Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

John Brown's Raid

"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."
- John Brown, prior to his execution
Image of standing John Brown from the front page of the November 19, 1859 Frank Leslie's Illustrated.
Already well-known from the fight over slavery in the Kansas Territory, John Brown became a household name North and South following the Harpers Ferry raid.
Library of Congress

On October 16, 17, and 18, 1859, John Brown, leading his "Provisional Army of the United States," took possession of the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia and announced his intentions to the night watchman: ""I came here from Kansas and this is a slave state; I want to free all the negroes in this state; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood."

Brown had come to arm an uprising of slaves. Instead, the raid drew militia companies and United States Marines from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On the morning of October 18, a storming party of 12 Marines commanded by a Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee broke down the door of the Armory's fire engine house, taking Brown and the remaining raiders captive. Seventeen people were killed in the raid--two slaves, three townsmen, a slaveholder, one Marine, and ten of Brown's men. Five raiders had escaped death and capture. Brown and his men faced charges for "conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder."

The trial of Brown and his men began October 27 and lasted just five days. Jurors took only 45 minutes to reach a decision-guilty of all charges. On November 2 Brown was sentenced to hang on the gallows in nearby Charles Town, Virginia. All six of Brown's captured men were tried and hanged. Brown himself was executed on December 2, 1859.

Before the sentence was carried out, however, Brown issued a prophetic warning:

"I wish to say furthermore, that you had better - all you people at the South - prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled - this negro question I mean - the end of that is not yet".

Brown's wife, Mary, took his body home to North Elba, New York for burial. In death, Brown had become a celebrity - a martyr or a madman, depending on whom one asked and where they lived. A contemporary newspaper account foretold a grim future. "The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of the Government." Hope of compromise between the North and South slipped into oblivion.

Civil War was inevitable.