Doomed but Daring: John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Stereograph view of a bridge at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (once Virginia), via Ohio Memory.
Stereograph view of a bridge at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (once Virginia), via Ohio Memory.

156 years ago on October 16, 1859, abolitionist and Ohio native John Brown raided Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start a major slave rebellion in the South. Brown led an army of 21 men, including three of his own sons, into Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the intention of seizing arms and ammunition in the federal arsenal, arming and gathering slaves for his cause, and moving south along the Appalachian Mountains. With no rations, or any escape route, Brown’s plan was flawed right from the beginning. What he did accomplish, however, was deepening the divide between the North and South.

"John Brown’s Fort" at Harpers Ferry, via Ohio Memory.
“John Brown’s Fort” at Harpers Ferry, via Ohio Memory.
Photographic reproduction of a daguerreotype of abolitionist John Brown, ca. 1847. Via Ohio Memory.
Photographic reproduction of a daguerreotype of abolitionist John Brown, ca. 1847. Via Ohio Memory.

John Brown and his army entered Harpers Ferry and took control of the federal complex, which consisted of an armory, arsenal, and engine house. Some of Brown’s men gathered slaves for their cause, and collected several hostages—one of whom was the great grand-nephew of George Washington, Colonel Lewis Washington.

John Brown tried to recruit his friend Frederick Douglass to take part in the raid, but Douglass refused, stating that an attack on the federal government would turn the country against them. Free blacks and slaves did not rise to Brown’s support as he had hoped. Information about the raid was leaked, and local citizens, shopkeepers, and militia surrounded Brown and his men in the armory buildings. A gunfight ensued, killing eight of Brown’s men and two townspeople. John Brown was arrested under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who arrived from Washington to apprehend him. John Brown was captured and turned over to Virginia authorities to be tried for treason. He was sentenced to the gallows to be hanged on December 2, 1859.

Proclamation related to the hanging of John Brown in Jefferson County, Virginia, via Ohio Memory.
Proclamation related to the hanging of John Brown in Jefferson County, Virginia, via Ohio Memory.

In the North, Brown’s rebellion was met with admiration. Although the raid itself was not well thought out, some northerners appreciated Brown’s courage, and on the day of his execution, songs and paintings were created in his honor. John Brown’s legacy in the North was that of a martyr, while in the South he was thought of as a murderer. Southerners blamed the Republican Party and regarded them as Abolitionist supporters, and falsely claimed that Abraham Lincoln supported Brown’s intentions. The American Civil War began two years after Brown’s death, in 1861. Although not solely responsible for the beginning of the Civil War, it is thought that this event was one that contributed to escalating tensions between the North and South.

On the day of his execution, John Brown wrote the following letter, newly added to the State Library of Ohio Historical Documents Collection, to railroad activist and childhood friend Lora Case, of Hudson, Ohio:

My Dear Lora,

Your most kind and cheering letter of the 28th Nov. is received. Such an outburst of warm hearted sympathy not only for myself; but also for those who “have no helper” compels me to steal a moment from those allow me; in which to prepare for my last great change to send you a few words. Such a feeling as you manifest makes you to “Shine in my estimation in the midst of this wicked; and perverse generation as a light in the world.” May you ever prove yourself equal to the high estimate I have placed on you. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is” as I understand it: an active (not a dormant) principle. I do not undertake to direct any more about my children. I leave that now entirely to their excellent Mother from whom I have just parted. I send you my “salutation with my own hand.” Remember me to all yours, my dear friends.

Your friend

John Brown

I received this letter of John Brown Dec 10th 1859. Written on the day of execution

Lora Case. Born Nov 18th 1811.

For information about other Ohio abolitionists, or more about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, check out Ohio Memory’s collection of images from this important time in American history.


Thank you to Alexa Elgabri for this week’s post! Alexa is a graduate student in the Kent State School of Library and Information Science who is completing her practicum with the State Library of Ohio.

Leave a Reply