This Day in History

Oct. 16, 1859: Abolitionist John Brown Led Raid on Harpers Ferry

Time Periods: Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864
Themes: Democracy & Citizenship, Organizing, Slavery and Resistance

John Brown portrait by Robert Shetterly/Americans Who Tell The Truth.

On this day in 1859, John Brown led a small group on a raid against a federal armory in Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start an armed revolt against the institution of slavery. Brown stood trial and was found guilty of treason.

In Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, Eugene Meyer explains,

Among Brown’s raiders were five African Americans whose lives and deaths have long been overshadowed by their martyred leader and, even today, are little remembered. Two—John Copeland and Shields Green—were executed. Two others—Dangerfield Newby and Lewis Leary—died at the scene. Newby, the first to go, was trying to liberate his enslaved wife and children.

Of the five, only Osborne Perry Anderson escaped and lived to publish the lone insider account of the event that, most historians agree, was a catalyst to the catastrophic Civil War that followed over the country’s original sin of slavery.

On December 2 of that same year, John Brown was executed in Charles Town. As Brown approached the hanging scaffold, he stated:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

John Brown’s Last Speech

Watch a dramatic reading by Josh Brolin of Brown’s speech given to the courtroom a month before his execution. (From Voices of a People’s History.)

Listen to a song about John Brown, “Glory, Glory,” written by Joe DeFilippo and performed by the R. J. Phillips Band, a group of Baltimore musicians.

Use the role play, “‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement” by Bill Bigelow in which students become members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, facing many of the real challenges to ending slavery.

View more resources for teaching outside the textbook about the Abolition Movement.