In early October, 1859 John Brown and his small militia were making their final preparations for a raid on the slaveholders of Virginia.
The time and place for a raid seem right even now. It was the harvest season in the south and the fields would be filled with disgruntled and overworked slaves bringing in the crops, a perfect opportunity to turn them to revolt.
Harpers Ferry was lightly guarded and the arsenal there contained about 100,000 muskets and rifles – enough to carry on a lengthy guerrilla war against southern slaveholders.
While Harpers Ferry was in the state of Virginia, there were many locals who opposed slavery – so many in fact that West Virginia was created during the war as a part of the Union. Strategically, the town is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and contains a canal, railroad, and bridges. During the Civil War the town changed hands thirteen times, and was near some of the most important battles of the war, including Antietam. The road John Brown used to attack Harpers Ferry was the very same road the Robert E. Lee was to later use in his retreat from the Battle of Gettysburg.
Brown’s volunteers numbered 20 until October 16th, the day the raid took place. The final addition was Francis Jackson Merriam, the grandson of prominent Boston Abolitionist Francis Jackson, an early President of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Merriam, toting $600 for the cause, met John Brown in Philadelphia in early October and then proceeded to Baltimore where he acquired 40,000 Sharps rife primers, percussion caps and other weapons. He arrived at the Kennedy Farm the morning the raid began.
The previous day – Saturday, October 15th – Brown gathered his men and informed them that the raid would begin the next day (Brown chose Sunday intentionally, as he had on other raids).
The plan was that three men, Owen Brown, Merriam, and Barclay Coppoc would stay behind at the farmhouse to guard the rear and the supplies stored there. The other 18 men would proceed the five or so miles to Harpers Ferry in twos, spread apart so as not to give away their movements.
John E. Cook and Charles Plummer Tidd would cut the telegraphs wires into the village.
Aaron Dwight Stevens and John H. Kagi would capture the watchman on the Ferry Bridge so that the rest of the raiding party could simply walk across and into the town.
Stewart Taylor and Watson Brown would capture and hold the Potomac Bridge; William Thompson and Oliver Brown would do likewise with the bridge over the Shenandoah River.
An engine house across from the armory was assigned to be held by Dauphin Thompson and Jerry Anderson.
Edwin and Hazlett Coppoc would take control of the armory and Kagi, after turning his prisoner (the ferry Bridge watchman) over to those holding the engine house, would proceed to and seize the rifle factory with John Anthony Copeland.
Aaron Stevens would then be free to head into the countryside with Osborne Anderson in order to travel from plantation to plantation inciting revolt, freeing slaves, and taking their masters prisoner. The freed slaves would then proceed to a schoolhouse near the Ferry where the weapons from the Kennedy Farm would be distributed.
Brown ordered that when the pair reached the plantation of Colonel Lewis Washington, he was to be forced to turn over his sword (given to his great-grandfather George Washington by Frederick the Great) to Osborne Anderson – a black man.
On the day of the raid a last meeting was held; it was led by one of the black recruits, Osborne Perry Anderson, and Brown’s Provisional Constitution was read to those assembled.
One of Brown’s final warnings was to avoid violence. “Consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you,” he is reported to have said, “do not therefore, take life of anyone if you can possibly avoid it; but if necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it.”
In the early evening of October 16th the men prepared their weapons. At 8 pm, Brown (by then wearing a large grey beard) ordered them to proceed to Harpers Ferry. He took his place at the seat of a wagon loaded with supplies and urged it forward.
Into the night the men followed behind in twos.
“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 of The Kennedy Farm as it looks today by Tim Rowland.