Book Review: John Brown's Raid: Harpers Ferry and the Coming of the Civil War, October 16-18, 1859


by Jon-Erik M. Gilot and Kevin R. Pawlak

El Dorado Hills, Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. xxvi, 166. Illus., maps, appends., biblio., index. $16.95 paper. ISBN: 1611215978

John Brown and the Coming of the Civil War

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry amplified North / South tensions and is viewed by many as a contributing factor to the outbreak of Civil War, some even calling it the first shots of that conflict, such as Frederick Douglass, who in 1881 said “If Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.” While Brown was not the first to try to stir up a slave revolt – 1843 famed abolitionist Henry Garnett delivered a speech titled “Call to Rebellion,” in which he urged the enslaved to “strike for your liberties” – Brown's brief outbreak sparked fears of a bloody "Saint Domingue" in the slave-holding states and among those long preaching secession.

Gilot and Pawlak have touched all bases in explaining who John Brown was, why he came to Harpers Ferry, what happened, and what it all meant. After some background on Brown, they cover his plans to capture the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, proclaim freedom to the enslaved, who would be armed, and the war of liberation would begin. We see Brown planning the raids, raising funds from the "Secret Six," a group of well connected abolitionists, and procuring arms of pikes and guns – to be distributed among the enslaved, and his movement to Harper's Ferry.

The actual raid, on the night of October 16, 1859, began well. Brown's band of 22, including a couple of his sons and several white and black volunteers, fell on Harper's Ferry, and by dawn on the 17th had captured the Federal arsenal and its employees, and taken several prominent citizens hostage, notably Lewis Washington, a local planter and great-grand-nephew of President George Washington. The first phase of the plan had worked well.

Unfortunately for Brown, nothing else went as planned. The authors note that only “twenty-five to fifty slaves joined Brown early in the raid”, the majority of the local enslaved populace failing to rise up, and even those who did soon dispersed. Meanwhile, the local militia gathered quickly, pinning him and his band down in the Engine House of the arsenal on the 17th. Word spread, and President Buchanan dispatched Robert E. Lee, some other officers, and a company of Marines,

Arriving on the 18th, after an attempt at negotiation, the Marines stormed the Engine House, losing one man, but killing ten – including two of Brown's sons, and capturing six, though another six managed to escape.

At this point, the authors raise an interesting point, having captured Brown and his men, why didn't the Federal Government prosecute them, rather than turning them over to Virginia? Virginia, of course, tried and condemned Brown and others for "treason against the state of Virginia," as well as murder and other charges, and by his execution on November 2, 1859, turned him from a pathetic failure into a martyr to those opposed to slavery.

The authors also take a look at one of the more fascinating aspects of the whole story of Brown's raid; the disagreements between Brown and Hugh Forbes. Forbes, a former British officer and soldier-of-fortune, was recruited by Brown to train his troops. But the two fell out over many issues, and Forbes eventually denounced Brown’s plans to Senator William Seward and some others, forcing Brown to postpone his rebellion, which, as Forbes predicted, failed.

Gilot and Pawlak have written an excellent introductory account of John Brown and his raid, and this reviewer recommends it those who know little about the events, as well as to those more familiar with them.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, The Whartons' War, Gettysburg’s Southern Front , Civil War Monuments and Memorials, The Tale Untwisted, The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, The Civilian War, The Carnage was Fearful, The Civil Wars of Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army, Vol. I, Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, and "The Bullets Flew Like Hail".



Note: John Brown's Raid is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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