Harpers Ferry

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Harpers Ferry (also called Harper's Ferry) is a small town in Virginia before 1862 and now in West Virginia. It is famous for its federal arsenal that made muskets and rifles, and its key location as a transportation point. Abolitionist John Brown in 1859 seized the arsenal in an attempt to start a slave rebellion. No slaves joined him, but the violent action caused an uproar especially in the South, where it was used to demonstrate the bad faith of the North, and thus helped precipitate the American Civil War. During the war the town was a key strategic point and changed hands several times.

John Brown's Raid

Brown's raid on October 16–18, 1859, was designed as a call to slaves to rise up in rebellion. The majority of abolitionists were pacifistic, but not the Kansas, typified by Brown. The raid itself was a total fiasco, but it created such political turmoil that, for the first time, national thought was thoroughly aroused on the issue with a resultant sharp cleavage between the proslavery and antislavery forces.

Brown's plan

John Brown, while following the peaceful pursuits of farmer and wool factor, plotted to invade the South and forcibly liberate the slaves. As early as 1847 he had discussed his scheme with black leader Frederick Douglass, following in general outline the plan finally adopted for a series of raids along the line of the Allegheny Mountains, liberating the slaves and organizing the country under a plan of government of his own devising.

Brown did not intend to make a sudden raid and then escape to the mountains. His plan was to use the 198 Sharps rifles and 950 pikes he brought along, and those captured ast the arsenal, to arm rebellious slaves, striking terror to the slaveholders in Virginia. Then he would send agents to nearby plantations, rallying the slaves; to hold Harpers Ferry for a short time, expecting as many volunteers white and black would join him as would form against him. He then would make a rapid movement southward, along the way sending out armed bands, They would free more slaves, obtain food, horses and hostages, and destroy slaveholding morale. Brown planned to follow the Appalachian mountains south into Tennessee and even Alabama, the heart of the South, making forays into the plains on either side. He believed that on the first night of the stroke he thought he might get from two to five hundred black adherents. He ridiculed the militia and regular army that might oppose him.[1]

Brown held a meeting at Chatham, Canada, on May 8, 1858, when a provisional constitution was adopted, a paper government set up, and a provisional army established with Brown himself selected as commander in chief. Brown's supporters in the northern states were few in number but included very well known intellectuals and politicians in Boston. He did not tell them fully his plans, but they knew he wanted a violent uprising that would kill thousands of men women and children of both races. These friends raised the necessary funds for the expedition. Harpers Ferry was selected as the place for raising the standard of the new revolution because it offered an easy gateway to Virginia, it was close to Brown's bases in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and it was the site of the U.S. armory and arsenal, where stores of muskets and munitions were kept. Fresh from "bleeding Kansas" and slave raids into Missouri, Brown in disguise went to Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859, and established headquarters at the nearby Kennedy farm in Maryland. Men and material assembled, he moved to the assault on Sunday night, Oct. 16, heading his army of liberation of seventeen whites and five blacks. Ironically enough, the first man to lose his life was a free black employee, who was shot down by one of the raiders when he attempted to escape. The venture failed for lack of support; not one slave willingly joined the army of liberation. Brown allowed a train to pass through after swearing the conductor to secrecy; he of course spread the alarm at the next town.

Besieged by Virginia and Maryland state troops, the survivors of the raiding party were driven into a fire engine house on the government reservation. Early Tuesday morning, Oct. 18, a federal force of U.S. Marines, commanded by U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, battered down the doors and captured the insurgents. Seventeen in all, ten of them raiders, were killed in the fighting. Brown and six of his men were later hanged at Charles Town, the county seat; he was the first to be hanged, on Dec. 2, 1859.


Brown became the great villain in the white South, and a hero to many antislavery advocates in the North. Historians continue to debate his moral stature and his mental health.

Across the South there was a wave of fear and hysteria from Brown's raid in October 1859 until the Confederacy was established in February 1861. Both Whig and Democratic editors filled their pages with reports of suspected servile revolts, violence or incendiary activity, and pleaded daily for increased vigilance against the ubiquitous enemy. White Southerners viewed all strangers with suspicion, forcing most Yankees to leave immediately, and tightened the slave code. Mississippi, for example, enacted a law compelling all free Negroes to leave the state by 1 July 1860 or be sold into slavery. German settlers in Texas were violently attacked and lynched.[2]

Civil War

Union forces abandoned the town and arsenal in April 1861, after destroying 17,000 rifles and ammunition, to keep them out of Confederate hands. They failed to destroy the machine shops where rifles were made, and the equipment was moved to the Confederate arsenal at Fayetteville, North Carolina. The Union reoccupied the town in 1862 but when attacked by Confederates under Stonewall Jackson, the 12,000 man garrison surrendered without a fight on 14 September 1862.


  1. Nevins 4:72-73
  2. Donald Brooks Kelley, "Harper's Ferry: Prelude to Crisis in Mississippi." Journal of Mississippi History 1965 27(4): 351-372. 0022-2771

Further reading

  • Earle, Jonathan. John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents‎ (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Lee, Robert E. "Col. Robert E. Lee's Report Concerning the Attack at Harper's Ferry, October 19, 1859" online
  • Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln: Prelude to Civil War, 1859-1861 (1950), vol 4 of The Ordeal of the Union, outstanding narrative, esp ch 3 pp 70–97
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 (1976) pp 356–84; Pulitzer Prize winning history by leading conservative historian
  • Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2006) says Brown was justified in practicing terrorism
  • Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After‎ (1910) 738 pages, a better balanced biography by an abolitionist full text online