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October 16, 2015

John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry

By Joel R Kolander

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November 7, 1837 was a turning point for John Brown. It was on that date that abolitionist publisher Elijah Parish Lovejoy was shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois during their attack on his warehouse. It was the fourth printing press of Lovejoy’s to see such an attack. He and his supporters were ready to protect their right to free speech with guns, but in the ensuing firefight Lovejoy was struck down and instantly became a martyr for his cause. The primary goal was to destroy his printing press and abolitionist materials, but the murder of the author had to be icing on the cake for his attackers. It was at his funeral service in Hudson, that fellow abolitionist John Brown stood up, raised his right hand, and is quoted as saying, “Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”

An extremely rare and documented Sharps Model 1853 captured from John Brown during his ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry Arsenal sold in December of 2015 at Rock Island Auction Company.

To be truthful, it was not an epiphany for Brown, who had long held abolitionist beliefs. At 12 years old he viewed the savage beating of a slave boy, which affected him deeply. By 1835, then 35 years of age, Brown was already a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in Ohio. He was far from “all talk,” and was already taking high risk actions to clip the clenched talons of slavery. However, even after his very public proclamation it would be years before Brown would be able to act. Numerous failed business ventures forced him to focus on matters more practical, like feeding his massive family, which would eventually total 20 children (7 from his first marriage (widowed) and 13 from his second). No matter what the profession – cattle, tannery, horse & sheep breeding, land speculation, or surveying – Brown couldn’t get a profession to take hold. Granted, it didn’t help that the Panic of 1837 was still playing out in the American economy, but creditors seldom take excuses. Facing suits from creditors, Brown lost almost everything when his goods and sheep were auctioned in an attempt to cover his debts. It was in the aftermath of this event that he made his announcement at Lovejoy’s funeral, but things weren’t going to improve for the floundering abolitionist.

If the statement of Brown seems like the near explosive outburst of a desperate man, it is. Imagine the stress of providing for a single child, let alone many of them. Combine that with the anxiety and embarrassment of serial entrepreneurial failures and the anguish of two of his children dying in the previous five years, and you can begin to understand the incredible psychological strain that Brown surely endured. Not long thereafter, on September 28, 1842, Brown declared bankruptcy and in 1843 four of his children succumbed to dysentery. While an average person would be too racked with grief to function properly, John Brown sallied forth. Life was not going to wait and self-pity was not going to fill the bellies of his remaining family. Using his reputation from his previous sheep breeding days, he moved his family to Ohio to start a business centered on selling high quality wool and sheep. Shortly thereafter, the fledgling business moved to Springfield, Mass. where Brown met many like-minded abolitionists, further cementing his views, and keeping his 1837 promise fresh in his mind.

It was in Springfield that he once spoke at length with Frederick Douglass, which generated several quotes from the noted orator.

“From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.”
“Brown denounced slavery in language fierce and bitter, and thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live,.. He thought that he had no better use for his life than to lay it down in the cause of the slave.”
“Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy with the black man and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

After yet another move to North Elba, NY in 1849, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 drew Brown back to Springfield to coordinate with the kindred abolitionist spirits he had met there. It was then that an anti-slavery militia known as the League of Gileadites was formed by Brown and friends. The group primarily served to keep Springfield as a safe haven for African-Americans, flying in the face of the new federal law. Documented sightings of armed African-Americans at train stations exist, stating that such men were stationed there to “greet” any slave catchers intent on plying their trade in Springfield. It was the first real action that Brown had tasted since his days in the Underground Railroad, and it must have felt fantastic. With so much of his life seemingly out of his control, here was an area where his actions were making a visible difference.

Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that Brown did not want to leave. Even with his strong anti-slavery convictions and the provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which created the territories and utilized popular sovereignty to determine whether they would be “slave” or “free” states, he remained rooted to Springfield. When five of his adult sons left for Kansas to help vote it a “free state,” he stayed behind stating he wanted to “lay my bones to rest.” They seem the words of a man weary of wrestling with failure. With or without Brown, the situation in Kansas quickly became bloody. Violent clashes between the opposing forces of slavery took place and, as they escalated, became appropriately known as “Bloody Kansas.” Only a desperate letter from his first son, John Jr, could rouse the abolitionist. It correctly stated that the pro-slavery forces vastly outnumbered their opponents. Many of the recently relocated pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” had taken control of local polling places and ensured that any vote on the issue would be heavily swayed toward their cause. Their numbers also ensured that the anti-slavery side had little chance of mounting resistance, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to try. In John Jr.’s letter to his father he requested arms stating, “We need them more than we do bread.” Perhaps reinvigorated at the thought of making a profound difference, John Brown gathered his weapons and set out for Kansas. He arrived in October when both sides were forced indoors by the cold and snow. The battle would have to wait.

In Spring of 1856, life sprung anew and so did tempers. On May 22, 1856, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks (D – SC) severely beat Senator Charles Sumner (R – MA) with a cane. It was Brooks’s response to a speech given two days prior by Sumner decrying the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The assault was so horrific that the cane shattered, blood soaked the chamber floor, and Sumner was nearly killed. This extremely polarizing event was equally reviled and celebrated by the respective sides. It, along with other acts of violence by the “Border Ruffians,” pushed John Brown to act in what would be later known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.

A Northern depiction of the Brooks assaulting Sumner. It would be three years before he could return to the Senate.

Recently, a sheriff-led posse of roughly 800 had been on a tear under the guise of restoring “law & order.” In Lawrence, KS, they had wrecked two abolitionist printing presses and their offices, ruined the Free State Hotel, and sacked the home of one Charles Robinson – the local militia commander and head of the Free State government in the area who would eventually become the first governor of Kansas. They had used a cannon in their destructive practice and burnt anything that remained standing. Local pro-slavery governments largely dismissed or justified the attacks and the pro-slavery presses of the time heralded the acts. The beating of Sumner and the unanswered violence in Lawrence sparked a fire in John Brown. He, some of his sons, and a pro-slavery militia company began to march toward the conflict.

Image of the Free State Hotel after the sacking of Lawrence.

On the night of May 24, 1856, under the light of a waning moon, John Brown and a party specially selected by him began to visit the houses of those who had been arrested for the “sacking of Lawrence,” and subsequently released. One by one the team assembled by Brown knocked on doors in the middle of the night, ordered men to surrender to them as prisoners, and would walk them some distance away from their homes before hacking them to death with broad swords. Some houses had guests who would be interrogated first and some were even allowed to leave. Only those violent, pro-slavery, militia-involved individuals were stabbed and cleaved to death on the very soil they sought to shape. The attacks were brutal. Heads were split asunder, arms were severed, and bodies mutilated. People wishing to justify the gruesome acts often cited threats against Brown and his family, though perhaps grief had played a role in the evening as well. Brown’s revered father had died over a fortnight prior.

The event began an exponential growth of violence in the “Bloody Kansas” period and put Brown’s name on the map. His role in the massacre forced him and his small fighting force into the woods to serve as guerrilla fighters, and serve they would – most notably at the Battle of Black Jack and the fighting at Osawatomie, earning him the nickname “Osawatomie Brown” and a stageplay of the same title (which debuted posthumously by two weeks). Brown was now a household name and a hero to many abolitionists. He would spend roughly two years traveling the countryside, all the while seeking contributions of guns, money, or troops from sympathetic Northerners. In June of 1859, he would rent a farm five miles north of the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, under the name of Isaac Smith and grew a wild-looking beard and head of hair to disguise himself. From there he prepared to execute what he envisioned to be a back-breaking blow to slavery and the slave states.

Most sources oversimplfy when summarizing John Brown’s plan. It is often summarized as “inciting an armed resurrection to overthrow slavery” or that he believed the only way to defeat the institution of slavery was by a baptism of blood. While neither of those things is entirely wrong, though Brown would say otherwise, they are a long way from painting a full and accurate picture. Brown’s plan would meet violence, so it required violence, but his aims were much broader: the economic collapse of the South. Undoubtedly inspired by his time with the underground railroad, Brown wanted to use small units of men armed for their task to free slaves and then escort them Northward through the Appalachians via a series a encampments. Since the Underground Railroad saw such great success, surely providing fugitive slaves with armed and trained escorts, in Brown’s mind, would remove a large part of the danger that escaping slaves faced, eliminate their hesitation, and increase the number of those willing to flee. Brown reasoned that without adequate number of slaves to run the plantations, those owners would not be able to earn their customary amounts, leading to bankruptcies (something Brown knew first-hand) and devaluation of property. Without an economic incentive to support it, Brown thought that slavery would be forced into oblivion. Take note that in no part of that plan is there an armed insurrection, or some sort of 19th century Helter Skelter, or a Sherman-esque march of destruction that frees and arms slaves along the way. The only firearms needed for the plan were to protect the escaping slaves and those escorting them from their owners, but guns were none-the-less needed and the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry held 100,000 rifles and muskets plus ammunition.

In the months preceding the raid, Brown had been busy gathering more than just financial support from wealthy Northerners and Canadians, he had also been reaching out to sympathetic leaders in preparation for the watershed moment that he envisioned. He had reached out to Harriet Tubman, whom he nicknamed “General Tubman,” to utilize her knowledge of resources and her network of supporters. She would eventually gather former slaves in Ontario who were willing to fight for him. He contacted William Lloyd Garrison with little result, but also got in touch with his one-time supporter Frederick Douglass. The two met secretly at a quarry in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in August, but the result was not what Brown wanted. Brown is quoted as saying, “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I want you to help hive them.” But Douglass believed no good could come from raiding the arsenal, warning him that, “You are walking into a perfect steel trap,” and that “an attack on the federal government… would array the whole country against us.” With or without Douglass’s support, Brown needed guns. The raid was inevitable.

In September he received 950 pikes from supporters and would eventually receive 200 Sharps rifles, nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles” for the deliberately misleading markings on the outside of their shipping containers (Beecher being one of the most prominent abolitionist families in the U.S. at that time).

The Raid

There were 18,000 slaves in the six counties surrounding Harpers Ferry. Once Brown and his raiding party struck the arsenal, he knew that some of those slaves would leave their masters, and the result would be his cause having both the arms and manpower it so desperately needed. It was around 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 16, 1859, the midst of the critical harvest season, that Brown uttered, “Men, get on your arms, We shall proceed to the Ferry.”

The plan was as follows: after storming the arsenal and securing the arms, he would hold the arsenal for a time. While occupying it, he would send out members of his party to the nearby plantations and farms to recruits slaves to his cause. Brown anticipated up to 500 slaves absconding to the arsenal on the first evening alone. Once the numbers were adequate he would move out of the arsenal, moving South and dispersing these armed escort groups along the way. Each group would free slaves, obtain supplies, take hostages (to exchange for slaves), and steal horses as needed, all the while using the cover and terrain of the Appalachians to travel as covertly as possible. He would blaze a trail of freedom, freeing slaves and ruining the Southern economy in a single campaign. The number of participants would only increase as he went, so each success would be critical to gathering momentum.

Unfortunately, on the night of the raid, Brown did not have the support he envisioned. His entire group consisted of 22 men, including himself: 16 white men, 3 free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave. He left four men behind, and the 18 raiders began the five mile march to the arsenal. With them was also a one-horse cart carrying tools, supplies, torches, and a number of the pikes.

They arrived first at the Baltimore & Ohio bridge that spanned the Potomac and took the opportunity to sever the telegraph wires to the arsenal, as well as easily capture an old night watchman. Leaving two men as guard on the bridge, the remainder walked the 60 yards to the gates of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. All in all, the men encountered little resistance considering 100,000 arms were at stake. After crossing the bridge, another watchman was on the inside of the locked arsenal gate, but was grabbed through it and held. He would not give up a key, nor open the gate, so they held him until the gates could be broken with a sledgehammer and crowbar they brought. Once inside, two-man teams captured buildings, bridges, and another elderly, unarmed guard humorously referred to in a first-hand account as “superannuated.”

With the guards and employees secured the next step was to obtain local hostages. Six armed men were sent to a nearby residence to capture Colonel Lewis W.Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, and any other persons of opportunity (there were three slaves). It was known that Col. Washington also had a historic presentation dress sword given to George Washington by Frederick the Great as well as a set of pistols presented to Washington from the Marquis de La Fayette – the raiders took them as well. The kidnapping and ransoming of Col. Washington, for a single slave, would draw great attention to their cause. On the way back to the arsenal they stopped at another house, kidnapped the owner and all his slaves as well. Shortly thereafter, men were also sent to fetch the arms that were housed at the farm Brown had rented. Everything was going perfectly for John Brown, but it was not to last. It all started with a train.

A B&O passenger train was approaching the station near the arsenal, but was stopped short of the station by one of Brown’s sons, Watson. A free African-American named Shepherd Haywood was the regular railroad porter, highly respected in the community, and was likely going to investigate why the train had stopped. Other stories portray him as going to warn the passengers who were still ignorant as to why they were stopped. Regardless the reason, Haywood was shot at around 1:30 in the morning by two of Brown’s men. Most sources note this as particularly ironic since he was a free black man. He did not die immediately. The gun shots were the first fired of the ordeal, but most neighbors to the arsenal, hearing no other shots, went back to bed. The exception was a Dr. John Starry who heard Haywood’s cries of pain and, being a doctor, went to go investigate. He was found by Brown’s men and taken to Haywood who was writhing in agony inside the watchman’s office. After doing what he could, Dr. Starry began to watch the actions of the raiders and incorrectly determined that the raid was a simple robbery. The raiders then made their fatal mistakes: they released the doctor to go to his home after he had pronounced the wound fatal and sent the train on its way.

Only Dr. Starry didn’t go home. He retrieved his horse and rode to the chief clerk of the armory and told him of the events there. Then he rode to the nearby town of Bolivar and roused some of the townspeople there, proceeded to the militia in local Charles Town, and continued to spread the word until it was daylight. Starry is sometimes nicknamed, “The Paul Revere of Harpers Ferry.” His actions of course, sent the townspeople scurrying to defend their local lifeline. Some had been asleep at the timeof the warning though, and were going about their daily business. This allowed Brown’s sentries (historically called “pickets” or lookouts) to take 30-40 townspeople prisoner. An Irish grocer was not so lucky. Going about his business, he was deemed by one of the pickets to be walking too closely to the arsenal and was shot and killed without warning.

By seven o’clock that morning most people were by now aware of the situation at the arsenal, be it from Starry’s warning or seeing folks taken prisoner, and were beginning to gather arms. The town of 3,000 had little in the way of firepower that wasn’t in the arsenal. Only several old Revolutionary War flintlocks, some squirrel guns, and fowling pieces were all that could be mustered. Even ammunition was scarce, forcing the townspeople to melt down pewter housewares to make the necessary bullets, but within two hours the delay was over, sufficient arms having been raised, and a party was formed to take one of the bridges leading to the arsenal. Brown’s pickets were firing at citizens that dared showed themselves in order to make their force appear much larger than it was and to delay any intervention on the part of the townspeople, who were taking their own opportunities to return fire.

While that trouble had been stirred up by the good doctor, with townspeople and raiders alike suffering casualties even in those early hours, the previously released train threatened to stir up even more. Later that morning, it had made its way to Baltimore and news quickly spread to Washington D. C. By 3:30 p.m. President Buchanan had ordered a detachment of Marines to the arsenal. They were the only troops nearby able to respond and the only commander in the vicinity was a lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on leave from Texas. He was dispatched to the arsenal in such haste that he left wearing his civilian attire. That man was Robert E. Lee.

The Fight

Before Lee arrived the following day with his Marines, the townspeople and local militias had already surrounded the arsenal, cutting off Brown’s escapes across both the Potomac or the Shenandoah rivers. They were also driving the invaders further into the arsenal. The name of raider who had shot the Irish grocer was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave fighting to free his wife. He had shot one other prominent and beloved local, a friend of Colonel Washington responding to his friend’s plight, and was quickly engaged by the townsfolk. Newby was soon killed by one of the armorers of the arsenal who fired at him from the second story window of a nearby house. The result is best described in a first-hand account.

“I saw his body while it was yet warm as it lay on the pavement in front of the arsenal yard, and I never saw, on any battle-field, a more hideous musket-wound than his. For his throat was cut literally from ear to ear, which was afterward accounted for by the fact that the armorer, having no bullets, had charged his musket with a six-inch iron spike.”

Newby’s body was mutilated by the townspeople. Meanwhile on one of the bridges, the locals had also taken two of the pickets stationed there and killed another. His body was thrown into the river where, despite their distinct lack of ammunition, his body was fired on again and again. Of the party of 18, eight were dead, five were isolated, and two had escaped. Seeing the dire situation, Brown retreated with his remaining forces and prisoners, including Col. Washington, into the engine house of the arsenal and a standoff had begun. Brown began to make embrasures (“loop holes”) in the walls of the engine house in order to fire on his assailants, but still attempted to negotiate. One time proposing that he and his nine prisoners be permitted to leave and when he had traveled up river a half or three-quarters of a mile, he would release the prisoners. Unfortunately, negotiations between volleys of fire are rarely bear fruit. Raiders that exited waving a white flag, including one of Brown’s own sons, were quickly shot down. An unfortunately curious mayor received a mortal wound for his troubles. Anger flared among the townspeople! They killed raiders they had previously taken prisoners, performed target practice on raider corpses, and began to shout about lynchings.

“Attack on the Insurgents At The Bridge By the Railroad Men”‌‌From the Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP

As if this wasn’t bad enough for Brown, Lee had arrived with his 87 Marines in the midst of “a lively skirmish” between the townspeople and the raiders. What’s worse, he was accompanied by a young army lieutenant, who had been in D.C. on personal business, but heard of Lee’s assignment, volunteered to accompany Lee as an aide-de-camp: J.E.B. Stuart. Lee intended to end the business at the arsenal very quickly, but hostages inside meant that the Marines would be using only bayonets and to do so they would have to enter the engine house. After a brief and tense parley between Stuart and Brown where no terms could be reached, Lee gave a quick signal for a dozen previously concealed Marines armed with sledge hammers to begin work on the doors. The marines,

sprang forward from behind the angle of the wall that had concealed them, and for perhaps two minutes or more the blows of the sledge-hammers on the door of the engine-house sounded with startling distinctness, and were reechoed from the rocky sides of the lofty mountains that rose in all their rugged majesty around us.

The hammers were ineffective and no shots rang out from the raiders, but within minutes 25 – 30 of the Marines had procured a nearby ladder and were running at the engine house doors, using it as a make-shift battering ram. The first attempt made no mark, the second attempt drew gunfire from inside the house wounding two Marines, and the third, blow partially caved one of the doors, permitting a man to get on top and finally collapse it. A short hand-to-hand battle followed and soon thereafter the Marines exited with their prisoners.

‌‌Illustration of the Marines storming what came to be known as “John Brown’s Fort.”

With that, John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry was over. Some say his raid failed, but others point out that his raid sparked the great Civil War that ultimately ended slavery in the United States. In that way, not only was his raid not a failure, he himself had also achieved the success that had for so long proved elusive. It’s difficult to know who to believe about Brown’s intentions. If you believe the Southerners at the time, you’ll find him to be perhaps the first domestic terrorist of the United States: a treasonous insurrectionist bent on stealing property and spilling Southern blood. If you believe the abolitionists at the time, you’ll see a fiery, heroic humanitarian, dedicated to the equal treatment and freedom of all men regardless the cost. If you read quotes of the time, from Brown himself, you’ll often find both.

I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for.
-Brown, while fighting in the Kansas territory, 1856
I don’t think the people of the slave states will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light till some other argument is resorted to other than moral persuasion.
– Brown, October 1859 (likely to his captors)
I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God… I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except the satisfaction of endeavor¬ing to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here. . .
-Quotes given to citizens, two congressmen and a reporter from the New York Herald, after being captured
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.
-Note given by John Brown to a guard en route to the gallows
His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.
-Frederick Douglass

The Gun

The rifle to be sold by Rock Island Island Auction Company in the 2015 December Premiere Firearms Auction is a Sharps Model 1853 carbine captured from John Brown. Sharps expert Frank Sellers specifically lists this serial number (16639) in his book, Sharps Firearms, as part of a shipment of arms that was delivered to the farm where Brown prepared for his assault on Harpers Ferry. Federal authorities, only able to retrieve slightly more than half (102) of the Sharps carbines belonging to Brown (200) and historically have only given a serial number range for the weapons involved. However, factory records from Sharps specifically identify individual serial numbers of half the guns shipped there, and the serial number of this Sharps carbine is among those listed.

Lot 3172: Extremely Rare, Historically Significant, and Documented Sharps Model 1853 John Brown Raid Carbine with Inscription.

John Brown: ruthless guerrilla or passionate humanitarian? Murderer or savior? Unimaginable success or laughable failure? Terrorist or red-blooded American? Questions like these are what keep the man a polarizing topic to this day. However, careful examination of historical documents reveals shades of both, and that makes for a truly interesting historical figure. Brown doesn’t fit nicely into our boxes of “hero” or “villain.” This “Meteor of the war,” as Herman Melville called him, was eventually hung by the neck for treason, murder, and inciting slave rebellion in front of a security guard of roughly 1,500 men led by a cadet of the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Songs for Brown were composed, and poems and essays of his death would be written by some of the day’s most skilled authors and orators: Thoreau, Melville, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Stephen Vincent Benét. Perhaps the most notable is that spoken by Douglass at Harper’s Ferry on May 30, 1881.

Abolitionist John Brown was the most famous user of the Slant Breech Sharps. He and his “army” used Sharps rifles in their famous raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia as part of Brown’s attempt to overthrow the system of slavery in the southern states via armed insurrection.

“But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out of Harpers Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harpers Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause.”

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