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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

John Brown's Fort

John Brown's Fort (29K)

Image 1: John Brown's Fort. This is a picture of the Harpers Ferry Armory's fire house, looking west. The street on the right side of the picture is Shenandoah Street (for more pictures of Shenandoah Street see the Lower Town pictures).

This is the building used by John Brown as a fortification during his ill-fated raid in October, 1859. The building consisted of two rooms: a large room for the fire engine and a small room used as a guard house. It was originally located 150 feet east of its current location. Its current location is right beside Arsenal Square. The fire house's odyssey is only a part of its interesting history.

The two-room structure was built in 1848 as a fire engine and guard house for the Harpers Ferry Armory. The Armory was located along the Potomac River, to the left of the railroad and foot bridge as you look at the bridge from the town. The fire house was the building closest to this bridge. The Armory was originally built in 1799 to supply muskets, rifles, and — after 1805 — pistols to the army. The Armory was under productive for much of its life, until a major renovation project took place between 1845 and 1854. It was during this period that the fire house was added to the site. When the Armory was completed it employed 400 people. Beside the fire house's current location is Arsenal Square. There are no buildings in the Square today, but at the time of John Brown's raid two large brick buildings, the Small Arsenal and the Large Arsenal, held arms manufactured at the Armory.

The Armory was the target of John Brown in 1859. John Brown was a staunch abolitionist, promoting the destruction of slavery — by violence, if necessary. He was known for his involvement in the violent clashes between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in Kansas (known as "Bleeding Kansas"). On May 21, 1856 a mob of abolitionists, including Brown and four of his sons, retaliated against pro-slavery violence — which had resulted in attacks, destruction of property, and murder — by dragging five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacking them to death. Brown eventually left Kansas. He set his mind to ending slavery by insighting a slave revolt. He gathered a small group of men, training them for a time in Chatham, Ontario, Canada. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1859 he prepared for his attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory, first by sending one of his men to the town as a spy, and then by renting a farm in the area. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his force of 18 men, including five free blacks, initiated their raid.

Brown's intention was to capture the weapons stored in the Arsenal buildings, instigate a revolt among the local slaves, and spread the revolt throughout the South. He hoped for widespread support among Northern abolitionists. The reality of the situation was somewhat different. He and his men captured the railway bridge over the Potomac, seized the Armory and Arsenal, and took control of the rifle factory on Virginius Island. Brown set up his headquarters in the Armory's fire house. He then sent some of his men to capture prominent citizens of the town and to incite an insurrection among the town's slave population. Brown and his men halted a Baltimore and Ohio train for a period of time. While stopping the train, one of Brown's men shot and killed Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who worked as a train guard. Shepherd was the first person killed in the insurrection. Later, Brown captured 40 more citizens of the town and a number of slaves, but the slave revolt never materialized.

When word of the insurrection got out, armed citizens and militia converged on the town. A detachment of U.S. Marines was sent. Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry regiment, accompanied by his aide Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart of the 1st U.S. Cavalry regiment, was given command of the government's troops. On October 18th they seized the Armory and contained Brown, his men, and his hostages in the fire house. On October 19 Lee gave Brown an ultimatum. When Brown refused the offer, Lee sent in a detachment of Marines. They had orders to bayonet the insurrectionists, as gunfire would risk the lives of the hostages. The Marines' storming party attacked the doors of the building with sledge hammers, but Brown had reinforced the doors. Reinforcements came forward and attacked the door with a heavy ladder used as a battering ram. Part of the door gave way, allowing the Marines access. Private Quinn, of the Marines, was killed at the door. The rest of the Marines burst in, attacking the insurrectionists with bayonets. Lieutenant Green slashed Brown with his sword.

The insurrection was over. Mr. F. Beckham, the mayor of Harpers Ferry, and Mr. G. W. Turner, a prominent citizen, along with Private Quinn and Heyward Shepherd were killed by Brown's group. Eight citizens and another Marine were wounded. Brown, two white and two black followers were captured. Ten whites and two blacks in Brown's party were killed by the Marines. A white man escaped but was later captured. A black man was unaccounted for. After a trial that Brown himself admitted was fair and impartial, he and his colleagues were sentenced to death for murder and treason. The government of Virginia feared a jail-break attempt by Northern sympathizers, so they gathered about 1,000 troops to protect Charlestown, Virginia, the site of Brown's execution. Brown was executed by hanging on December 2, 1859. Present at the execution, commanding an artillery battery of the Virginia Military Institute, was Major Thomas J. Jackson, who would later become Lieutenant General "Stonewall" Jackson in General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

For a more detailed history of John Brown's Raid, see the Civil War Home web site.

The American Civil War broke out in April, 1861. Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861. On April 18, Lt. Roger Jones of the U.S. Army defended the Armory with 50 regular troops and 15 volunteers. Several companies of Virginia militia, numbering about 360 men, advanced on the town and Rogers was forced to withdraw in the face of overwhelming numbers. He set fire to the Armory and Arsenal buildings as he left. Confederate forces captured the Armory. They confiscated stores of weapons, machinery, and tools. They burned many of the remaining buildings. After the war, only the fire house remained intact.

The fire house, now known as John Brown's fort, was sold in 1891. It was dismantled, shipped to Chicago, and reassembled for The World's Columbian Exposition. As a tourist attraction the building was a complete failure, attracting only 11 visitors in 10 days. It was dismantled again and left in a vacant lot.

In 1894, Kate Field, a journalist in Washington, D.C. with an interest in preserving John Brown memorabilia, led a campaign to return the building to Harpers Ferry. Alexander Murphy, a local resident, donated five acres of his farm for the building. The B&O railway shipped the building for free. It was reassembled in 1895 on the farm, three miles from the town on a bluff overlooking the Shenandoah River.

In 1903, Storer College began a fundraising drive to acquire the building. They managed to purchase it in 1905 and moved it to the Storer College campus on Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry.

The National Park Service purchased the building in 1960 and moved it to its present site in 1968. The original site is now covered by a railroad embankment constructed in 1894, which is how John Brown's fort came to be relocated 150 feet east of its original location.

This photograph was taken in August, 1995 with a Nikon F-601 autofocus SLR, using a Nikkor 24mm - 50mm f2.8 wide angle zoom lens. The image was captured on Kodak Royal Gold 400 film.