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John Brown's Raid

"Treason" Broadside, 1859 November 4. VirginiaOn the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown led a group of radical abolitionists against the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, Virginia, with the purpose of arming and inciting a slave rebellion. Brown and many of his conspirators were captured and some were killed when U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee surrounded and stormed the engine house where Brown's men had been trapped. John Brown and his men were taken to Charlestown where they were tried and later hanged on December 2, 1859. In order to guard against threats of invasion, Governor Henry A. Wise called up a number of militia units to protect Charlestown before and after the execution.

The Harpers Ferry raid confirmed for many Southerners the existence of a widespread Northern plot against slavery. In fact, Brown had raised funds for his raid from Northern abolitionists. To arm the slaves, he ordered one thousand pikes from a Connecticut manufactory. Letters to Governor Wise betrayed the mixed feelings people held for Brown. For some, he was simply insane and should not be hanged. For others, he was a martyr to the cause of abolition, and his quick trial and execution reflected the fear and arrogance of Virginia's slave owners. Many Northerners condemned Brown's actions but thought him right in his conviction that slavery had to end. Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and his execution further polarized North and South and made a resolution of the slavery issue much more difficult to achieve.

How to Search the Catalogs:

Conduct a keyword or subject search heading in the catalog using the following examples of Library of Congress subject headings.

Brown, John, 1800-1859
Harpers Ferry (W. Va.) History John Brown's Raid
Abolitionists United States

Selected Published Resources

Crew, Roger Thomas, comp. John Brown's Raid: Records and Resources at the Library of Virginia. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1999. (Click Here for Bibliography)

DeCaro, Louis A. "Fire from the midst of you": A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

De Witt, Robert M. The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown: Known As "Old Brown of Ossawatomie," with a Full Account of the Attempted Insurrection at Harper's Ferry. New York: Robert M. De Witt, 1859.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harper's Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Russo, Peggy A., and Paul Finkelman. Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.
Selected Online Collections

Index to the Virginia Confederate Rosters. (Click Here for Database)
Volume 20 of the Confederate Rosters compiled by the Department of Confederate Military Records includes the names of soldiers who served during John Brown's Raid.

Death or Liberty (Click Here for Online Exhibition Documents)
View images and transcriptions of documents related to John Brown’s Raid, collected for the Library’s exhibition Death or Liberty - Gabriel, Nat Turner and John Brown in 2000.

Selected Manuscript Collections

John Brown. Transcripts of Letters, 1830–1859. Miscellaneous Microfilm Reels 875, 999. Accessions 31218 and 32561 are identical copies.
Letters, 1830–1859, tracing a variety of events in John Brown's (1800–1859) life, from the death of his first wife to his hanging in 1859. This collection contains more than two hundred letters to family members, political leaders, and abolitionists. It documents his mental state during his various wanderings, his financial failures, his central role in violent attacks in Kansas, his capture of the armory at Harpers Ferry, and his subsequent trial in October and execution in December 1859. The letters also include information on place, date, and recipient, as well as on their location and ownership at the time of their transcription.

Letter of F. B. Sanborn, Concord, Mass., to Joseph Bryan, 1897 Jan. 2Joseph Bryan. Papers, 18951897. Accession 38679.
Papers, 1895–1897, consisting of letters primarily relating to Joseph Bryan's (1845–1908) research into whether John Brown visited Virginia between 1856 and 1859 before his raid on Harpers Ferry under the pseudonym of Dr. Lazarus B. McClain. Correspondents include F. B. Sanborn (1831–1917). Also includes letters concerning articles on John Brown submitted for publication in the Richmond Times and a letter from the widow of General John D. Imboden concerning the general's death.

Department of Military Affairs. Department of Confederate Military Records. John Brown's Raid Muster Rolls, 1859–1860. Accession 27684. (Click Here for Finding Aid)
Payrolls and rosters, 1859–1860, of those militia companies that were ordered to defend Harper's Ferry and Charlestown against additional rumored attacks. They served until Brown's execution.

Department of Military Affairs. Office of the Adjutant General. John Brown's Raid Military Order Book, 1859–1860. Accession 36711. (Click Here for Finding Aid)
Order book, 23 November 1859–19 January 1860, containing general orders issued by Major General William Booth Taliaferro (1822–1898) and his subordinates following John Brown's Raid. The orders primarily consist of officers’ assignments, troop movements, and discharges. Of particular note is General Order No. 25, which details the orders for the day of Brown's execution.

Department of Military Affairs. Office of the Adjutant General. John Brown's Raid Special Orders, 1859. Accession 36712. (Click Here for Finding Aid)
Special Orders, 24 November–21 December 1859, issued by Major General William Booth Taliaferro (1822–1898) and his subordinates following John Brown's Raid. The orders primarily concern supplies and leaves of absence.

"Anti-Slavery Mass Meeting" Broadside, 1859 December 8. VirginiaGovernor's Office. Executive Papers of Governor Henry A. Wise, 1856–1860. Accession 36710. Miscellaneous Microfilm Reels 4193–4220. (Click Here for Finding Aid)
Correspondence, October 1859–March 1860, of Governor Henry Wise (1806–1876) relating to John Brown's Raid. Wise's executive papers are organized into two series: chronological files and subject files. The first series documents the daily work of the governor, consisting primarily of incoming correspondence. The second series contains subject files related to John Brown's Raid, including correspondence asking for the pardon, commutation of punishment, or execution of John Brown. Many of the letters threaten the life of Wise or the invasion of Virginia if Brown is executed. Other subjects found within this series include intercepted correspondence to Brown; correspondence from detectives pursuing escaped conspirators; correspondence by Charles P. Tidd, a conspirator with Brown; and correspondence of Andrew Hunter, the prosecutor in the case against Brown. In addition, there are receipts and vouchers for various expenses incurred by militia units during their service at Harpers Ferry.