Ongoing Coverage:
Author Interviews
4:00 am
Sat October 22, 2011

The Harpers Ferry 'Rising' That Hastened Civil War

On the evening of Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men down the road to Harpers Ferry in what is today West Virginia. The plan was to take the town's federal armory and, ultimately, ignite a nationwide uprising against slavery.

The raid failed, but six years later, Brown's dream was realized and slavery became illegal.

In his new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz tells the story of John Brown, a man destined to change history through an uprising that has often gone unmentioned in Civil War stories.

Planning The Raid

At the Kennedy Farmhouse, just outside Harpers Ferry, Horwitz shows NPR's Scott Simon where Brown and his co-conspirators pretended to be farmers while they planned their raid.

"The Kennedy farm is where Brown gathers his weapons and guerrilla fighters in the summer before the raid," Horwitz says. "This is really the tense, sweaty lead-up to the action, and he assembles this remarkable band of 21 men: farmers, factory workers, fugitive slaves, three of his sons and even his own teenage daughter and daughter-in-law who come here to act as housekeepers and lookouts."

While many abolitionists were condescending toward blacks, believing them to be too docile to fight for their freedom, Brown made a point of recruiting fugitive slaves and freed blacks to be part of the raid.

"He felt that it was both necessary and a moral imperative that blacks fight alongside whites for their freedom," Horwitz says. "So of his band of 21 men, five of them are black."

Brown's army consisted of men who were so moved by their leader's cause that they were willing to lay down their lives for it. There was just something about Brown that made men want to follow him. According to Horwitz, one Boston hostess described it as a moral magnetism that gave him the ability to stir a person's conscience. Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott called him "'the manliest man I ever met."

But Brown was also a striking physical character with an unbending conviction. He hoped his raid would spark a conflagration that would be the end of slavery — he didn't just want to free the slaves of Harpers Ferry; he wanted to shock the nation.

"Here you had a U.S. armory, a symbol of American power, and he wanted to do something dramatic to really wake the country up," Horwitz says. "I think attacking Harpers Ferry was as much for its shock value as for its logistical value."

The 'Horrible Scene' At John Brown's Fort

On the night of the raid, Brown and his men seized the guard on the bridge to Harpers Ferry and sneaked across the Potomac River, catching the town by surprise.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, so by holding the bridge over the Potomac and the bridge over the Shenandoah, the raiders had full control of the town and its 100,000 guns.

But that didn't last long.

Thirty-two hours after the raid began, it came to an end in a small brick engine house that later came to be known as John Brown's Fort. Trapped in the structure with his remaining men, 10 hostages and five newly liberated slaves, Brown faced a howling mob outside and a group of U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee.

Inside the engine house, with one son dead and the other dying, Brown waited for the attack.

"It's a horrible scene," Horwitz says. "We're in a stable essentially. It's the size of what today would be a two-car garage and you have 25 or so terrified men in here who can't even see out because the windows are so high."

Brown refused to surrender, so instead the Marines bashed their way in, killing several of the raiders. Brown himself got beaten to the ground, but miraculously survived.

If he had died, Horwitz says, "This story might have been very different. It might have been a kind of odd, little episode. It's really in defeat that Brown triumphs."

John Brown went on trial the next week, charged with treason, first-degree murder and inciting insurrection. When he was given the chance to address the court, he made no excuses and did not plead for his life. Instead, he told those gathered:

If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments — I submit; so let it be done!

Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.

A 'Stone In The Shoe' Of U.S. History

According to Horwitz, there's an argument to be made that the Civil War began in 1859 at Harpers Ferry, rather than in 1861 at Fort Sumter or Manassas, because that's where things really started going downhill.

"At the time of Brown's raid, the nation is divided but people still think maybe we can compromise and prevaricate and somehow put off this reckoning over the division in our country and the division over slavery," he says.

Brown's raid crushed that hope.

"You had Northerners and Southerners [at Harpers Ferry] killing each other over slavery," he says. "It really exposes and greatly widens the divide between North and South."

The uprising Brown tried to set off never flared; but the war he always thought would be the price of slavery began just 16 months later.

Today, Horwitz says, Brown's story continues to raise persistent questions: Did John Brown fire the first shots of the Civil War? Do ends ever justify the means? Was he right to use violence to try to put an end to slavery?

"Brown really touches many of the hot buttons in our history and culture: violence, race, religious fundamentalism, the right of the individual to defy their government," Horwitz says.

"He's that stone in the shoe of our history."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related program: