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Harpers Ferry Raid Research Paper

Related Topics: John Brown Civil War War Slavery

Pages:7 (1983 words)



Topic:Harpers Ferry

Document Type:Research Paper



The issue of abolitionism came to a head with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown’s intention was to instigate an armed slave rebellion (Horwitz). Brown and nearly two dozen other men took over a U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia—but instead of achieving the goal of a slave revolt, the men were caught in a stand-off with U.S. Marines from October 16th to the 18th. Robert E. Lee, ironically, was the commander in charge of retaking the arsenal; Lee would be the commander of the Southern Army just a year and a half later. Other future Confederates assisting in the recapturing of Harpers Ferry from the insurrectionist Brown and his men were Stonewall Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart (Horwitz). This paper will discuss the raid, explain what happened and why, and what the fallout was.

The Reason for the Raid

John Brown was a fervent abolitionist who believed pacifism would never be sufficient to end slavery. He was a man who insisted on action—violent action if necessary (McGlone). During the Bleeding Kansas crisis, Brown had been in the thick of the violence, leading men in several battles and massacring five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek. Brown conducted the massacre along with his sons and others. The killing of the five pro-slavery individuals during the Bleeding Kansas crisis showed how serious Brown was about his mission to free the slaves (Furnas).

The entire nation was on edge throughout the 1850s as the U.S. continued to spread west towards the Pacific. It was unclear, however, whether the states in the west would be slave states or free states. The conflict in Kansas was symbolic of the conflict running through the rest of the nation. Even in the U.S. Senate violence had broken out when in 1856 the Republican Senator Charles Sumner had viciously ridiculed the pro-slavery South Carolina Democratic Senator Andrew Butler. Butler’s cousin in defense of Andrew’s honor attacked Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor and nearly killed him. Southern Democrats applauded while northerners viewed the South as tyrannical (Hoffer).

Clearly, violence then was in the air if the men in the U.S. government were willing to resort to violence right there in the house of government. It should not be surprising therefore that John Brown was leading ambushes and slaughtering men that he, his sons and his followers captured. Brown had in his early days wanted to be a minister but he had ended up going into the tanning business. In the 1840s he was inspired by other abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to take action. He assisted in the Underground Railroad project and got to know Douglass and others by creating an abolitionist center in Massachusetts. Brown helped to free slaves and actively warred upon those who facilitated slavery (Furnas). As Brown gained experience in his raids, he plotted a bigger attack on the South, a planned armed slave revolt. He had his sights set on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Douglass opposed the scheme believing it would fail—but Brown pushed forward, always the man of action. Herman Melville would later write a poem about the man and refer to him as “Weird John Brown” because of his strong stubborn passion (Smith).

What Happened

Douglass was right, however; the plan was doomed. Brown had asked Harriet Tubman to help him organize the raid. Months in advance, Brown had rented a farmhouse in Maryland near Harpers Ferry and waited for his forces to show up—but they never came, at least not in the numbers that he had anticipated (Barney). Brown met again with Douglass to try to get the latter to join the raid. Douglass refused and was in fact urging other blacks to not play any part in Brown’s plans. For Douglass, Brown was a loose cannon and would do more harm than good (Furnas).

Brown’s original plan had been to have a small army of more…

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…condemn. The raid on Harper’s Ferry is still seen in polarizing terms, with some viewing it as a necessary act of heroism meant to address the issue of slavery that no one was addressing practically speaking though everyone was talking about it. Others view it as an imprudent attempt to take action without thinking about the repercussions or the immediate likelihood even of success.


The raid on Harpers Ferry was planned and executed by a zealous abolitionist who had already killed multiple men in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. He was, in other words, a killer—though many saw him as a paragon of Christianity, a man full of religious fervor and zeal, willing to put his life on the line for his beliefs. He was also willing to put the lives of others on the line and to take the lives of others. He viewed the sin of slavery as being one that could only be washed away by blood, and he wanted to be the one to spill that blood. In doing so he opened a deep wound in the heart of the nation from which it is has still never recovered. The Harpers Ferry Raid represented a fantasy on the part of John Brown—a type of if-you-take-it-they-will-come plot that he had played out in his head. In reality, he took it and the “they” who came were the Marines, not other free blacks who saw the righteousness of his cause and wanted to join in. The only free black who came to town that morning was on the train and he was killed by John Brown’s men when they panicked. That alone should be enough to show that the Harpers Ferry Raid was not a well-thought out action but rather a hastily conceived plot and a delusion of grandeur on the part of John Brown. And yet it helped to kick start an even greater war, so perhaps John Brown looked back from the other side of the grave…

Sample Source(s) Used

Works Cited

Barney, William L. "Brown, John". The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Student Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.

Furnas, J. C. The Road to Harpers Ferry. New York, William Sloane Associates, 1959.

Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. Henry Holt and Company, 2011. 

McGlone, Robert E. John Brown's War against Slavery. Cambridge, CUP, 2009.

Smith, Ted A., Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.

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