After John Brown and his group of 21 abolitionists briefly seized the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), they took hostages and moved to a fire engine house. The scene at the engine house, nicknamed John Brown's Fort, is depicted in this illustration. A day later, Army troops led by Col. Robert E. Lee captured or killed most of the raiders.
Illustration courtesy Library of Congress

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  • On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led an armed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). This event is regarded by many historians as the spark that ignited the Civil War which started less than a year later. 
     
    Brown hated the institution of slavery, and was willing to engage in violence to abolish it. Brown and 21 other men (five African Americans and 17 European Americans) attacked the arsenal and took white members of the local community hostage. The raiders were equipped with guns and sharpened pikes supplied by abolitionists. Brown thought that slaves would revolt and support his raid. None did.
     
    Prior to the raid, Brown had asked fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass to join him. Douglass declined, recognizing that “you will never get out alive.” Douglass respected Brown’s passionate commitment to ending slavery, however: “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”
     
    The raiders were quickly surrounded by Army troops, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, who would later go on to lead the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Most raiders were killed or captured. Brown himself was hung in December 1859, his last letter reading “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.”
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abolish Verb

    to wipe out or get rid of.

    abolitionist Noun

    person who opposes slavery.

    armed Adjective

    having weapons.

    arsenal Noun

    storage space for arms and other military equipment.

    capture Verb

    to take or control.

    Civil War Noun

    (1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

    commitment Noun

    promise or legal duty to perform a task.

    community Noun

    group of organisms or a social group interacting in a specific region under similar environmental conditions.

    Confederacy Noun

    Confederate States of America, states which broke from the United States to form a new government during the Civil War.

    crime Noun

    unlawful activity.

    engage Verb

    to interact with.

    equip Verb

    to prepare or provide the right equipment.

    federal Adjective

    having to do with a nation's government (as opposed to local or regional government).

    Frederick Douglass Noun

    (1818-1895) American civil rights pioneer and a leader in the fight to end slavery.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    hostage Noun

    person held as security until certain terms and conditions (such as payment of a ransom) are met.

    institution Noun

    established organization or set of organizing principles.

    passionate Adjective

    enthusiastic and emotional.

    pike Noun

    long, sharply pointed spike used as a weapon.

    prior Adjective

    before or ahead of.

    purge Verb

    to get rid of something unwanted or burdensome.

    regard Verb

    to consider or pay attention to.

    revolt Noun

    rebellion or uprising.

    slavery Noun

    process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.

    surround Verb

    to enclose or encircle.

    troop Noun

    a soldier.

    violence Noun

    acts that cause physical harm to another person.

    zeal Noun

    enthusiasm or passion.