“His Soul is Marching On”: Artifacts from the Raid on Harpers Ferry

On the night of Sunday October 16, 1859, twenty-three men emerged from the woods surrounding the town of Harpers Ferry, which sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in present-day West Virginia. Armed with rifles and pikes, their mission was to successfully secure the large cache of weapons kept in the town’s armory and expel the U.S. military from the area. Led by the radical abolitionist John Brown, their overarching goal was to end slavery in the South by force, arming liberated enslaved people in Virginia with rifles and arms from the armory so that they could rise up against the white planter class.

Daguerreotype of John Brown, circa 1859 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-2472 (b&w film copy neg.)

Daguerreotype of John Brown, circa 1859 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-2472 (b&w film copy neg.)

Brown and his followers initially took control of the armory, but were unable to contact the local enslaved people whose participation was crucial in the success of the uprising. Over the next few days, Brown’s men remained trapped in an engine house at the armory, encircled by a much larger force of federal soldiers under the command of Robert E. Lee and Virginia Militia members under the command of William Booth Taliaferro.

After a standoff, the abolitionists who were still alive or hadn’t managed to escape—John Brown among them—were arrested. John Brown was brought to Charles Town in present-day West Virginia and was sentenced to be executed on December 2, 1859.

Among the items in the William Booth Taliaferro papers at Special Collections are various formal accounts from Taliaferro leading up to Brown’s execution, as well as some more unusual items related to the conflict.

Researchers may request to view a pike that John Brown brought to the armory and had intended for use by enslaved people in enacting revolution. After Brown’s capture, the pikes and other weapons taken by Brown were siezed, and this pike in particular was given to Taliaferro as a gift.

John Brown pike, part of the William Booth Taliaferro Papers collection (Mss. 65 T15).

John Brown pike, part of the William Booth Taliaferro Papers collection (Mss. 65 T15).

The legacy of John Brown sent shockwaves through American discourse and helped ignite the Civil War. Its reverbarations are still felt today, through twenty- and twenty-first-century resistance to white supremacy. John Brown’s pike serves as a reminder of how instrumental artifacts and documents from turning points in history are crucial in developing a sense of both historical power structures and the movitations of people who challenge and create them.

 

Written by Daniil Eliseev, Student Apprentice.

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