Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Harpers Ferry from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The present quiet residential village in West Virginia was the scene of an assault by the Abolitionists under JOHN BROWN on 16 October 1859, their aim being to capture its arsenal and establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves. The armoury was captured, but Brown's forces were outnumbered and overwhelmed by state and federal troops. Seventeen men died in the two-day struggle, and Brown together with six surviving henchmen was hanged before the year was out.


Summary Article: Harpers Ferry
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Town in Jefferson County, West Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet; population (2000 est) 300. First settled in 1732, and incorporated as a town in 1763, it is chiefly significant for its place in the history of the abolitionism. On 16 October 1859 the antislavery leader John Brown seized the federal government's arsenal here, with the intention of using its store of 100,000 firearms to found a republic for freed slaves. The siege lasted only 36 hours, left ten dead, and was ultimately unsuccessful; Brown was later hanged for treason. The raid signalled a rising trend of violent resistance to slavery and helped precipitate the American Civil War. In the Civil War Harpers Ferry was captured by Gen Stonewall Jackson. Most of the town has now been reconstructed as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, established in 1944.

For many of those sympathetic to the abolitionist cause Brown was a martyr, and was revered in the song ‘John Brown's Body’. During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry, a strategically located settlement and the site of an important national munitions factory, was the centre of several engagements. The consequent destruction, combined with later flooding, caused the town to be virtually abandoned in the years following the Civil War. In 1892 John Brown's so-called ‘fort’ (the engine room stormed by Brown and his men), was sent to the Chicago World's Fair; the fort has now been rebuilt near its original location.

Brown, a radical abolitionist, sought to establish a refuge for former slaves and planned to capture the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. He took up residence nearby at a farm in Maryland and trained 22 men, including three of his sons, in military manoeuvres. On the night of 16 October 1859, Brown and 18 of his men marched into Harpers Ferry, taking prisoners and capturing the arsenal. Although Brown cut telegraph lines in order to avoid detection and to facilitate later escape, he made the mistake of detaining a train for five hours. The next day, when the train reached Baltimore, the authorities in Washington were alerted and on 17 October local militia surrounded the arsenal, cutting off escape routes. In retaliation Brown's men shot three of the town's citizens, and moved nine prisoners to the arsenal's engine house. By the afternoon of 18 October, marines led by Col Robert E Lee had stormed the engine house, later known as John Brown's ‘fort’. Ten of Brown's men, including two freed former slaves and two of his sons, were killed and Brown himself suffered a serious sword wound. Only five of his men managed to escape while the remaining men were imprisoned and later executed.

Brown himself stood trial on 26 October at the Jefferson County Courthouse and was found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was sentenced to death and hanged in Charles Town on 2 December 1859, his body buried on his family farm with those of his sons and ten of his associates. See also United States: history 1783–1861, the Dred Scott Case and Harpers Ferry.

documents

Brown, John: I Feel No Consciousness of Guilt

Lincoln, Abraham: Address at Cooper Union

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article Southern Editorial Responses to the Harpers Ferry Raid
Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World

(1859) Our despatches this morning give us some particulars of a serious outbreak among the employees on the government works at Harper’s Ferry,...

Full text Article SOUTHERN EDITORIAL RESPONSE TO THE HARPERS FERRY RAID (1859)
Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia

Charleston, South Carolina , Mercury (October 18, 1859) Our despatches this morning give us some particulars of a serious outbreak among...

Full text Article Harpers Ferry Raid
Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World

(1859) The raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia), that began on the evening of October 16, 1859, did not accomplish the...

See more from Credo