to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
One day in
October of eighteen fifty-nine, Americans were shocked by news of an attack led
by John Brown. He was an antislavery extremist. Many people also considered him
had declared that he was ready to die fighting slavery. He said that God wanted
him to fight slavery by invading Virginia with a military force. And even if the
rebellion failed, he predicted that it would lead to a civil war between the
North and the South. Should there be a war, he said, the North would break the
chains of black slaves.
decided to strike at Harpers Ferry, a small town about one hundred kilometers from
Washington. It was part of Virginia at that time, but is now located in the
state of West Virginia. It had a factory that made guns for the army and a supply
center of valuable military equipment. Brown wanted the guns and equipment for
the slave army he hoped to organize.
Ferry was built on a narrow finger of land where the Shenandoah River flowed
into the Potomac. There was a bridge across each river. Brown organized his
attack from across the Potomac, in Maryland.
in our series, Harry Monroe and Jack Moyles continue the story of John Brown
and his raid on Harpers Ferry.
force of less than twenty men, John Brown moved through the darkness down to
the bridge that crossed the Potomac River.
left the group to cut the telegraph lines east and west of Harpers Ferry.
bridge, Brown's men surprised a railroad guard. They told him he was their
prisoner. The guard thought they were joking until he saw their guns.
across the bridge, Brown and his men moved quickly. They captured a few people
in the street and another guard at the front gate of the government armory.
They seized the armory, then crossed the street and seized the supply center.
Millions of dollars' worth of military equipment was kept there.
leaving a few men to guard the prisoners, Brown and the others went to the gun
factory across town. They seized the few people who were there and captured the
firing a shot, Brown now controlled the three places he wanted in Harpers
Ferry. His problem now was to hold what he had captured. Brown knew he had
little time. The people of the town would soon learn what had happened. They
would call for help. And several groups of militia in the area would come to
the aid of Harpers Ferry.
planned to use the people he had captured as hostages. The militia would not
attack if there was danger of harming the prisoners. He wanted as many
prisoners as possible, to protect himself. If his plan failed, he could offer
them in exchange for his own freedom and that of his men.
decided to capture, as his best hostage, Colonel Lewis Washington. The Colonel
was a descendant of President George Washington. He lived on a big farm near
Harpers Ferry. Brown sent some of his men to capture the old colonel and free
returned from the Washington farm after midnight. They brought Colonel
Washington and ten slaves. They also captured another farmer and his son. The
slaves were given spears and told to guard the prisoners.
the far end of the Potomac River bridge, the first shots were fired.
son, Watson, and another man fired at a railroad guard who refused to halt. A
bullet struck his head, but did not hurt him seriously. The guard raced back
across the bridge to the railroad station. He cried out that a group of armed
men had seized the bridge.
A few minutes
later, a train from the west arrived at Harpers Ferry. The wounded guard warned
the trainmen of the danger at the bridge. Two of the trainmen decided to
investigate. They walked toward the bridge. Before they could reach it, bullets
began whizzing past them. They ran back to the train and moved it farther from
free Negro man who worked at the railroad station, Hayward Shepherd, walked
down to the bridge. Brown's men ordered him to halt. Shepherd tried to run and
was shot. He got back to the station, but died several hours later.
finally agreed to let the train pass over the bridge and continue on to
Baltimore. The train left at sunrise.
time, word of Brown's attack had spread to Charles Town, more than twelve
kilometers away. Officials called out the militia, ordering the men of Charles
Town to get ready to go to the aid of Harpers Ferry.
sunrise, men began arriving at Harpers Ferry from other towns in the area. They
took positions above the armory and started shooting at it.
militia from Charles Town arrived at the Maryland end of the Potomac bridge.
They charged across, forcing Brown's men on the bridge to flee to the armory.
Only one of Brown's men was hit. He was killed instantly.
that he was surrounded. His only hope was to try to negotiate a ceasefire and
offer to release his thirty hostages, if the militia would let him and his men
go free. Brown sent out one of his men and one of the prisoners with a white
flag. The excited crowd refused to recognize the white flag. They seized
Brown's man and carried him away.
moved his men and the most important of his hostages into a small brick
building at the armory. Then he sent out two more of his men with a prisoner to
try to negotiate a ceasefire. One of them was his son, Watson.
the crowd opened fire. Watson and the other raider were wounded. Their prisoner
escaped to safety. Watson was able to crawl back to the armory.
One of the
youngest of Brown's men, William Leeman, tried to escape. He ran from the
armory and jumped into the Potomac, planning to swim across the river. He did
not get far. A group of militia saw him and began shooting. Leeman was forced
to hide behind a rock in the middle of the river. Two men went out to the rock
with guns and shot him. His body lay in the river for two days.
more people were killed. One was the mayor of Harpers Ferry, Fontaine Beckham.
mayor's death, a mob went to the hotel where one of Brown's men had been held
since he was seized earlier in the day.
pulled him from the hotel and took him to the bridge over the river. Several
members of the mob put guns to his head and fired. They pushed his body off the
bridge and into the water.
town, three of Brown's men were in trouble at the gun factory. The factory was
built on an island in the Shenandoah River.
was now surrounded by militia. Forty of the soldiers attacked the factory from
three sides. They pushed the three raiders back to a small building next to the
river. The three men fought as long as possible. Then they jumped through a
window into the river.
to swim to safety. Men with guns were waiting for them. Bullets fell around the
three like rain. One man was hit. He died instantly. Another was wounded. He
was pulled to land and left to die. The third man escaped death. He was
captured and held for trial.
through the afternoon and evening, Brown's men at the armory continued to
exchange shots with the militia. Several more on both sides were killed or
wounded. One of those was another of Brown's sons, Oliver. He was shot and
fell. Then, a militia officer, Captain Sinn, walked up to the small building
held by Brown. He shouted to the men inside that he wished to talk. Brown
opened the door and let him in. For almost an hour, the two men talked. They
talked about slavery and the right to rebel against the government.
furious that the crowd outside had refused to honor his white flag of truce
earlier in the day. He told Sinn that his men could have killed unarmed men and
women, but did not do so.
is not quite correct," Captain Sinn said. "Mayor Beckham had no gun
when he was shot."
I can only say I am most sad to hear it," said Brown.
who take up guns against the government," said Sinn, "must expect to
be shot down like dogs."
Washington, President Buchanan and Secretary of War John Floyd did not learn of
the rebellion at Harpers Ferry until after ten o'clock that morning. The
president wanted immediate action.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Harry
Monroe and Jack Moyles. Transcripts,
MP3s, podcasts and archives of our programs can be found, along with historical
images, at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A
NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.
This is program #90 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION