Newspaper Reports from Second Day of John Brown’s Raid
October 17 is the anniversary of the second day of John Brown’s raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia—a failed attempt by 22 abolitionists (five of them black) to lead an armed rebellion to free slaves in the South. On Oct. 17, 1859, Brown and his followers barricaded themselves inside the Arsenal’s engine house, surrounded by militia and angry townsmen.
That afternoon Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee led a detachment of 88 marines to confront the insurgents. The marines’ attack the following morning ended Brown’s raid; he and most of his 21 followers were killed or captured (five escaped), and their abolitionist dream of leading an armed rebellion to free the South’s slaves collapsed with them.
News of Brown’s raid grabbed the nation’s attention. The New York Herald broke the news to its readers by declaring: “the outbreak has assumed startling proportions, and may prove the first act of a terrible drama.” By contrast a Southern paper, the Charleston Mercury, downplayed the “disgraceful affair” and asserted that “no doubt, before this reaches the eye of our readers, perfect quiet has been again established.” This is the article that appeared on page 2 of the Oct. 18, 1859, issue of the Charleston Mercury (Charleston, South Carolina):
Our despatches this morning give us some particulars of a serious outbreak among the employees on the government works at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in which the negros, led on by some infuriated abolitionists, have been forced to cooperate. The trains were stopped and telegraphic wires cut, and, as the despatch informs us, the whole town was in possession of the insurgents. It will be seen, however, that the most active means have been put into execution to quell the disturbance, that several companies of artillery and infantry have proceeded to the scene, and, no doubt, before this reaches the eye of our readers, perfect quiet has been again established. We regret, however, that our telegraphic agent closed his reports so early, as it would have been exceedingly gratifying to learn that the miserable leaders of this unfortunate and disgraceful affair had received their just desserts.
Apparently, after that page 2 article had been typeset, the Charleston Mercury received updates—dispatches originating from Baltimore dated October 17, presenting a far more serious picture of the insurrection. The Mercury printed this follow-up article on page 3 of that same Oct. 18, 1859, issue:
Latest by Telegraph.
Tuesday, October 18, 1859.
Despatches received at the Mercury office.
Baltimore, October 17—Rumors reached this city this forenoon of a serious insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The trains were stopped, telegraph wires cut, and the town and all public works were in the possession of the insurgents.
At first it was believed that the rumor was an exaggeration of an affray among the government employees at the Armory, but later dispatches from Monocacy, which is the nearest station to Harper’s Ferry, confirm the first statements, that the trains were stopped and several railroad employees killed.
The negros had been seized on the Maryland side of the river, and carried over and forced to join the insurgents.
All statements concur that the town is in complete possession of the insurgents, together with the Armory, the Arsenal, the Pay Offices and the bridges. The insurgents are composed of whites and blacks, supposed to be led on by abolitionists. Some suppose that plunder of the arms and ammunition and government money is their object.
One hundred U.S. marines, from the Washington Barracks, with two 12-pounders, went up this afternoon, and will reach there about 8 o’clock. Their orders are to clear the bridge at all hazards. Three companies of artillery, from Old Point, are also on their way to the scene of disturbance. Six or seven volunteer companies tendered their services to the President, which were accepted, and they likewise have gone to the scene on extra trains. The insurgents are said to number six to eight hundred, under the leadership of a man named Anderson, recently arrived at the Ferry.
One report from a merchant there says that most of the citizens were imprisoned, many killed, and all avenues to the town barricaded and guarded. The general belief here is that this outbreak is the work of abolitionists.
Secretary Floyd, some weeks ago, received an anonymous letter, informing him that there would be a rising, and an attempt made to capture the Armory, but it was too indefinite and improbable to be believed.
These reports may be greatly exaggerated, but there is undoubtedly a serious disturbance going on. Three representatives of the press went with the troops, and we will probably have more authentic intelligence before closing.
Baltimore, October 17—10:15 p.m.
Nothing further from Harper’s Ferry, except that reports generally confirm the fact that the insurgents have fortified the bridge with cannon.
There is a suspicion here that the disturbance is caused by the failure of the contractors on the government dam to pay the employees, who number several hundred, and have pressed the negros into their service.
Two companies from Richmond (Va.) have been ordered into service, and will probably leave on a special train tonight.
Gov. Wise is en route for Washington.
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.