One hundred and sixty years ago this month (October 2019), twenty-two men embarked on a mission that shocked the nation and accelerated the rush toward Civil War. The event is now popularly called “John Brown’s Raid” and is viewed as one of the key events leading to the Civil War.
Though the actual action of the raid began on October 16, 1859, it had been years in the making. John Brown had dedicated his life to working for the abolition of slavery through any means. He had fought pro-slavery supporters in Bleeding Kansas earlier in the decade, gaining chilling nicknames and becoming a feared figure who appeared with his band in the night and left bloodied corpses behind. He had sprinted enslaved from their captors to safety in Canada. He had contacted prominent societal reformers and managed to gain their financial support in a series of secretive deals designed to back a bold plan to liberate hundreds or thousands of the South’s enslaved.
Then, there was the immediate preparations for the capture of Harpers Ferry, site of the U.S. Arsenal and weapons manufactory. Brown, several of his children, and others caught in the fervor of this fierce abolitionism spent the summer months of 1859 hiding out on a farm a few miles from Harpers Ferry, stockpiling weapons and going over their plans.
By October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty-one other men started for their objective. Some details had been well-rehearsed, others seemed to have never been considered. They seized the arsenal, cut communication and transportation routes, took hostages, and forced confused enslaved men to join the cause which had been suddenly sprung upon them. Understandably, Harpers Ferry and the surrounding Virginia countryside panicked; white citizens lived in dread of slave revolt and eventually they began to realize that was exactly what “Captain” Brown had in mind.
Militias and uncoordinated civilians rushed to the town, pinning down Brown and his men – killing some and forcing the others to take refuge in the Armory’s Engine House. Federal troops were summoned. Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart volunteered to join and lead the 90 Marines sent to Harpers Ferry. On October 18th, after Brown refused to surrender, U.S. Marines broke into the Engine House, taking Brown and his still-living associates captive.
John Brown was tried in a Virginia state court in Charles Town and sentenced to hang. Others in his band faced a similar fate. On December 2, 1859, Brown was executed, and his death pushed the nation closer to the brink of Civil War.
From his Kansas marauding to his raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown captured the attention and fears of America. His violence brought the questions of slavery, insurrection, treason, and moral cause into the everyday language of the American people. He caused some of them to question what they believed and what they held as right.
Historians and researchers can debate John Brown and his 1859 Raid – the motives, the details, the outcome. They can delve for the lesser-known stories and look for greater insights into this history. Emerging Civil War is pleased to host a blog series that will encourage these objectives and open a discussion into the multi-faceted story of John Brown’s Raid and its far reaching outcomes.
One thing is clear with hindsight: John Brown’s Raid marks an emerging moment in history. Civil War begins to stand clearly on the United States’s horizon, and John Brown’s actions on those fateful nights and days at Harpers Ferry made that frightening reality emerge into the discussion and fears of Americans by bringing to light seemingly irreconcilable differences and a moral controversy that shook the nation’s soul.