The Tragedy at Harper’s Ferry

The Tragedy at Harper’s Ferry. A poor plan or the genius of a martyr?

John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut.[1] A Calvinist, Brown believed that God would bring down wrath and justice against the slave owners. He often quoted the biblical passage Hebrews 9:22 “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”[2]. He firmly believed that God declared earning profit from slavery a sin and sit out to destroy the institution of slavery itself.[3] Brown became an acquaintance of Gerrit Smith from New York, a landowner of much of the Adirondack Mountains, and benefactor of abolitionism. Smith gave Brown a farm where he could educate former and runaway slaves, however, within two short years Brown moved to Ohio.  John Brown became a free-state guerrilla in Kansas during 1856 but eventually turned his eyes on attacking slavery at its roots in the South.

It was Brown’s plan to attack and capture the deferral arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He then planned to use the weapons from the arsenal to arm thousands of slaves from the area that he anticipated would join his cause. From a farm he rented in Maryland, across the river from his target location, he gathered together a brigade of seventeen white men and five black recruits.[4] Without a fully formulated plan, which included a lack of an escape or proper rations, Brown and his band attacked and captured the arsenal on October 16, 1859.

However, his dream of thousands of slaves joining his freedom attempts did not manifest as he had dreamed. Instead John Brown had captured an arsenal without knowing what to do next. Brown’s men were quickly dispatched by a local militia with many injuries and deaths. Brown, however, was finally corned by the U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart on October 18.[5] Brown had failed in his attempts at the liberation of the slaves only thirty-six hours after his raid had been. John Brown was hung on December 2, 1859, in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). “In one sense, the Harpers Ferry raid was a tragic, wretched failure. But in a larger sense, perhaps, if Brown’s goal was to provoke a violent confrontation and liberate the slaves, he succeeded beyond his dreams.”[6]

[1]. Jack J. Cardoso, “John Brown.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (January 2015): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2017).
[2]. Heb 9:22 (KJV)
[3]. Jack J. Cardoso, “John Brown.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (January 2015): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2017).
[4]. James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: the Civil War and Reconstruction, 4 ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), 125-128.
[5]. Ibid, 127.
[6]. Ibid.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.