John Brown’s raid on the slaveholders of Virginia is often considered a hopeless fool’s errand, but it was far from it. Brown’s plan was simple enough: capture weapons and ammunition form the Harpers Ferry federal Armory, retire to the countryside and conduct nighttime border raids to free Southern slaves.
The principal goal of the actual raid was to free slaves, not attack and hold a Southern state. Brown, well-armed and experienced in the type of raid he was planning, was fairly confident in its success.
In early September 1859, the Massachusetts Kansas Committee (through the auspices of George Stearns, a member of the Secret Six) sent Brown by wagon from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania fifteen boxes of weapons. The boxes included 198 Sharps rifles, produced by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut.
This was a similar rifle used during the Civil War by the U.S. Army sharpshooters, because of its greater accuracy than the regularly issued rifled muzzle-loaded muskets; since the Sharps rifles were breech loaded they could fire at a much faster rate. In short, Brown’s raiding party would carry one of the best weapons available at that time. The shipment also included 200 Maynard revolvers (made by the Massachusetts Arms Company in Chicopee Falls) and percussion caps. What Brown didn’t know was that the revolvers were useless because the special tape primers they required had not been sent.
Brown also had some 950 pikes, which he intended to distribute to the freed slaves he expected would revolt on word of the raid and join the cause. The pikes would be potent weapons in the hand of freed slaves, who might not be familiar with operating the rifles and revolvers, but they turned out to be more potent as weapons of propaganda after the raid.
While fund raising in the the late winter of 1857, Brown visited Canton, Connecticut where he met Charles Blair, manager of the Collins Co., later known as the Collins Axe Co., makers of metal edge tools and farm implements. From his boot, Brown pulled a 8-inch pike (also called a dirk) which he had taken from pro-slavery guerrilla Henry C. Pate at the Battle of Black Jack, a stop on the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas. Brown asked Blair to have the Collins Company make 1,000 6-foot pikes (at $1 a piece) for defensive use by free soil Kansas settlers. Brown paid for about half the order and then returned in the summer of 1859 to settle the bill – the pikes were shipped in unmarked crates to the Kennedy Farm, were Brown was planning the raid.
For reasons we’ll explore later, none of the pikes were ever used in combat, although Brown carried one himself on the raid. Following the raid, about half were found in a wagon the raiders brought to Harpers Ferry and the other half were found at the Kennedy farmhouse.
The pikes went on to serve as a propaganda weapon on both sides in the lead-up to the Civil War. According to Dr. Lawrence Carlton of the Canton Historical Museum (located on the grounds of the former Collins Company), about a dozen of the pikes found there way to Edmund Ruffin, a pro-slavery extremist who was said to have fired the first shot at Fort Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War. Ruffin sent the pikes to Southern governors and other political leaders with a label reading “Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern brethren.”
On the other side, at least one Northern abolitionist, Wendell Philips, also acquired a pike and carried it on stage during anti-slavery lectures. As the war began thousands of Northern soldiers celebrated John Brown’s pikes in the marching song “John Brown’s Body” (the basis for both the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Solidarity Forever”):
Old John Brown’s body is a-mouldering in the dust,
Old John Brown’s rifle is red with blood-spots turned to rust,
Old John Brown’s pike has made its last, unflinching thrust,
His soul is marching on!
A Dallas auction gallery sold one of the original pikes for $13,000 a few years ago. The Kansas Historical Society also owns two original pikes (one of which was purchased in 1881 for $15 from a Harpers Ferry local). The Smithsonian Museum of American History has one, and the University of Kansas has one.
“The Last Days of John Brown” is a multi-part series about the life and final days of John Brown and his compatriots, who helped spark the Civil War. You can read the entire series here.
Photo: An original pike held by the Kansas Historical Society.