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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

John Brown's Raid At Harpers Ferry and Governor Henry Alexander Wise's
Letter to President James Buchanan Concerning the Invasion

By Isaiah A. Woodward

Volume 42, Numbers 3 & 4 (Spring-Summer 1981), pp. 307-13

During John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, Henry Alexander Wise, a Democrat from Accomac County, was governor of the state, while James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian and graduate of Dickinson College, was president of the United States. Wise, who favored Buchanan's nomination at the Democratic Convention in 1856, believed in the institution of slavery. President James Buchanan believed in a policy of peace and moderation with the Southern states; he had pro-southern leanings for which his adversaries referred to him as a doughface. Furthermore, Buchanan showed consideration for the rights of the slaveholders of the South. His cabinet consisted of men from the slave states. Among this group were John C. Breckinridge, vice president of the nation, John B. Floyd, secretary of war, Isaac Toucey, secretary of the navy, and Howell Cobb, secretary of the treasury.1

Prior to (John Brown's) raid at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, to obtain guns and ammunition from the federal arsenal in order to carry out a plan of emancipating slaves of Maryland and Virginia, the abolitionist Brown had drafted a constitution to be used in developing an independent integrated state in the West.2 In 1859, Brown and his organized band of invaders failed in their lawless raid at Harpers Ferry, as the federal government sent Colonel Robert E. Lee, a Virginian, with a detachment of Marines on a special Baltimore and Ohio Railway train3 to the dangerous area. At Harpers Ferry, Lee and his marines, with the aid of the Virginia Militia, captured Brown and six of his men at the fire engine house on the grounds of the arsenal (ten of Brown's men were killed and five escaped). One marine and six Virginia citizens were killed in the struggle.4 However, none of the citizens held as hostages by Brown in the firehouse was harmed. Secret papers concerning Brown's political and social movement were obtained by the authorities from the fire building.5

Among the blacks who took an active part in the raid were Osborn Anderson, John Copeland, Shields Green, Lewis Leary and Dangerfield Newby. Frederick Douglass and other free blacks helped Brown to collect money and recruit Negroes for the raid, but before the incident occurred, Douglass and most blacks refused to take up arms against Virginia.6

After Colonel Lee and his troops were ordered out of Harpers Ferry, Governor Wise organized a volunteer militia to guard the arsenal and other areas throughout Virginia. He informed President Buchanan that Brown's hostile attack on the arsenal would have been impossible had there been proper protection with "police and guards" under the leadership of a military officer.7

In writing President James Buchanan on October 24, 1859, concerning aspects of John Brown's lawless invasion of Harpers Ferry, Governor Henry Alexander Wise stated:


I have lately returned from Harpers Ferry, to which place I was suddenly called, on the 17th instant, by causes the most disturbing and destructive to the peace and safety of this State. A regularly organized band of lawless invaders, with the purpose of emancipating slaves in Maryland and Virginia by force and arms, at the expense of the lives and property of our people, seized the U. States arsenal, with its arms, munition & treasure, and made that arsenal a positive danger instead of being a protection to the surrounding country and its peaceful inhabitants. They seized upon the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road, one of the great national thoroughfares, and arrested the Superintendent and cars with their passengers, and shot one of the Company's servants; they cut the telegraphic wires and prevented the transmission of intelligence on the highway; they shot down several of the most worthy & respectable of the citizens of the town; and shot and wounded dangerously several citizens of the adjoining neighborhood in Virginia, who went to the lawful defence of the arsenal and the town of Harpers Ferry. Particulars of these high crimes and felonies are as will be reported to you by the proper officers of the U. States. And I obey my duty to the Commonwealth whose people I am bound to protect, by a due execution of the laws to inform you that, after due personal examination of the causes of these outrages, and of the opportunities for their commission, I am convinced that they could not have been perpetrated, as they were, by less than twenty men, if a proper police & guard, under a military officer, had been duly organized & kept in force at the arsenal of Harpers Ferry. [This was the duty of the War Department under the orders of the President of the V. States, I presume.] (marked out in original) There was no watch worth naming kept at the arsenal, and no military or civil guard whatever. Finding, on Thursday morning last, that the U. States Marines, under Col. Lee, had been ordered away from Harpers Ferry, and that there was no guard left there, I organized a corps of volunteers, to watch and guard the confines of Virginia contiguous to & around the arsenal & grounds attached thereto, ceded to the U. States, and incidentally to afford protection to the same as well as to the people and territory of Virginia, until the Executive of the U. States shall order such police & guard as it may deem necessary & proper for such a place.

I have the honor to be most respectfully.

Henry A. Wise8

While John Brown and his associates were awaiting trial for treason in a prison in Charles Town, Virginia (West Virginia after 1863), several abolitionists formulated a plan to effect his escape.9 However, during the trial Brown and his followers were closely guarded. As a result of Governor Wise's security measures at Charles Town, John Brown's escape as planned by the abolitionists did not materialize. In the meantime, Wise received petitions from citizens of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Canada, to spare the life of "Old Brown."10

By December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged. John Copeland, a free black of free Negro parents, who had moved from North Carolina to Oberlin, Ohio, was executed in 1860. Shields Green, a slave from South Carolina, was captured and also executed by 1860. Lewis Leary, a slave from North Carolina, was killed while escaping by way of the Shenandoah River. Dangerfield Newby, a free black of Harpers Ferry, was executed. Osborn Anderson, a free black from Pennsylvania and Canada, escaped,the Virginia authorities at Harpers Ferry. This young Negro later participated in the Civil War and helped to free blacks throughout the United States.11 Illness prevented Harriet Tubman from taking part in the raid at Harpers Ferry, thus saving her life.12

Brown's death made him a martyr for freedom. Meanwhile, Southern leaders feared the Harpers Ferry raid would influence slave insurrections throughout their section of the nation. Moreover, the slavery issue did much to increase tensions between the North and the South.


1 Isaiah A. Woodward, "Integrated History of The United States 1856-1900"(Unpublished manuscript, Morgan State University, Baltimore. Maryland, 1979), 1.

2 Executive Manuscripts of Governor Henry Alexander Wise, John Brown Papers, 1857. The John Brown Papers are a part of the Executive Manuscripts of Governor Henry A. Wise. in the Virginia State Library, Richmond, Virginia. Hereafter cited, John Brown Papers with dates.

3 John W. Garrison to James Buchanan. Camden Station, October 17, 1859. James Buchanan Papers, Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited, Buchanan Papers with dates.

4 Robert Ould to James Buchanan, Harpers Ferry, October 18, 1859, Buchanan Papers.

5 Ibid.

6 Edmond Franklin Frazier, The Negro in the United States (New York: MacMillian Company, 1957), 98-99.

7 Henry A. Wise to President James Buchanan, Richmond, Virginia, October 24, 1859, John Brown Papers.

8 Ibid.

9 Isaiah A. Woodward, "Plan for John Brown's Escape - 1859," West Virginia History, 19 (October 1957): 66-67.

10 See. Petitions to Governor Henry A. Wise, John Brown Papers, 1859.

11 Karen Whitman, "Re-evaluating John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry." West Virginia History, 34 (October 1972): 75-76.

12 Harriet Tubman, a 19th-century black revolutionist, saw her race emancipated and died in 1910. See Herbert Aptheker, "Militant Abolitionism," The Journal of Negro History, 26 (October 1941): 482.

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