John Brown’s Day of Reckoning

The abolitionist’s bloody raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry 150 years ago set the stage for the Civil War

John Brown and many of his followers holed up in the fire engine house awaiting reinforcements by a swarm of "bees"—slaves from the surrounding area. But only a handful showed up. (Library of Congress)
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The murders, however, ignited reprisals. Pro-slavery "border ruffians" raided Free- Staters' homesteads. Abolitionists fought back. Hamlets were burned, farms abandoned. Brown's son Frederick, who had participated in the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, was shot dead by a pro-slavery man. Although Brown survived many brushes with opponents, he seemed to sense his own fate. In August 1856 he told his son Jason, "I have only a short time to live—only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause."

By almost any definition, the Pottawatomie killings were a terrorist act, intended to sow fear in slavery's defenders. "Brown viewed slavery as a state of war against blacks—a system of torture, rape, oppression and murder—and saw himself as a soldier in the army of the Lord against slavery," says Reynolds. "Kansas was Brown's trial by fire, his initiation into violence, his preparation for real war," he says. "By 1859, when he raided Harpers Ferry, Brown was ready, in his own words, ‘to take the war into Africa'—that is, into the South."

In January 1858, Brown left Kansas to seek support for his planned Southern invasion. In April, he sought out a diminutive former slave, Harriet Tubman, who had made eight secret trips to Maryland's Eastern Shore to lead dozens of slaves north to freedom. Brown was so impressed that he began referring to her as "General Tubman." For her part, she embraced Brown as one of the few whites she had ever met who shared her belief that antislavery work was a life-and-death struggle. "Tubman thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived," says Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.

Having secured financial backing from wealthy abolitionists known as the "Secret Six," Brown returned to Kansas in mid-1858. In December, he led 12 fugitive slaves on an epic journey eastward, dodging pro-slavery guerrillas and marshals' posses and fighting and defeating a force of United States troops. Upon reaching Detroit, they were ferried across the Detroit River to Canada. Brown had covered nearly 1,500 miles in 82 days, proof to doubters, he felt sure, that he was capable of making the Subterranean Pass-Way a reality.

With his "Secret Six" war chest, Brown purchased hundreds of Sharps carbines and thousands of pikes, with which he planned to arm the first wave of slaves he expected to flock to his banner once he occupied Harpers Ferry. Many thousands more could then be armed with rifles stored at the federal arsenal there. "When I strike, the bees will swarm," Brown assured Frederick Douglass, whom he urged to sign on as president of a "Provisional Government." Brown also expected Tubman to help him recruit young men for his revolutionary army, and, says Larson, "to help infiltrate the countryside before the raid, encourage local blacks to join Brown and when the time came, to be at his side—like a soldier." Ultimately, neither Tubman nor Douglass participated in the raid. Douglass was sure the venture would fail. He warned Brown that he was "going into a perfect steel trap, and that he would not get out alive." Tubman may have concluded that if Brown's plan failed, the Underground Railroad would be destroyed, its routes, methods and participants exposed.

Sixty-one miles northwest of Washington, D.C., at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry was the site of a major federal armory, including a musket factory and rifle works, an arsenal, several large mills and an important railroad junction. "It was one of the most heavily industrialized towns south of the Mason-Dixon line," says Frye. "It was also a cosmopolitan town, with a lot of Irish and German immigrants, and even Yankees who worked in the industrial facilities." The town and its environs' population of 3,000 included about 300 African-Americans, evenly divided between slave and free. But more than 18,000 slaves—the "bees" Brown expected to swarm—lived in the surrounding counties.

As his men stepped off the railway bridge into town that October night in 1859, Brown dispatched contingents to seize the musket factory, rifle works, arsenal and adjacent brick fire-engine house. (Three men remained in Maryland to guard weapons that Brown hoped to distribute to slaves who joined him.) "I want to free all the negroes in this state," he told one of his first hostages, a night watchman. "If the citizens interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood." Guards were posted at the bridges. Telegraph lines were cut. The railroad station was seized. It was there that the raid's first casualty occurred, when a porter, a free black man named Hayward Shepherd, challenged Brown's men and was shot dead in the dark. Once key locations had been secured, Brown sent a detachment to seize several prominent local slave owners, including Col. Lewis W. Washington, a great-grandnephew of the first president.

Early reports claimed that Harpers Ferry had been taken by 50, then 150, then 200 white "insurrectionists" and "six hundred runaway negroes." Brown expected to have 1,500 men under his command by midday Monday. He later said he believed that he would eventually have armed as many as 5,000 slaves. But the bees did not swarm. (Only a handful of slaves lent Brown assistance.) Instead, as Brown's band watched dawn break over the craggy ridges enclosing Harpers Ferry, local white militias—similar to today's National Guard—were hastening to arms.

First to arrive were the Jefferson Guards, from nearby Charles Town. Uniformed in blue, with tall black Mexican War-era shakos on their heads and brandishing .58-caliber rifles, they seized the railway bridge, killing a former slave named Dangerfield Newby and cutting Brown off from his route of escape. Newby had gone north in a failed attempt to earn enough money to buy freedom for his wife and six children. In his pocket was a letter from his wife: "It is said Master is in want of money," she had written. "I know not what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hopes of the future are blasted, for their [sic] has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you."

As the day progressed, armed units poured in from Frederick, Maryland; Martinsburg and Shepherdstown, Virginia; and elsewhere. Brown and his raiders were soon surrounded. He and a dozen of his men held out in the engine house, a small but formidable brick building, with stout oak doors in front. Other small groups remained holed up in the musket factory and rifle works. Acknowledging their increasingly dire predicament, Brown sent out New Yorker William Thompson, bearing a white flag, to propose a cease-fire. But Thompson was captured and held in the Galt House, a local hotel. Brown then dispatched his son, Watson, 24, and ex-cavalryman Aaron Stevens, also under a white flag, but the militiamen shot them down in the street. Watson, although fatally wounded, managed to crawl back to the engine house. Stevens, shot four times, was arrested.


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