John Brown at Harpers Ferry

John Brown
1859 photograph of John Brown. (HF-1691, Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)

On October 16, 17, and 18, 1859, John Brown and members of his “Provisional Army of the United States” took possession of the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown had come to arm an uprising of slaves. Instead, the raid drew militia companies and federal troops from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On the morning of October 18, a storming party of 12 Marines broke down the door of the Armory’s fire enginehouse, taking Brown and the remaining raiders captive.

Brown, charged for “conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder,” was tried, convicted, and hanged in Charles Town on December 2, 1859. Before the sentence was carried out, however, Brown issued a prophetic warning:

I wish to say furthermore, that you had better – all you people at the South – prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this negro question I mean – the end of that is not yet. John Brown, December 2, 1859

The structure we now call John Brown’s Fort was erected in 1848 as the Armory’s fire engine and guard house. The building was described in a June 30, 1848, Armory report: “An engine and guard-house, 35½ x 24 feet, one story brick, covered with slate, and having copper gutters and down spouts, has been constructed, and is now occupied.” It was in this building that John Brown and several of his followers barricaded themselves during the final hours of their ill-fated raid.

The “Fort” was the only Armory building to escape destruction during the Civil War. In 1891, the building was sold, dismantled, and transported to Chicago where it was displayed a short distance from The World’s Columbian Exposition. The building, attracting only 11 visitors in ten days, was closed, dismantled again and left on a vacant lot.


View videos of Dr. Stephen B. Oates discussing John Brown, from a June 30, 1994 interview at the 50th Anniversary of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.


In 1894, Washington, D.C. journalist Kate Field, who had a keen interest in preserving memorabilia of John Brown, spearheaded a campaign to return the fort to Harpers Ferry. Local resident Alexander Murphy made five acres available to Miss Field, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad offered to ship the disassembled fort to Harpers Ferry free of charge. In 1895, John Brown’s Fort was rebuilt on the Murphy Farm about three miles outside of town on a bluff overlooking the Shenandoah River.

In 1903, Storer College began their own fundraising drive to acquire the structure. In 1909, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of John Brown’s Raid, the building was purchased and moved to the Storer College campus on Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry.

Acquired by the National Park Service in 1960, the building was moved back to the Lower Town in 1968. Because the fort’s original site was covered with a railroad embankment in 1894, the building now sits about 150 feet east of its original location.