John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry

1859 effort by abolitionist John Brown to initiate an armed slave revolt in Southern states

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.[a] Brown's raid, accompanied by 21 men in his party,[1] 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.[3]

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry
Part of pre-Civil War conflicts

Harper's Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort" Teresa Baine
DateOctober 16–18, 1859
Result U.S. victory
 United States Abolitionist Insurgents
Commanders and leaders
Robert E. Lee
Israel Greene
John Brown
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[1]
Casualties and losses
U.S. Marines:
1 killed
1 wounded
Virginia and Maryland Militia: Unknown
10 killed
7 captured
5 escaped
6 killed
9 wounded



Brown came from a staunch Calvinist and anti-slavery family.[1] He failed at most business ventures he tried and declared bankruptcy at age 42.[1] 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.[4] It was called the Pottawatomie massacre and it marked the beginning of the period called Bleeding Kansas.[5] On August 30, 1856, Brown and about 40 men fought against about 250–300 Border Ruffians at the Battle of Osawatomie.[6] Two years later Brown and his men raided into Missouri where they killed a planter and set 11 slaves free.[4] They also took wagons, horses and mules.[4]

Harpers Ferry


Brown had planned to set up a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains.[7] From there he and his followers would help runaway slaves and launch attacks on slaveholders.[7] He described this plan to abolitionists who might fund this plan.[7] But the plan changed. By 1858, with the money and men to proceed, a follower revealed Brown's plan.[7] He was forced to go into hiding.[7] After a year, Brown was ready to go again. He rented a farm in Maryland across the river from Harpers Ferry.[7] 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.[7]

About 4 am on the morning of the 17th, Brown and his men arrived at Harpers Ferry.[8] They cut the telegraph lines then captured the federal armory.[8] Next they captured Hall's Rifle Works, a weapons supplier to the federal government.[8] Then Brown and his men took 60 prominent citizens as hostages. Brown hoped slaves would join the fight but none came.[8] Later that morning the local militia arrived and kept Brown and his men pinned down in the arsenal's engine house.[9] Later in the afternoon, US Marines arrived commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.[9] The Marines stormed the engine house killing several of Brown's men.[9] They captured Brown. He was quickly put on trial for treason against the state of Virginia, murder and slave insurrection.[9] Brown was sentenced to death and was hanged on December 2, 1859.[9]



Brown quickly became the Martyr for the Abolitionist cause.[10] Many said he accomplished more by his death than he ever did in life.[10]

Of the US Marines at Harpers Ferry:

  1. At the time, Harpers Ferry was located in Virginia. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the people in the western region of the state did not agree.[2] They decided to form a separate state. On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became a state.[2] Harpers Ferry, the site of John Brown's raid, is in the present-day state of West Virginia.[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry". Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "West Virginia". History. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  3. Marian Taylor; Heather Lehr Wagner,Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004), pp. 68–69
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Steven Mintz. "John Brown: Villain or Hero?". History Now. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  5. Chris Rein. "Pottawatomie Massacre". Civil War on the Western Border. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  6. "Battle of Osawatomie". Civil War on the Western Border. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 "The raid on Harpers Ferry". Judgement Day. PBS/WGBH. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "John Brown Begins the Raid on Harper Ferry". African American Registry. Archived from the original on 22 September 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 "John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid". Civil War Trust. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 "Raid On Harpers Ferry". HistoryNet. Retrieved 20 June 2016.