TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

October 16-20, 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry. The event, which occurred during October 16-20, 1859; lasted over a period of three to four days and is now considered one of the catalysts of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865): 

After a period of recruiting followers and raising money, John Brown rented a farmhouse just four miles north of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). He had planned to hold Harpers Ferry for a short time, expecting that many volunteers – white and black – would join him in a wild plan to free the slaves in the Southern states. Brown hope to gather ammunition from a local Army armory, make a rapid movement southward, sending out armed bands along the way. He planned to 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

On the evening of October 16, 1859; he and his followers arrived in the small town of Harper’s Ferry. They captured several townspeople, including Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington. The band of abolitionists also cut the telegraph wire and seized a Baltimore & Ohio train passing through. An African-American baggage handler on the train named Hayward Shepherd confronted the raiders and was subsequently shot and killed. Ironically, a freed slave became the first casualty of the raid. Then for unknown reasons, Brown let the train continue unimpeded. The train reached Washington the next day and the conductor alerted the authorities.

President James Buchannan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines to march on Harpers Ferry, under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Army Cavalry on October 17. Lee was on leave from Texas and visiting his family in nearby Arlington. By the following day, on October 18, the Marines under Lee and the local militia managed to trap Brown and many of his followers inside the town’s engine house. Following a military attack, Brown’s surviving followers and the man himself were captured.

The Marines and the local militia spent the following day – October 19 – hunting down any remaining participants of the raid. Meanwhile, Lee a summary report of the events that took place at Harpers Ferry to Colonel Samuel Cooper, the U. S. Army Adjutant General. According to Lee’s notes Lee believed John Brown was insane, “…the plan [raiding the Harpers Ferry Arsenal] was the attempt of a fanatic or mad­man”. Lee also believed that the African-Americans used in the raid were forced to by John Brown himself. “The blacks, whom he [John Brown] forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance.” The future Civil War general, a slaveowner himself, failed to consider there were free blacks amongst Brown’s followers or that they would have no qualms about following Brown on their own free will. He seemed to regard them as nothing more than docile children.

The raid’s aftermath led to John Brown standing trial for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason and was hanged on December 2, 1859. His execution was witnessed by the actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Four other raiders were executed on December 15 and two more on March 16, 1860. Colonel Robert E. Lee and another officer who served under him during the raid, J.E.B. Stuart, became officers in the Confederate States Army during the following Civil War.

If you want to know more about John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry Raid, check out the following books:

“John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” (2006) by David S. Reynolds

“John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents” (2008) by Jonathan Earle

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