Their goal was to take guns that were manufactured and stored there to give to slaves who would then be able to free themselves.
Brown failed, but he has remained a controversial figure in history and some believe the raid was the final straw in the debate over slavery that led to the Civil War.
John Brown grew up in an abolitionist family in Torrington, CT. His opposition to slavery solidified in childhood when he saw a slave boy who was about Brown’s age beaten, but Brown was different than other abolitionists of the time.
“He called black people Mr. and Mrs., he had folks eat at his table, he had them work in his businesses, he lived with them,” Hannah Geffert, historian, said. “They weren’t a people apart for him; they were his brothers and sisters.”
Brown was involved in a variety of abolitionist activities that became increasingly violent. Prior to Harpers Ferry he was blamed for the murder of slavery supporters in Kansas.
In July of 1859 Brown rented the Kennedy farmhouse in Maryland near Harpers Ferry. Captain South Lynn owns that house today.
“And then over the summer they collected their army, the Provisional Army of the United States, one or two at a time over the week, or two weeks or a month,” Lynn said. “And at the end of the summer they had 21 men hidden in the attic.”
Brown’s army made its move on the evening of October 16, 1859 traveling toward Harpers Ferry on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and across a railroad bridge into town.
“And all of their targets fell just like a row of dominos,” David Fox, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park ranger, said.
“They seized the railroad bridge, they seized the wagon bridge over the Shenandoah River, they seized the United States armory compound, they seized the arsenal, and they seized the US rifle factory.”
Brown’s raid lasted 36 hours.
He was trapped in a brick firehouse on the armory grounds and on the morning of October 18 Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee battered the door down capturing Brown and seven of his men.
On October 27 Brown was tried for treason against the state of Virginia. Brown used the trial to further his cause.
“Brown realized that he’s been stripped of the sword, that he’s a captive, he can’t get out, but what does get out are his letters,” Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry Park, said.
Frye is convinced that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry led to the Civil War a year and a half later.
Brown remains a controversial figure, revered by those involved in the Civil Rights Movement and called a terrorist by those who disagree with his tactics.
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