Lesson Plan

Incident at Harpers Ferry: John Brown's Raid, 1859

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Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Ninth Grade
Civil War, History, Military and Wartime History, Slavery, Social Studies
35 – 40 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 24 (4-8 breakout groups)
Causes of the Civil War, Civil War, John Brown, harpers ferry, Slavery, Abolitionists


John Brown had a burning desire to destroy the evil institution of slavery; this drove him to organize the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, site of the U.S. Musket Factory.  Although Brown’s raid didn’t “succeed,” it helped propel our country into war, a conflict which would eventually bring about the end of slavery.    What happened during the raid?  Why was the South so frightened by this event?  What effect did the raid, Brown’s words during his trial, and his execution have on our country?


Objectives:  What was the goal of John Brown’s Raid in October 1859? Was this a realistic objective? Why or why not? Who were the raiders? What happened during the raid? In your opinion, was it “successful”? Why or why not? Would you have joined John Brown’s raiders had you been asked? Why or why not?

Critical Content: To understand what John Brown had in mind when he planned and led his October 1859 Raid on Harpers Ferry, what happened during the raid, and finally, consider what impact, if any, that raid had on the nation and his efforts to end slavery.  

Student Objectives: Students will:

  • See how history is a continuum, a series of events, in which one event – in this case, John Brown’s Raid – can affect another, and that those other events, can affect future actions.
  • Understand the reasons John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as the objective for his raid.
  • Discover what happened during the raid.
  • Consider the results of the raid: was Brown really “crazy,” or did his raid actually help lead us into a civil war, a conflict that eventually brought about the end of slavery?
  • Finally, allow the students to decide whether or not they would have joined Brown’s band, had they been alive and been asked.


In Incident at Harpers Ferry: John Brown’s Raid, 1859! Students will learn why John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as the objective for his October 1859 raid, an event that was to be the beginning of the end of slavery in the U.S.  They will also discover what happened during and after the raid, and have the opportunity to debate the question: Would you have joined John Brown’s raiders?   Finally, students will consider whether or not they feel John Brown’s Raid, as well as his trial and execution, had any impact on the nation, and helped lead our country into a civil war, a conflict which would eventually end the institution of slavery.

Our Incident at Harpers Ferry unit is divided into two lesson plans, each taking about 30-35 minutes to complete, and targeted mainly at grades five through eight. A class needn’t complete both lessons, although it is highly recommended, as the second lessons builds off of the first. 


  • Readers' Theater scripts
  • Character descriptions
  • Images of John Brown's Raiders
  • Fates of all of the characters



  1. The students can be assessed by the amount of enthusiasm, cooperation they display during the class, whether it’s how much they put into the class as a whole, playing their part during the Readers’ Theater, in the follow-up debate, or any of the class activities.
  2.  As a possible concluding homework assignment, perhaps have the students write a letter as if they are pretending to be one of their Readers’ Theater characters (only writing as a Raider, if their Raider escaped the raid). 
  3. If you weren’t able to complete all of the steps above, another option might be to ask the students to do some on-line research, and see if they can find two or three results of John Brown’s Raid. 
  4.  Finally, if you have completed both lessons, or even added a third, prepare an “Assessment Sheet” – call what you want (“Grading Sheet,” etc.), listing all of the activities, homework assignments, everything that you did while moving through this unit. Grade the students on everything, from how they worked with each other, how well they did on any homework assignments given, to how they did during the Readers’ Theater, and so on. In this manner, all of your students will potentially receive fine marks, as the lessons touch on all of the many learning styles.

Park Connections

Harpers Ferry has a rich history, with six major themes, including Natural Heritage, Transportation, Industry, the Civil War, Afro-American History, and of course, John Brown. As part of its emphasis on John Brown, the park offers an exceptionally well-designed museum dedicated to the story of John Brown, the Raid, and the results. 


Option One – Have the students write a one-act play, taking the John Brown story a bit further: some options include the trial of Brown; or the country’s – and the world’s – reactions to the Raid.


Option Two – Move from these lessons to a project on the Causes of the Civil War. Have all of the students pick a famous character who had either something to do with events leading up to the war, such as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Dred Scott, Roger Taney, and so on, or someone who was important during the war, such as Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, and so on. Make sure you have half portraying Northerners, and half Southerners. The students will then do some research on their characters, and as a team, work on compelling arguments for a North versus South debate, during which they will attempt to persuade a three-person jury that their side is right; the jury can be made up of other teachers/administrators who are available for however class periods it will take to run the debate. If possible, video-tape the debate, so your students can watch it later. When the debate starts, make sure the students dress up as their characters. You can also take this project a step further, by moving into one on the Civil War.


Option Three --  Show that portion of Ken Burns’s The Civil War that deals with the John Brown’s Raid and its ramifications.


Additional Resources

  • John Brown's Raid, National Park Service History Series, Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 2009


John Brown, abolitionists, armory, arsenal, pike, militia