Assault at Harper’s Ferry: October 16, 1859

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.


Old Osawatomie John Brown, now sporting a long, gray beard and bearing the alias Shubel Morgan, had returned to Kansas. He had been in Chatham, Ontario in May 1859 meeting with 12 white and 24 black abolitionists, including Harriet Tubman; they had been discussing a plot of Brown’s for a violent revolution to free the slaves. Back in Kansas, John Brown was again causing trouble. Answering a plea for help from a slave who was to be sold at auction, Brown, his sons, and others crossed over into Missouri, freed the slave (along with five of his fellow slaves), and stole some horses and a wagon. Proceeding to another farm, Brown’s party freed five more slaves, killing a white man who opposed them. When the government placed a $500 bounty on Brown’s head, the old abolitionist again fled to Canada.


John Brown

In Canada, Brown met with New England abolitionists who had become convinced that only violence could free the slaves. Brown laid out his plan. He would capture the federal arsenal and gun factory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and establish it as the center of a fugitive slave republic, from whence he would lead a general slave insurrection. Compelling, charismatic, with blue-gray eyes flaming with zeal, the gaunt John Brown stirred the hearts of his hearers. Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and Samuel Gridley Howe supported his desperate plan. But Frederick Douglass said he would have no part in it.


It was night, on October 16, 1859, when John Brown with 13 whites (including three of his sons) and five blacks assaulted the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Killing an army major, they seized the arsenal and then proceeded to round up the prominent citizens of the town. Fifty slaves, freed by Brown, joined him in the railroad roundhouse where they were besieged by the Jefferson Guards of the Virginia state militia. A bitter fight ensued in which, one by one, Brown’s men fell dead around him. “Brown was the coldest and firmest man I ever saw in defying danger and death,” wrote Lewis Washington, one of the besieged who survived. “With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm and to sell their lives as dearly as they could.”


Robert E. Lee

It was a hopeless defense. The next day, October 18, Colonel Robert E. Lee and a contingent of United States marines battered down the doors of the roundhouse and took a wounded Brown and three others prisoner. Lee delivered them to Richmond, where they were to stand trial for treason.


Brown refused the insanity defense his lawyer had prepared for him, and the court condemned him to death. Unruffled and unrepentant, Brown addressed the court:


“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments — I submit; so let it be done!”


No general slave revolt followed Brown’s action or his execution by hanging on December 2, 1859. The South, however, reeled with fear of slave insurrection and blamed the radical agitation of abolitionists for Brown. Though northern leaders like Lincoln, Douglas, and Seward condemned Brown’s raid, the South could not, or would not, put any confidence in their sincerity. What southerners heard were the voices of abolitionists, who, for years had condemned all slave holders as immoral monsters, proclaiming Brown a martyr — a man they believed would, if he could, have bathed the South in blood. They heard the voice of a man as respectable as Ralph Waldo Emerson, proclaiming Brown “that new saint.”


Brown’s death, said Emerson, “will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”


John Brown kisses a black child on his way to the gallows

John Brown and Emancipation


We offer here a version of the song, “John Brown’s Body,” from the period of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The lyrics demonstrate the place John Brown played in the imagination of the anti-slavery movement in the North.



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