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American History Series: Story of John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

''Men who take up guns against the government must expect to be shot down like dogs,'' a militia officer told the captured antislavery extremist in 1859. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome 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 a madman.

John Brown 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.

Brown 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.

Harpers 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.

This week in our series, Harry Monroe and Jack Moyles continue the story of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry.


With his force of less than twenty men, John Brown moved through the darkness down to the bridge that crossed the Potomac River.

Two men left the group to cut the telegraph lines east and west of Harpers Ferry.

At the 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.

Once 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.


After 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 factory.

Without 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.

Brown 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.


Brown had 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 his slaves.

They 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.

Then, at the far end of the Potomac River bridge, the first shots were fired.

Brown's 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 the bridge.

Then a 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.



Brown finally agreed to let the train pass over the bridge and continue on to Baltimore. The train left at sunrise.

By this 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.

Soon after sunrise, men began arriving at Harpers Ferry from other towns in the area. They took positions above the armory and started shooting at it.

The 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.


Brown saw 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.

Brown 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.


This time, 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.

Later, more people were killed. One was the mayor of Harpers Ferry, Fontaine Beckham.


After the 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.

They 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.

Across town, three of Brown's men were in trouble at the gun factory. The factory was built on an island in the Shenandoah River.

The island 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.

They tried 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.



All 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 seriously wounded.

Night 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.


Brown was 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.

"That is not quite correct," Captain Sinn said. "Mayor Beckham had no gun when he was shot."

"Then I can only say I am most sad to hear it," said Brown.

"Men who take up guns against the government," said Sinn, "must expect to be shot down like dogs."


In 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 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