The irony of John Brown’s raid as Colonel Robert E. Lee ended his hope of arming slaves to end slavery.
Colonel Robert E. Lee would later become General Robert E. Lee the commander of the Confederate Army.
The failed uprising that helped spark a greater conflict.
In October 1859, ardent abolitionist John Brown tried to spark a massive slave uprising in Virginia and other Southern States. He failed and was hanged for treason, but his act deepened the North-South divide and was a milestone on the road to the American Civil War.
Brown was no stranger to liberation through violence: he was a veteran of the Bleeding Kansas conflict fought over whether the territory would be admitted into the Union as a free or slave state. He had several shootouts and skirmishes under his belt, along with the murder of several pro-slavery settlers.
By 1859 Brown had hatched a grander plan: to liberate slaves all across the South. The campaign was to start at Harpers Ferry in Virginia with the raiding of the massive arsenal there, supposedly holding 100,000 rifles and muskets. News of the event would attract escaped slaves who could be armed with the plundered weapons; the army would then march south across Virginia. It would only open fire in self-defense, but its mere presence would be enough to convince even more slaves to escape, eventually causing the slave-based economy of the state to collapse with as little violence as was necessary. The movement would then spread to other slave-holding states, defeating them by draining their labor force.
For the initial raid, Brown had received 200 Beecher’s Bibles, breech loading Sharps rifles issued to abolitionist forces, and 1,000 pikes from supporting abolitionist groups. What he didn’t have were men: instead of the planned brigade of 4,500 volunteers, he only had 21 men under his command: 16 white, three of them his own sons, and 5 black, three of them free men, one freed slave and one fugitive.
The group hid at the Kennedy Farmhouse 4 miles from Harpers Ferry. His daughter and daughter-in-law accompanied them to help with housekeeping and allay suspicion at the large group of men. The raiders stayed indoors during the day, coming out at night to drill and get some fresh air.
On the night of October 16, 1859, a Sunday, Brown led his force to Harpers Ferry, dispatching a party to kidnap local slave owner Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington, along with several slaves and two of Washington’s family relics: a sword allegedly given to George Washington by Frederick the Great and a pair of pistols gifted by Marquis Lafayette. To prevent news of the raid leaking out too quickly, Brown cut the telegraph wire and stopped a local train, which, for some reason, he later allowed to move on and send out an alert.
Ironically, the first victim of the raid was a free black man called Heyward Shepherd, a baggage handler at the local train station. Encountering the raiders at around 1 a.m., he ignored their order to freeze, turned back towards the building and was shot in the back. The shot raised John Starry, a local doctor, from his home. Going outside to investigate, he was confronted by the raiders, but they let him go once he concluded that there was nothing he could do to help Shepherd. Rather than return home, Starry got a horse and alerted nearby towns.
The 200-500 slaves Brown was expecting to join them on the first day didn’t show up. While the raiders captured the armory by the evening, the locals started fighting back against them by then.
On the morning of the October 17, 1859, militiamen, farmers and shopkeepers surrounded the armory and secured the bridge that was Brown’s only way out of town. Four locals, including the mayor, were killed during the day in several exchanges of fire. Brown moved his men and some of his hostages to the local fire engine house, known today as John Brown’s Fort, which was more defensible than the sprawling armory. At one point, Brown sent out his son Watson and another raider with a white flag to talk. Both were shot, Watson was mortally wounded and the other man captured. Another raider tried to escape by swimming the Potomac River, but was shot dead in the water. One of Brown’s other two sons, Oliver, also died from a shot later in the day.
Meanwhile, a company of U.S. Marines, the only troops nearby, were directed to Harpers Ferry under the temporary command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who would become the famous Confederate general in a few years’ time. Lee was on leave in the area and had no uniforms with him, so he commanded the operation in civilian clothes
In the morning of October 18, 1859 Lee made one last and unsuccessful attempt to convince Brown to surrender. After the talks, the Marines used sledgehammers and a ladder turned into an improvised battering ram to break down the door of the engine house and rush in, subduing the defenders in a three-minute melee. Lieutenant Israel Greene, the leader of the Marine detachment, struck Brown on the back of the neck with his saber and tried to follow up with a stab through his chest, but something deflected the blade and caused it to bend. Allegedly, it was caught on the belt buckle that secured the Washington family heirloom sword, which Brown was carrying on his person.
The raid ended as a disaster: ten raiders were killed, seven were captured and hanged, including Brown himself. Five escaped, including Brown’s third son Owen, who went on to serve as a Union officer in the Civil War. Though John Brown’s dream of liberating the South was fanciful at best, his failure did drive the wheel of history forward by deepening the ideological gulf between the free and slave states of the Union, a divide that would lead to the breakout of the American Civil War a year and a half later.
You can learn more about how American society was driven towards the War Between the States by economic, political and ideological causes on our American Civil War Tours and even visit Harpers Ferry on our American Civil War Tour – A Nation Tested.