The Shock of John Brown’s Raid

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The presidential election of 1860 was the most momentous presidential election in the history of the United States. More was at stake than at any other time in U.S. history. Investigate the opening scene of the crisis: John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Painting of John Brown's Harper's Ferry insurrection on October 17 1859 Captain Albert's militia firing on Brown's insurgents from the railroad bridge.
Marines firing on John Brown’s insurgents from the railroad bridge, Harper’s Ferry. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

On October 16, 1859, John Brown and a small group of followers seized the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry as part of a plan to gather slaves and move south through the mountains, deeper and deeper into Virginia and eventually beyond.

Brown intended to gather slaves for his Army of Liberation as he marched south. In the end, he hoped to free all slaves in the South through a vast uprising.

His plan went wrong very quickly.

Robert E. Lee and a small group of Marines came out to Harper’s Ferry from Washington. Brown and his followers barricaded themselves but were quickly subdued. A number of them were killed, and John Brown was wounded. He was put on trial by the state of Virginia, found guilty of treason, and was hanged.

But it’s the reaction to John Brown’s raid that’s most important.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Reactions to John Brown’s Raid

Photography of abolitionist John Brown
John Brown’s raid had major implications throughout the South. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock).

Brown comported himself with great dignity, both during the trial and as he went to the gallows. He handed one of his jailers a note near the end that said, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Many people in the North praised Brown. Church bells pealed in his honor. After his death, several newspapers praised Brown, and it seemed to many in the white South that a significant part of the North—if not most—approved of what Brown had done.

That wasn’t the case.

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A majority of the North almost certainly disapproved of what John Brown had done, but there was enough of a mixed reaction to send tremors through the white South. This was the greatest nightmare of the white South: a Northern white man marching south to incite what white Southerners would have considered servile insurrection. Many white Southerners equated John Brown with abolitionists, abolitionists with Republicans, and Republicans with the whole North.

A wave of near hysteria swept across many of the Southern states, the greatest since Nat Turner’s Rebellion nearly three decades earlier. Militia companies drilled more regularly and seriously. Volunteer military companies beefed up their numbers. Support for secession mushroomed.

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As one Southern Unionist sadly observed after John Brown’s raid, “This has wrought almost a complete revolution in the sentiments, thoughts, and hopes of the oldest and steadiest conservatives in the Southern states.” By conservatives, he meant people more devoted to the Union than to the idea of Southern rights.

William L. Yancey: Fire-Eater

Several months after John Brown’s raid, there was another shock to the white South came in the form of a series of unexplained fires in Texas.

These fires were attributed to slaves who, like John Brown’s followers, had in mind a general slave insurrection. There were fires in other parts of the South as well, which helped feed a growing feeling the white South was under siege. John Brown’s raid, fires in Texas—tremendous emotional capital was invested in these events, and each had a direct impact on the upcoming election of 1860.

William L. Yancey (1814- 1863) was a journalist politician orator diplomat and an American leader of the Southern secession movement
William L. Yancey of Alabama insisted on state rights and a strong defense of slavery. (Image: Unknown from Encyclopedia Britanica/Public domain)

William L. Yancey of Alabama was one of the most extreme Secessionist “fire-eaters,” or agitators who were always pushing against any perceived threat from the North. Fire-eaters insisted on state rights and a strong defense of slavery.

Yancey persuaded the Alabama Democratic Party in January 1860 to instruct its delegates on the upcoming national presidential convention to insist that the national Democratic Party give complete protection to slavery in the territories. There was ample evidence at the time that several other Southern states would follow Alabama’s lead.

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In the fall of 1859 and on into the summer of 1860, the volatile sectional emotion on display portended the growing tensions and distance between the North and the South.

Common Questions About John Brown’s Raid

Q: How did John Brown’s raid add fuel to the fire of the beginnings of the Civil War?

John Brown’s anti-slavery raid, though unsuccessful, drove a spike between North and South that was directly responsible for attitudes that engendered the Civil War.

Q: What did John Brown’s raid incite in Southerners?

John Brown’s raid was poorly planned with little escape. The raid mostly served to congeal Southerners into a self-protective stance and turn them with a vengeance against Northerners.

Q: What was the death toll during John Brown’s raid?

During John Brown’s raid, 10 of Brown’s men were killed along with six townspeople.

This article was updated on October 21, 2019

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