On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, John Brown led 21 other men–16 white Abolitionists, 3 free blacks, 1 black freedman and 1 escaped slave–into Harpers Ferry, Virginia, cutting the telegraph line following the railroad track west out of the village to buy themselves time before the Federal Government found out what they were doing. Frustrated by the declining mobilization for his stalled antislavery insurgency along Southern Appalachia, John Brown had decided to act as quickly as possible to inspire slaves and Abolitionists to his cause. Brown considered the Federal armory there a key resource; PBS reports it held 100,000 muskets and rifles. By around the 11:00 pm the raid was underway: Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of President George Washington, and even several of his slaves were taken hostage. Whether from fear of exposure or hubris Brown’s party captured a Baltimore & Ohio inter-city passenger train as it pulled into the station there. When a B & O baggage handler on the train named Hayward Shepherd confronted the erstwhile hostage-takers, they shot him, mortally-wounding him. John Brown’s Raid had claimed its first victim: A black freedman who was gainfully-employed.
He wasn’t the last local victim of the Raid. Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham, also the B & O railroad agent, knew Shepherd. After attending to the dying railroad man, he tried to slip into town. One of Brown’s men saw him and shot him in the head. After this brief spate of probably-unexpected multiple murder, Brown allowed the train to proceed on its way; unsurprisingly, the conductor quickly notified the ownership, telling them that about 300 rebels had taken control of the village. (He could only have obtained such a wildly-exaggerated sense of their numbers from their general convergence on the station at the time; in fact, the initial telegraph reply to the conductor from his railroad superiors strangely but accurately insisted that he couldn’t have seen what he thought he saw and asked him to calm down.)
The remainder of this account of the raid and the following siege is taken almost mainly from the well-detailed account in The Confederate Military History, Volume 3, Chapter II, written by Jed Hotchkiss in an entry that is currently available online. As the people of Harpers Ferry emerged from their homes in the early morning on Monday, October 17, Brown’s raiding party took them hostage, ultimately taking about 60 against their will. While they had managed to take the Federal armory that evening, the raid wasn’t detected by any still-free armory workers until the next morning. By 11:00 am–about 12 hours after Brown’s raiding party attacked Harpers Ferry–citizen militia from nearby Charles Town, Shepherdstown and Martinsburg took the B & O bridge that connected Harpers Ferry to Maryland. Since Brown’s party lacked the numbers to take on the militia and could no longer walk through the middle of a Harpers Ferry now in a defensive posture, they were trapped. Brown retreated from his makeshift headquarters at the Allstadt House to the low-lying and relatively-defensible engine house south of the train station, near the banks of the Rivers. His party took 9 of their most-prominent hostages with them. Brown sent his second-in-command and one of his sons out to the militia for parley; both were shot and mortally wounded, though there was a subsequent effort to provide medical aid for the former. For their part, the citizens’ militia was able to keep the rump group from leaving the engine house but lacked either the means or the inclination to take it by force.
They wouldn’t have to, because by now the Federal Government was quite aware of the raid, and was ready to act. While several companies of the US Army from Frederick, Baltimore and elsewhere had already deployed to strengthen the cordon, by around 3:30 pm on the 17th President James Buchanan temporarily promoted Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee to Colonel, ordering him to take charge of military operations at Harpers Ferry with a contingent of Marines under his command. (To take command Lee traveled not from a base but from his home in Arlington, Virginia.) Preferring to resolve the situation with a more-precise use of violence, Lee turned down an offer of artillery and waited until the morning of the 18th in the hope of preventing accidental killings of hostages during the final offensive against the raiding party.
Lee offered Brown and his men safety in custody for their surrender–“to await orders of the President.” Brown rebuffed him. Having deployed the Army units to the armory and to block escape into the village, Lee first offered the militia commanders the lead in the raid on the engine house; when they refused the role he called in the Marines. 12 Marines successfully approached the engine house under cover, first trying unsuccessfully to break through its reinforced doors with sledge hammers, then making a makeshift battering ram of a large ladder and breaking in. 1 Marine was killed, but the rest were able to capture or kill the rest of the raid party at bayonet-point. The following raid of the Kennedy farm by Marines under Colonel Lee’s assistant, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, uncovered a vast store of supplies Brown had intended for an extended guerilla campaign against slaveowners.
John Brown’s failed raid on the Federal armory in Harpers Ferry led to the battle death of 10 of his party; the 7 captured were convicted of treason, while 5 escaped and were never arrested. 6 locals, including the freedman Shepherd, Mayor Beckham and 2 slaves, were killed by the raiders, as were 2 Marines. But the irony of this result was lost on Brown when he stood trial. Lieutenant Israel Greene, the Marine who personally subdued Brown, claimed that in the heat of the 3-minute skirmish he had tried twice to kill him, he succeeded merely in subduing him, ensuring he would have a chance at his trial to express himself. The alternate endeavors of lionizing and demonizing John Brown were already well underway, and will be the subject of my next post.