Moonlit night over Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights.
On the night of October 16th 1859 a party of 18 armed men led by the militant abolitionist John Brown crossed the Potomac River over the B&O railroad bridge (the piers of which can be seen below at left) to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (the remains of which can be seen in the center) and its stockpile of 100,000 rifles and muskets. With these weapons, Brown intended to facilitate an armed slave uprising that would begin in Virginia and move South along the Appalachians as word of the revolt spread. The raid was initially successful; Brown's men seized the railroad bridge, rounded up the town's watchmen, cut the telegraph wire and seized the arsenal complex (guarded by a single sentry, talk about lax security) without incident. It all went downhill from there.
Brown’s entire plan hinged on the assumption that slaves in the surrounding countryside would flock to him after receiving word of the raid. However, no slaves were made aware of the planned attack, and consequently Brown quickly found himself surrounded in the morning not by eager slaves but by angry townspeople and militia. Volleys were exchanged and hostages taken as Brown and his men retreated into the Arsenal’s firehouse (known today as “John Brown’s Fort”, which can be seen just above the existing railroad bridges), barricading themselves inside.
Meanwhile, An eastbound B&O train stopped by Brown's men earlier that morning was allowed to continue forward, whose conductor quickly wired a telegram reporting the raid to officials in Baltimore. In a matter of hours, Washington was alerted to the attack. President Buchanan quickly dispatched a detachment of U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee (future legendary commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia) to end the siege and capture John Brown. The Marines arrived in Harpers Ferry the next day. His situation now hopeless, Brown nonetheless refused to surrender himself in exchange for the lives of his remaining men. Wit