The actions of abolitionist John Brown and his followers on October 16, 1859 brought national attention to the emotional divisions concerning slavery. Brown and his men siezed the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an effort to help free the slaves.
John Brown was born in 1800 in Conneticut. Around 1835 he became interested in the abolotionist movement. Brown and several of his sons moved to Kansas in 1855. At the time it was a territory deeply divided by the slavery issue. On the night of May 24, 1856, at Pottawotamie Creek, Brown and his sons murdered three men who supported slavery, although none of them actually owned any slaves. The Brown men managed to escape. Brown then spent much of the next three years collecting money from several wealthy abolitionists. He did this in order to help establish a colony for any runaway slaves that were interested. In order to accomplish this goal, he needed many, many weapons and therefore decided to capture the arsenal located in Harpers Ferry.
President George Washington had selected Springfield, Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) as the two sites of the new national armories in 1794. He noted that the benefit in choosing Harpers Ferry was the great source of water power generated by the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. In 1796 production of weapons began.
The federal government contracted with John H. Hall in 1817 to manufacture his patented rifles. Up until its destruction at the outbreak of the Civil War, the armory and arsenal continued to produce weapons.
Under the pseudonym of Isaac Smith, John Brown took up residence in the summer of 1859 at a small farm in Maryland near to Harpers Ferry. He then trained a group of twenty-two men in military maneuvers. Among these men were three of his sons; Oliver, Owen, and Watson. On Sunday, October 16, Brown and nineteen of the twenty two men crept in to Harpers Ferry under the cover of darkness. They immediatly captured several night watchmen. Hayward Shepherd, an African-American railroad baggage handler was shot and killed after confronting the raiders. It was very ironic that the first victim of Brown s march to free the slaves was in fact a freed slave. During the coarse of the night, several others were taken prisoner including the great-grand-nephew of George Washington, Lewis Washington.
There were two keys to the success of the raid. First, the men needed to be able to capture the weapons and retreat before there was a chance for word to reach Washington, D. C. The raiders cut the telegraph lines but mistakenly allowed a Baltimore and Ohio train to pass through Harpers Ferry after they had detaining it for five hours. The next day at noon when the train reached Baltimore, the conductor contacted authorities in Washington. Second, they had expected local slaves to rise against their owners and join the raid. Not only did this not happen, but townspeople began shooting at the raiders.
On the morning of October 17, armory workers discovered that Brown s men were in control of the building. Local militia companies then completely surrounded the armory, cutting off all of Brown’s possible escape routes. Shortly after seven o’clock, a Harpers Ferry townsperson, Thomas Boerly, was shot and killed near the corner of High and Shenandoah streets. During the day, two other citizens were killed, Mr. George W. Turner and Mayor of Harpers Ferry, Mr. Fontaine Beckham. When Brown finally realized that he had no way of escaping, he chose nine prisoners and moved to the armory’s small fire engine house, which was later dubbed John Brown’s Fort.
The raiders panicked when their plans started to fall apart. William H. Leeman tried to escape by swimming across the Potomac River, but was spotted, then shot and killed. The townspeople, many of whom had been drinking all day on this unofficial holiday, used his drowned bullet riddled body for target practice. At 3:30 on Monday afternoon, authorities in Washington ordered Colonel Robert E. Lee to go to Harpers Ferry with a force of Marines to capture Brown and his raiders. Lee’s first motive was to close the town’s saloons in order to curb the random violence. On Tuesday, October 18, at 6:30 in the morning, Lee commanded Lieutenant Israel Green and a group of his men to storm in to the engine house. At a signal from Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, the engine house door was knocked down and and the Marines began taking prisoners. Brown was given a serious sword wound by Lieutenant Green. Brown was then taken to the Jefferson County seat of Charles Town for his impending trial.
Of Brown’s original twenty-two men, John H. Kagi, Jeremiah G. Anderson, William Thompson, Dauphin Thompson, Brown’s sons Oliver and Watson, Stewart Taylor, Leeman, and free African-Americans Lewis S. Leary and Dangerfield Newby had been killed during the raid. John E. Cook and Albert Hazlett escaped into Pennsylvania, but were later captured and brought back to Charles Town. Brown, Aaron D. Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, and free African-Americans John A. Copeland and Shields Green were captured and jailed. Five of the raiders escaped and were never captured: Brown’s son
Owen, Charles P. Tidd, Barclay Coppoc, Francis J. Merriam, and free African American Osborne P. Anderson. One Marine, Luke Quinn, was killed during the course of attacking the engine house. Two slaves, belonging to Brown’s prisoners Colonel Lewis Washington and John Allstadt, also died. It is not known whether or not they voluntarily took up arms with Brown or were forced. One of them drowned while trying to escape and the other died in the Charles Town prison following the raid. Local residents at the time believed that the two took part in the raid. To discredit Brown, residents later claimed that these two slaves had been taken prisoner and that no slaves had actually participated in the raid.
On October 26, John Brown, stood trial at the Jefferson County Courthouse while still recovering from his sword wound. Five days later, a jury found him guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Judge Richard Parker sentenced Brown to death and he was hanged in Charles Town on December 2. Before walking to the scaffold, he noted the inevitability of a national civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Following additional trials, Shields Green, John A. Copeland, John E. Cook, and Edwin Coppoc were executed on December 16, and Aaron D. Stevens and Albert Hazlett were hanged on March 16, 1860.
Northern abolitionists soon used these executions as a prime example of the government’s indirect support of slavery. John Brown became their martyr, a hero murdered for his belief that slavery should be abolished. In reality, Brown and his men were prosecuted and executed for taking over a government facility. Still, as time went on, Brown’s name became a strong symbol of pro-Union, anti-slavery beliefs. A school was established in Harpers Ferry for African Americans after the Civil War. The leaders of Storer College always focused on the courage and beliefs of John Brown for inspiration. In 1881, African-American leader Frederick Douglass delivered a classic speech at the
school honoring John Brown. Twenty-five years later, W.E.B. DuBois and Martinsburg newspaper editor J.R. Clifford recognized Harpers Ferry’s importance to African Americans and chose Storer College as the site for a meeting of the Second Niagara Movement, which later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Those in attendance walked at daybreak to John Brown’s Fort. In 1892, the fort had been sent to the Chicago World’s Fair and then brought back to a farm near Harpers Ferry. Today, the restored fort has been rebuilt at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park near its original location.
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