By Scott Vierick, Historian
On the night of October 16, 1859, a group of 22 men made their way along a winding road in western Maryland. Past darkened farms, houses, and buildings, the group quietly pushed a wagon full of weapons. Led by abolitionist John Brown, their goal was to reach the federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry, a town in present-day West Virginia (at the time, part of Virginia). After taking the town, the group would march into the mountains to commence a guerrilla war against slavery itself, with the hope of creating an army of the self-liberated that would compel the United States to end the institution once and for all.
A lifelong abolitionist, Brown had never fired a weapon at another person before he traveled to Kansas in the early 1850s. At the time, the territory was engulfed in a brutal conflict called, “Bleeding Kansas,” which pitted settlers who wanted Kansas to join the Union as a slaveholding state against “free soilers” who wanted it to enter as a free state. Brown traveled to Kansas at the urging of his sons to aid the free state cause. After a spate of violent attacks by pro-slavery attacks on free soilers, Brown, shocked, horrified, and worried about his family’s safety, decided to strike back. On the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and a group of accomplices raided the cabins of several of their pro-slavery neighbors and brutally murdered five men. The victims had no chance to defend themselves, and the violence shocked many free soil adherents. Brown then participated in the unsuccessful defense of the antislavery community in the town of Osawatomie, earning himself the nickname Osawatomie Brown. During the battle, pro-slavery forces killed his son, Frederick.
After masterminding the escape of several enslaved people from Missouri to Canada, Brown began planning his next move. Now a wanted fugitive, he had come to believe that for slavery to end, he would need to take the fight to the enslavers. Brown began recruiting allies. In addition to three of his sons, other volunteers included John E. Crook, a veteran of Bloody Kansas; Dangerfield Newby, a formerly enslaved man whose wife and children remained in captivity; Osborne Perry Anderson, a free Black man living in Canada; and Francis Jackson Meriam, the grandson of a prominent abolitionist who joined Brown despite being blind in one eye. In 1858, Brown, several of his followers, and 34 Black abolitionists gathered in Chatham, Canada. There they drew up a provisional constitution for a new government and named Brown commander in chief. The plan of government was meant to exist alongside the US Constitution up until the United States abolished slavery. After the Chatham Convention, Brown began planning his war against slavery in earnest and soon determined that the federal armory at Harpers Ferry would be his first target. Brown planned to steal weapons there before traveling south through the Appalachian Mountains to raid plantations and arm enslaved people. A group of six financiers, known as the Secret Six, provided a majority of the funding for the raid.
Not everyone in the anti-slavery camp supported Brown’s plan. During a nighttime meeting outside of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, abolitionist Frederick Douglass bluntly told Brown that he was walking into “a steel trap.” Despite Douglass’s misgivings, Shields Green, a self-liberated freedman who had accompanied Douglass to the meeting, decided to join the raid. Brown and his raiders made their headquarters at the Kennedy Farm in Western Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry. His daughter Anne and daughter-in-law Martha served as lookouts and helped deflect suspicion as more and more men traveled to the farm and Brown gathered intelligence about the area.
On October 16, Brown set his plan in motion, telling his men, “get on your arms, we shall proceed to the ferry.” The 22 person party set out for their destination. A few of the men remained in Maryland, while Brown and 18 raiders continued on to Harpers Ferry. After quickly seizing the armory, the group spread out, some charged with capturing strategic buildings and others with taking hostages. When a train pulled into the local station, Brown’s men held it up. Investigating the commotion, Heyward Shephard, a free Black man, approached the group. Ordered to halt, he attempted to flee and was mortally wounded. Later that night, Brown captured a number of hostages, including Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington.
Despite the gunshots, news of the raid spread slowly. Many Harpers Ferry residents attributed the noise to bandits or workers going on strike. After Brown allowed a train stopped at the station to proceed, the conductor wired the president of the B&O railroad who then wired President James Buchanan and the governor of Virginia. Even then, the authorities remained unsure of Brown’s true purpose.
At this point, Brown had accomplished his first objectives. He’d captured the armory, secured several high-profile hostages, gathered weapons, and recruited a few enslaved people to join the fight. Had he left Harpers Ferry then, the course of the raid might have taken a very different turn. However—for reasons that remain hotly debated by historians—he decided to wait. Some historians believe that he was waiting for more recruits to join him; others say that he wanted witnesses to clearly see that the raid was part of a slave revolt and not a random robbery. But this remains conjecture. Whatever the reason, as the sun rose, John Brown and his men were spread throughout Harpers Ferry, about to realize that while the town was an ideal target for a raid, it was a terrible place for a siege.
As word spread about the raid, militia units began to converge on Harpers Ferry. Brown and his men soon found themselves overwhelmed. Dangerfield Newby, who had joined Brown to free his enslaved wife and children, was shot and killed as he attempted to fall back. Angry militiamen cut off his ears as trinkets and left his body for the hogs. Brown, his remaining men, and his hostages took refuge in the old armory engine house, afterward known as John Brown’s Fort. There, they cut holes through the brick walls and fired back at the militia, killing several civilians, including Harpers Ferry’s mayor, Fontaine Beckham.
During the night of October 17, a group of US Marines arrived in Harpers Ferry. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, the highest-ranking officer fit for duty in the Washington, D.C. area, President Buchanan sent them to retake the armory. The next morning, Lee sent his aid, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart to offer Brown a chance to surrender. Brown offered a counterproposal: the Marines would allow him and his raiders safe passage across the river, at which point Brown and his men would release the hostages. Stuart refused and waved his hat, the signal to attack.
The Marines rushed forward as Brown slammed the door. Using hammers, and then a ladder, they broke through into the engine house. In the chaos, Marine Corps Private Luke Quinn and several of the raiders were killed, and Brown himself was seriously wounded.
An observer in 1859 probably would’ve concluded the raid had failed. The slave revolt had not occurred, and all Brown could show for his actions was the blood and bodies lying in the streets of Harpers Ferry. Brown and his surviving raiders were carted off to Charles Town to await trial. Despite this, the white residents of Harpers Ferry remained on edge, convinced that the uprising of enslaved people that Brown had promised might still materialize. Little did they know that Brown’s raid would soon appear to be merely a prelude to a much larger conflict that would engulf the country and turn their town into a contested warzone.
Crimes of this Guilty Land
John Brown and other captured raiders would spend the rest of their numbered days in the Charles Town jail and courthouse. They had failed in their mission as liberators. Now, their fates rested in the hands of a local jury which included some of the enslavers that they had hoped to make war on. The raiders who escaped went into hiding in the North, ever fearful of being arrested and sent back to Virginia. The raid had drawn national attention, and reporters flocked to the area to report on the trial. Slave revolts, such as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, had broken out before, but the raid on Harpers Ferry represented a different kind of threat to slavery, Black and white abolitionists arriving from the North to arm enslaved people. Brown lay on a cot throughout most of the proceedings, still recovering from his wounds.
Brown’s lawyers attempted to save him from the gallows by pleading insanity. Earlier in the year, the claim of temporary insanity had helped acquit Congressman Daniel Sickles on the charge of murdering his wife’s lover—his lawyers argued that he temporarily lost control of his passions. Brown’s lawyers argued that there was a history of mental illness in Brown’s family and that illness, rather than pre-meditated malice, had driven his actions at Harpers Ferry. Brown, however, openly contradicted these claims, declaring his sanity to the court (Brown would go through several lawyers during his trial). To this day, it remains unclear if Brown actually suffered from mental illness.
Pleading mental illness represented Brown’s best hopes of escaping the gallows, and historians continue to debate why he deliberately undercut his lawyers. Some argue that, because the raid failed, Brown saw execution as a way to make himself a martyr to the anti-slavery cause, stating “I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose.” A plea of insanity would undercut that, transforming popular perceptions of Brown from a man willing to die to end slavery into a lunatic who could not control his emotions.
Whatever his intentions, Brown’s actions reflected a larger fight over the goals and meanings of the Harpers Ferry raid. Pro-slavery and secessionist advocates used the event to argue that the North was full of violent abolitionists determined to destroy the South. Many Northern abolitionists, even if they refused to fully embrace Brown’s actions, still heralded the raid as a powerful, if symbolic, blow against slavery. As these fights continued, Brown sought to influence the narrative, emphasizing his goal of freeing slaves, and deemphasizing the violent outcome of his plot. In a speech to the court, he reimagined the raid as an elaborate expedition to free slaves and then move them to Canada, rather than a process of gathering an army strong enough to compel the end of slavery in the United States. He would later further revise this explanation in conversations after his sentencing, saying that he only wanted to help enslaved people “defend their liberties…without any bloodshed.” After a short trial, the jury found Brown and his surviving raiders guilty on three counts: murder, treason against the state of Virginia, and inciting slaves to revolt and sentenced them to death.
As they awaited their fates, the raiders continued their efforts to shape the meaning of the raid. John Anthony Copeland, a free Black man who joined Brown, wrote to his brother from prison that the attack on Harpers Ferry amounted to a second American Revolution designed to fulfill the promises of 1776. “Could I die in a more noble cause?” he mused. Brown himself, addressing the court after his sentencing, declared that his motivations came from the Bible, “which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them.” Although Brown’s religious beliefs were strong, the line might also have been meant to appeal to a deeply religious American public.
“Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country… I say, let it be done.”
In jail, the prisoners received numerous letters from both admirers and detractors. One Quaker woman wrote to Brown, telling him she believed he was doing God’s work and compared him to Moses, her pacifist beliefs notwithstanding. By contrast, a letter from Mahala Doyle stated, “Altho’ vengeance is not mine, I confess that I do feel gratified to hear that you were stopped in your fiendish career at Harpers Ferry.” Brown had killed her husband and two of her sons during the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre and had almost killed a third before sparing him because of his young age.
On December 2, 1859, Brown walked out of his jail cell and stepped onto a cart. Sitting on his own coffin, he rode to the execution site. He took his last breath surrounded by a cast of characters that would play important roles in the next few years. Robert E. Lee remained nearby in Harpers Ferry. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson stood guard with Virginia Military Institute cadets. And, among the militia guarding the proceedings, a young John Wilkes Booth looked on. After the trapdoor fell, a voice cried out, “So perish all such enemies of Virginia. All such enemies of the Union. All such foes of the human race.” The other captured raiders met the same fate soon after. Students at the Winchester Medical College absconded with the bodies of John Copeland and Shields Green for use in their classes.
John Brown was dead, but the fight over his raid and his cause continued. Brown had made “the gallows as glorious as the cross,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared. Frederick Douglass noted, “The future will write his epitaph upon the hearts of a people freed from slavery.” However, many white southerners and their Northern allies continued their efforts to cast Brown as a crazed villain, and Northern abolitionists, in general, as his willing accomplices. Edmund Ruffin, a pro-secessionist activist, considered the raid as evidence of “the fanatical hatred borne by the dominant northern party” towards the South. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, declared that Brown came to Virginia to “incite slaves to murder helpless women and children.”
Others tried to strike a middle ground. Abraham Lincoln, on the cusp of his presidential run, declared, “We cannot object [to Brown’s execution], even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason.” Despite Lincoln’s efforts, many Southerners considered Lincoln’s Republican Party to be in league with Brown, and Lincoln’s words did nothing to dissuade them, nor did they heal the country’s deepening sectional divisions. Brown and his raiders’ actions further enflamed the already tense relationship between North and South. The fight over the raid’s meaning deepened this rift. As the Richmond Enquirer noted, “The Harper’s Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event since the formation of the Government.”
When Lincoln won the 1860 election, it was the final straw for many slavery supporters. “Now that the black radical Republicans have the power I suppose they will Brown us all,” Mary Chestnut, a diarist and senator’s wife, reported secessionist declaring. South Carolina quickly seceded, and ten other states eventually followed suit. Several state declarations of secession directly referenced the raid on Harpers Ferry. Mississippi’s declaration, after stating that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” noted that anti-slavery forces “had invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings and the weapons of destruction to our lives.” Georgia declared that abolitionist efforts had “led to the actual invasion of one of the slave-holding States and those of the murderers and incendiaries who escaped public justice by flight have found fraternal protection among our Northern confederates.”
Right before his execution, John Brown wrote a note to his jailer. “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood.” Less than two years after his death, the country was at war. As Union and Confederate forces clashed, and cemeteries began to fill with the dead, a new marching tune was heard among the soldiers marching south soldiers marching. “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave / but his soul goes marching on…”
But How and In What Balance Weigh John Brown?
In 1861, less than two years after John Brown’s Raid, many of the Virginia militiamen who had stopped Brown and his raiders from seizing weapons to start a rebellion against the United States marched back towards Harpers Ferry. Their goal? Seize the same weapons and use them in a rebellion against the United States. As the militia closed in, a huge explosion rocked the town. Knowing they were outnumbered, Union forces had torched the armory and arsenal, the anchor of the town’s economy, before retreating across the Potomac River. War had come to Harpers Ferry and would remain for the next four years.
Over the next few years, the town would change hands over eight times, as both Union and Confederate forces dueled for control of the strategic location at the juncture of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. They transformed the town into a battlefield, sending artillery shells ripping through homes and buildings at several points during the war. After Confederate forces shot a Union scout helping an enslaved person escape, Union forces torched part of the town’s business district. The old engine house, John Brown’s Fort, became a prison for Confederate soldiers and civilians, while self-liberated formerly enslaved men, women, and children set up refugee camps nearby. Many pre-war residents fled. Those who stayed found themselves at risk from both armies, and several lost their lives to stray bullets and cannonballs. In 1862, Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces surrounded the town, forcing the largest surrender of United States forces until World War II. After the surrender, Confederates kidnapped every African American they could find and forced them into slavery further south.
In 1864, history again repeated itself as formerly enslaved men carrying federally-issued weapons marched through Harpers Ferry to wage war against slavery. The 19th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) had come to the Shenandoah Valley on a recruiting mission. The legacy of John Brown and his raiders echoed in other ways as well. President Abraham Lincoln discussed with Frederick Douglass the possibility of sending scouts to recruit enslaved people to flee to Union lines, “somewhat after the original plan of John Brown.” “John Brown’s Body,” meanwhile, became one of the most popular songs for the Union during the Civil War.
Although John Brown’s body was “a-mouldering in the grave” during the war, many of his fellow raiders who managed to escape went on to participate in the conflict. Barclay Coppoc joined the 3rd Kansas Infantry, Francis Jackson Meriam joined the 3rd South Carolina Colored Infantry, and Charles Plummer Tidd joined the 21st Massachusetts Volunteers. Osborne Anderson served as a recruiter for the United States military and also wrote A Voice from Harpers Ferry, his reminiscences of the raid.
With the end of the war, the people of Harpers Ferry, now part of the newly-formed state of West Virginia, attempted to rebuild. New businesses replaced old ones. John Brown’s Fort was moved to Chicago for the 1891 World’s Fair, before being relocated to the Murphy Farm three miles outside of Harpers Ferry. On the heights of Camp Hill, former armory buildings became a school for African Americans—something unthinkable in 1859—and eventually transitioned into an institution of higher learning. Despite racist opposition from many in the town, the faculty of Storer College educated generations of African American professionals and leaders until it closed in 1955.
The town also became a tourism destination, particularly for African American visitors, with one noting, “The scenery and the history in and around this little mountain village possess and interest that is unusual… I had never yet felt as I felt at Harpers Ferry.” The Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the NAACP, held one of its meetings here. As a sign of respect, attendees made an early morning march to the fort, where they paid homage to the abolitionists who made their final stand within its walls and sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body.”
The town remained a battleground in the fight over John Brown, the Civil War, and its legacy. In 1895, the B&O Railroad raised an obelisk noting the original location of John Brown’s Fort. After the fort was moved from the Murphy Farm to the Storer Campus, Storer College alumni unveiled a plaque on the building itself, which declared, “That this nation might have a new birth of freedom. That slavery should be removed from American soil. John Brown, and his 21 men gave their lives.”
By contrast, the Heyward Shepherd Memorial, erected in 1931 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is a case study in Lost Cause ideology that romanticizes the Confederate cause. The monument falsely portrays Shepherd, an African American civilian shot at the train station during the raid, as a defender of the antebellum order and attempts to recast race relations in the South as harmonious until disrupted by Northern abolitionist meddlers. In reality, Shepherd was an employee investigating a disturbance as part of his duties. His political opinions remain unknown. Black journalists and academics denounced this distorted perception of the war, as did Storer College choir director Pearl Tatten. Although Storer College agreed to have its choir sing at the memorial’s dedication, during the ceremony Tatten made a pointed statement against the monument and reminded the crowd that she was the daughter of a USCT soldier who had fought against slavery.
“I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer, who wore the blue, who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are looking forward to the future, forgetting those things of the past. We are pushing forward to a larger freedom… in the spirit of a new freedom and rising youth.”
As fights over the Civil War and its legacy continued, the town of Harpers Ferry faced another challenge: flooding. The area had always been susceptible to floods, but industrialization and deforestation had exacerbated the problem. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the waters of the Potomac and Shenandoah swamped the town again and again, drowning residents and destroying homes and businesses. After a particularly devastating flood in 1936, Dr. Henry McDonald, the president of Storer College, declared to Congressmen Jennings Randolph that the town should become part of the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS would help preserve the town’s history, and save the local economy. In 1944, Harpers Ferry became a national monument, and in 1963 it became a national historical park.
The acquisition of much of Harpers Ferry by the NPS did not put an end to the fight over John Brown. In the 1950s, park superintendent Edwin M. Dale declared, “My grandpappy was a Confederate, and we’re not going to talk about John Brown.” This attitude put Dale into conflict with NPS leadership, who eventually replaced him. Controversy continued with the centennial of the raid in 1959. The Civil War Centennial Commission, desiring to mollify segregationists and avoid the topic of slavery, attempted to minimize any commemoration of the raid on Harpers Ferry. The commission’s effort backfired. The local community, with cooperation from the NPS, hosted a series of successful events at Harpers Ferry that attracted over 60,000 visitors and brought national media attention to John Brown and the raid.
Today, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park spans three states and two rivers. The town of Harpers Ferry abuts the park and includes homes and businesses, many of which rely on the tourism the park attracts. The area is a major recreation destination. The heights around the city include numerous trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail which passes by John Brown’s Fort. Tubers, kayakers, and canoeists enjoy the waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac.
At Harpers Ferry, past meets present as layers of history intersect and overlap with modern life. The natural beauty of the mountains and rivers coexists with the bloodshed and violence of the town’s history. Hiking trails stretch past old fortifications and entrenchments. Harpers Ferry Center, where staff oversees exhibits and multimedia for the entire NPS system, sits next to the former Storer College campus. Weary Appalachian Trail hikers pass Civil War reenactors on streets where people once fought, bled, and died over questions of freedom, union, law, and justice. John Brown’s Fort, the memorial obelisk, and the Heyward Shepherd Memorial stand within sight of each other. If the old fortifications and rifle lines that dot the heights around the town are artifacts of the Civil War, then these monuments are artifacts of the fight over the war’s legacy and form a key part of NPS ranger tours about history and memory at Harpers Ferry.
John Brown and his fellow raiders continue to cast a long shadow over the town, reminding visitors that the locations are not preserved in amber after a major event: they continue to evolve and change, to shape and be shaped by each generation. The NPS serves as the steward of the site, protecting its resources and interpreting its complicated past so that visitors have a chance to ask questions and debate issues that seem more relevant now than ever. Although the raid itself occurred over 150 years ago, historians and the general public continue to debate the actions of Brown, Copeland, Cook, Greene, and the other raiders. What is the best way to stand against injustice? Is it ever right to take a life to save another? Is violence ever justified in the name of change? Do the predicted ends of an action justify its unintended consequences? The story of Harpers Ferry provides insights, but no easy answers to these questions, thus making it all the more important to preserve and treasure sites like Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. There, at the intersection of past and present, we are challenged to learn, discuss, and create informed opinions. Perhaps no one has better described this immense task than Stephen Vincent Benét in his 1928 epic poem “John Brown’s Body”:
The law’s our yardstick, and it measures well
Or well enough when there are yards to measure.
Measure a wave with it, measure a fire,
Cut sorrow up in inches, weigh content.
You can weigh John Brown’s body well enough,
But how and in what balance weigh John Brown?