The Harpers Ferry Raid, October 16 and 17, 1859, Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia
Even though many Black convention activists did not directly participate in the Harpers Ferry Raid, their influence on and support of John Brown strengthened Brown’s radical positions about Black freedom and anti-slavery. Their ideological, emotional, and monetary support of Brown, as well as their direct input, shaped the course of the Raid, considered by many to be one of the important events leading up to the impending Civil War.
Brown’s plans for the Harpers Ferry Raid had been in motion for over a decade. According to Frederick Douglass, the “main outlines of the….Raid were firm in Brown’s mind at least twelve years before the fact” .
On meeting Brown for the first time in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Douglass related that Brown “‘was not averse…to the shedding of blood, and thought the practice of carrying arms would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of manhood. No people,” he said, “could have self-respect or be respected who would not fight for their freedom’’ .
Brown continued to formulate his plans for attacking the institution of slavery by taking up arms during the Bleeding Kansas Period and the Chatham Convention.
Although only one of the Black men who attended the Chatham Convention, Osborne P. Anderson, would join Brown for the Harpers Ferry Raid, it was the ideological, emotional, and monetary support of Black convention activists who would make the raid possible. Brown was greatly influenced and inspired by Black support for the Chatham Convention and for the raid itself , .
In the morning hours of October 16, 1859, Brown and a group of his men held a meeting at Kennedy Farm, Brown’s headquarters in the nearby hills. That afternoon, Brown went over the military plans for the raid—who was to be positioned where and when, and what actions they were to take. That same evening, Brown and his men headed into Harpers Ferry .
Before leaving Kennedy Farm, Brown gathered them together and said:
“And now, gentlemen, let me impress this one thing upon your minds. You all know how dear life is to you, and how dear your life is to your friends. And in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of any one, if you can possibly avoid it; but if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it” .
The raid lasted from the night of the 16th into the 17th. By the end of the day on the 17th, the U.S. Marines had broken into the Engine House (later known as John Brown’s Fort), wounding and capturing Brown. Brown was tried and found guilty of treason against the state of Virginia, and was executed on December 2, 1859.
Many of Brown’s men were killed in the raid, and many of those who were not were captured, tried, found guilty, and also executed. The only Black member of Brown’s raiding party to survive the raid was Osborne P. Anderson, who published his account of the raid in 1861 with the support and help of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. It is considered by many to be the most reliable contemporary account of the raid’s events .
Before ascending the scaffold, Brown handed a note to the executioner, which read:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the events of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done .
Explore this page’s subtabs to:
- Explore an interactive timeline of events leading up to, during, and after the raid based on Anderson’s account of his experiences as published in his book A Voice From Harper’s Ferry
- Read newspaper coverage of the raid
- Learn about Black reactions to the raid
Created by Jessica Thelen, PhD student in English, for P. Gabrielle Foreman’s ENGL/HIST 677 class, Spring, 2019. Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman.
 Bennett, Lerone Jr. Pioneers in Protest. University of Michigan Press, 1969, p. 168.
 Bennett 168.
 Toledo, Gregory. The Hanging Of Old Brown: A Story Of Slaves, Statesmen, And Redemption. Praeger, 2002, p. 145.
 Toledo 145.
 Toledo 28-32.
 Toledo 28-29.
 Paul 179.
 Bennett 180.