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American Civil War
John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid
History >> Civil War
In 1859, around a year and a half before the start of the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown tried to lead a slave uprising in Virginia. His efforts cost him his life, but his cause lived on when the slaves were set free six years later.
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 slaves in the South, they would revolt and gain their freedom. After all, there were around 4 million slaves in the South. If all the slaves revolted at once, they could easily gain their freedom.
Planning the War
In 1859, Brown began to plan his slave rebellion. 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 slaves 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 slave, and one fugitive slave.
The initial part of the raid was successful. Brown and his men captured the arsenal that night. However, Brown had planned on the local slaves coming to his aid. He expected that, once he had control of the weapons, hundreds of local slaves 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 slave 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.
Facts About Harpers Ferry and John Brown
- Brown was involved in the "Bleeding Kansas" violence when he and his sons killed five settlers in Kansas who were for legalizing slavery in the state.
- Brown tried to get abolitionist leader and former slave Frederick Douglass to participate in the raid, but Douglass felt the raid was a suicide mission and declined.
- Harpers Ferry was in the state of Virginia at the time of the raid, but today it is in the state of West Virginia.
- Ten of Brown's men were killed during the raid. One US Marine and 6 civilians were killed by Brown and his men.
- Two of John Brown's sons were killed in the raid. A third son was captured and was hanged to death.
History >> Civil War