Skip To Content
John Brown's Holy War | Article

The gathering and John Brown's Fort

Brown-kennedy-farm-outside.jpg
The Kennedy Farm (front lawn)

Before the Raid: Gathering at the Kennedy Farm
During the summer of 1859, John Brown rented a farm in Maryland from the heirs of Booth Kennedy. A few miles outside Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), it was a good hiding spot for Brown and his men as they prepared to launch their raid.

Throughout the summer, men surreptitiously gathered at the farm in preparation for the attack. To neighbors, everything seemed normal. John Brown was "Isaac Smith," a cattle buyer from New York. But in the attic of Kennedy farm, Brown's army was hiding, waiting for the leader to finalize his plans. 

Some waited for three months. The men tried to keep occupied: they polished their rifles, played checkers, wrote letters home. Brown's son Watson wrote to his wife: "I think of you all day, and dream of you at night. I would gladly come home and stay with you always but for the cause...." 

Annie, Brown's daughter, and Martha, his daughter-in-law, cooked for the men and tried to keep an outward appearance of normality. They found one woman who lived down the road particularly bothersome. Annie said that one day, while she and her father were out, the nosy neighbor peeked inside and saw one of the Negro recruits. "We were in constant fear that she was either a spy or would betray us. It was like standing on a powder magazine, after a slow match had been lighted." 

On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown and his men left Kennedy farm and marched toward Harpers Ferry. Marines would later search the farm, finding documents revealing Brown's Northern benefactors, "The Secret Six," fueling Southern fears of a full-scale Northern conspiracy. 

The Kennedy Farm was purchased by a black Hagerstown minister, Reverend Leonard W. Curlin, in 1949, and sold to a white private developer, South T. Lynn, who restored it t its 1859 appearance with the help of a historic architect from the National Park Service. It is a Maryland historic landmark.

John Brown's Fort
As the raid on Harpers Ferry began to unravel, John Brown and his men retreated to a small brick building in the armory complex — the engine house. Once inside, two horse drawn fire engines were wheeled around to block the doors. The building may have provided cover, but it also became a trap. On the morning of October 18, U.S. Marines, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed the building and captured the raiders.

After the war, the fate of the engine house, popularly known as "John Brown's Fort," was uncertain. It had been vandalized by troops and curiosity seekers and fallen into disrepair. 

Gradually, it gained in symbolic importance. In the 1880s, Frederick Douglass raised money to place a granite memorial at the site. 

In 1892 it was dismantled brick by brick and transported to Chicago to be exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair. Afterwards, however, it fell into disrepair and for several years was used as a stable for a local department store. When it was to be razed, Kate Field, a reporter from Washington, D.C., raised money to send it back to Harpers Ferry. 

For almost ten years John Brown's Fort stood in a field three miles outside of town. In 1909, Storer College, a school founded after the Civil War for African Americans, bought the building and moved it to their campus. 

An excerpt from a civil rights convention held at the school:
John Brown's Day started early...to make a pilgrimage to the brick-walled fire-engine house...the group marched around the fort single file. Almost as if to keep in step singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," supplementing it with additional verses from the John Brown song. —  Benjamin Quarles, from "Allies for Freedom", 1974

The school closed in 1955 and the building was later purchased by the National Park Service. In 1968, John Brown's Fort was moved to its present location, less than 200 feet from its original site.

Support Provided by: Learn More