Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty-one armed followers stole into the town of Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) as most of its residents slept. The men--among them three free blacks, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave--hoped to spark a rebellion of freed slaves and to lead an "army of emancipation" to overturn the institution of slavery by force. To these ends the insurgents took some sixty prominent locals including Col. Lewis Washington (great-grand nephew of George Washington) as hostages and seized the town's United States arsenal and its rifle works.
The upper hand which nighttime surprise had afforded the raiders quickly eroded, and by the evening of October 17, the conspirators who were still alive were holed-up in an engine house. In order to be able to distinguish between insurgents and hostages, marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee waited for daylight on October 18 to storm the building.