October 16, 1859: John Brown Captures U.S. Armory

Harpers Ferry was the site of the US Armory, and played a vital role before and during the Civil War.

On the night of October 16, 1859, a band of antislavery men under John Brown captured the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry. Earlier in the year, Brown had settled into a western Maryland farmhouse, where he trained his 18-man army in military tactics. His goal was to seize weapons from the national armory at Harpers Ferry and arm slaves, who would then overthrow their masters.

The raid, though, was a fiasco. Brown’s first victim was a railroad night watchman who was a free African American. The raiders also killed the town’s mayor. Infuriated—and mostly drunken—townspeople grabbed their rifles and trapped Brown’s men in the armory’s fire engine house. On the morning of October 18, U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee captured Brown and the eight raiders who had survived the ordeal. Brown was convicted of treason and hanged in nearby Charles Town six weeks later.

More than any other event, the raid divided the nation between North and South. With his last words, Brown predicted that slavery would lead to civil war. Less than a year-and-a-half later, his words would come true.