Most of the following information on John Brown’s background and the planning that went into the raid on Harper’s Ferry is drawn from the standard biography of Brown, Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, A Biography of John Brown (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

In August 1859, after Brown had moved to Maryland to plot the assault on Harper’s Ferry, he met Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and outlined his plan. Douglass raised serious objections to it and refused Brown’s invitation to join in the plot. Ibid., p. 62, 282-83.

Brown had arrived in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry on July 3, 1859. Using the alias I. Smith, he rented a nearby Maryland farm. Over the next few weeks, shipments of armaments and pikes, the latter for arming the slaves Brown expected to flock to him when he commenced his war for slave liberation, arrived at the farm. Curious neighbors, who asked about the large, heavy boxes arriving at the farm, or who wondered about the dozen or more young men who were occasionally glimpsed at Brown’s house, were told that he planned to mine valuable minerals from the nearby hillside. The boxes contained mining equipments, Brown told them, and the men were to be employed in the mining operation. Ibid., 275-76, 280-81. Patrick Higgins’s interesting first-hand account of John Brown’s arrival in Maryland, as well as his entrance into Harper’s Ferry on the night the raid began, is printed in T.J.C. Williams and Folger McKinsey, History of Frederick County Maryland, 2 vols. (1910; reprint ed., Baltimore: Regional Publishing Co., 1967), 1:360-61.

Various contemporary reports give times as early as 8:30 and as late as midnight for Brown’s entrance into Harper’s Ferry on the night of October 16. The reminiscence of Patrick Higgins, although written nearly fifty years later, is quite specific about the time when Brown must have crossed the bridge. Higgins was one of two bridge tenders on the Potomac bridge that connected Harper’s Ferry with the Maryland shore. When he arrived on duty that night at 12:20 A.M., his fellow bridge tender, William Williams, was nowhere to be found. Higgins checked the time clock, which he and Williams were required to punch every thirty minutes on the hour and half hour, and found that Williams had last punched in at 10:30 P.M. This evidence, if remembered correctly by Higgins, indicates that Brown and his men took control of the bridge from Williams between 10:30, when he last punched in, and 11:00, when he was due to punch in again. See Williams, History of Frederick County, 1:361.

Shriver’s letter is at the Maryland State Archives in GOVERNOR (Miscellaneous Papers), 1859, MdHR S1274-6636-37-1, 1/7/5/20. For Shriver, see Williams’ Frederick Directory, City Guide, and Business Mirror, Vol. 1, 1859-’60 (reprint ed., Silver Spring, MD: Family Line Publishers, 1985), p. 36. Less than a year after leading the expedition to Harper’s Ferry, Shriver was named brigadier general of the Ninth Brigade in place of Gen. James M. Coale, to whom Shriver addressed the report that follows. ADJUTANT GENERAL (Militia Appointments), 1822-1862, S 0348-7, MdHR 5590, p. [4B], Maryland State Archives.

See the commentary and dispatches from Harper’s Ferry, published in the issue of the Frederick Examiner that appeared on Wednesday, October 19, 1859, which indicates how difficult it was to determine what had actually happened at Harper’s Ferry, even though it was less than twenty-five miles away. Relevant excerpts from this issue of the newspaper are reprinted in Williams, History of Frederick County, pp. 346-47.

  Identified only as Colonel Baylor in Shriver’s report, the initials “R. W.” are supplied in an unsigned “Telegram to Washington” sent from Harper’s Ferry on October 18, “Correspondence Relating to the Insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, 17th October 1859,” in House of Delegates [Document S], p. 18, MdHR 8102249, 2/1/9/5.


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