In October 1859, the U.S. military arsenal at Harpers Ferry was the target of an assault by an armed band of abolitionists led by John Brown (1800-59). (Originally part of Virginia, Harpers Ferry is located in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia near the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.) The raid was intended to be the first stage in an elaborate plan to establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia.

Brown was captured during the raid and later convicted of treason and hanged, but the raid inflamed white Southern fears of slave rebellions and increased the mounting tension between Northern and Southern states before the American Civil War (1861-65).

John Brown: Abolitionist Leader

Born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised in Ohio, John Brown came from a staunchly Calvinist and anti-slavery family. He spent much of his life failing at a variety of businesses–he declared bankruptcy in his early 40s and had more than 20 lawsuits filed against him. In 1837, his life changed irrevocably when he attended an abolition meeting in Cleveland, during which he was so moved that he publicly announced his dedication to destroying the institution of slavery. As early as 1848 he was formulating a plan to incite an insurrection.

Did you know? Author Henry David Thoreau was among those who spoke out in defense of John Brown after his arrest following the Harpers Ferry raid. Thoreau penned an essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in support of his fellow abolitionist.

In the 1850s, Brown traveled to Kansas with five of his sons to fight against the pro-slavery forces in the contest over that territory. After pro-slavery men raided the abolitionist town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, Brown personally sought revenge. Several days later, he and his sons attacked a group of cabins along Pottawatomie Creek. They killed five men with broad swords and triggered a summer of guerilla warfare in the troubled territory. One of Brown’s sons was killed in the fighting.

By 1857, Brown returned to the East and began raising money to carry out his vision of a mass uprising of slaves. He secured the backing of six prominent abolitionists, known as the “Secret Six,” andassembled an invasion force. His “army” grew to include more than 20 men, including several black men and three of Brown’s sons. The group rented a Maryland farm near Harpers Ferry and prepared for the assault.

Harpers Ferry Raid: October 16-18, 1859

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his band overran the federal arsenal. Some of his men rounded up a handful of hostages, including a few slaves. Word of the raid spread and by the following day Brown and his men were surrounded. On October 18, a company of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee (1808-70) and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart (1833-64), overran Brown and his followers. Brown was wounded and captured, while 10 of his men were killed, including two of his sons.

John Brown Executed: December 2, 1859

Brown was tried by the state of Virginia for treason and murder, and found guilty on November 2.The 59-year-old abolitionistwent to the gallows on December 2, 1859. Before his execution, he handed his guard a slip of paper that read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

It was a prophetic statement. Although the raid failed, it inflamed sectional tensions and raised the stakes for the 1860 presidential election. Brown’s raid helped make any further accommodation between North and South nearly impossible and thus became an important impetus of the Civil War.