John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and its influence on secession
by Bob Livingston
Late on Oct. 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led 19 fully armed men — 14 whites and five blacks — in an assault on a U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
He and his band overpowered guards at the Baltimore & Ohio railroad bridge, and he set about occupying a building inside the armory gate. Several of his men were sent to seize the important people in the community, incite the abolitionists and slaves there to join his insurrection, and retrieve weapons and ammunition secreted in a schoolhouse nearby.
The men kidnapped Col. L.W. Washington and forced him and his servants to go to the armory. They also kidnapped a Mr. Allstadt and six of his servants. A little later, Brown stopped and held for a time a passenger train on the bridge. A railroad guard was killed in that incident.
As morning dawned and Harper’s Ferry residents began stirring, Brown’s men began kidnapping townspeople as they appeared on the street. He took more than 40 people captive before he was done.
As the day waned on, Brown, realizing that no one had joined his “insurrection,” set out some pickets and barricaded himself inside the armory.
Militia from nearby Charlestown learned of the raid and arrived to assess the situation. They were soon joined by more from nearby towns. They surrounded the armory and drove Brown’s men inside. Brown and his men began shooting at all white people who showed their heads.
At around sunset on Oct. 17, federal troops began arriving, accompanied by U.S. Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee and his aid, J.E.B. Stuart.
Lee placed the troops strategically to prevent Brown’s escape and/or reinforcement and surrounded the arsenal with his Marines. Then he waited until dawn the next day.
Shortly after daybreak, Lee sent Stuart under a flag of truce to seek Brown’s surrender and release of the hostages. Stuart was ordered not to negotiate, but to give Brown specific terms: Lee said for Brown to “surrender himself, his associates and the prisoners they had taken, with the assurance that ‘if they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept in safety to await orders of the President …. That if he [Lee] is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.’”
As Lee expected, Brown refused. So upon Stuart’s signal, Lee’s Marines attacked Brown’s position, battered down the door and freed the hostages. In the melee, one Marine was mortally wounded and 10 of the white members of Brown’s party and two of the black members were killed. One of the white members of Brown’s party escaped but was recaptured, and one of the black men in the party escaped.
The insurgents were blamed for killing two of the white hostages, including Harper’s Ferry Mayor F. Beckman, and one black man who was a railroad porter. Eight white citizens were also injured.
Brown was charged with treason against Virginia and murder, and Lee turned him and his surviving cohorts over to state officials. He was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. His guilty cohorts were hanged later. But much of the Northern press, especially the abolitionist-leaning press, hailed Brown’s actions and deemed him a martyr.
Brown’s plan to lead a slave insurrection in the South created a lot of turmoil and angst among Southerners. In his book, “The Political Crisis of the 1850s,” Michael F. Holt writes that Brown’s raid was not seen by Southerners as an isolated incident, but as part of a grand conspiracy between the abolitionists and the Republican Party to infiltrate the South and instigate slave insurrections. He writes:
In 1860 hysterical Southerners tended to see an abolitionist behind every bush. Rumors of slave plots to poison wells in Texas and murder whites elsewhere circulated widely. Vigilance committees were formed to ferret out agitators, helpless poor whites and Northerners living in the South were beaten and driven from their homes, and others were unceremoniously lynched. For many in 1860, anxiety about slave rebellion was especially acute.
Holt goes on to write that Northern support of Brown’s insurrection cemented in the minds of many Southerners that the North and South had become separate countries with separate interests. Southerners also feared a Republican administration would encourage other fanatics like Brown by using abolitionist literature sent through the U.S. Postal Service. They also feared Republicans’ infiltrating Southern governments through patronage jobs where they would ultimately use state governments to end the institution of slavery.
The Republican Party adopted a specific plank condemning Brown and his plan, and on February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln said:
You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need not be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.
According to the website ushistory.org:
Brown’s strange effort to start a rebellion was over less than 36 hours after it started; however, the consequences of his raid would last far longer. In the North, his raid was greeted by many with widespread admiration. While they recognized the raid itself was the act of a madman, some northerners admired his zeal and courage. Church bells pealed on the day of his execution and songs and paintings were created in his honor. Brown was turned into an instant martyr. Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that Brown would make “the gallows as glorious as the cross.” … Southerners were shocked and outraged. How could anyone be sympathetic to a fanatic who destroyed their property and threatened their very lives? How could they live under a government whose citizens regarded John Brown as a martyr? Southern newspapers labeled the entire north as John Brown sympathizers. Southern politicians blamed the Republican Party and falsely claimed that Abraham Lincoln supported Brown’s intentions. Moderate voices supporting compromise on both sides grew silent amid the gathering storm. In this climate of fear and hostility, the election year of 1860 opened ominously. The election of Abraham Lincoln became unthinkable to many in the south.