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
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
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 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 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
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.
The Civil War and Statehood
West Virginia History Center