A 59-year-old man named John Brown who may or may not have been a lunatic led an almost unbelievably improbable attack on the U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry, at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. An intelligent but rootless man who had wandered innumerable times between the Northeast and Midwest, Brown believed that he had been put on earth to lead America’s slaves to freedom. After considering any number of ways in which to initiate that process, he fixed on Harpers Ferry which was then still in Virginia, as West Virginia was not created until 1863, when Union loyalists broke away from Virginia because he believed that an attack there would inspire slaves in Northern Virginia to rise against their masters.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. Though Brown and his army of two dozen did indeed surprise the guards at the armory on the night of Oct. 16, 1859, and seize control of it, their triumph was exceptionally short-lived, the slave rebellion never materialized, and only a few of them lived to tell the tale. As Tony Horwitz writes in this vivid retelling of the twice-told tale, what Brown “called ‘the great work of my life’ had just ended in abject failure. Instead of a months-long campaign reaching across the South, his attack had withered in thirty-two hours, a stone’s throw inside Virginia. The climactic battle lasted five minutes, with the insurrectionists’ brick citadel breached and its commander beaten to the floor with a parade-ground sword.”
Horwitz believes, though, that the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was right when he wrote to a friend: “His raid into Virginia looks utterly lacking in common sense — a desperate self-sacrifice for the purpose of giving an earthquake shock to the slave system, and thus hastening the day for a universal catastrophe.” Brown “had told Frederick Douglass that he thought ‘something startling’ was just what the nation needed,” and Harpers Ferry delivered it. Undoubtedly the Civil