John Browns Raid on Harpers Ferry (2022)


John Brown was an influential figure in American history in relation to issues surrounding slavery in the 19th century. For instance, he was a prominent abolitionist and fought to end slavery in the United States. As well, many consider him to be one of the most famous people from the timeframe of the American Abolitionist Movement. For example, his famous raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in the lead up to the events of the American Civil War.


As stated above, John Brown was an influential figure in the American Abolitionist Movement. The American Abolitionist Movement is the name for the advancements made in the United States towards ending the practise of slavery. For instance, the term ‘abolition’ means to stop or end something. As such, an abolitionist is someone who was working to ban slavery. The American Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1865 when the American government abolished slavery following the end of the American Civil War.​

There was quite a divide between the Northern and Southern states in relation to their views on slavery and the Abolitionist Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. More specifically, the Northern states were the first to support the American Abolitionist Movement and by the end of the 18th century, most Northern states has some sort of anti-slavery legislation. As such, John Brown generally lived in and operated in the Northern states, where he carried out his own abolitionist activities.​

A major event that occurred before John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. In general, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed states to determine for themselves, whether slavery should be allowed. ‘Bleeding Kansas’ is a term that is used to refer to the violence that erupted in the new state of Kansas after the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The violence occurred between 1854 and 1861 and set the stage for the eventually outbreak of the American Civil War. John Brown went to Kansas with his adult sons and participated in the fighting, which was brutal and led to major losses for the abolitionists that fought alongside Brown. However, John Brown’s actions in the events of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ led to him gaining recognition amongst other abolitionists. He used this to gain support for further actions that he hoped to carry out against the practise of slavery, including the raid on Harpers Ferry.​

John Brown


Following the events during ‘Bleeding Kansas’, John Brown and his supporters returned to the east to gain financial support for further actions to end slavery. In fact, Brown had hoped to spark a slave revolt that would bring an end to slavery in the United States. Throughout the mid-1850s, he met with other abolitionists to plan, finance and carry out a raid, which he hoped would cause African American slaves across to the United States to revolt against their slave owners.​

This ultimately resulted in Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Harpers Ferry was a small town in Virginia, which contained a United States Armory that was full of weapons and ammunition. As such, Brown had hoped to raid the armory in order to capture weapons and spark a slave revolt, which he thought would end slavery in the United States.​

In fact, Brown’s plan was to capture the armory in Harpers Ferry and take the numerous weapons and ammunition before heading south. He did not intend to hold the armory for very long. Rather, Brown’s plan was to capture the armory such that he could obtain weapons for fellow abolitionists and slaves from within Virginia. For instance, he had intended on sending scouts to local slave plantations in Virginia in order to recruit slaves to his cause. Brown had estimated that as many as 500 slaves might join him at this time. He hoped that these slaves would arm themselves at the armory before heading south into the slave states in order to spark further slave revolts.​

​In order to prepare for the raid, John Brown rented a small farmhouse near Harpers Ferry where he and his supporters could train and organize their efforts. At the time, he had 18 others who lived at the farmhouse with him. They trained during the nights and mostly stayed indoors during the day in order to avoid gaining attention from neighboring farms. At this time, Brown also tried to gain more support for the raid, by appealing to other abolitionists. For instance, he famously asked Frederick Douglass to act as a supporter of the raid in order to gain more support from African Americans. However, Douglass declined the request, as he thought the use of violence would do more harm than good to the cause of the abolitionist movement.


The raid began on the evening of October 16th and continued until October 18th in 1859. On the evening of October 16th, Brown and a group of about 21 other supporters carried out the raid in Harpers Ferry. Part of the group began by entering the town and overwhelming the guards. At the same time, another part of the group helped release some local slaves to gain more support for the raid on the armory. Regardless, Brown and the raiders took control over the armory with relatively little effort. As stated above, Brown’s intention was to gather as many weapons as possible and spark a slave revolt in the area surrounding Harpers Ferry. In fact, he hoped to be out of the armory before news spread and the government could respond.​

Unfortunately, the raid did not go to plan as Brown and the other raiders became trapped in the armory. For instance, on the morning of the 17th, the raiders were discovered in the armory, and local militia began to surround them. Further to this, Brown’s plan of sparking a slave revolt failed, as almost no slaves in the surrounding area came to assist the raid. This meant that the raiders were effectively trapped in the armory with no possible escape. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the raiders exchanged fire with the militia, and several people died on both sides. This included one of John Brown’s adult sons, who was shot and died shortly after. However, the situation became worse for the raiders, when President James Buchanan called for a company of United States Marines to surround the armory at Harpers Ferry. In fact, the Marines were led by Robert E. Lee, who later gained fame for his actions in the American Civil War.​

United States Marines attacking John Brown's 'Fort'.

The raiders inside of the firehouse.

The next morning, on the 19th of October, Lee offered Brown and the raiders the opportunity to surrender. However, Brown refused, and Lee ordered the Marines to attack the building that Brown and the other raiders were held up in. In the chaos of the assault by the Marines, Brown was cut the in neck and badly injured. With that said, the Marines quickly captured the raiders and took them prisoner. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was over. In total, ten of the raiders were killed in the fighting, and one United States Marines was killed.​


John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry was a failure, as it did not result in the slave revolt that he had hoped. This was due to several reasons, including the failure of his group to gain more widespread support from other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. This is because many in the American Abolitionist Movement considered Brown’s views to be too radical, and they did not necessarily support his use of violence to end slavery.​

Historically, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is one of the most significant events in the lead up to the outbreak of the American Civil War. This is because it highlighted the divide between the Northern ‘free’ states and the Southern ‘slave’ states. For example, in the Northern states, Brown’s raid was widely seen as an act of bravery for the cause of abolitionism. Alternatively, many in the Southern states were angered by the use of violence to end slavery. This caused John Brown to become a point of disagreement between the North and the South as well as politically with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. As such, historians generally view John Brown’s raid as an important moment in the timeframe before the American Civil War.​

​As stated above, John Brown was captured following the events of his raid on Harpers Ferry. This resulted in his imprisonment, trial and eventual execution. In fact, his trial began in Virginia on October 27th in 1859, which was just over a week after the end of the raid. In all, he was charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason. After a trial that lasted about a week, Brown was found guilty of all three charges. As a result, he was sentenced to death by hanging, with the execution to on December 2nd, 1859.



  • Elias Beck


  • '​John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry'


  • ​History Crunch (




  • March 26, 2022


  • September 8, 2018


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