Feb. 27, 2021

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

The mural painting Tragic Prelude, featuring abolitionist John Brown, for The Educator Podcast: Walking History series episode John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

In this episode of Walking History we talk about John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, one of the most unique and bewildering events in American history, and one of the main catalysts for the Civil War which would start just a year and a half later. We also take a look at what it’s like to visit this well-traveled historic town today. 

John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (at the time still part of Virginia) was an attempted slave insurrection lead by the infamous militant abolitionist John Brown, who had already become well known in the US for his prominent role in the pro-slavery versus anti-slavery violence that had already taken place in the Kansas Territory, called Bleeding Kansas. At the Raid on Harpers Ferry, late in the evening on Sunday, October 16th, 1859, John Brown led a group of 22 men, including 3 of his sons, to capture the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia and the thousands of weapons stored there in order to ignite a slave rebellion.

Want to jump ahead in this episode?

Summary of the Raid: 1:22

Interesting Facts: 6:00

Background of the Raid: 7:52

The Raid: 20:07
Aftermath of the Raid: 37:07

Visiting Today: 45:00

He horribly miscalculated, however, and by the afternoon of the following day he and his followers, along with many of the hostages they had captured, found themselves trapped in a small fire engine house surrounded by hundreds of angry citizens and militiamen. It would be Brown’s last stand. Fighting ensued, ultimately leaving 5 townspeople and 10 of Brown’s raiders dead and many more wounded. By Tuesday morning US Marines, lead by Robert E. Lee, showed up, broke down the doors of the fire engine house using a ladder as a battering ram, and captured John Brown and his remaining raiders.

But the story doesn’t end there. John Brown, considered by most who had heard of him to be a madman, spent the next several weeks of his imprisonment giving interviews to anyone who would listen – Senators, Congressmen, reporters, and ordinary citizens. These interviews became widely publicized across the country and quickly began to affect the national consciousness, not just on perceptions of him but on opinions of slavery in general. He came across as  “truthful and intelligent” even to his enemies, and said of his actions, “I claim to be here in carrying out a measure I believe perfectly justifiable… to aid those suffering great wrong.”

On November 2nd he was found guilty of treason, murder and inciting a slave insurrection, and sentenced to death. This appeared to be no problem for him, he had made clear, for, as he had said during his days in Kansas, “I have only a short time to live. Only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for.”

John Brown quickly became known in the South as a murderous villain, but for abolitionists he was a heroic martyr for their cause, and his words and actions convinced many in the North that violence might be the only way to end slavery. His actions helped force the question of slavery in the United States, and to this day he remains an enigma of a man, not easily definable or understood, but captivating nonetheless.

Are you a fan of interesting facts? Listen in to find out how Robert E. Lee, JEB Stuart, Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson and Meriweather Lewis are connected to this story, and much more.

The town of Harpers Ferry is well worth a visit, and is home not just to historical sites and artifacts related to John Brown and his raid, but also to famous visits by Thomas Jefferson and Meriweather Lewis, a Civil War battle that took place there, and much more.

Useful links:

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
John Brown's Day of Reckoning - Smithsonian Magazine
Tragic Prelude, by John Steuart Curry