Timeline for the John Brown Raid
On Harper’s Ferry, Virginia
By the mid 1800’s, those who wanted to abolish slavery were divided into two camps: one believing in moral suasion, and one called "Free Soilers" wishing to end slavery by legal means. As the mid century approached and slavery seemed as strong as ever, a new type of abolitionist, born of frustration, emerged willing to use violent means to end slavery. John Brown was one of these.
Brown’s father Owen, an abolitionist who helped runaway slaves to reach Canada, had taught his son to believe that slavery was immoral. Brown’s Bible reading also told him that the practices of slavery in the South were wrong. In his later years, Brown saw himself more and more as an instrument of God’s providence.
Summer John E. Cook, John Brown’s advance man for the raid, arrives in Harper’s Ferry. He takes a job at Lock 33 on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal across the Potomac River on Maryland Heights. While living in the town, he studies the layout of the town, and especially the government armory and arsenal and becomes familiar with the local militia units. He also makes love to a local girl, Mary Kennedy.
June 16 At Springfield, Illinois, senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln gives a speech at the close of the Republican state convention. He says, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."
December 20-21 John Brown and Aaron D. Stevens, in Kansas near the Missouri border, pull a night raid into Missouri, freeing a number of slaves and stealing wagons, horses, mules, and other goods.
January Because of Brown’s Missouri raid, President James Buchanan offers a $250 reward for the capture of John Brown.
Mid March With the help of his friend Allan Pinkerton in Chicago, John Brown moves his freed slaves by rail into Canada.
April John Cook has to marry Mary Kennedy who is pregnant. A few months after the wedding, she gives birth to a son.
May 9-19 At a meeting of the Southern Commercial Convention in Vicksburg, Mississippi, southern slave owners call for the reopening of the African slave trade which was banned in 1808 by an act of Congress and in 1820 made an act of piracy punishable by death.
July 3 John Brown arrives in Harper’s Ferry with his two sons Owen and Oliver, and Jeremiah Anderson. He rents a farm on Maryland Heights belonging to Dr. Booth Kennedy. This farm is about five miles from the Ferry. Brown tells his neighbors and townspeople at the Ferry that he is "Isaac Smith," a cattle buyer from New York.
August 6 William and Dauphin Thompson and Watson Brown arrive at the Kennedy Farm. Also arriving at the farm this month are Charles Plummer Tidd, Aaron D. Stevens, William H. Leeman, Albert Hazlett, Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, Stewart Taylor, and Dangerfield Newby. John Henry Kagi is in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
August 11 Kagi receives fifteen boxes of Sharps rifles and Maynard revolvers ordered by Brown for the impending raid. The boxes are later moved to the Kennedy Farm. Sometime during this period, John Brown has Martha Brown, the wife of Oliver, and his daughter Anne, then fifteen, come to the farm to care for the house and men. Anne will also act as lookout for prying neighbors.
August 19-21 John Brown meets with Frederick Douglass and Shields Green at an old stone quarry in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Brown does everything he can to convince Douglass to come with him on the raid. ‘When I strike," Brown tells him, "the bees will swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them." Douglass tells Brown that Virginia will "blow him and his hostages sky-high, rather han that he should hold Harper’s Ferry an hour." Shields Green decides to join Brown’s raiders.
September Late in the month, 950 pikes ordered from Charles Blair arrive in Chambersburg. Osborn Perry Anderson also arrives at the Kennedy Farm.
September 30 John Brown sends Martha and Anne back to his farm in North Elba, New York. He sends John Cook down the Charles Town pike to gather information concerning the slaves in the area. Cook reports back that the slaves are discontented and ready to "swarm like bees."
October 15 Three more people join the raiders at the Kennedy Farm: John A. Copeland, Lewis Leary, and Francis Jackson Meriam, who brings Brown $600 in gold. That night, Brown announces that the time for the raid has come.
Dawn Brown calls his men into the farmhouse living room for a round of prayers and Bible readings before the raid.
Late morning Brown explains his battle plans, and assigns each man a special task. He asks Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, and Meriam to remain behind at the farmhouse as a rear guard.
8:00 P.M. John Brown gives the order: "Men, get on your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry." The eighteen men assigned to the raid take up their rifles and pistols, put on black shawls, and head out into a drizzling rain storm.
10:30 P.M. Kagi and Stevens arrive at the Potomac Bridge connecting Harper’s Ferry with Maryland. They capture the watchman, William Williams. Brown and the other men arrive at the bridge soon after with the wagon. Cook and Tidd fall out to cut the telegraph lines east and west of the town. The remaining men head directly for the armory and capture the night watchman there, Daniel Whelan. Brown tells Whelan and Williams, "I came here from Kansas, and this is a slave state; I want to free all the negroes in this state; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood." Soon after their arrival, Brown’s men take the arsenal next to the Shenandoah River. Albert Hazlett and Edwin Coppoc are put in charge of it. Brown also sends out two men, Kagi and Copeland to capture Hall’s Rifle Works on Lower Hall Island, and six men, Osborn Anderson, Stevens, Tidd, Cook, Leary, and Shields Green, to capture local militia leader Colonel Lewis W. Washington, a grand nephew of George Washington.
Midnight Anderson, Stevens, and the four other men arrive at Lewis Washington’s farm. They take Washington prisoner and force him to surrender a sword given to George Washington by Frederick the Great to Osborn Anderson, a black man. On the way back to the armory, Brown’s men also take John Allstadt, another local militia leader, and his son prisoner. At the Ferry, Patrick Higgins arrives at the Maryland Bridge to relieve watchman William Williams. Oliver Brown shoots at him but misses. Higgins runs to the safety of the Wager House Hotel and raises the alarm.
1:25 A.M. An eastern-bound Baltimore & Ohio train arrives at the Ferry. Patrick Higgins tries to convince Conductor A. J. Phelps not to allow his train to proceed over the Potomac Bridge.
1:30 P.M. Conductor Phelps and Hayward Shepherd, a free black who serves as the town’s baggage master, go forward to investigate the situation at the bridge. The raiders fire on them. Shepherd is shot in the chest very near to his heart, but he manages to get back to the station before he collapses. The shot awakens a medical doctor, John D. Starry who has a room overlooking the B&O train station and the Potomac Bridge. Starry dresses hurriedly and rushes out into the rainy night carrying his medical bag. At the station, he examines Shepherd and treats him as best he can, but he realizes Shepherd is mortally wounded.
2:00 A.M. As Brown moves his men from point to point, Doctor Starry follows them around to find out what they are doing. They refuse to tell him why they have raided the town.
3:00 A.M. Brown tells Conductor Phelps that he can take his train over the Potomac River Bridge into Maryland, but Phelps does not trust him and refuses to allow the train to leave until dawn when he can see the condition of the bridge.
4:00 A.M. The men sent to capture Washington and the Allstadts return by wagon to the armory yard with their prisoners. Later, they are moved into the Engine House.
5:05 A.M. Starry observes a wagon driven by John E. Cook leaving the armory yard and proceeding over the Potomac Bridge. The wagon is guarded by slaves belonging to the Allstadts and Lewis Washington. They are armed with pikes.
DAWN Conductor Phelps allows his train to pass over the Potomac Bridge once he sees Brown’s men have not booby trapped it. Doctor Starry sends messengers to Charlestown and other nearby towns, and orders the bell in the Lutheran Church to be rung to alert the town. He then rides out to warn workers at the armory. Later, he rides to Charlestown.
7:05 A.M. Phelps arrives in Monocacy, Maryland, and sends out an urgent telegram alerting railroad officials of the raid at the Ferry. John W. Garnett, the president of the railroad, sees Phelps’s dispatch and telegraphs messages to U.S. President James Buchanan, Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, and Major General George H. Stewart in Baltimore.
10:00 A.M. Doctor Starry has arrived in Charlestown and discovers that the Jefferson County Guards have mobilized and are preparing to board a special train to the Ferry. At 10, the train begins its journey.
A company of militia in Frederick, Maryland, move out to the Ferry in response to the Phelps dispatches.
Noon The Jefferson Guards arrive at the Ferry. Other militia companies have also arrived, including one from Bolivar Heights under Captain Botts who has ordered his men to hold the Galt House Hotel and the Shenandoah Bridge. The Jefferson Guards cross the Potomac River west of the town and march down to the Potomac Bridge, driving Brown’s men back through the town. Most reach the relative safety of the Engine House in the armory grounds, but Dangerfield Newby is shot and killed. One angry villager cuts off Newby’s ears for souvenirs. Another allows hogs to rout on the body. Brown attempts to negotiate a cease fire by sending out William Thompson with one of his prisoners under a flag of truce. Thompson is captured and brought to the Galt House. Later he is moved to the Wager House. Brown sends out Aaron Stevens and Watson Brown with A. M. Kitzmiller, the acting superintendent of the armory. Both Stevens and Watson are shot. Watson crawls back into the Engine House, but Stevens lies outside.
1:00 A.M. One of Brown’s hostages, Joseph A. Brua, volunteers to take Stevens to safety. He carries Stevens to the Wager House and returns to the Engine House as a hostage. William H. Leeman attempts to flee across the Potomac River but a militiaman shoots him before he reaches the opposite side. Armed men use his body for target practice for the rest of the day. At some point in the afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, who have been urgently summoned to Washington, meet with President Buchanan and Secretary of War John Floyd. Lee is ordered to proceed to Harper’s Ferry by train and take charge of all forces there using his brevet rank of colonel earned during the Mexican War. Stuart goes with him.
2:00 P.M. One of Brown’s men shoots George W. Turner, a slaveowner. About this time, Doctor Starry organizes a raid on Hall’s Rifle Works which is still held by Kagi, Lewis Leary, and John A. Copeland. He leaves the raid in the hands of a young man named Lewis and goes to his room to change into dry clothing.
3:30 P.M. Starry returns to see the results of the raid on Hall’s Rifle Works. Kagi is dead, and Leary is mortally wounded. James H. Holt has captured Copeland. Holt and other townspeople attempt to hang Copeland with a rope made from handkerchiefs tied together. Starry positions his horse between Copeland and the enraged citizens of the town. He keeps Copeland backed into a corner until a law enforcement official can take him into custody.
4:00 P.M. The mayor of Harper’s Ferry, Fontaine Beckham, moves cautiously up to the water tower just beyond the armory gate to get a look at the people threatening his town. He is unarmed. Edwin Coppoc, at the Engine House, sees him and fires. Beckham falls dead. Christine Fouke acts as a screen for men who retrieve the dead mayor, bringing his body to the railway station.
Harry Hunter, a grand nephew of Beckham, leads a drunken mob into the Wager House with the intention of killing Will Thompson and Aaron Stevens. Christine Fouke tries to intercede for young Thompson, saying that the men should leave the boy to the law, but the men are determined. They grab Thompson, drag him to the Potomac Bridge, and shoot him. As with Leeman, militiamen use Thompson’s body for target practice.
A Martinsburg company under Captain E. G. Alburtis arrives at the Ferry. They quickly drive Brown’s remaining men in the armory into the Engine House and free thirty to forty hostages.
Some time after these incidents, John E. Cook returns to the Potomac and scouts out the situation from the Maryland side. Seeing that Brown’s men are under heavy fire, he attempts to draw off that fire by by climbing up an embankment and firing toward the town. An answering shot severs the tree limb he is leaning against and sends him tumbling fiften feet down the embankment. He retreats to the schoolhouse that Brown’s Maryland forces took that morning and tells them that Brown is trapped at the Ferry. On Cook’s advice, the men start running for the Pennsylvania border.
Nightfall Hostilities cease. The gathering militias set up a loose picket at the Engine House where Brown and his remaining men are trapped with several hostages. Colonel Robert W. Baylor sends Samuel Strider into the Engine House under a flag of truce in an attempt to get Brown to surrender. Brown refuses. Captain Thomas Sinn of Frederick, Maryland, also visits Brown in the Engine House. He also fails to convince Brown, who is wearing the sword of Frederick the Great, to surrender.
11:00 P.M. Lee and Stuart arrive at Sandy Hook, Maryland, a mile and a half from the Ferry. He takes command of a company of 90 Marines sent there from Washington, and marches them immediately to Harper’s Ferry. He has the Marines surround the Engine House and starts planning the dawn assault.
After Midnight Oliver Brown begs to be shot and put out of his misery. His father tells him to die like a man. Oliver soon dies.
Dawn Colonel Lee has Lieutenant Stuart carry a note to Brown demanding his surrender. Brown refuses and closes and bars the doors of the Engine House. Stuart waves his hat up and down as a signal to begin the assault. The Marines attack the doors with sledgehammers, but to no effect. They find a heavy ladder and use that as a battering ram. In two blows, they create a small opening in the right hand door which is split, and they storm into the building. Lieutenant Israel Green, who leads the assault, attacks Brown with the dress sword he brought by mistake from Washington. The sword, which was never meant for combat, bends on Brown’s leather belt. Green grasps the sword by the ruined blade and hits Brown over the head with it, knocking him unconscious. The raid is over.
On October 25 in Charlestown, Virginia, Brown and his men were formally indicted by a grand jury. John Brown’s trial began the next day. One of Brown’s lawyers introduced an insanity defense. Brown dismissed the defense as a "miserable artifice and pretext." Another of his lawyers argued that Brown could not be tried for treason by the state of Virginia because his crimes had been committed on property belonging to the United States government. Andrew Hunter, arguing the case for the state of Virginia, asserted that Virginia could in fact try Brown on the basis of state’s rights.
On November 2, Brown was sentenced to hang one month from that day. A month later, on December 2, he was hanged while surrounded by militia units from the state of Virginia. His wife took his body by train to North Elba, New York. There, he was buried on December 8.
The following year, a northerner, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. His election caused a number of states in the deep South to secede from the Union, starting with South Carolina on December 20, 1860. Lincoln took office on March 2, 1861. The following month, on April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers under the command of P. G. T. Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, initiating a war against the North. Six days later, Virginia militia under orders from Henry Wise, the man who had served as the governor of Virginia at the time of the Brown raid, swept into Harper’s Ferry, intending to take the armory and arsenal for the defense of Virginia. Fleeing Federal troops had set fire to and blown up the government works before the militia troops arrived, but the militia quickly put out the fires and managed to save the armory’s gun making equipment.
During the course of the war, Harper’s Ferry changed hands between Union and Confederate forces eight times. Both armies decimated the town, but neither side destroyed the little Engine House where Brown had made his last stand. It can still be seen today at Harpers Ferry National Park.
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Copyright © 2000 by Robert Willis Allen