October 16, 1859 – The Start of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown (a white man known for his violent opposition to slavery) and 21 armed followers seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The would-be revolutionaries, including three free blacks, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave, hoped to incite a rebellion of freed slaves and overturn the institution of slavery by force.

John Brown as a younger man

John Brown as a younger man

Brown’s goal was to do whatever it took to get slaves released from bondage; he felt anything less would make a mockery of God’s words as Brown understood them. As he told his interrogators after his arrest:

I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”

The small band was no match for the U.S. Marines however, and on October 18, under Colonel Robert E. Lee, the Marines stormed the armory, freed the hostages, and arrested Brown and his men.

Brown was tried for treason by the state of Virginia, but stated that he believed he was doing “God’s work” in trying to end slavery.

One of those who joined John Brown on his quest to strike a blow for the freedom of slaves was Lewis Leary, a free black harnessmaker from Oberlin, Ohio. He was married to Mary Patterson, a mixed-race woman who was an Oberlin College graduate. Leary had become involved with abolitionists in Oberlin, which had an active community and from which John Brown recruited him to join the raid. Leary died from wounds suffered in the conflict at Harpers Ferry.

Lewis Leary

His widow Mary later remarried an ardent Brown supporter, Charles Langston. In her old age, Mary raised her grandson, wrapping him in a bullet-riddled shawl that Lewis had worn at Harpers Ferry. That boy was Langston Hughes, the poet who made his name as a member of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1931 he wrote this poem addressed to black Americans who are “now free,” exhorting them to remember abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), his raid on Harpers Ferry, his trial and execution:

You will remember
John Brown

John Brown
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions,
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another —
And died
For your sake.

Now that you are
Many years free,
And the echo of the Civil War
Has passed away,
And Brown himself
Has long been tried at law,
Hanged by the neck,
And buried in the ground –
Since Harpers Ferry
Is alive with ghosts today,
Immortal raiders
Come again to town –

You will recall
John Brown.”

Langston Hughes

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10 Responses to October 16, 1859 – The Start of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

  1. Nymeth says:

    Thanks for sharing the poem, Jill. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your blog and all the things I’m constantly learning from it.

  2. Barbara says:

    Fascinating! I had no idea Langston Hughes was related to someone involved in the raid. Thanks for writing about a little part of our history that I probably wouldn’t have ever known.

  3. Trisha says:

    Great follow up post! I didn’t know about the connection.

  4. sandynawrot says:

    That is a very cool connection. Somehow, you just know that that shawl transferred some power to little Langston. (Thanks for always making sure we are learning out here!)

  5. Alyce says:

    I had no idea that there was a connection there either, but then I have never known a lot about Langston Hughes.

  6. Lisa says:

    Wonderful! I had no idea that there was a connection between Hughes and one of Brown’s men.

  7. zibilee says:

    That poem really moved me in its message and its simplicity. I have to agree with Ana. One of the things I most love about your blog is that I am constantly learning new things here. Your posts are always so amazing and enlightening. Thanks!

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    I had no idea this was Langston’s story! You make me smarter, Jill. Thanks 🙂

  9. Staci says:

    Fantastic historical background!! Loved this post!

  10. Julie P. says:

    Terrific post! You are always teaching me something.

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