Colonel Lee And The Marines At Harper's Ferry

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By A. Eric Bubeck - Originally Published December 1949

The word was spreading fast that night. Rumor replaced fact, and the exaggeration of danger that comes with fear was racing coldly up and down the spines of the countrymen of Virginia. It was said that John Brown was in Harper's Ferry, had seized the federal arsenal there with all its guns, and had murdered those who opposed him.

At approximately 11:00 PM, Sunday night. October 16, 1859, Capt Brown's legion's stalked into the small Virginia town of Harper's Ferry (now in West Virginia) and set in motion his machinery of insurrection. Coming out of the hills from the direction of Kennedy's Farm. Brown's band seized the unsuspecting watchman at the federal arsenal's bridge across the Potomac, cut the lines of communication, and took possession of several points along the river. Six of Brown's insurgents under Capt Aaron C. Stevens-Brown's followers being organized militarily-proceeded to arrest the principal citizens of the neighborhood and encourage all who would to join them.

The next afternoon Col Lewis W. Washington, great grandnephew of the first president, was forcibly taken from his home as a hostage, along with several other notables, and eventually imprisoned with his four servants and the others in the rear of the armory fire house. Armory workers were captured as they came into the town to work on Monday morning, not knowing of the capture of the town by John Brown. Gradually, however, as they learned what happened, townsmen began to gather, carrying what weapons they could find, and in the excitement of the alarm, the story was spread that the insurgents numbered anywhere from 50 to 500 or more men.1

These local militiamen exchanged fire with Brown's men during the course of the day and forced the abolitionists to fortify themselves in one building, the fire engine house of the armory. For some reason, Brown did not make a speedy getaway when he had the chance, and allowed the Baltimore and Ohio train, which he had stopped, to continue, giving the alarm to Washington. From a safe distance, the militia took occasional shots at the building as the unarmed and womenfolk watched, fascinated by the event that was to give Harper's Ferry its distinction. Several volunteer companies from various points in Virginia began to arrive as the news spread, given out by Baltimore and Ohio officials, who were nearly hysterical that their trains would be damaged and passengers killed.

The Potomac was soon dotted with troops as Maryland militia maneuvered to prevent Brown's legions from invading that state. Governor Wise of Virginia called for the mobilization of an infantry and cavalry regiment, and personally accompanied the Richmond regiment to the scene of the debacle. The news having travelled to Washington via the B. & O. (at no extra cost). Secretary of War John B. Floyd ordered approximately 150 coast artillerymen dispatched from Fort Monroe, and commanded LtCol Robert E. Lee of later Civil War fame, then in Arlington, to command the troops converging on Harper's Ferry, and to assume responsibility for the protection of federal property, and the preservation of life. Secretary of Navy Isaac Toucey, in a message to the Colonel Commandant of Marines. John Harris, ordered all available Marines with appropriate officers to hasten by the Monday evening train to Harper's Ferry, and to carry ball cartridges, ammunition, rations, two twelve-pound howitzers, and shrapnel."

The marines were to report to the senior army officer present for service, or in absence of same, to expedite action to restore order. "The Commandant called on 1stLt Israel Green who was officer of the day. and the only infantry officer at Marine Barracks. Headquarters Marine Corps. Washington, to lead the 86 marines available at the barracks. This group departed on the Monday. 3:20 P.M. train for Harper's Ferry, accompanied by Maj William W. Russell. Corps Paymaster.3

The venture into an unknown situation, the relief from a prolonged and dull barracks season, and the novelty of a train ride for the troops, promoted a feeling of high tension and enthusiasm among the marines. On arrival at Frederick junction, Lt Green received a dispatch from Col Lee who made himself known in this way as the commander of the force in the vicinity.4

By this directive. Lt Green took his troops to Sandy Hook, a small place ahout a mile from the captured arsenal. Col Lee arrived at 10 P.M. with Lt J. E. B. Stuart, of later cavalry fame. The marines ,formed outside their railroad car and marched to Harper's Ferry, entering the arsenal grounds through a back gate. About 11 P.M. Col Lee ordered the various volunteer units out of the grounds, giving space for the only regular troops at his disposal-the marines under Lt Green. The militia declined to make the assault of the fire engine house when Lee offered that opportunity, the refusal seeming to hang on the fact that fighting was what the professional soldiers got paid for and the militia were not to be lost under these circumstances. Besides, by this time, a large number of the volunteer soldiers had become intoxicated, were shouting and shooting wildly, and many were beyond control of their officers. It is not known how many of the injured were a result of this lack of discipline but most sources indicate that the percentage was high.

The Marines were instructed to see that no insurgents escaped during the night; it seems that one or two men earlier got away, possibly leaving without permission of John Brown. Col Lee employed an amazing calm at a time when rumor had magnified the number of the fortified enemy, at a 'time when stories of pillage, rape, and murder were racing up and down the streets of the town, and strange soldiers, brandishing military power, showed an unfamiliarity with rifles. Lee reflected carefully on the bulwark confronting him, and decided, accurately, that a small force would be more useful than a larger, less mobile and unwieldy body of men. While Brown and his men remained quiet through the night, Lee devised his assault plan and his technique for proposing surrender. Lt Green selected 12 marines for the attack and 12 to form his reserve. Maj Russell of the Marines advising on the operation.

The problem was one of storming and entering the arsenal's fire engine house, a stone building about 30 x 35 feet, with two large doors in front-separated by a stone abutment. Two old-fashioned fire engines with a horse-drawn cart and reel stood inside, though this was not known at the time, and it was from this protection of the carts that the fire was coming from Brown's followers. The double-heavy doors of the engine house were strongly constructed, and fashioned with wrought iron nails. How to kill or capture the insurgents without injuring the hostages they held presented a serious difficulty to the federal troops; it was realized that cautious movement would be necessary to carry out the assault objective. Accordingly. Col Lee issued the following message for the insurgents, which Lt J. E. B. Stuart under a flag of truce read loudly to the insurgents from an advanced position.

Col Lee, U.S.A., commanding the troops sent, by the President of the U. S. to suppress the insurrection at this place, demands the surrender of the persons in the Armory building.

If they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept in safely to await the orders of the President.

Col Lee represents to them in all frankness that it is impossible for them to escape, that the Armory is surrounded on all sides by troops, and that if he is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.5

About 2000 spectators watched intently as Stuart read the message that meant life or death to the insurrectionists. No counter-proposition was to be accepted and a pre-arranged signal was to be given by Lt Stuart of the Army to Lt Green of the Marines if Brown failed to comply with the instructions. Then Green would move swiftly to enter the building, the speed, it was hoped, saving the lives of the hostages. Meanwhile, the volunteer companies would parade up and down fixed lines in a display of force. Green watched anxiously from his position between the doors as Brown replied to the message by requesting liberty to leave the engine house, and to be allowed the start of crossing the bridge before chase would be begun. This was not acceptable to Lee, and Brown then became silent. Stuart gave the signal, a wave of his hat.

Green immediately launched the attack. Three marines armed with sledge hammers, an infrequently-used battle weapon, moved closer and began to pound on the doors seeking to breach an entrance. After several blows on the door failed to make an opening, the doors being tied on the inside and giving extra resistance with the hand brakes of the engines locked against them, it became clear some other effort would have to be made. Lt Green caught sight of a heavy ladder lying on the arsenal grounds, and directed his men to use this and batter in the door by ramming. The 12-man reserve covered the movements of the 12 attackers working close to the building. On the second blow of the ladder a jagged hole was breached low on the right door. Lt Green, crouching deeply, squeezed through the opening. Very likely, Brown had just emptied his carbine for as Green moved up between the two engines inside the house, he saw a man in firing position on one knee, pulling his carbine lever to reload. Col Lewis Washington, one of the hostages standing near the front of the building by the hose cart, pointed out the man as John Brown himself. Brown looked up but not quickly enough, for Lt Green was already bringing his uniform saber down hard on Brown's head. Since Brown was moving, the blow did not land full, though Brown received a saber cut in the back of his neck. Brown fell senseless on his side and as Green struck him again, he rolled flat on his back. The marine' who followed Lt Green, Pvt Luke Quin. was shot in the abdomen and died of his wound later. As Brown fell, rolling over to his back, Lt Green gave him a short saber thrust in the left breast. Since the sword was a light uniform weapon and either had lost its point or struck something hard in Brown's accoutrement, the blade did not penetrate but bent double. By this time several marines were inside the engine house, bayoneted one man skulking under an engine, and pinned another insurgent up against the back wall-both insurgents being instantly killed. Green then ordered his marines not to spill more blood. The other insurgents were at once arrested, and the contest ended. Smoke in the room made visibility difficult, but gradually huddled figures could be seen in the rear of the house. They were, of course, the hostages taken by the raiders, whose lives very likely were saved by the lightning attack of the marines.6

All of the prisoners except Col Washington were in a sorry condition, not having had any food for more than 60 hours, half-living in the constant dread of being killed, forced to stay in the corner where lay the body of one of Brown's sons and one or two other insurgents killed in the exchanges of fire. Col Lee watched what movements were in his line of sight from a slight elevation about 40 feet from the engine house. He wore no beard then, but stood distinguished with a dark mustache and greying hair. He carried no arms, and "treated the affair as one of no great consequence, which would be speedily settled by the Marines" according to Green. Far from being camouflaged, the Marines, including Maj Russell, wore bright blue uniforms, blue trousers, dark blue frock coats. French fatigue caps, and white belts. Col Lee was not in uniform. The array of color stealing through the engine house wall added pageantry to an affair already boundlessly exciting to several thousand on-lookers. Ever ready, the Marines once again served faithfully as guardians of the public and public property, as rifles of the republic, this time with a couple of sledge hammers, a saber, bayonets, and a ladder thrown in.

Notes:

  1. For hysteria concerning the numbers, see Jones to Caldwell, Baltimore and Ohio Telegram, Harper's Ferry, October 17, 1859; and Lee to Floyd, B. & O. Telegram, October 17, 1859, Copies can be located in the War Records Section, National Archives.
  2. Secretary of Navy Toucey Io Colonel Harris, Marine Commandant, October 17, 1859, Commandant's 1858-59 Letterbook, Navy Records section, National Archives.
  3. Harris to Green, Commandant's Letterbook, 1858-59, October 17. 1859, Navy Records section, National Archive?.
  4. Col Lee arrived too late in Washington to accompany the Marines but went by special train to overtake them. Lee to Floyd, Baltimore and Ohio telegram, October 17, 1859, War Records section, National Archives.
  5. Surrender ultimatum of Col Lee to the insurgents, Headquarters, Harper's Ferry, October 18, 1859, War Records Section, National Archives.
  6. Approximately 40 prisoners in all had been taken by Brown 10 being selected as the hostages, the remainder in another section of the house without a connecting door; Lee to Floyd, Baltimore and Ohio Telegram, October 18, 1859, War Records Section, National Archives.

Mr. Bubeck is a history professor at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania. A summer in Washington provided time for research for his first GAZETTE article.