John Brown’s Raid 160th: An Introduction

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.

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8 Responses to John Brown’s Raid 160th: An Introduction

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent and timely reminder of John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry. From my reading, many in the South saw the “invasion of Virginia” (with the attempt at initiating a slave revolt) as the final straw; and either at that time, or soon afterwards, the decision was taken by key men to push for Disunion. These key men included William Yancey and Edmund Ruffin; and as 1860 progressed the Disunion Party drew in James Chesnut, David Levy Yulee, Louis Wigfall, John C. Breckinridge, and Jefferson Davis (with the November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln being the “fail safe” position that was crossed, after which Disunion was inevitable.) How that final separation would be attempted, peacefully, or by force, was decided in 1861…
    As Herman Melville so aptly put it, John Brown “was the meteor of the war.”

  2. Joe Lafleur says:

    My family has land on the Shenandoah River about a mile upstream from John Brown’s Farm. His legend and lore were part of my upbringing along with many tours of Harper’s Ferry. As a youngster, JB’s band of a dozen and a half armed with pikes was laughable and my Dad singing “John Brown’s body lies a mouldin’ in the grave…” only added to my impression the whole thing was a silly farce. However, since then I’ve steadily seen evidence of the fear he caused; evidence of how significant this event was to slave owners even if it hadn’t seemed that way to me. The more I study the War seriously, I find more folks that feared John Brown. It didn’t matter he was hung. John Brown’s band and the raid shook up some slave owners so much they had no qualms about saying it or writing it. I believe, John Brown’s mentioned directly in one State’s Declaration of Secession and alluded to in others. Crazy? Maybe crazy like a fox I say, if one of his goals was to be remembered for striking fear amongst slave owners and starting a war for freedom.

  3. Lyle Smith says:

    Should John Brown’s Fort be called John Brown’s Fort? Was it a fort? Was it his fort? What was he defending with his fort? Did he build that fort?

    Should John Brown’s Fort be renamed by the National Park Service, because it inaccurately depicts what actually happened there? The use of the word fort must be really confusing to people once they realize the man was a hostage taking, terrorist who murdered people.

    Kansas marauding? More like Kansas terrorism. He like really murdered people there because they disagreed with him.

    Raid on Harpers Ferry? Yeah, it was as much of a raid as Jackson’s death site was a shrine. He was trying to start a massive slave rebellion in Virginia, but could only get as far into Virginia as Harpers Ferry while killing and kidnapping some random victims.

    John Brown’s terrorism was a significant factor in bringing on a Civil War that took over 600,000 lives. If there was ever a peaceful way to end slavery in America, John Brown wanted no part of it and therefore made it much less likely.

    What an asshole of human being!

    • Lyle Smith says:

      He never got to see it though. He should have listened to Frederick Douglass.

    • Robert Rainey says:

      Agreed Lyle, he was nothing more than a serial killer and it was unfortunate that no one in Kansas put a end to his atrocities. First person he killed in Harpers Ferry was a free black man, how ironic.

      • John Foskett says:

        The problem is that Briown was far from the only one doing that in Kansas, although you may have missed that. Marais des Cygnes comes to mind, for example. And terrorists continued to wreak their havoc in Kansas after the war started. I’m sure you must have heard of Bill Quantrill ….

  4. Mike Maxwell says:

    To provide the contemporary Northern view of John Brown’s War, in the 20 OCT 1859 Chicago Press & Tribune the following editorials were published: “We have seen one crazy old man at Harper’s Ferry frighten Buchanan and Wise, and all the slave holders of Virginia, nearly out of their senses… Is it the part of wisdom or patriotism to permit the Democratic party to increase, extend and nationalize this dangerous institution in our beloved country?” Another editorial in the same paper: “Would Old Brown have ever been heard of, had Douglas let the Missouri Compromise alone?”

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