Lincoln’s Election, Southern Secession: 1860 to April 1861

John Brown’s Failure

How successful was Brown on the night of October 16–17, 1859?

By any objective standard, Brown was sensationally successful that night. He and roughly twenty followers seized the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, cut the telegraph wires north of that town, and took several hostages, the most important of whom was Colonel Lewis Washington. Brown and his followers accomplished all this without the loss of a single man. But just as everything went “right” that night, everything began to unravel.

Brown’s biggest mistake was to allow the night train, of the Baltimore and Ohio Company, to pass through Harpers Ferry. There was a small gunfight as the train went through, and the conductor, thoroughly alarmed, used the telegraph further up the line to alert the authorities. Though Brown had done extremely well in his opening, he had not planned his follow-through very well.

The 1,500 pikes had been brought to the Kennedy farm, but not all of them could fit in the wagons that went to Harpers Ferry. Even so, Brown was all confidence on the morning of October 17, 1859. He did not know that large forces were being arrayed against him.


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