ferry after detaining it for five hours. When the train reached Baltimore the next day at noon, the conductor contacted authorities in Washington. Second, Brown expected local slaves to rise up against their owners and join the raid. Not only did this fail to happen, but townspeople began shooting at the raiders.
Armory workers discovered Brown’s men in control of the building on Monday morning, October 17. Local militia companies surrounded the armory, cutting off Brown’s escape routes. Shortly after seven o’clock, a Harpers Ferry townsperson, Thomas Boerly, was shot and killed near the corner of High and Shenandoah streets. During the day, two other citizens were killed, George W. Turner and Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham. When Brown realized he had no way to escape, he selected nine prisoners and moved them to the armory’s small fire engine house, which later became known as John Brown’s Fort.
With their plans falling apart, the raiders panicked. William H. Leeman tried to escape by swimming across the Potomac River, but was shot and killed. The townspeople, many of whom had been drinking all day on this unofficial holiday, used Leeman’s body for target practice. At 3:30 on Monday afternoon, authorities in Washington ordered Colonel Robert E. Lee to Harpers Ferry with a force of Marines to capture Brown. Lee’s first action was to close the town’s saloons in order to curb the random violence. At 6:30 on the morning of Tuesday, October 18, Lee ordered Lieutenant Israel Green and a group of men to storm the engine house. At a signal from Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, the engine house door was knocked down and the Marines began taking prisoners. Green seriously wounded Brown with his sword. Brown was taken to the Jefferson County seat of Charles Town for trial.
Of Brown’s original twenty-two men, John H. Kagi, Jeremiah G. Anderson, William Thompson, Dauphin Thompson, Brown’s sons Oliver and Watson, Stewart Taylor, Leeman, and free African Americans Lewis S. Leary and Dangerfield Newby had been killed during the raid. John E. Cook and Albert Hazlett escaped into Pennsylvania but were captured and brought back to Charles Town. Brown, Aaron D. Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, and free African Americans John A. Copeland and Shields Green were all captured and imprisoned. Five raiders escaped and were never captured: Brown’s son Owen, Charles P. Tidd, Barclay Coppoc, Francis J. Merriam, and free African American Osborne P. Anderson. One Marine, Luke Quinn, was killed during the storming of the engine house. Two slaves, belonging to Brown’s prisoners Colonel Lewis Washington and John Allstadt, also lost their lives. It is unknown whether or not they voluntarily took up arms with Brown. One drowned while trying to escape and the other died in the Charles Town prison following the raid. Local residents at the time believed the two took part in the raid. To discredit Brown, residents later claimed that these two slaves had been taken prisoner and that no slaves actually participated in the raid.
John Brown, still recovering from a sword wound, stood trial at the Jefferson County Courthouse on October 26. Five days later, a jury found him guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Judge Richard Parker sentenced Brown to death and he was hanged in Charles Town on December 2. Before walking to the scaffold, he noted the inevitability of a national civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Following additional trials, Shields Green, John A. Copeland, John E. Cook, and Edwin Coppoc were executed on December 16, and Aaron D. Stevens and Albert Hazlett were hanged on March 16, 1860.
Northern abolitionists immediately used the executions as an example of the government’s support of slavery. John Brown became their martyr, a hero murdered for his belief that slavery should be abolished. In reality, Brown and his men were prosecuted and executed for taking over a government facility. Still, as time went on, Brown’s name became a symbol of pro-Union, anti-slavery beliefs. After the Civil War, a school was established at Harpers Ferry for African Americans. The leaders of Storer College always emphasized the courage and beliefs of John Brown for inspiration. In 1881, African-American leader Frederick Douglass delivered a classic speech at the school honoring Brown. Twenty-five years later, W.E.B. DuBois and Martinsburg newspaper editor J.R. Clifford recognized Harpers Ferry’s importance to African Americans and chose Storer College as the site for a meeting of the Second Niagara Movement, which later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Those in attendance walked at daybreak to John Brown’s Fort. In 1892, the fort had been sent to the Chicago World’s Fair and then brought back to a farm near Harpers Ferry. Today, the restored fort has been rebuilt at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park near its original location.