There were many different events that contributed to the American Civil War. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 is a well known event leading up to the Civil War, but just what was its goal and what exactly did it accomplish?
Tensions between the northern and southern states over the issue of slavery had always existed since the very formation of the United States. Many of the founding fathers believed that slavery would naturally die out on its own.
However, technological inventions such as the cotton gin proved this assumption false and ultimately ingrained slavery even further into the southern way of life.
As the 19th century progressed, northerners focused on limiting the spread of slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the first of several deals limiting which western territories were eligible for slavery and which were deemed to be “free” states.
The political landscape drastically changed with the Texas Annexation, as well as the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that added vast amounts of new territory to the United States. New agreements were made such as the Compromise of 1850 to help even the balance of power between free and slave states in the US Senate.
At the same time, a growing number of anti-slavery groups were forming throughout the north. The abolitionists’ main goal was to free slaves from their bondage at the hand of the southern white masters.
Some of these groups were much more radical than others. While abolitionist icons such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman advocated for the end of slavery through peaceful means, others proposed more direct action and violence. One of the loudest radical abolitionist voices was John Brown.
Background of the Raid
John Brown was born in 1800 at the turn of the century right in the middle of slavery’s revival. Though he was the son of a prominent abolitionist businessman, there was no indication that Brown was to become a notable figure himself.
Essentially, John Brown was a relative nobody until the late 1840s. It was around this time that he came into contact with more prominent abolitionist figures such as Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass and became more involved with the movement.
In 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which stated that the citizens of the Kansas and Nebraska territories could decide for themselves to be a free or slave state. The act led to what is now known as “Bleeding Kansas” where political violence flared between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers.
Several of Brown’s sons moved to Kansas that year both to start a new life and to aid in the cause of turning Kansas into a free state. Brown would join them a year later. It was here in Kansas that John Brown made a name for himself.
Following the 1856 burning and looting of the anti-slavery Kansas town of Lawrence, Brown decided it was time for retribution against those involved. With a small group including his sons, Brown marched to the pro-slavery town of Pottawatomie River and brutally murdered five men involved in the sacking of Lawrence.
It was in Kansas that Brown became a household name. John Brown was hereby known as a man of action, unafraid to get his hands dirty in the defense of the freedom for all men promised in the Constitution.
His daring escapes and growing notoriety gave him access to funding from wealthy northern abolitionists like Smith. After years of fighting in Kansas, Brown began formulating his master plan to strike at the heart of the Confederacy: a raid on Harpers Ferry.
The Primary Goal of John Brown’s 1859 Raid at Harpers Ferry
John Brown’s put his plans into action at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) on the night of October 16, 1859. The primary goal of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry was to capture the federal armory located in the town and use the weapons and ammunition to incite a massive slave rebellion in the region.
More than 18,000 slaves lived in the region and the hope was that once word got out of the raid, the slaves would flock to the Brown and rebel against their masters.
In the aftermath his men would create a new fortified escape route for slaves to travel north to freedom. The grand strategy called for slaves to flee in such large numbers that southern property values would be devalued and the southern economy would collapse.
In the year or so prior to his raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown worked with prominent abolitionists to recruit men to assist in his raid. Though many supported Brown, they thought his idea of a raid on Harpers Ferry was a suicide mission. Frederick Douglass supposedly said, “You’re walking into a perfect steel-trap and you will never get out alive.”
Though they did not actively support his plans, they did help to find willing men to go along with Brown. A group known as the “Secret Six” – a group of wealthy northern abolitionists – also helped to fund his ventures by providing supplies and money for weapons.1
In early July 1859, John Brown arrived at a rented farmhouse roughly five miles away from Harpers Ferry. Over the next few months Brown would get the lay of the land, study detailed maps, and wait for his supporters to come.
Three of his own sons joined him on the raid and ultimately a total of twenty-one men assembled under John Brown. Sixteen of the men were white, while five were black.
John Brown’s 1859 Raid on Harper Ferry
John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry began on the night of Sunday, October 16th. Brown plus eighteen men participated, with the other three men staying behind to guard the cache of weapons at the farm.
The raid could not have started better. After leaving the farm at 8pm, the raiders had secured the federal armory along with its nearly 100,000 rifles and muskets, the rifle and musket factories, and the two bridges connecting the town by roughly 10pm.
Brown then sent a detachment to capture nearby prominent slaveholders and hold them as hostages. In the process they freed the slaves under them. Among the slaveholders was Lewis Washington, the great-grand-nephew of President George Washington.
John Brown hoped that by mid-Monday morning thousands of slaves would flock to him as word of his raid spread throughout the area.
Instead, Brown found himself surrounded and cut off by local militia members, including the well-trained Jefferson Guards. Sporadic fire fights occurred all day with casualties on both sides, though mainly from the raiders.
John Brown twice attempted to negotiate a truce exchanging the captives for escape, though both times the raiders he sent under a white flag were either captured or shot. The Harpers Ferry mayor himself was killed after wandering too close to the skirmish.
By nightfall Brown and his few remaining men had been forced into the engine room of the armory. Robert E. Lee and roughly 90 US Marines arrived at 11pm by train from Washington, DC.
At daybreak, Lee’s men gave John Brown one last chance to surrender. When he refused, the Marines stormed the engine room, securing all captives and killing/capturing the remaining raiders.
John Brown was severely wounded, though captured alive. Per Lee’s official report on the incident, the scene at the engine room was over within minutes.2
What did John Brown’s Raid Accomplish?
The primary accomplishment of John Brown’s raid was to further divide the northern and southern states over the issue of slavery. While the division had been slowly building in intensity, the raid perhaps dashed all hopes of a compromise on the issue.
In the north, public opinion varied between horror for the barbarity of the raid and admiration for the man. Institutions were quick to distance themselves from Brown and official statements condemned the act.
Brown, however, became a martyr for his willingness to die for cause of ending slavery, especially in abolitionist circles. His writings justifying his actions and the evils of slavery while awaiting his December 2nd execution turned him into a cult-like figure.
Meanwhile the south was positively horrified at the raid.
In essence, the raid summed up its worst fears: a white man willing to die for the end slavery. To the south, Brown signified northern attitudes towards slavery, and it was only a matter of time before the north would impose an end to the institution altogether.
The raid on Harpers Ferry set off a time of intense paranoia across the south. Fabricated newspaper stories contributed to the tension, claiming northern agents had been dispersed across the south to incite slave rebellions. Citizens assumed nearly all northerners were abolitionist agents, subject to intense scrutiny.3
John Brown’s raid provided the impetus for a unifying call on both sides.
In the north, people flocked behind the call to stop the spread of slavery leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The previous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision helped convince the north that the issue of slavery would persist.
In the south the raid united the states to stick together with the common cause of preserving slavery and the southern way of life. As Brown perhaps prophetically wrote on his last day:
“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.”
South Carolina would secede from the Union just over a year later.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) LA MOY, WILLIAM T., and F. B. Sanborn. “THE SECRET SIX AND JOHN BROWN’S RAID ON HARPERS FERRY: TWO LETTERS.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, 2015, pp. 141–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718206.
2) Floyd, John B. “Official Report of John Brown’s Raid upon Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, October 17-18, 1859.” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, vol. 10, no. 3, 1909, pp. 314–24. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20609805.
3) Howard, Victor B. “John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 55, no. 4, 1978, pp. 396–420. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23534921.