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Harpers Ferry, Virginia, lay sleeping on the night of October 16, 1859, as 19 heavily armed
men stole down mist-shrouded bluffs along the Potomac River where it joins the Shenandoah. Their leader was a rail-

thin 59-year-old man with a shock of graying hair and penetrating steel-gray eyes. His name was John Brown. Some

of those who strode across a covered railway bridge from Maryland into Virginia were callow farm boys; others

were seasoned veterans of the guerrilla war in disputed
Kansas. Among them were Brown’s youngest sons, Watson
and Oliver; a fugitive slave from Charleston, South Carolina;
an African-American student at Oberlin College; a pair of
Quaker brothers from Iowa who had abandoned their pacifist
beliefs to follow Brown; a former slave from Virginia; and
men from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
They had come to Harpers Ferry to make war on slavery.
The raid that Sunday night would be the
most daring instance on record of white men
entering a Southern state to incite a slave
rebellion. In military terms, it was barely a
skirmish, but the incident electrified the
nation. It also created, in John Brown, a figure
who after a century and a half remains one of
the most emotive touchstones of our racial
history, lionized by some Americans and
loathed by others: few are indifferent. Brown’s
mantle has been claimed by figures as diverse
as Malcolm X, Timothy McVeigh, Socialist
leader Eugene Debs and abortion protesters
espousing violence. “Americans do not
deliberate about John Brown—they feel him,” says Dennis

Frye, the National Park Service’s chief historian at Harpers
Ferry. “He is still alive today in the American soul. He
represents something for each of us, but none of us is in
agreement about what he means.”
“The impact of Harpers Ferry quite literally transformed
the nation,” says Harvard historian John Stauffer, author of
The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the
Transformation of Race. The tide of anger that flowed from

Harpers Ferry traumatized Americans of all
persuasions, terrorizing Southerners with the
fear of massive slave rebellions, and
radicalizing countless Northerners, who had
hoped that violent confrontation over slavery
could be indefinitely postponed. Before Harpers
Ferry, leading politicians believed that the
widening division between North and South
would eventually yield to compromise. After it,
the chasm appeared unbridgeable. Harpers Ferry
splintered the Democratic Party, scrambled the
leadership of the Republicans and produced the
conditions that enabled Republican Abraham
Lincoln to defeat two Democrats and a third-

party candidate in the presidential election of 1860.


“Had John Brown’s raid not occurred, it is very possible that
the 1860 election would have been a regular two-party contest
between antislavery Republicans and pro-slavery Democrats,”
says City University of New York historian David Reynolds,
author of John Brown: Abolitionist. “The Democrats would
probably have won, since Lincoln received just 40 percent of
the popular vote, around one million votes less than his three
opponents.” While the Democrats split over slavery,
Republican candidates such as William Seward were tarnished
by their association with abolitionists; Lincoln, at the time,
was regarded as one of his party’s more conservative options.
“John Brown was, in effect, a hammer that shattered Lincoln’s
opponents into fragments,” says Reynolds. “Because Brown
helped to disrupt the party system, Lincoln was carried to
victory, which in turn led 11 states to secede from the Union.
This in turn led to the Civil War.”
Well into the 20th century, it was common to dismiss
Brown as an irrational fanatic, or worse. In the rousing pro-
Southern 1940 classic film Santa Fe Trail, actor Raymond
Massey portrayed him as a wild-eyed madman. But the civil
rights movement and a more thoughtful acknowledgment of
the nation’s racial problems have occasioned a more nuanced
view. “Brown was thought mad because he crossed the line of
permissible dissent,” Stauffer says. “He was willing to
sacrifice his life for the cause of blacks, and for this, in a
culture that was simply marinated in racism, he was called

Brown was a hard man, to be sure, “built for times of
trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships,” in the
words of his close friend, the African-American orator

Frederick Douglass. Brown felt a profound and lifelong
empathy with the plight of slaves. “He stood apart from every
other white in the historical record in his ability to burst free
from the power of racism,” says Stauffer. “Blacks were among
his closest friends, and in some respects he felt more
comfortable around blacks than he did around whites.”
Brown was born with the century, in 1800, in
Connecticut, and raised by loving if strict parents who
believed (as did many, if not most, in that era) that righteous
punishment was an instrument of the divine. When he was a
small boy, the Browns moved west in an ox-drawn wagon to
the raw wilderness of frontier Ohio, settling in the town of
Hudson, where they became known as friends to the rapidly
diminishing population of Native Americans, and as
abolitionists who were always ready to help fugitive slaves.
Like many restless 19th-century Americans, Brown tried many
professions, failing at some and succeeding modestly at
others: farmer, tanner, surveyor, wool merchant. He married
twice—his first wife died from illness—and, in all, fathered 20
children, almost half of whom died in infancy; 3 more would
die in the war against slavery. Brown, whose beliefs were
rooted in strict Calvinism, was convinced that he had been
predestined to bring an end to slavery, which he believed with
burning certitude was a sin against God. In his youth, both he
and his father, Owen Brown, had served as “conductors” on
the Underground Railroad. He had denounced racism within
his own church, where African-Americans were required to sit
in the back, and shocked neighbors by dining with blacks and
addressing them as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Douglass once described
Brown as a man who “though a white gentleman, is in

Brown (page one: c. 1856 and above: depicted at Harper’s Ferry) and many of his followers holed up in the fire engine house
awaiting reinforcements by a swarm of “bees”—slaves from the surrounding area. But only a handful showed up.

sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause,
as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of
In 1848, the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith encouraged
Brown and his family to live on land Smith had bestowed on
black settlers in northern New York. Tucked away in the
Adirondack Mountains, Brown concocted a plan to liberate
slaves in numbers never before attempted: A “Subterranean
Pass-Way”—the Underground Railroad writ large—would
stretch south through the Allegheny and Appalachian
mountains, linked by a chain of forts manned by armed
abolitionists and free blacks. “These warriors would raid
plantations and run fugitives north to Canada,” says Stauffer.
“The goal was to destroy the value of slave property.” This
scheme would form the template for the Harpers Ferry raid
and, says Frye, under different circumstances “could have
succeeded. [Brown] knew that he couldn’t free four million
people. But he understood economics and how much money
was invested in slaves. There would be a panic—property
values would dive. The slave economy would collapse.”
Political events of the 1850s turned Brown from a fierce,
if essentially garden-variety, abolitionist into a man willing to
take up arms, even die, for his cause. The Fugitive Slave Law
of 1850, which imposed draconian penalties on anyone caught
helping a runaway and required all citizens to cooperate in the
capture of fugitive slaves, enraged Brown and other
abolitionists. In 1854, another act of Congress pushed still
more Northerners beyond their limits of tolerance. Under
pressure from the South and its Democratic allies in the North,
Congress opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to
slavery under a concept called “popular sovereignty.” The
more northerly Nebraska was in little danger of becoming a
slave state. Kansas, however, was up for grabs. Pro-slavery
advocates—”the meanest and most desperate of men, armed to
the teeth with Revolvers, Bowie Knives, Rifles & Cannon,
while they are not only thoroughly organized, but under pay
from Slaveholders,” John Brown Jr. wrote to his father—
poured into Kansas from Missouri. Antislavery settlers begged
for guns and reinforcements. Among the thousands of
abolitionists who left their farms, workshops or schools to
respond to the call were John Brown and five of his sons.
Brown himself arrived in Kansas in October 1855, driving a
wagon loaded with rifles he had picked up in Ohio and
Illinois, determined, he said, “to help defeat Satan and his
In May 1856, pro-slavery raiders sacked Lawrence,
Kansas, in an orgy of burning and looting. Almost
simultaneously, Brown learned that Charles Sumner of
Massachusetts, the most outspoken abolitionist in the U.S.
Senate, had been beaten senseless on the floor of the chamber
by a cane-wielding congressman from South Carolina. Brown
raged at the North’s apparent helplessness. Advised to act with
restraint, he retorted, “Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally
tired of hearing the word caution. It is nothing but the word of
cowardice.” A party of Free-Staters led by Brown dragged five
pro-slavery men out of their isolated cabins on eastern Kansas’
Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with cutlasses.
The horrific nature of the murders disturbed even abolitionists.
Brown was unrepentant. “God is my judge,” he laconically
replied when asked to account for his actions. Though he was
a wanted man who hid out for a time, Brown eluded capture in

the anarchic conditions that pervaded Kansas. Indeed, almost
no one—pro-slavery or antislavery—was ever arraigned in a
court for killings that took place during the guerrilla war there.
The murders, however, ignited reprisals. Pro-slavery “border
ruffians” raided Free- Staters’ homesteads. Abolitionists fought
back. Hamlets were burned, farms abandoned. Brown’s son
Frederick, who had participated in the Pottawatomie Creek
massacre, was shot dead by a pro-slavery man. Although
Brown survived many brushes with opponents, he seemed to
sense his own fate. In August 1856 he told his son Jason, “I
have only a short time to live—only one death to die, and I
will die fighting for this cause.”
By almost any definition, the Pottawatomie killings were
a terrorist act, intended to sow fear in slavery’s defenders.
“Brown viewed slavery as a state of war against blacks—a
system of torture, rape, oppression and murder—and saw
himself as a soldier in the army of the Lord against slavery,”
says Reynolds. “Kansas was Brown’s trial by fire, his initiation
into violence, his preparation for real war,” he says. “By 1859,
when he raided Harpers Ferry, Brown was ready, in his own
words, ‘to take the war into Africa’—that is, into the South.”
In January 1858, Brown left Kansas to seek support for his
planned Southern invasion. In April, he sought out a
diminutive former slave, Harriet Tubman, who had made eight
secret trips to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to lead dozens of
slaves north to freedom. Brown was so impressed that he
began referring to her as “General Tubman.” For her part, she
embraced Brown as one of the few whites she had ever met
who shared her belief that antislavery work was a life-and-
death struggle. “Tubman thought Brown was the greatest
white man who ever lived,” says Kate Clifford Larson, author
of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of
an American Hero.
Having secured financial backing from wealthy
abolitionists known as the “Secret Six,” Brown returned to
Kansas in mid-1858. In December, he led 12 fugitive slaves on
an epic journey eastward, dodging pro-slavery guerrillas and
marshals’ posses and fighting and defeating a force of United
States troops. Upon reaching Detroit, they were ferried across
the Detroit River to Canada. Brown had covered nearly 1,500
miles in 82 days, proof to doubters, he felt sure, that he was
capable of making the Subterranean Pass-Way a reality.
With his “Secret Six” war chest, Brown purchased
hundreds of Sharps carbines and thousands of pikes, with
which he planned to arm the first wave of slaves he expected
to flock to his banner once he occupied Harpers Ferry. Many
thousands more could then be armed with rifles stored at the
federal arsenal there. “When I strike, the bees will swarm,”
Brown assured Frederick Douglass, whom he urged to sign on
as president of a “Provisional Government.” Brown also
expected Tubman to help him recruit young men for his
revolutionary army, and, says Larson, “to help infiltrate the
countryside before the raid, encourage local blacks to join
Brown and when the time came, to be at his side—like a
soldier.” Ultimately, neither Tubman nor Douglass
participated in the raid. Douglass was sure the venture would
fail. He warned Brown that he was “going into a perfect steel
trap, and that he would not get out alive.” Tubman may have
concluded that if Brown’s plan failed, the Underground
Railroad would be destroyed, its routes, methods and
participants exposed.

Sixty-one miles northwest of Washington, D.C., at the
junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry
was the site of a major federal armory, including a musket
factory and rifle works, an arsenal, several large mills and an
important railroad junction. “It was one of the most heavily
industrialized towns south of the Mason-Dixon line,” says
Frye. “It was also a cosmopolitan town, with a lot of Irish and
German immigrants, and even Yankees who worked in the
industrial facilities.” The town and its environs’ population of
3,000 included about 300 African-Americans, evenly divided
between slave and free. But more than 18,000 slaves—the
“bees” Brown expected to swarm—lived in the surrounding
As his men stepped off the railway bridge into town that
October night in 1859, Brown dispatched contingents to seize
the musket factory, rifle works, arsenal and adjacent brick fire-
engine house. (Three men remained in Maryland to guard
weapons that Brown hoped to distribute to slaves who joined
him.) “I want to free all the negroes in this state,” he told one
of his first hostages, a night watchman. “If the citizens
interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood.”
Guards were posted at the bridges. Telegraph lines were cut.
The railroad station was seized. It was there that the raid’s first
casualty occurred, when a porter, a free black man named
Hayward Shepherd, challenged Brown’s men and was shot
dead in the dark. Once key locations had been secured, Brown
sent a detachment to seize several prominent local slave
owners, including Col. Lewis W. Washington, a great-
grandnephew of the first president.
Early reports claimed that Harpers Ferry had been taken
by 50, then 150, then 200 white “insurrectionists” and “six
hundred runaway negroes.” Brown expected to have 1,500
men under his command by midday Monday. He later said he
believed that he would eventually have armed as many as
5,000 slaves. But the bees did not swarm. (Only a handful of
slaves lent Brown assistance.) Instead, as Brown’s band
watched dawn break over the craggy ridges enclosing Harpers
Ferry, local white militias—similar to today’s National
Guard—were hastening to arms.
First to arrive were the Jefferson Guards, from nearby
Charles Town. Uniformed in blue, with tall black Mexican
War-era shakos on their heads and brandishing .58-caliber
rifles, they seized the railway bridge, killing a former slave
named Dangerfield Newby and cutting Brown off from his
route of escape. Newby had gone north in a failed attempt to
earn enough money to buy freedom for his wife and six
children. In his pocket was a letter from his wife: “It is said
Master is in want of money,” she had written. “I know not
what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hopes of the
future are blasted, for their [sic] has been one bright hope to
cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you.”
As the day progressed, armed units poured in from
Frederick, Maryland; Martinsburg and Shepherdstown,
Virginia; and elsewhere. Brown and his raiders were soon
surrounded. He and a dozen of his men held out in the engine
house, a small but formidable brick building, with stout oak
doors in front. Other small groups remained holed up in the
musket factory and rifle works. Acknowledging their
increasingly dire predicament, Brown sent out New Yorker
William Thompson, bearing a white flag, to propose a cease-
fire. But Thompson was captured and held in the Galt House,

a local hotel. Brown then dispatched his son, Watson, 24, and
ex-cavalryman Aaron Stevens, also under a white flag, but the
militiamen shot them down in the street. Watson, although
fatally wounded, managed to crawl back to the engine house.
Stevens, shot four times, was arrested.
When the militia stormed the rifle works, the three men
inside dashed for the shallow Shenandoah, hoping to wade
across. Two of them—John Kagi, vice president of Brown’s
provisional government, and Lewis Leary, an African-
American—were shot dead in the water. The black Oberlin
student, John Copeland, reached a rock in the middle of the
river, where he threw down his gun and surrendered. Twenty-
year-old William Leeman slipped out of the engine house,
hoping to make contact with the three men Brown had left as
backup in Maryland. Leeman plunged into the Potomac and
swam for his life. Trapped on an islet, he was shot dead as he
tried to surrender. Throughout the afternoon, bystanders took
potshots at his body.
Through loopholes—small openings through which guns
could be fired—that they had drilled in the engine house’s
thick doors, Brown’s men tried to pick off their attackers,
without much success. One of their shots, however, killed the
town’s mayor, Fontaine Beckham, enraging the local citizenry.
“The anger at that moment was uncontrollable,” says Frye. “A
tornado of rage swept over them.” A vengeful mob pushed its
way into the Galt House, where William Thompson was being
held prisoner. They dragged him onto the railroad trestle, shot
him in the head as he begged for his life and tossed him over
the railing into the Potomac.
By nightfall, conditions inside the engine house had
grown desperate. Brown’s men had not eaten for more than 24
hours. Only four remained unwounded. The bloody corpses of
slain raiders, including Brown’s 20-year-old son, Oliver, lay at
their feet. They knew there was no hope of escape. Eleven
white hostages and two or three of their slaves were pressed
against the back wall, utterly terrified. Two pumpers and hose
carts were pushed against the doors, to brace against an assault
expected at any moment. Yet if Brown felt defeated, he didn’t
show it. As his son Watson writhed in agony, Brown told him
to die “as becomes a man.”
Soon perhaps a thousand men—many uniformed and
disciplined, others drunk and brandishing weapons from
shotguns to old muskets—would fill the narrow lanes of
Harpers Ferry, surrounding Brown’s tiny band. President
James Buchanan had dispatched a company of Marines from
Washington, under the command of one of the Army’s most
promising officers: Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. Himself a slave
owner, Lee had only disdain for abolitionists, who “he
believed were exacerbating tensions by agitating among slaves
and angering masters,” says Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of
Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His
Private Letters. “He held that although slavery was
regrettable, it was an institution sanctioned by God and as
such would disappear only when God ordained it.” Dressed in
civilian clothes, Lee reached Harpers Ferry around midnight.
He gathered the 90 Marines behind a nearby warehouse and
worked out a plan of attack. In the predawn darkness, Lee’s
aide, a flamboyant young cavalry lieutenant, boldly
approached the engine house, carrying a white flag. He was
met at the door by Brown, who asked that he and his men be
allowed to retreat across the river to Maryland, where they

would free their hostages. The soldier promised only that the
raiders would be protected from the mob and put on trial.
“Well, lieutenant, I see we can’t agree,” replied Brown. The
lieutenant stepped aside, and with his hand gave a prearranged
signal to attack. Brown could have shot him dead—”just as
easily as I could kill a musquito,” he recalled later. Had he
done so, the course of the Civil War might have been
different. The lieutenant was J.E.B. Stuart, who would go on
to serve brilliantly as Lee’s cavalry commander.
Lee first sent several men crawling below the loopholes,
to smash the door with sledgehammers. When that failed, a
larger party charged the weakened door, using a ladder as a
battering ram, punching through on their second try. Lt. Israel
Green squirmed through the hole to find himself beneath one
of the pumpers. According to Frye, as Green emerged into the
darkened room, one of the hostages pointed at Brown. The
abolitionist turned just as Green lunged forward with his saber,
striking Brown in the gut with what should have been a death
blow. Brown fell, stunned but astonishingly unharmed: the
sword had struck a buckle and bent itself double. With the
sword’s hilt, Green then hammered Brown’s skull until he
passed out. Although severely injured, Brown would survive.
“History may be a matter of a quarter of an inch,” says Frye.
“If the blade had struck a quarter inch to the left or right, up or
down, Brown would have been a corpse, and there would have
been no story for him to tell, and there would have been no
Meanwhile, the Marines poured through the breach.
Brown’s men were overwhelmed. One Marine impaled
Indianan Jeremiah Anderson against a wall. Another
bayoneted young Dauphin Thompson, where he lay under a
fire engine. It was over in less than three minutes. Of the 19
men who strode into Harpers Ferry less than 36 hours before,
five were now prisoners; ten had been killed or fatally injured.
Four townspeople had also died; more than a dozen militiamen
were wounded.
Only two of Brown’s men escaped the siege. Amid the
commotion, Osborne Anderson and Albert Hazlett slipped out
the back of the armory, climbed a wall and scuttled behind the
embankment of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to the bank
of the Potomac, where they found a boat and paddled to the
Maryland shore. Hazlett and another of the men whom Brown
had left behind to guard supplies were later captured in
Pennsylvania and extradited to Virginia. Of the total, five
members of the raiding party would eventually make their way
to safety in the North or Canada.
Brown and his captured men were charged with treason, first-
degree murder and “conspiring with Negroes to produce
insurrection.” All of the charges carried the death penalty. The
trial, held in Charles Town, Virginia, began on October 26; the
verdict was guilty, and Brown was sentenced on November 2.
Brown met his death stoically on the morning of December 2,
1859. He was led out of the Charles Town jail, where he had
been held since his capture, and seated on a small wagon
carrying a white pine coffin. He handed a note to one of his
guards: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of
this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with blood.”
Escorted by six companies of infantry, he was transported to a
scaffold where, at 11:15, a sack was placed over his head and
a rope fitted around his neck. Brown told his guard, “Don’t
keep me waiting longer than necessary. Be quick.” These were

his last words. Among the witnesses to his death were Robert
E. Lee and two other men whose lives would be irrevocably
changed by the events at Harpers Ferry. One was a
Presbyterian professor from the Virginia Military Institute,
Thomas J. Jackson, who would earn the nickname “Stonewall”
less than two years later at the Battle of Bull Run. The other
was a young actor with seductive eyes and curly hair, already
a fanatical believer in Southern nationalism: John Wilkes
Booth. The remaining convicted raiders would be hanged, one
by one.
Brown’s death stirred blood in the North and the South for
opposing reasons. “We shall be a thousand times more Anti-
Slavery than we ever dared to think of being before,”
proclaimed the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald. “Some
eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified,” Henry
David Thoreau opined in a speech in Concord on the day of
Brown’s execution, “This morning, perchance, Captain Brown
was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not
without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an
angel of light.” In 1861, Yankee soldiers would march to
battle singing: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the
grave, but his soul goes marching on.”
On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, “this was the
South’s Pearl Harbor, its ground zero,” says Frye. “There was
a heightened sense of paranoia, a fear of more abolitionist
attacks—that more Browns were coming any day, at any
moment. The South’s greatest fear was slave insurrection.
They all knew that if you held four million people in bondage,
you’re vulnerable to attack.” Militias sprang up across the
South. In town after town, units organized, armed and drilled.
When war broke out in 1861, they would provide the
Confederacy with tens of thousands of well-trained soldiers.
“In effect, 18 months before Fort Sumter, the South was
already declaring war against the North,” says Frye. “Brown
gave them the unifying momentum they needed, a common
cause based on preserving the chains of slavery.”

Fergus M. Bordewich, a frequent contributor of articles on
history, is profiled in the “From the Editor” column.

Consider This:
The following questions may help you generate some
ideas that lead to a topic for your essay.

1. What did Fredrick Douglass mean by saying Brown
“in sympathy is a black man.”

2. What events from John Brown’s past (such as
government actions or social involvements) led him
to lead the raid on Harpers Ferry?

3. Harvard historian, John Stauffer said, “The impact of
Harpers Ferry quite literally transformed the
nation.” What did he mean?

4. When can acts of violence be justified in the efforts to
move a cause of social justice forward?

    • Harpers Ferry, Virginia, lay sleeping on the night of October 16, 1859, as 19 heavily armed men stole down mist-shrouded bluffs along the Potomac River where it joins the Shenandoah. Their leader was a rail-
    • Harpers Ferry, Virginia, lay sleeping on the night of October 16, 1859, as 19 heavily armed men stole down mist-shrouded bluffs along the Potomac River where it joins the Shenandoah. Their leader was a rail-
    • thin 59-year-old man with a shock of graying hair and penetrating steel-gray eyes. His name was John Brown. Some
    • of those who strode across a covered railway bridge from Maryland into Virginia were callow farm boys; others

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