John Brown’s Last Big Stand at Harpers Ferry

John Brown believed that he had been chosen by God himself to bring about the end of slavery in America.  Although the raid on Harpers Ferry ended in failure, the actions of this abolitionist  brought the question of slavery to the forefront. The death of this martyr would soon demand an answer from a divided nation.

Traveling with Rebecca and the kids through West Virginia, I couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to explore this notable piece of American history. The historic section of Harpers Ferry, WV, is now preserved inside of a federal park on the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers . Visitors to the site are shuttled from a parking lot via bus to the entrance of this beautifully restored 19th century town.  Unfortunately my camera-phone died halfway through our self-guided tour, but I did manage to snap some rather interesting scenes.



The historic town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia awaits visitors stepping off the shuttle onto Shenandoah St .



St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, built in 1833, was the only Harpers Ferry church to escape the destruction  of the Civil War.




John Brown photo

John Brown, pictured beside his Subterranean Pass-Way (underground railroad) flag, swears an oath dedicating his life to abolishing slavery.



Each shop and business was preserved or modified to appear as it would have during the time just preceding the Civil War.




If it weren’t for the paved roads, I could almost believe I had stepped back in time to 1859.





My two sons, Jonah & Noah, stand on the covered porch of the bookshop.



Gunsmith equipment and rifles on display


John Brown planned to seize the 100,000 rifles being stored at Harpers Ferry National Arsenal and arm freedom fighters and local slaves.  On October 16, 1859, Brown and a party of 21 men descended upon the sleepy town of Harpers Ferry. His party consisted of 16 white men (3 of which were his sons), 3 free black men, 1 freed slave, and 1 fugitive slave,

Not long after kidnapping prominent citizens of the town, Brown’s plans quickly began to unravel. Local slaves refused to join in and fight on his behalf. The armory Brown captures is quickly surrounded by angry militia members and two of his sons are killed.

Brown and a few of his remaining men are pinned down in the arsenal engine house and barricade themselves inside. U.S. Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee are dispatched from Washington D.C.  to squash the insurrection.  On the afternoon of October 17, the marines arrive on site and  storm the building using axes and a ladder as a battering ram.  Many of the raiders are killed.  Brown and the few  survivors are captured and placed on trial.



The news of John Brown’s raid and pending execution fuels the flames of both the abolitionists and pro-slavery side.


” …had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”

–John Brown, in his speech following the conviction


John Brown's execution

John Brown and his surviving raiders were tried for treason and hung to death on December 2, 1859.


John Brown read a few scriptures from his bible, wrote his will, and penned a final letter to his beloved wife, At 11:00 a.m. he was escorted from the jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers a few blocks away to awaiting gallows.  Amongst the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth who borrowed a military uniform to gain admission to the hanging.



Frankel’s clothing store





Harper Ferry’s General Store



Dry goods shop





Front office at  Mrs. Stipe’s  Boarding House.



Noah examines an archeological dig on the streets of Harpers Ferry.



Philip Frankel & Co. clothing store



Jonah explores the snow covered alleyway behind the stores.



The spire of St Peter’s  scrapes a blue West Virginia sky.


While unsuccessful in inciting a slave revolt, John Brown’s disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry helped precipitate events leading up to the American Civil War. John Brown had claimed God chose him to free the slaves. With the eventual emancipation of slaves following that war, perhaps God really had.

So, if you ever find yourself in West Virginia, near the place where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet , come see the spot where John Brown made his last big stand. Thank you for reading my article and I hope you will visit my site again real soon. Feel free to explore other areas of my blog, post a comment, and show some love on social media.


Happy travels,

Big John


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