On the night of October 16, 1859, 21 men (including five African Americans), led by abolitionist John Brown, made their way across the covered B&O Railroad bridge leading into Harper's Ferry. Their target was the United States arsenal and armory at Harper's Ferry. Brown hoped that slaves would join him, and he could arm them with the captured guns and the 1,000 pikes. Unfortunately for Brown, slaves did not join him. In fact, the first man killed during the raid was Heyward Sheperd, an employee of the B&O and a former slave. The first raider killed was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave who wanted to free his wife and kids. Militia men trapped Brown's men at the arsenal's engine house and Hall's Rifle Factory on October 17. By October 18, 90 U.S. Marines, led by Robert E. Lee and accompanied by J.E.B. Stuart, arrived from Washington. Lee offered the militia the chance to storm the engine house, but they believed that the paid soldiers should risk their lives. Lieutenant Israel Greene gathered 12 marines for the storming party. After a failed negotiation attempt by Stuart, Greene and his men attacked. They broke through the door with sledge hammers and a ladder used as a battering ram. Greene was the first one in, followed by Private Luke Quinn who was killed immediately. The next Marine, Private Matthew Rupert, was shot in the face. Greene beat Brown with his sword and the Marines overwhelmed the remaining raiders. The final confrontation lasted only three minutes, and John Brown's raid was over.
The raid ended with ten raiders, five townspeople, and one marine killed. Brown and five other men were captured, tried, and executed for the charges of treason against the state of Virginia, murder, and attempting to incite a slave insurrection (five others escaped and were never captured). With 22 killed and very little building damage, John Brown's raid may not look like a significant event, however some historians consider it to be one of the most important forces that resulted in the Civil War.
The only charge against Brown and his conspirators that required the death penalty was attempting to incite a slave insurrection. Slave insurrections had happened in Virginia before; in fact, Nat Turner's Rebellion was much deadlier with 100-200 rebels killed and 55-65 whites killed, so why didn't Herman Melville call them meteors of the war? For one, John Brown's raid was unlike the other insurrections. Although five African Americans, including two former slaves, participated in the raid, the majority of the participants were northern abolitionists. Southerners didn't only see the raid as a slave insurrection, they also saw it as a northern invasion. To make matters worse, it was discovered that six prominent northerners had funded Brown's men. The South was not only fearful of future slave rebellions, but also future northern invasions. As a result, southern states began to militarize, which was the beginning of the Confederate Army.
John Brown's raid also effected the election of 1860. On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave his Cooper Union Address in New York. In this address, Lincoln referenced Brown's raid in his moderate stance against slavery. Following the speech, the Republican Party believed they had found their nominee, and ten months later, he was elected president of the United States. Without John Brown's raid, it is unlikely that the one-time Congressman from Illinois would have been considered for the nomination, and without Lincoln's election, the onset of the war and the end of slavery would have been prolonged.
Although many northerners, including Lincoln, did not agree with the methods John Brown used in 1859, they all agreed that the peculiar institution of slavery needed to end. Without Brown, the war to end slavery may have begun much later than 1861, and slavery in America would have persisted. Today, the engine house, now called John Brown's Fort, is considered to be one of the most important buildings in the United States by Howard University. Northern politicians may not have believed that Brown's violence was the right way to end slavery, but ultimately it was the driving force behind its end.