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Beecher’s Bible: A Sharps 1853 from John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

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On October 16, 1859 John Brown and 19 men left the Kennedy farmhouse and made their way a few miles south to the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. They planned to seize the Arsenal and use its arms – along with 200 Sharps 1853 carbines and 1,000 pikes they had previously purchased – to ignite and arm a slave revolt. Brown was a true fanatic for the abolitionist cause, perfectly willing to spill blood for a just cause. His assault on the Arsenal lasted three days, but failed to incite a rebellion. Instead of attracting local slaves to his banner, he attracted local militia and the US Marines. His force was besieged in the arsenal firehouse, and when the Marines broke through the doors the captured 5 surviving members of the Brown party, including Brown himself. All five were quickly tried and found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting negroes to riot. They were sentenced to death, and hanged on December 2, 1859.

Most of Brown’s 200 Sharps carbines were left in the farmhouse hideout, to be distributed when the insurrection took hold. These were found by local militia, among them the Independent Greys, and some were kept as souvenirs – including this example.

There is an intriguing historical question as to whether Brown’s raid was ultimately good for the country or not. It was extremely divisive at the time, and it can be argued that the raid was a major factor leading to Lincoln’s election and the Civil War. Could slavery have been abolished without the need for a cataclysmic war if John Brown had not fractured the Democratic Party? To what extent is killing for a cause justifiable? Do the ends always justify the means? John Brown had no doubts about his answers to these questions…but maybe he should have.

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