John Brown first made a name for himself as a militant abolitionist in 1854, when Brown traveled to Kansas following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, intent on defending the territory from the scourge of slavery. It was in “Bleeding Kansas,” named for violent conflicts between proslavery and antislavery settlers there, that John Brown led a guerilla warfare campaign against the territory’s proslavery settlers, including a deadly attack against residents of Pottawatomie Creek. By 1859, fueled by donations from wealthy abolitionists, Brown was again ready to strike a blow against slavery and slaveholders—this time in the South.
Brown’s target was the sleepy Virginia town of Harper’s Ferry (now spelled “Harpers Ferry"), where he planned to capture the stockpile of guns and ammunition at the federal arsenal. He intended to start a war between slaves and slaveholders by distributing these weapons to the enslaved. Brown believed this war would end the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the United States forever and that God approved of his plan. Accompanied by twenty-one other men, including three of Brown’s sons, and equipped with rifles and pikes, Brown and his raiders launched their attack on the night of Sunday, October 16, 1859. Some of the raiders captured local civilians as hostages, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington, while others headed for the arsenal.
By the morning of October 17, townspeople had discovered the plot and forced Brown and his men into the arsenal’s engine room, which was where they made their last stand as local militia and US Marines attacked. By the following day, at least sixteen people, including members of Brown’s party and several townspeople, were dead and Brown and other remaining raiders were captured, imprisoned, and charged with treason and murder. Brown’s trial and subsequent execution galvanized the American public around the already profoundly contentious issue of slavery. The fallout from Brown’s raid likely hastened the secession of slaveholding states from the Union, igniting the Civil War. The primary sources in this set document John Brown’s raid and the broad range of responses it provoked across the country.