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American Civil War

John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

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In 1859, around a year and a half before the start of the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown tried to lead an uprising in Virginia. His efforts cost him his life, but his cause lived on when the enslaved were set free six years later.
John Brown of the Harpers Ferry Raid
John Brown
by Martin M. Lawrence

Abolitionist John Brown

John Brown was an abolitionist. This means that he wanted to abolish slavery. John tried to help black people who had escaped from slavery in the South. He became passionate about ending slavery once and for all. He also became frustrated with the peaceful nature of the abolitionist movement. John felt that slavery was a horrible crime and that he should use any means necessary to put an end to it, including violence.

A War to End Slavery

After many years of protesting slavery, John Brown came up with a radical plan to put an end to slavery in the South once and for all. He believed that if he could organize and arm the enslaved in the South, they would revolt and gain their freedom. After all, there were around 4 million enslaved in the South. If all the enslaved revolted at once, they could easily gain their freedom.

Planning the War

In 1859, Brown began to plan his rebellion of the enslaved. He would first take over the federal weapons arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. There were thousands and thousands of muskets and other weapons being stored at Harpers Ferry. If Brown could get control of these weapons, he could arm the enslaved and they could begin to fight back.

Raid on Harpers Ferry Arsenal

On October 16, 1859 Brown gathered his small force together for the initial raid. There were 21 total men who participated in the raid: 16 white men, three free black men, one freed person, and one fugitive enslaved person.

The initial part of the raid was successful. Brown and his men captured the arsenal that night. However, Brown had planned on the local enslaved people coming to his aid. He expected that, once he had control of the weapons, hundreds of local enslaved people would join in the fight. This never happened.

Brown and his men were soon surrounded by the local townspeople and militia. Some of Brown's men were killed and they moved to a small engine house that is today known as John Brown's Fort.


On October 18, two days after the start of the raid, a group of marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived. They offered Brown and his men the opportunity to surrender, but Brown refused. Then they attacked. They quickly broke down the door and subdued the men inside the building. Many of Brown's men were killed, but Brown survived and was taken prisoner.


Brown and four of his men were convicted of treason and were hanged to death on December 2, 1859.


Despite the quick failure of Brown's planned revolt, Brown became a martyr for the abolitionists' cause. His story became famous throughout the United States. Although many in the North didn't agree with his violent actions, they did agree with his belief that slavery should be abolished. It would be less than a year later that the Civil War would begin.

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