In the antebellum United States, slaveholders met African American resistance with quick and violent repression. John Brown became infamous as a radical white abolitionist who sparked armed war against slavery two years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Brown led an interracial group of men in an attack on the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, VA (now WV) on October 16,1859. The engine house where the raiders were caught became known as "John Brown's Fort.: more...
In the antebellum United States, slaveholders met African American resistance with quick and violent repression. John Brown became infamous as a radical white abolitionist who sparked armed war against slavery two years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
Brown led an interracial group of twenty-one men in an attack on the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, VA (now WV), on October 16, 1859. Brown’s goal was to seize the Armory as the first step toward destabilizing the region’s slaveholding economy and attracting freedom seekers to his army. Two days later, local militias and U.S. Marines trapped and captured Brown and his men in the Armory’s fire engine house. When the state of Virginia executed him for treason, Henry David Thoreau and other northern abolitionists portrayed Brown as a martyr. His role in inflaming tensions between North and South helped to bring about the secession crisis only two years later.
The engine house where the raiders were caught became known as “John Brown’s Fort.” Its history reflects how Brown’s raid divided and fascinated the nation. After the war, when Harpers Ferry became a tourist attraction, the owner of the engine house sold bricks from the dilapidated structure with an image of the Fort printed on them as souvenirs.
Vocal white residents of Harpers Ferry disliked how the fort drew African American visitors, so they were pleased when the Fort was purchased in 1891, transported to Chicago, and reassembled for the 1893 World’s Fair. Yet African Americans maintained strong connections to Harpers Ferry, where Storer College was founded in 1867 as one of the first colleges for African Americans in the country. The Fort returned to the area in 1895, where it was first reassembled on a local farm. In 1909 Storer College bought the building and moved it to the school’s campus.
Interpreting Brown’s Legacy
While African Americans honored Brown’s memory, mainstream white historians were torn between portrayals of him as either a mad terrorist or a passionate freedom fighter. When the National Park Service began interpreting the history of Harpers Ferry in 1955, American audiences were divided along racial and political lines. During the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, it treated Brown’s legacy with caution and ambivalence. In 1968, NPS moved the Fort once more, to about 100 feet from its original location (which railroad construction had covered up). The history and meaning of the Fort is still evolving, as historians, NPS staff, and visitors reconsider who Brown and what his crusade against a slave society meant for our nation’s crisis and rebirth after the Civil War.