Anniversary of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry
October 16-18 marks the anniversary of the 1859 raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia—a failed attempt by John Brown and other abolitionists to lead an armed rebellion to free slaves throughout the South. By the third day of the raid Brown and most of his 21 followers were killed or captured (5 escaped). On the first day, however, the raid went well for the abolitionists; by evening Brown and his men controlled the Arsenal and its 100,000 muskets and rifles.
Brown was apprehended, put on trial, and executed on Dec. 2, 1859.
John Brown’s raid is considered one of the sparks that led to the Civil War 18 months later. His legacy is a mixed one, with some admirers calling him a martyr while others condemn him as a terrorist. There is no doubt his raid grabbed the attention of the entire nation. Here is how the New York Herald (New York, New York) broke the news on Oct. 18, 1859:
Startling News from Virginia and Maryland
Negro Insurrection at Harper’s Ferry
Strange and Exciting Intelligence
A most strange and almost incredible piece of information comes to us by telegraph from Baltimore. It represents that a mob of negro insurrectionists, numbering several hundred, and led on by white men, had seized on Sunday night upon the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, possessed themselves of the arms of the government there deposited, sent wagon loads of rifles into the interior, stopped and fired into passing trains, planted cannon upon the bridge over the Potomac, cut the telegraph wires, seized and kept in custody the peaceable and orderly citizens of the place, levied contributions upon the hotels and provision stores, shot several persons, and otherwise committed dreadful havoc and onslaughts, all against the peace and sovereignty of the people of the United States.
Our Baltimore despatches leave us altogether at sea in regard to the origin and cause of the outbreak, but our special despatch from Washington gives more particulars. From this, we learn that the Secretary of War has been officially informed of the dangerous extent of the movement. It appears to be a regular negro conspiracy or insurrection, planned and organized for some time past, and led on and directed by white men. The Secretary had information months since of the existence of such a conspiracy, and on the intention of the negro plotters to seize upon the Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, possess themselves of arms wherewith to arm the slaves of Virginia and the neighboring states, establish themselves at Wheeling and other points, and regain their freedom. He seems to have given no credence to the story when he first heard it, but it now becomes fearfully verified.
It is difficult to understand how such a movement could have had any success, particularly in a section of the country where the slaves are but few in number, and we are especially at a loss to conceive how they could have gained possession of the Arsenal against the officers and workmen of the government. But it seems too true that the blacks have actually gained the upper hand at Harper’s Ferry. At all events, troops have been sent against them from Washington and Baltimore, and tomorrow will probably bring us news of a terrible conflict, in which the negroes and their white abettors will be made to pay dearly for their temerity.
Apropos of this exciting news, we recollect a very significant passage in one of Gerrit Smith’s letters, published a month or two ago, in which he speaks of the folly of attempting to strike the shackles off the slaves by the force of moral suasion or legal agitation, and predicts that the next movement made in the direction of negro emancipation would be an insurrection in the South. Is this the first act in that programme?—and are those white abolitionists spoken of in our despatches emissaries of the peaceful Gerrit? If not, is the insurrection part of that “irrepressible conflict” which is so dear to the heart of William H. Seward?—and is it intended to affect the next Presidential contest? Time will show; but one thing appears certain--that the outbreak has assumed startling proportions, and may prove the first act of a terrible drama.
Click here for more articles about John Brown and Slavery: Precursor to the Civil War.
Click here for more articles about the American Civil War.