In 1859, Colonel Robert E. Lee, US Army, commanding officer of 88 US Marines, attacked the Fire-house in Harpers Ferry, to capture or kill the radical abolitionist John Brown and his men.
On October 16, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the Arsenal. Five of the men were black: three free blacks, one a freed slave, and one a fugitive slave. During this time, assisting fugitive slaves was illegal under the Dred Scott decision. Brown attacked and captured several buildings; he hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The first shot mortally wounded Heyward Shepherd. Shepherd was a free black man who was a night baggage porter for the B&O Railroad that ran through Harpers Ferry near the armory. The noise from that shot roused Dr. John Starry from his sleep shortly after 1:00 a.m. He walked from his nearby home to investigate the shooting and was confronted by Brown's men. Starry stated that he was a doctor but could do nothing more for Shepherd, and Brown's men allowed him to leave. Instead of going home, Starry went to the livery and rode to neighboring towns and villages, alerting residents to the raid.