Harpers Ferry Raid

John Brown's initial plan to free slaves, which he had shared with Frederick Douglass at their first meeting in 1847, evolved by 1857 to include an invasion of the South and the establishment of a free state in the Allegheny Mountains. The success of the plan depended on Brown's ability to recruit sufficient numbers of slaves to fend off attackers, be they southern whites or federal troops.

In 1857 Brown traveled throughout New England gaining financial backers for his extensive plan, including a group of New England abolitionists known as the Secret Six. On 28 January 1858 Brown visited Douglass's home in Rochester, New York, and remained in hiding there for three weeks. Although Brown spent much of that time in his room writing letters to supporters and drafting a constitution for his proposed free state, he also shared with Douglass details of his new plan, sometimes mentioning the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where a federal arsenal was located. Despite reservations, Douglass agreed to help Brown raise money and recruit free blacks to aid him. Douglass also introduced Brown to Shields Green, a fugitive slave who later followed Brown to Harpers Ferry.

On 8 May 1858 Brown gathered his followers for a two-day “constitutional convention” in Chatham, Ontario, Canada—at which Douglass was not present. When the convention participants unanimously adopted the constitution Brown had drafted at Douglass's home, Brown was ready to set his plan in motion. However, his dream of a free state would have to be postponed: Hugh Forbes, a British soldier of fortune recruited to train Brown's followers, turned out to be more interested in fortune than in soldiering. In November 1857 Forbes had approached Douglass for financial aid. Always eager to help Brown, Douglass had advanced Forbes money and given him letters of introduction to others who might support Brown's plan for a free state. Forbes, however, used the letters to acquire loans for himself and later tried blackmail to gain more funds. He eventually informed the senators John Parker Hale, Henry Wilson, and William Henry Seward of Brown's plans.

Douglass, of course, told Brown about Forbes's actions and believed that his warning resulted in Brown's postponing the raid for seventeen months. According to Franklin B. Sanborn, a Brown confidant and biographer, Brown's financial backers in fact advised him to postpone the raid after receiving a letter from Senator Wilson arguing against the plan. Brown's advisers believed that he should instead return to Kansas, partly to make rumors about the planned raid appear to be unfounded, and also because Brown had planned to use rifles in Virginia that had been purchased for use in Kansas; the backers did not want Kansas supporters to think that they had been deliberately misinformed about plans to use the rifles in their own state. Thus, Brown spent ten months in Kansas, where he made headlines and earned a $3,000 price on his head by venturing into Missouri to rescue eleven slaves whom he later escorted to Canada.

Brown arrived in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on 30 June 1859, where he waited for shipments of arms to arrive by rail. On 3 July he visited Harpers Ferry, rented a small farm about five miles away, and began moving men and arms there from Chambersburg. Brown had long believed that free northern blacks would support his expedition. (Only five of the twenty-one men who would accompany him to Harpers Ferry would prove to be African American, two of whom would be southern-born fugitive slaves.) Brown felt certain that if Douglass were involved, other blacks would join him. Thus, he invited Douglass to Chambersburg.

On 19 August, Brown and Douglass met secretly at an old stone quarry on the outskirts of town. John Kagi, one of Brown's chief lieutenants, was present, as was the fugitive slave Shields Green, who had accompanied Douglass to the meeting place. Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which Brown had mentioned only in passing in prior conversations with Douglass, was now revealed as the prime target of a raid. The two men debated all Saturday night and into the next day, with Brown trying to convince Douglass that the plan would succeed and Douglass trying to dissuade Brown from going forward, as he feared that Brown “was going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would never get out alive.” The debate ended in a draw, with neither man able to persuade the other to change his position. As Douglass was departing, Brown made one last attempt: “Come with me, Douglass. I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose. When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.” Douglass again refused. When Douglass asked Green what he planned to do, Green replied: “I b'leve I'll go wid de ole man.” So ended the last meeting between Brown and Douglass.

On Sunday, 16 October 1859, Brown and twenty-one followers attacked Harpers Ferry, gaining control first of the railroad leading into Harpers Ferry and then of the armory and arsenal therein. On the morning of 18 October, however, marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee successfully attacked the armory's fire engine house, into which Brown and his men had retreated. Brown was captured, tried and convicted of treason in Charles Town, Virginia, and hanged on 2 December 1859.

When Douglass learned of Brown's capture, he knew that he would be implicated in the conspiracy. Indeed, the governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, sent detectives to find and arrest him, and had he not fled to Canada, Douglass might have faced charges along with Brown. From Canada, Douglass wrote a response to accusations of cowardice made by John E. Cook, one of Brown's followers. Cook blamed Douglass for the raid's failure because he believed that Douglass had failed to keep a promise to bring reinforcements to help Brown. In a letter to the editor of the Rochester Democrat published on 31 October 1859, Douglass denied that he had made any such promise. The raid on Harpers Ferry was “never encouraged by my word or by my vote,” wrote Douglass.

On 12 November, Douglass, who had already planned a speaking tour across the Atlantic, sailed to England and spent five months there and in Scotland, lecturing to capacity audiences eager to hear about John Brown's raid. His lectures and published pamphlets had a lasting effect on the British masses and probably helped keep the British from supporting the South during the Civil War. When Douglass returned to the United States in May 1860, the furor over the raid at Harpers Ferry had subsided, and Douglass was no longer in danger of arrest.

See also Brown, John; Crime and Punishment; Douglass, Frederick; Green, Shields; Rochester, New York; Secret Six; and Seward, William Henry.


Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. Considered the definitive biography of John Brown.

Quarles, Benjamin, ed. Blacks on John Brown. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972. Contains Douglass's response to John H. Cook's accusations that Douglass had failed to aid John Brown at Harpers Ferry as well as Douglass's “Address at Storer College,” eulogizing Brown.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. New York: Atheneum, 1968. Regarded by some scholars as the best biography of Douglass.

Sanborn, Franklin B. The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia (1885). New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.