ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry: Hero or Terrorist?

Updated on February 16, 2015

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a controversial event in History. “In October 1859, Brown led eighteen heavily armed black and white men in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia”. (Henretta 402) Historians have argued over whether John Brown was a Hero or a Villain. The raid did not have any lasting effects in fact the few slaves that were freed during the uprising were eventually returned to bondage. The raid highlighted John Brown and his traumatic life. Some thought that John Brown had “intellectual and moral intensity” (Henretta 397) while others just thought he was crazy. John Brown was an ally to the antislavery cause but he was also considered a terrorist for going against the government. John Brown was a passionate abolitionist who fought and died for his cause.

John Brown hoped to start a slave revolt with his militia but he needed weapons to arm them. He planned a raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in order to obtain the weapons he needed to help his cause. The Raid at Harper’s Ferry began on October 16, 1859. Brown headed out and left four of his men behind to guard the rear. He then led the rest of his men into the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Then brown split up his party and sent part of them with John Cook Jr. to find and capture Colonel Lewis Washington. Brown and his remaining men captured several townspeople and watchmen in Harper’s Ferry. Things seemed to be going good for Brown and his men. They seized a train that was passing through. A free black man who was a baggage handler on the train confronted the raiders and was shot and killed. That was the first causality of the raid. For whatever reason Brown did not stop the train instead he allowed it to continue down the line. The Conductor alerted the authorities. That night Brown and his men overtook the arsenal. They captured 60 citizens of the town and held them as hostages. That is where things began to go wrong. They expected the slaves to join the fight but no slaves came to aide them. Then the local militia succeeded in pinning Brown and his men down. When President Buchanan heard of the insurrection he sent Colonel Robert E. Lee to put an end to it. Come October 17 they were surrounded by a group of U.S. Marines that were led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Colonel Lee his soldiers quickly ended the insurrection of Brown and his men. The result was the death of ten of Brown’s men, two of which were his sons. Brown was wounded during the battle. He was tried and found guilty of treason and murder on November 2nd. John brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. As a dying proclamation “he handed his guard a slip of paper that read, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." (John 1) John Brown led 18 men into Harpers Ferry and only one survived, Osborne Anderson. John Browns original party was made up of twenty-two men. After the events at Harper’s Ferry there were “fifteen killed, two mortally wounded, two unhurt, and three escaped with the slaves on Monday morning”. (John 2) While the battle was brief it was still a bloody debacle. After the incident they discovered “Brown’s grandiose plans – including a “constitution” creating a revolutionary state with himself as commander in chief”. (Horwitz 41) This discovery led many to dismiss John Brown as insane. But “others branded him a deluded messiah who saw himself as “God’s instrument” for the destruction of slavery”. (Horwitz 41) No matter how people viewed him the fact cannot be denied that he ultimately wanted to end slavery. He was trying to do a good thing but his zealousness may have pushed him to the extreme.

John Brown commanded a volunteer free-state militia. John Brown had met many influential individuals in his years as an abolitionist. He met with both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. He was supported and financially backed by many prominent abolitionists. Much of his funding came from the “Secret Six,” who were six prominent abolitionists. His “army” expanded and soon included 22 men that was comprised of five black men and three of Brown’s own sons. They prepared their assault in a house rented near Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was fighting to end slavery and while his cause was noble he went about it the wrong way. He was a vigilantly and whether or not the government agreed with his cause and reasoning they could not allow him to continue with his plans. Had he not of attacked the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry the Government may have not of convened so quickly. Granted Brown and his men needed the weapons at the Armory to complete their plan of arming the slaves and to help start the revolt. However John Brown’s first plan was to have a base at the bottom of the Mountains and assist runaway slaves and attack slaveholders. That was the plan that he told his funders. He obviously carried out a different plan that night.

It is important to take a look at the life of John Brown. He was born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised on the Ohio frontier under modest circumstances. He was a man on a mission he had a ferocious ambition. His faith has been compared to Job-like given the tribulations he endured in his life. He was a talented man who excelled as a tanner and stock-raiser but his money management and land speculation drove him into bankruptcy. “For 55 of his 59 years, John Brown was a man on the make who never made it”. (Horwitz 41) He also suffered tremendous family tragedies. He lost both his mother and first wife in childbirth. He also “buried eight of his 20 offspring as infants or youngsters”. (Horowitz 41) He overcame all of his life trials and at the age of 56 became a renowned antislavery warrior. He differed from many other abolitionists because he was willing to take up arms for his cause and he did.

In my opinion John Brown was a passionate man who was willing to fight for his cause. It would be hard to call him a terrorist when he was technically fighting for abolitionists, which at the time many people supported. I think that he was fighting for a cause that the majority supported. I do think that he was technically a Hero but I also think he was a misguided leader. His attack on Harper’s Ferry did not really help his cause but instead cost him and many of his fighters their lives. But I appreciate how stoic he was and how eloquently he spoke. I think that his intellect was what helped him get followers on board. I believe that he was fighting for a great a cause and I grasp his passion for it but I just think that he was reckless in executing his plan. I think that it is easy to get caught up in the moment especially when you are so passionate about something like ending slavery. “Despite the certainty with which historians characterize Brown as a terrorist, scholars of guerrilla warfare and terrorism caution against loose definitions of these terms”. (Etcheson 31) Terrorism is a very broad term and it can be hard to distinguish terrorism from other violence. Obviously his supporters see him as a Hero while his opponents see him as a villain or terrorist. I believe that John Brown was more of an American Hero than a terrorist.

While John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry was not successful it did show people what he was made of and how passionate he was for antislavery. One effect that the raid is believed to have had is that it accelerated the start of the Civil War. Even people who did not agree with his beliefs and tactics took notice of him and many admired him. John Brown was a man that either people admired or hated. Many other abolitionists supported his cause but did not approve of his methods. Whether he was right or wrong he was fanatical and went to the extreme for his beliefs. He lived, fought and died for his cause.


Etcheson, Nicole. "John Brown, Terrorist?." American Nineteenth Century History 10, no. 1 (March 2009): 29-48. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2014).

Henretta, J. A., Brody, D. (2009) America: A Concise History, Volume 1: To 1877. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martins.

Horwitz, Tony. "Why John Brown Still Scares Us." American History 46, no. 5 (December 2011): 38-45. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2014).

"John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Sun. 1 June 2014. <>.



    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)