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John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry
Part of pre-Civil War conflicts
HWFireHouseBrown.jpg
Harper's Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort"

Teresa Baine

Date October 16–18, 1859
Location Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia
Result U.S. victory
Participants
 United States Abolitionist Insurgents
Commanders and leaders
Robert E. Lee
Israel Greene
John Brown
Strength
88 U.S. Marines
Unknown number of Virginia Militia and Maryland Militia
8 white men
12 free black men
1 freed slave
1 fugitive slave
Casualties and losses
U.S. Marines:
1 killed
1 wounded
Virginia and Maryland Militia: Unknown
10 killed
7 captured
5 escaped
Civilians:
6 killed
9 wounded

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry (also known as John Brown's raid or The raid on Harpers Ferry) was an effort by white abolitionist John Brown to start an armed slave revolt in 1859. He attacked and captured the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Brown's raid, accompanied by 21 men in his party, was defeated by a platoon of U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. John Brown had originally asked Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom he had met in Springfield, Massachusetts, to join him in his raid. Tubman was prevented by illness. Douglass declined because he believed Brown's plan would fail.

Background

John Brown's fort, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia LCCN2016646131
John Brown's fort, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia 1885

Brown came from a staunch Calvinist and anti-slavery family. He failed at most business ventures he tried and declared bankruptcy at age 42. He attended a meeting of abolitionists in Cleveland, Ohio in 1837 that changed his life. He publicly declared he would destroy the institution of slavery. By 1848 he was already making plans to start a rebellion.

In 1856 Brown, four of his sons and three other followers killed five unarmed men and boys in retaliation for a raid by Missouri Border Ruffians on the town of Lawrence, Kansas. It was called the Pottawatomie massacre and it marked the beginning of the period called Bleeding Kansas. On August 30, 1856, Brown and about 40 men fought against about 250–300 Border Ruffians at the Battle of Osawatomie. Two years later Brown and his men raided into Missouri where they killed a planter and set 11 slaves free. They also took wagons, horses and mules.

Harpers Ferry

HFRM interpretive plaque
Plaque to honor the "colored citizens of Oberlin" who died during or because of their participation in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry

Brown had planned to set up a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains. From there he and his followers would help runaway slaves and launch attacks on slaveholders. He described this plan to abolitionists who might fund this plan. But the plan changed. By 1858, with the money and men to proceed, a follower revealed Brown's plan. He was forced to go into hiding. After a year, Brown was ready to go again. He rented a farm in Maryland across the river from Harpers Ferry. But many of his followers had changed their minds or didn't believe the plan would work. He did have 21 men and on October 16, they set out for Harpers Ferry.

About 4 am on the morning of the 17th, Brown and his men arrived at Harpers Ferry. They cut the telegraph lines then captured the federal armory. Next they captured Hall's Rifle Works, a weapons supplier to the federal government. Then Brown and his men took 60 prominent citizens as hostages.

Brown hoped slaves would join the fight but none came. Later that morning the local militia arrived and kept Brown and his men pinned down in the arsenal's engine house. Later in the afternoon, US Marines arrived commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee. The Marines stormed the engine house killing several of Brown's men. They captured Brown. He was quickly put on trial for treason against the state of Virginia, murder and slave insurrection. Brown was sentenced to death for his crimes. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Aftermath

Robert Edward Lee
Robert Edward Lee was an American and Confederate soldier, best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army

Colonel Lee and John Stuart searched the surrounding country for fugitives who had participated in the attack. Few of Brown's associates escaped, and among those who did, some were sheltered by abolitionists in the north, including William Still.

Brown was taken to the court house in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and was hanged on December 2. This execution was witnessed by the actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

Brown quickly became the Martyr for the Abolitionist cause. Many said he accomplished more by his death than he ever did in life. In the south his raid made their worst fears come true. It was the greatest symbol yet of the northern antislavery movement.

Of the US Marines at Harpers Ferry:

  • Robert E. Lee left the U.S. Army in the spring of 1861. He became the commander of the Confederate Army of America.
  • Jeb Stuart became the Confederate Army Chief of Cavalry.
  • Israel Greene also resigned from the army and joined the Confederacy. He became a Captain in the Confederate Marines and rose to the rank of Major.
  • Major Russel was the only officer who did not join the Confederacy. He was Paymaster of the United States Marine Corps and died in 1862.

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