John Brown by Augustus Washington c. 1846–1847
“Men, get on your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry,” commanded John Brown on the night of October 16, 1859. The destination was Harpers Ferry in Virginia, a tiny settlement in the Blue Ridge mountains 60 miles from Washington, D.C. that was home to the federal arsenal—the single largest stockpile of rifles, sidearms, and gunpowder anywhere in the United States.
By attacking Harpers Ferry, Brown’s plan was to stir the largest slave revolt in the history of the New World, one so unpredictable and multifaceted that it would be impossible to stop—a revolt that could destroy American slavery before American slavery destroyed the nation. It was a desperately unrealistic plan and it went wrong almost immediately. Forty-eight hours after it had begun, federal troops captured Brown and his accomplices. They were each tried for treason, insurrection, and murder in a Virginia court, found guilty, and executed. Brown was hanged having failed to free a single enslaved person.
Why, then, is John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry so famous? Who was he? Why does he matter? What did John Brown achieve in death that he was so palpably unable to do in life?
Situating the attack on Harpers Ferry in the context of the sectional crisis, historian Richard Bell argues that northerners’ horrified response to Brown’s execution at the hands of a Virginia court made him a martyr and paved the way for Lincoln’s unprecedented election, the secessions crisis, and the coming of the Civil War.
Bell is professor of history at the University of Maryland.