Described by contemporaries as both a “symbol of noble idealism” and “monstrously wicked,” John Brown termed himself simply an “avenging angel of the Lord.” [ 1 ] The raid he led on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 proved to be the flashpoint in the explosive sectional and ideological division that existed in the critical months before the secession of Southern states made civil war inevitable.

Fratricidal division of the states would surely have come with or without John Brown. But his fanatical devotion to a righteous cause and his messianic vision for the country’s salvation made his venture at Harper’s Ferry a cause célèbre for both North and South. Brown’s execution by hanging on December 2, 1859, made him the Abolitionists’ martyr, but his death in no way assuaged the anxiety of Southerners who declared slavery a positive good while fervently hoping that their “own people” would in fact remain docile and dutiful.

Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown’s family moved to Ohio when he was young. After launching a promising and prosperous career as a tanner, Brown soon settled into a life of hopes gone awry. Each successive failed business venture led to another uprooting of his ever-growing family (he fathered twenty children by two wives) to start anew somewhere else in the rapidly expanding west. If Brown and his family were little more than penniless wanderers in search of economic security and a place to call their own, Brown himself never wavered from two essential convictions that shaped his life to the very end. He was, above all, deeply religious, and his was the Old Testament God of terrible retribution. And Brown hated slavery with a passion that burned mightily in his soul. He scorned the pacifism of the leading Abolitionists of the day. For him, slavery was a scandal against God and against God-fearing men. Liberal Southerners, who argued that slavery would wither away because of changing economic realities, and Northern idealists, who relied on moral suasion for the voluntary abolition of slavery, were equally deluded. Slavery would persist, Brown argued, because slaveowners prized the power that came with owning slaves. For Brown, the way to end slavery was immediately and forcefully. The wrath of Jehovah demanded that the sword be sunk to the hilt into every godless slaveholder. Brown’s God could not abide the sin of slaveholding, and in laying waste violently a sinful people a faithful disciple like Brown could in part expiate his own sinful shortcomings.

The holy war against slavery that Brown hoped for and expected was to his way of thinking too slow in coming. As head of a free-soil settlement on the Osawatomie River in Kansas Territory, Brown’s revulsion over the proslavery sacking of Lawrence, the territorial capital, in May 1856 convinced him that he was God’s chosen instrument of retribution. On the night of May 24, Brown led a small band to nearby Pottawatomie Creek. Before the night ended, five proslavery leaders had been forced from their homes by Brown and his men and brutally executed with repeated blows from broadswords. Brown had modern arms at his disposal. But he chose to use archaic broadswords for the heinous murders because for him they symbolized, better than pistols or rifles, God’s mighty hand striking down the wicked defenders of slavery.

For proslavery forces in the South and West, the Pottawatomie massacres made Brown a hated and hunted man; for many Northern Abolitionists and idealists Brown became a hero, the quintessential man of action. He successfully cultivated this new-found support for access and financial backing from people who otherwise would have had nothing to do with such an impecunious, unkempt, stern-faced drifter.

Brown’s sudden celebrity status among the wealthy and well-connected liberals and Abolitionists in the Northeast meant that he could turn his attention to a far grander plan than the Pottawatomie Massacres to achieve a speedy, if violent, end to slavery. He had been working on this plan since at least 1847, when he had first shared it with the noted Maryland-born former slave and Abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass. [ 2 ] The plan called for striking at the very heart of the slave South by launching a guerrilla war in the Appalachian mountains. Now, maps were carefully studied and annotated, the federal census returns from 1850 were analyzed county by county to establish black populations, free and slave, throughout the South, and financial backers and recruits were enlisted throughout New England, the West, and Canada. A convention was called in Chatham, Canada, where a constitution was adopted for a proposed new country for freed slaves. This new state would be forcibly carved out of the southern Appalachian Mountains by the army of the provisional government. Brown was confident that his guerrilla force would be rapidly and abundantly reinforced by jubilant slaves fleeing their masters and by local white opponents of the detestable system of human bondage. Brown was not only the mastermind of the plan and architect of the constitution and projected state, but he was also elected by the delegates to the Chatham Convention as commander-in-chief of the provisional forces.

After careful study, Brown selected Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as the first point of attack in his projected war of slave liberation. Situated on the Potomac River, Harper’s Ferry seemed to offer everything Brown could hope for. It was in Virginia, the largest slaveholding state in the Union; it was on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains; and it had a federal arsenal and a large gun factory that produced rifles for the U.S. government. Once in control of Harper’s Ferry, the guns from the federal armory and the gun factory would be distributed to the slaves and sympathetic whites whom Brown was certain would flock to him in support of his cause. Once the new recruits were armed, the revolution would be carried further south along the Appalachian chain, with points of attack concentrating on other towns with federal arsenals, until the army of slave liberators reached the Gulf.

Brown’s plan got off to an auspicious start, as he and eighteen followers left their rented Maryland farm, [ 3 ] some four and one-half miles from Harper’s Ferry, on the evening of Sunday, October 16. Shortly after 10:30 that night [ 4 ] they crossed the Potomac River bridge into the town, and quickly overpowered the lone man guarding the gates to the federal arsenal. The rest of the night was spent rounding up prominent men from the town and surrounding countryside to hold as hostages. By daybreak, Brown and his men had secured themselves in the small but sturdy brick engine house on the grounds of the federal arsenal.

The drama of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry ended a little more than thirty-six hours after it began, when federal marines, under the command of U.S. Army officers Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. J.E.B. Stuart, battered down the engine house door. Brown was seriously wounded, and the rest of his companions were killed or captured. What had started off just as Brown had planned had come to naught because no one came to reinforce his liberation army—no slaves fleeing to the freedom Brown offered, no Northern sympathizers ready to lay down their lives to force an end to the morally reprehensible institution of slavery.

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry created a national sensation, and the unseemly speed with which he and his cohorts were tried, convicted, and hanged further polarized the North and the South. The raid and its participants were minutely examined in the national press, and the details were officially fleshed out in the report of a special committee of the U.S. Senate. Of the eyewitness accounts, the most frequently cited is the report of Col. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the marines in the assault on the armory.

But Lee arrived at Harper’s Ferry long after Brown and his men had taken refuge in the engine house. The invaders had been forced to retreat to that building because local militia and armed citizens from Harper’s Ferry and the surrounding countryside had begun harassing insurrectionists at daybreak. Later that afternoon, the first militia from another state—three companies from Frederick, Maryland—arrived in Harper’s Ferry. They carried with them authority to restore the public peace signed by three Frederick County justices, as well as an acceptance of their services by the president of the United States, James Buchanan. The presence of these presidentially sanctioned companies from Frederick, Maryland, is mentioned in several of the reports of the Harper’s Ferry insurrection. But their contribution, as well as that of their Virginia militia counterparts, to the containment and eventual capture of Brown and his fellow raiders is overshadowed in both contemporary reports and later histories by the dramatic assault of the marines which ended the insurrection.

The document that follows is a heretofore unpublished report written by the commander of the three militia companies that left Frederick for Harper’s Ferry, a little more than twenty miles away, on the afternoon of Monday, October 17. Col. Edward Shriver, a Frederick lawyer and the commander of the 16th Regiment, detailed his men’s role in ending John Brown’s raid in a report written the following Saturday to Brig. Gen. James M. Coale, the commanding officer of all the Frederick infantry regiments. General Coale sent a copy of the report on to Gov. Thomas Holliday Hicks. It remained unnoticed among Hicks’s administrative files at the Maryland State Archives until it was recently discovered by Richard A. Blondo, at the time a member of the Archives’ staff. In part because of Mr. Blondo’s chance discovery of the Shriver report (he was searching for material for his M.A. thesis on Samuel Green, a free black from the Eastern Shore who was convicted for possessing a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), interns in the Archives’ 1990 summer program began to process and describe the Archives’ extensive collection of executive department records from the 1850s and 1860s. When this descriptive project is completed, researchers will have ready access to an incomparable source of information for illuminating Maryland’s role in the Civil War. [ 5 ]

Shriver’s report provides a different perspective than other published contemporaneous sources, as well as some fascinating new details about Brown’s raid. Although he refers to “Captain Brown” and calls his band “insurrectionists,” the early part of Shriver’s report makes it clear that confusion and uncertainty reigned when word first reached the surrounding towns that something was amiss in Harper’s Ferry.

Initial reports out of Harper’s Ferry indicated that the town had been attacked, but it was not clear by whom. Some claimed the rebels were unpaid workers of a company that was building a dam in the area, while others reported that the problem stemmed from disgruntled workers at the federal arsenal itself, who were intent upon making off with the more than $17,000 that was then stored in the paymaster’s office. [ 6 ] About the only detail all of the fragmentary early reports agreed on was that several hundred whites and blacks were engaged in the insurrection.

Telegraph wires out of Harper’s Ferry had been cut by the attackers, so Colonel Shriver decided to check out the trouble first-hand before committing the troops under his command. He boarded a train and proceeded as far as Gibson’s Switch, at the east end of the Harper’s Ferry Bridge across the Potomac. What Shriver saw there (or more likely heard from people in the area) convinced him that the town was in the possession of “outlaws,” who, with the blacks they had armed, numbered “Several Hundred men.”

Returning quickly to Frederick, Shriver directed the three companies of militia onto the cars of a special train provided by the B & O Railroad. The train departed for Harper’s Ferry at 3:45 that afternoon. Three miles south of Frederick at the Monocacy Junction railroad station, Shriver learned that “apparently well authenticated reports” from Harper’s Ferry indicated that the insurgents “had been largely increased and then amounted to six hundred armed Slaves.” Shriver paused long enough to order the cannon from Frederick to be sent along by the first available train before ordering his own train to continue on toward Harper’s Ferry.

Darkness had fallen by the time Shriver and his men reached the bridge leading across the Potomac into Harper’s Ferry. It was crossed with considerable trepidation but without incident, and Colonel Shriver promptly offered the services of his men to Colonel R. W. Baylor, [ 7 ] who commanded the Virginia militia and volunteers on hand. Shriver then learned that instead of hundreds of armed insurgents, the raiding party consisted of only “twenty two desperadoes from other sections of the Country, more than half of whom had already been killed, disabled or captured by the armed Citizens of the place and [the] V[irgini]a Military.” Before the Frederick militia arrived, these citizen-soldiers had succeeded in driving the remnant of Brown’s raiders into the fire-engine house within the federal arsenal compound.

The Frederick militia was assigned the task of securing the perimeter of the armory, “guarding the Enclosure within which the remnant of the Insurgents had been driven and where they had strongly fortified themselves.” Despite being fired on repeatedly by the raiders holed up in the engine house, Shriver’s men sustained no injuries during their night of guard duty.

From their first arrival at the armory, Shriver’s men had “unanimously and warmly” favored storming the engine house, but Colonel Baylor objected because the raiders had with them several prominent local citizens as hostages. A night assault would pose too great a risk to the hostages, Baylor argued, so the Frederick troops settled in to their guard duties.

Shortly before midnight on Monday, October 17, one of the Frederick militia commanders, Captain J. T. Sinn, who was with some of his men on guard in front of the engine house, was hailed by one of the raiders and asked to approach the building “for the purpose of conference in regard to the terms on which the Insurgents proposed to surrender.” Sinn spoke with a person who identified himself as “Captain Brown.” Brown said that if he, his men, and their hostages were escorted to the Maryland shore, he would release the hostages unharmed and “the Insurgents would take their chance for their lives in an open fight.” Sinn relayed Brown’s proposal to Colonel Shriver, who promptly went to the engine house where he personally “held a parly with Captain Brown and the gentlemen whom he held as prisoners.”

Brown repeated his offer to Shriver, with one additional condition. He asked that after releasing the hostages he and his men should not be shot instantly, but rather be “allowed a brief period for preparing for fight.” Shriver told Brown that he was surrounded by an overwhelming force, and that his life was already “assuredly forfeited.”  The Maryland colonel urged Brown to release the “innocent unoffending gentlemen” he was holding as hostages, but Brown retorted that “he had secured them as hostages for his own safety and the safety of his men and he should use them accordingly.” Shriver concluded there were no further grounds for discussion, and terminated the conference with Brown. The Maryland and Virginia field commanders met and decided to storm the engine house at dawn, using bayonets instead of gunfire to “secure as far as possible the safety of the prisoners.”

The assault on the engine house did commence shortly after dawn, and it was carried out with fixed bayonets without firing a shot, just as the Maryland and Virginia militia commanders had planned. But the storming of the insurgent’s bastion was undertaken by U.S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee, not by the militia. Lee, a regular army officer, arrived with a contingent of marines at about 2:00 A.M. on Tuesday morning, October 18. According to Shriver, he and Colonel Baylor met with Colonel Lee shortly after his arrival, and Lee agreed to proceed with the assault plan they had devised. Furthermore, Shriver claimed, Lee “announced that he deemed it due to the volunteer militia present that it should have the privilege of conducting the operation.” Lee’s request that each militia company designate two men to form the storming party was “promptly done,” and this volunteer militia storming party assembled in front of the engine house before dawn.

But then, according to Shriver, “after the Batallion had been formed for some time and the men had been waiting to discharge the duty of making the assault,” Colonel Lee changed his mind. His marines alone would constitute the storming party. Lee summoned the Baltimore militia, which had arrived on the same train that morning with the marines, to bolster the perimeter defenses around the armory. Then he sent “an officer of the marines” (actually his second in command, army officer Lt. J.E.B. Stuart) to the engine house, who “waited on the Insurgents, demanded their surrender and explained to them the hopelessness of resistance.” Stuart, who had been stationed in Kansas in 1856, recognized “Osawatomie Brown.” While this may have been the first positive identification of the old man who served as leader and spokesman for the outlaw band, as Stuart later claimed, Brown’s identify and details of his plan had been revealed the preceding evening by one of his men who had been shot by the town’s defenders. [ 8 ]

Immediately after Brown “peremptorily refused to surrender,” Lee ordered the twelve members of the storming party forward. Three marines armed with sledge hammers failed to breach the engine house door, but some of their enterprising comrades spotted a stout ladder, which they employed as a battering ram with the desired effect. As the door flew open, one marine was instantly killed by hostile fire and another wounded. Brown and his men were quickly overwhelmed by the other marines, however, and in Shriver’s words, “in a very short time, all were killed, badly wounded or made prisoners.” Shriver noted that the surgeons of each of the three Frederick militia companies were “at hand to render any service which might be required,” commending especially Dr. William Tyler, Jr., of Captain Ritchie’s Company, who “obtained a position inside of the yard, followed the Marines to the charge and was the first to receive and attend to the Marine who was mortally wounded.”

After the engine house was secured, effectively ending John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Frederick militia were kept on guard duty inside the armory compound for a short time and then dismissed. They returned to Frederick that afternoon, Tuesday, October 18. Colonel Shriver concluded his report by commending the “soldierly bearing, discipline, and readiness to discharge every duty assigned, displayed by each officer and private of the companies which formed the Batallion under my command.”

Shriver’s report nowhere suggests that he and his men realized that they had played an important role in quenching the “fire of vengeance” old Osawatomie Brown expected to unleash on the “slave-cursed land.” Instead, Shriver reflected the understandable pride of a commander of citizen-soldiers, who was pleased to report that his men had answered the call to defend hearth and home from hostile forces, and that they had succeeded in their mission.

For the men of the Frederick militia, the Harper’s Ferry raid was a strange, anomalous threat to local public safety. In responding to it they did no more than what they would have expected good citizens anywhere to do if faced with a similar danger to the community. Within six months, however, the residents of Frederick, and the courageous veterans of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, would face a far more difficult decision: to support the Union, and by implication the extremists and fanatics who had made John Brown’s raid possible, or to reject the sanctity of good citizenship and community, which had formed the rationale for their actions at Harper’s Ferry, by supporting the seceding states in the effort to tear the Union asunder.

© Maryland State Archives, 2000, an Archives of Maryland publication