Charles Petzold

1859 Crusades: John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

October 16, 2009
New York, N.Y.

It was raining lightly on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859 — 150 years ago today — when 19 men (including five African-Americans) left a small Maryland farmhouse armed with carbines and pikes, and headed towards a railroad bridge that crossed the Potomac into Virginia. Their leader was John Brown, 59 years old but looking much older, with a stark lined face, fierce blazing eyes, a white beard, and a countenance and aura like that of an Old Testament prophet.

They found a lone guard at the railroad bridge and took him hostage, and then proceeded into Harpers Ferry, a little neck of land tucked between the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Here in Harpers Ferry was the only federal armory in the South.

The immediate goal was to capture this armory, but the long-term plan was much more ambitious. John Brown intended to use this raid into Harpers Ferry to create a guerilla army for the purpose of liberating slaves in the South, while opening a passageway through the Alleghany Mountains for their transport up North to freedom.

At the time of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, almost 4 million men, women, and children of African descent still labored in the American South with no legal rights to their own lives — bought and sold like property, systematically denied education, disciplined with the whip, and routinely raped. (Everyone noticed how the lighter-skinned slave children often resembled the white man sitting at the head of the table.)

Although the number of actual slaveholders was rather small (probably around 350,000), they formed an oligarchy with power far beyond their numbers. The ideology of slavery was entwined into the culture of the South through the “gospel of ‘Herrenvolk democacy’ — the notion that because black slaves constituted a permanent underclass, all white men shared a measure of equality as members of the master race.” (Varon, p. 77) On Sundays, the slaveholders would go to church and hear slavery defended with Biblical quotations and the story of Ham, and they would sleep soundly at night believing that slavery was for the good of the slaves themselves.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Americans in the North had come to despise this vile institution, some for its sheer moral hideousness, but for others simply because it gave the South an unfair advantage over the wage-oriented agreement known as “free labor.” No one really had a good solution to the problem. Some people thought that slavery would wither away on its own as the slaveholders became more morally enlightened and compassionate. But this wasn’t happening at all. By 1859, slaveholders and their sympathizers throughout the South were more powerful and emboldened than ever.

Some sought political solutions — for example, continuing to let the South practice slavery but restricting its expansion into the territories and new states. Others proposed schemes to send slaves to colonies in Africa or elsewhere. Some abolitionists sought nonviolent solutions to slavery; many others came to the conclusion that nonviolence was no longer feasible, but were frightened at the prospect of civil war.

Among the wide range of tactics and strategies in fighting slavery, no one was more extreme or militant than John Brown.

Slavery in the United States was so hard to eliminate because it was woven into the fabric of America almost from the very beginning. Indeed, to this day, the legacy of slavery remains the country’s most malignant unhealed wound, continuing to erupt in ugly culture wars and inter-regional conflicts.

At the time of the formation of an independent United States, slavery existed throughout the thirteen colonies, but already the practice was declining in the more industrial economies of the North, and consequently become more closely identified with the Southern agricultural economies. The creation of a cooperative Union between these two regions involved much debate and compromise.

The Declaration of Independence got everything off to a good start with a foundation of solid Enlightenment values — “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — and an early draft actually blamed King George III for American slavery and the slave trade!

One might have expected a country founded under such a document to not tolerate slavery (or any type of racial discrimination) at all. But formulating a Constitution with actual laws and procedures required a series of compromises that without actually mentioning the word “slave” or “slavery,” wrote the practice into federal law.

The most notorious of the compromises is the procedure for counting persons in each state for purposes of taxation and determining representation in the House of Representatives. How should slaves be counted (if at all)? Although slaves had no political rights, nonetheless the South wanted them counted for purposes of representation. To the North, this would give the South unwarranted numerical advantages in the federal government. The ridiculous solution is in Article I, Section 2, where a state’s population “shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … three fifths of all other Persons.”

Less well known are two other passages where the Constitution obliquely refers to slavery. Article I, Section 9 states “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” In other words, the slave trade was to be allowed for at least 20 more years.

Article IV, Section 2 established a more long-term and ultimately extremely contentious principle:

This means that a slave escaping from bondage in one state could not legally seek refuge in another state, but had to be returned to his or her legal owner.

Of the original 13 states, seven were considered to be “free” (although it would be awhile before New York and New Jersey actually eliminated slavery) and six were “slave” states. In an almost alternating pattern of parity, new states were admitted to the Union as either “free” (Vermont in 1791, Ohio in 1803, Indiana in 1816, Illinois in 1818, Maine in 1820) or “slave” (Kentucky in 1792, Tennessee in 1796, Louisiana in 1812, Mississippi in 1817, Alabama in 1819).

The admittance of Maine as a free state was part of a deal known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This act fixed a hard boundary to slavery’s expansion by requiring all areas north of the 36° 30' latitude to be free states. The exception was Missouri, which was north of 36° 30' but would be a slave state.

The slave economy of the South was increasingly centered around cotton. By the mid nineteenth century, the South would produce ¾ of the world’s supply of cotton, amounting to 60% of American exports. (McPherson, p. 39) But cotton farming was depleting the soil, turning whole plantations into deserts. The South needed fresh land. The whole concept of Manifest Destiny — extending the borders of the United States westward across the continent — was intimately connected with the extension of slavery into those new territories. (Varon, p. 184)

(It was not well understood at the time that the solution to cotton-farming’s devastating effect on land is crop rotation. Ironically, one of the pioneers in establishing methods of rotating cotton with other crops was George Washington Carver, born as a slave in Missouri during the Civil War.)

Around 1830, a movement emerged in the North to abolish slavery, perhaps inspired by the battle against the slave trade in Great Britain earlier in the century. Quakers were often prominent among the abolitionists, but they tended to be gradualists in their views on the elimination of slavery.

Much more of an immediatist — although adhering to a strict philosophy of non-violence — was William Lloyd Garrison, who founded his abolitionist newspaper Liberator in 1831. Early on, the Liberator included articles by both white and black contributors “modeling for readers what true interracial friendship and collaboration looked like.” (Varon, p. 73) Garrison was considered so dangerous to the preservation of slavery that the Georgia legislature offered a reward of $5,000 for anyone bringing Garrison to the state to stand trial for treason.

Garrison proposed extreme but non-violent solutions to slavery. For others, the successful slave revolt in Haiti known as the Haitian Revolution provided an alternative model of action. David Walker, a free black from North Carolina, advocated actual insurrections by slaves in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829). Slave insurrections frightened slaveholders more than anything else — particularly in those areas of the South where slaves constituted numerical majorities. “In New Bern, North Carolina, in December 1830, sixty slaves were killed because of the suspicion that they had planned a revolt based on ‘Walker’s inflammatory pamphlet.’” (Varon, p. 65)

On August 22, 1831, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner led a rebellion that killed sixty whites, both striking fear into slaveholders, and offering glimpses of hope to slaves. The acts of Nat Turner would reverberate for decades — indeed for over a century as a folk hero in oral traditions among ex-slaves and poor blacks. (Varon, p. 78)

American slave narratives also became common during this period, including Slavery in the United States (1837) by Charles Ball and A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1837). Although Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave wouldn’t be published until 1845, Douglass first achieved fame in the 1830s as an eloquent orator of deep moral authority, becoming (in retrospect) one of the pre-eminent Americans of the nineteenth century.

Slaveholders and their sympathizers often claimed that slavery was a largely benevolent institution. The white Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, born and raised on a plantation in South Carolina, knew firsthand how wrong that was. They collected newspaper clippings from Southern newspapers to expose the cruelty, barbarity, and sheer inhumanity of the institution in the powerful book American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839).

John Brown, c. 1856

John Brown grew up in the abolitionist tradition. He was born in the year 1800 in Connecticut, and grew up in Ohio, raised by his father Owen, a tanner by profession, in a strict Calvinism that included predestination, divine retribution, and divine purpose. Owen Brown also imbued in his son the idea of both slavery and racism as sins against God. Both influences remained strong throughout John Brown’s life.

Brown probably became an active abolitionist after reading Garrison’s Liberator around 1833 or 1834. In 1837 he gave a little speech in Cleveland in support of repealing laws discriminating against blacks. (Oates, p. 41) In that same year — at another meeting in response to the murder of abolitionist journalist Elijah Lovejoy at his office in Illinois by a group of pro-slavery men from Missouri — John Brown swore to devote his life to the destruction of slavery. (Oates, p. 42)

John Brown had a big family: His first wife, Dianthe Lusk, had 7 children and died in childbirth. Brown’s second wife, Mary Ann Day, delivered another 13. And life was very hard for the Browns. As a businessman, Brown was pretty much a disaster, at various times in his life a “farmer, tanner, cattleman, horse-breeder, shepherd, and wool merchant, as well as a postmaster, surveyor, land speculator, and aspiring town builder.” (McGlone, p. 23) In all, he relocated his family some 14 times, and lost several children to disease. In 1843, dysentery swept through the Brown household and killed four of his children within a month. Three years later, another child died of an accidental scalding.

In the 1840s, John Brown met several black abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. As they talked at Brown’s home in February 1847, it’s possible that Brown was already suggesting a daring campaign to provide a passageway for runaway slaves through the Alleghany Mountains. (Oates, 62)

In 1848, Brown met Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New Yorker who had devoted a large area of land in the Adirondacks called North Elba for black farmers to establish homes and make livings for themselves. Brown and his family moved to North Elba to help out. A glimpse into Brown’s home in North Elba is provided by Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, who was hiking with some friends through the Adirondacks when they came upon the Brown farm. Dana later wrote about the dinner he was served, sitting at a table with white and black farmers alike, amazed at the racial equality and respectful attitudes everyone had towards each other.

That kind of racial harmony was rare in 19th century America, and certainly not in the all-white Congress that developed and passed the Compromise of 1850. Although this act was mostly intended to sort out the status of some territories and states, it also included a much strengthened Fugitive Slave Law.

The concept of the Fugitive Slave Law was engrained in the Constitution, and there had been previous laws for the same purpose, but nothing yet had quite polarized the North and South like the 1850 version. With this new law, bounty hunters searching in free states for runaway slaves were entitled to be aided by federal marshals, and the federal marshals could even conscript private citizens under threat of imprisonment to assist in the apprehension of slaves!

The North was treated to horrifying spectacles of escaped slaves who had established roots in the community, with thriving businesses and families, being dragged back South into bondage. Several famous cases arose that are still celebrated — like the heroic Jerry Rescue in Syracuse, New York, in 1851, and the 1854 case in Boston of Anthony Burns.

It was in response to the Fugitive Slave Law that Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing her abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which became the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and galvanized a generation of readers to see the horrors of slavery. Those who were already convinced in the cause became more militant. “The Fugitive Slave Law pushed many black abolitionists who had espoused Garrisonian nonviolence to justify the use of physical force as the only effective way to protect themselves and their communities.” (Varon, p. 237) Among these abolitionists turning from pacifism to militancy was Frederick Douglass himself, who concluded “the law of God required the death of kidnappers.” (quoted in Varon, p. 238)

Of all the compromises between North and South that characterized the 1850s, perhaps none was quite so misguided as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and in creating the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, allowed the inhabitants of those territories to decide for themselves whether the states would allow slavery or not.

Missouri, recall, was the only slave state north of the 36° 30' latitude line, and Northerners wanted to keep it that way. Kansas was directly west of Missouri, and if Kansas became a slave state, slavery would be pushed not only westward but more into the North, exposing Nebraska to the possibility as well. Northern abolitionists called upon courageous settlers to flock to Kansas so they could establish it as a free-soil state.

Pro-slavery advocates were equally nervous about Kansas. If Kansas became a free state, Missouri would then be surrounded on three sides by free states, providing many havens for runaway slaves. To the slaveholders of Missouri, this was an intolerable prospect. Missouri Senator David R. Atchison celebrated the influx of 5,000 Missourians into Kansas by noting that it was “enough to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the Territory.” (quoted by Oates, 89)

Free-soil and pro-slavery settlers in Kansas founded their own towns, created their own governments, and engaged in frontier justice. The territory of Kansas became the battleground of “Bleeding Kansas” with Border Ruffians from Missouri making incursive attacks against free-soil settlers.

Five of John Brown’s sons answered the call to settle in Kansas as opponents of slavery, and in 1854 they had established homesteads. They wrote back to their father that what they needed most of all were guns for defending themselves and their homes. Brown arrived in Kansas in October 1855 with additional weapons and settled near his sons in Osawatomie.

On May 21, 1856, Border Ruffians sacked the free-soil town of Lawrence. A day later — and it is unclear whether the news of this reached the Browns at this time — South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, leaving him bloody on the floor of the Senate. Sumner’s offence? Violating that most mysterious of Southern values, the congressman's “honor,” or rather his cousin’s honor, who Sumner had singled out in a speech two days earlier.

John Brown was now ready to act in a way he never had before. Believing himself to be an instrument of God in a holy war against the sin of slavery, he instructed his sons to sharpen some broadswords in preparation. On the night of May 24, 1856, he led seven of his followers, including his sons Frederick, Owen, Watson, and Oliver, to several houses along the Pottawatomie Creek known to belong to pro-slavery settlers. They pulled men out of their homes, interrogated them, let some of them go, and killed five others, leaving behind their hacked-up bodies.

The Pottawatomie Massacre, as it was called, became one of the most notorious incidents in the Kansas dispute. John Brown was long suspected of having led the attack, but he was never apprehended and never quite took full responsibility for it. In August 1856, Border Ruffians shot and killed Frederick Brown in retaliation.

In early 1857, John Brown was back east to raise money. He met with abolitionists in Boston, he met Emerson and Thoreau, and he even addressed the Massachusetts legislature. Although Brown was ostensibly pleading for funds for the Kansas cause, it is now believed that he was actually planning something far more ambitious.

The year 1857 brought perhaps the most infamous Supreme Court decision of all time. In the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the court ruled that no person of African descent was a citizen of the United States! Therefore, Dred Scott could not bring suit in a federal court, and even if he could, the fact that he had been brought by his owner from Missouri into Illinois (a free state) didn’t make him free. The Supreme Court ruled that Scott remained a slave by the laws of Missouri.

By 1858, Kansas had quieted down somewhat. John Brown was instead putting together a network of support for his plan to build a base in Virginia and provide a route through the Alleghany Mountains for escaping slaves. A little team was now behind Brown, including five abolitionists in Boston plus Gerrit Smith, a group later known as the Secret Six. In May 1858, Brown went to Chatham Canada, home to many fugitive slaves, where he developed the basis of a revolutionary government for the slaves who would join him in Virginia.

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln accepted the nomination of the nascent Republican Party in Illinois to run for the state’s Senate seat. The Republican Party had been formed just four years earlier and was primarily opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories. Yet in a speech to accept the nomination, Lincoln foresaw much graver consequences to the escalating hostility between the North and South:

Between August and October 1858, Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas, the nominee of the Democratic Party, in seven Illinois towns. Lincoln warned the people of Illinois that the Supreme Court was poised to take the next crucial step and rule that no State could prohibit slavery within its borders. This was the disaster scenario implied by the “house divided” speech, and it might have won Lincoln a seat in the Senate had the election been decided by a popular vote. But the Illinois state legislature was responsible for selecting the state’s Senators, and they chose Douglas. (Lincoln spent much of 1859 practicing law and delivering a few speeches on behalf of the Republican cause.)

In the winter of 1858, Brown was back in Osawatomie, and in December, during a truce in the fighting, he made a daring raid across the Missouri border and rescued 11 slaves, sending them on their way to freedom. President Buchanan himself offered a reward of $250 for Brown’s capture.

Talk of disunion was now common, and some Southerners were already making plans to secede from the Union. At a May 1859 meeting of the pro-secessionist Southern Convention, some even argued that the slave trade should be reopened. There was a generational divide in opinion, but not one that might be expected. “Young white men, eager to achieve wealth and glory, took to heart the promise that secession would guarantee them access to slaves and to land, even as well-established older planters, especially in long-settled areas of the tidewater and coastal South, clung to the Union that had brought them prosperity and influence.” (Varon, p. 325-6)

In August, John Brown finally described his full plan to Frederick Douglass. Brown was hoping for Douglass’s support, but the wise man was reluctant. He thought attacking a federal armory was extremely foolhardy, and he called Harpers Ferry “a perfect steel-trap.” In Douglass’s evaluation of the scheme, Brown would never get out alive.

John Brown’s strategy for Harpers Ferry evolved over many months of planning, and it’s still not entirely clear what he was up to. The raid began Sunday night on October 16, 1859. By the morning of the 17th, Brown had 25 hostages. If Brown was expecting spontaneous assistance from runaway slaves and sympathetic whites, it never happened. Instead, militias from areas around Harpers Ferry streamed into town ready to fight.

By noon, Brown and his remaining men were trapped in the armory fire engine house. President James Buchanan ordered in some marines under the command of Robert E. Lee and his aide, J.E.B. (“Jeb”) Stuart. On the morning of the 19th, the marines stormed the engine house.

Thirty-six hours after the raid had begun, it was over, and the 17 casualties included Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver. But Brown himself was alive, suffering from a bayonet wound in his abdomen.

Governor Henry Wise of Virginia decided to put John Brown on trial for treason and insurrection in the nearby city of Charlestown. Justice was swift: The trial began on October 27, with the wounded Brown lying on a cot at the front of the courtroom, and it was over in a few days. The jury found Brown guilty after 45 minutes of deliberation. He was sentenced on November 2, and addressed the court:

The execution was set for one month later.

Brown’s years of writing and speaking on slavery and abolition all came together in a stream of eloquence during the trial and in the month before his execution. John Brown may have failed in almost every business he attempted during his life, but as a martyr he was a glorious success.

To his wife, John Brown wrote a long letter that concluded:

The initial reaction in the North to John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was puzzlement, and even condemnation, but soon people began to admire the moral courage of what he had done. Prominent men flocked to Brown’s support even as they knew he was doomed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called Brown “that new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,— the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like a new cross.” (quoted by Oates, p. 318)

Henry Ward Beecher — the clergymen brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe who raised money for rifles called “Beecher’s Bibles” for anti-slavery settlers in Kansas — said: “Let no man pray that Brown be spared! Let Virginia make him a martyr! Now, he has only blundered. His soul was noble; his work miserable. But a cord and a gibbet would redeem all that, and round up Brown’s failure with a heroic success.” (Oates, 318-9)

Henry David Thoreau also knew that Brown’s real role in history was to die: “I almost fear to hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged life, if any life, can do much good as his death” (Oates, 319)

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Brown’s imminent death “a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution, — quite as needed as the old one. Even now as I write, they are leading old John Brown to execution in Virginia for attempting to rescue slaves! This is sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.” (Oates, 319)

On the morning of December 2, 1859, as John Brown boarded the wagon to sit on the coffin that would be taken to the gallows, he handed an attendant a last note:

From the gallows Brown could see the Blue Ridge Mountains and remarked how beautiful the country was. Over 1,500 cavalry, militia, and spectators stood to watch the hanging, among them a 21-year-old actor of strong pro-slavery sympathies named John Wilkes Booth, who later wrote “I looked at the traitor and terroriser … with unlimited, undeniable contempt.” (quoted in McGlone, p. 114)

As John Brown was hung, church bells tolled in commemoration throughout the North as far away as the free state of Kansas. In Albany, New York, a 100-gun salute honored John Brown, and even William Lloyd Garrison bent his beliefs in non-violence to praise of the man:

To Southerners, John Brown was a simple traitor, so they were shocked and appalled at the level of Northern sympathy and praise. Superseding the Fugitive Slave Law and Bleeding Kansas, the case of John Brown was now the most explosive flashpoint of regional conflict.

Those political Republicans, however, were quick to distance themselves from Brown’s raid. Kicking off his Presidential campaign with a speech at the Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln scoffed at the notion that Republicans were stirring up slave insurrections, and cited many previous rebellions that occurred long before the Republican Party was even formed. (See Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President, Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 270 and elsewhere.)

Less than a year after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States. Without even waiting for his inauguration, the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded from the union and formed the Confederate States of America. Five weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, officially beginning the war that would take the lives of 620,000 Americans and leave another 410,000 wounded.

But as John Brown's body dangled at the end of a rope on December 2, 1859, the American Civil War had already begun.


Anderson, Osborne P., A Voice from Harper's Ferry (Boston, 1861; republished by World View Forum, 2000).

McGlone, Robert E., John Brown's War Against Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009). A fascinating in-depth examination of certain aspects of John Brown and the raid, but a supplement to Oates rather than a substitute.

McKivigan, John R. & Mitchell Snay, Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery (University of Georgia Press, 1998).

McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Ballantine Books, 1988). A standard one-volume history.

Oates, Stephen B., To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (2nd edition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984). The standard modern biography.

Peterson, Merrill D., John Brown: The Legend Revisited (University of Virginia Press, 2002).

Stone, Edward, Incident at Harper's Ferry (Prentice-Hall, 1956). Original documents.

Varon, Elizabeth R., Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)

1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)

1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (8/30/2009)

1859 Books: Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig” (9/5/2009)

1859 Speeches: Prince Albert’s Address to the BAAS (9/14/09)

1859 Books: Samuel Smiles’ “Self-Help” (9/29/09)