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Harpers Ferry

Fanatical abolitionist and cold-blooded murderer John Brown and his band of 18 men—5 blacks and 13 whites—descended upon the western Virginia border town of Harpers Ferry on the night of October 16, 1859, and captured the U.S. armory and the nearby Hall's Rifle Works. Brown's mission was to use the weapons to arm the slaves in Virginia and to march throughout the South with this army of freed slaves, inciting other slaves to join him in a great uprising that would put an end to American slavery once and for all. Prominent citizens of Harpers Ferry, including a great-grand- nephew of George Washington, were captured and brought to the arsenal as hostages.

Brown's plan fell apart immediately. He had expected slaves by the thousands to rally under his leadership, but none came. Townsmen surrounded the arsenal and kept up a constant fire on the raiders, killing two of Brown's .sons. By the afternoon of October 17, Brown had barricaded the remaining survivors of his band and the hostages in the fire-engine house next to the armory. A blistering fire continued between the townsmen and the raiders.

During the night, a company of marines arrived from Washington under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. Lee was accompanied by fellow cavalry officer, Lt. James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart. On the morning of October 18, Lee sent Stuart with a white flag to demand Brown's surrender. When surrender was refused, Stuart waved his hat as a signal for the marines to charge. Quickly battering down a door, the marines, holding their fire to protect the hostages, stormed into the engine house, bayoneted two of the raiders, and captured Brown and his four remaining men. Four civilians, including the mayor of Harpers Ferry, and one marine had been killed during the two-day raid.

The raiders were charged with murder, treason, and inciting insurrection, and the trial began within 10 days after the raid. With no reasonable defense for the raiders' actions, the verdict was certain: John Brown and his men would hang.

Fascinating Fact: Ironically, the first civilian killed by John Brown's raiders was a free black man.

Marines charging the fire-engine house; courtesy Culver Pictures, Inc.
Written by Stephen T. Foster
Printed in USA
© MCMXCII1 Atlas Editions, USA
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