Antebellum: John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Conflict & Dates:

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry lasted from October 16-18, 1859, and contributed to the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War (1861-1865).

Forces & Commanders

United States

Brown's Raiders

  • John Brown
  • 21 men

Harpers Ferry Raid Background:

A noted anti-enslavement activist, John Brown came to national prominence during the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis of the mid-1850s. An effective partisan leader, he conducted a variety of operations against pro-enslavement forces before returning east in late 1856 to raise additional funds. Backed by prominent anti-enslavement activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Gerrit Smith, Brown was able to purchase weapons for his activities. This "Secret Six" supported Brown's views, but were not always aware of his intentions.

Rather than continue small-scale activities in Kansas, Brown began planning for a large operation in Virginia designed to start a massive insurrection by enslaved people. Brown intended to capture the US Arsenal at Harpers Ferry and distribute the facility's weapons to rebellious enslaved people. Believing that as many as 500 would join him on the first night, Brown planned to move south freeing enslaved people and destroying the practice as an institution. Though prepared to commence his raid in 1858, he was betrayed by one of his men and members of the Secret Six, fearing their identities would be revealed, forced Brown to postpone.

The Raid Moves Forward:

This hiatus resulted in Brown losing many of the men he had recruited for the mission as some got cold feet and others simply moved on to other activities. Finally moving forward in 1859, Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on June 3 under the alias of Isaac Smith. Renting the Kennedy Farm approximately four miles north of the town, Brown set about training his raiding party. Arriving over the next several weeks, his recruits totaled only 21 men (16 White, 5 Black). Though disappointed in the small size of his party, Brown commenced training for the operation.

In August, Brown traveled north to Chambersburg, PA where he met with Frederick Douglass. Discussing the plan, Douglass advised against capturing the arsenal as any attack against the federal government was sure to have dire consequences. Ignoring Douglass' advice, Brown returned to the Kennedy Farm and continued work. Armed with weapons received from supporters in the North, the raiders set out for Harpers Ferry on the night of October 16. While three men, including Brown's son Owen, were left at the farm, another team, led by John Cook was dispatched to capture Colonel Lewis Washington.

The great grandnephew of George Washington, Col. Washington was at his nearby Beall-Air estate. Cook's party succeeded in capturing the colonel as well as took a sword presented to George Washington by Frederick the Great and two pistols given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. Returning via the Allstadt House, where he took additional captives, Cook and his men rejoined Brown at Harpers Ferry. Key to Brown's success were capturing the weapons and escaping before word of the attack reached Washington and receiving the support of the local enslaved population.

Moving into the town with his main force, Brown sought to fulfill the first of these goals. Cutting the telegraph wires, his men also detained a Baltimore & Ohio train. In the process, African American baggage handler Hayward Shepherd was shot and killed. Following this ironic twist, Brown inexplicably allowed the train to proceed. Reaching Baltimore the next day, those on board informed the authorities about the attack. Moving on, Brown's men succeeded in capturing the armory and arsenal, but no rebelling enslaved people were forthcoming. Rather, they were discovered by armory workers on the morning of October 17.

The Mission Fails:

As the local militia gathered, the townspeople opened fire on Brown's men. Exchanging fire, three locals, including Mayor Fontaine Beckham, were killed. During the day, a company of militia seized the bridge over the Potomac cutting off Brown's escape route. With the situation deteriorating, Brown and his men selected nine hostages and abandoned the armory in favor of a smaller engine house nearby. Fortifying the structure, it became known as John Brown's Fort. Trapped, Brown sent out his son Watson and Aaron D. Stevens under a flag of truce to negotiate.

Emerging, Watson was shot and killed while Stevens was hit and captured. In a fit of panic, raider William H. Leeman attempted to escape by swimming across the Potomac. He was shot and killed in the water and the increasingly drunken townspeople used his body for target practice for the rest of the day. Around 3:30 PM, President James Buchanan dispatched a detachment of US Marines under leadership of US Army Lieutenent Colonel Robert E. Lee to deal with the situation. Arriving, Lee closed the saloons and took overall command.

The next morning, Lee offered the role of attacking Brown's fort to the local militias. Both demurred and Lee assigned the mission to Lieutenant Israel Greene and the Marines. Around 6:30 AM, Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, serving as Lee's volunteer aide-de-camp, was sent forward to negotiate Brown's surrender. Approaching the door of the engine house, Stuart informed Brown that his men would be spared if they surrendered. This offer was refused and Stuart signaled Greene with a wave of his hat to start the assault

Moving forward, the Marines went at the engine house doors with sledge hammers and finally broke through with the use of a make-shift battering ram. Attacking through the breach, Greene was the first to enter the engine house and subdued Brown with a blow to the neck from his saber. The other Marines made quick work of the remainder of Brown's party and the fighting ended within three minutes.


In the attack on the engine house, one Marine, Luke Quinn, was killed. Of Brown's raiding party, ten were killed during the raid while five, including Brown, were captured. Of the remaining seven, five escaped, including Owen Brown, while two were captured in Pennsylvania and returned to Harpers Ferry. On October 27, John Brown was brought to court in Charles Town and charged with treason, murder, and conspiring with enslaved people to rebel. After a week-long trial, he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to death on December 2. Turning down offers of escape, Brown stated he wished to die a martyr. On December 2, 1859, with Major Thomas J. Jackson and cadets from the Virginia Military Institute serving as a security detail, Brown was hung at 11:15 AM. Brown's attack served to further heighten the sectional tensions that had plagued the country for decades and which would culminate in the Civil War less than two years later.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Antebellum: John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Antebellum: John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Antebellum: John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).