How The Marines Captured John Brown

By Hash Mark - Originally published in the January 31, 1925

Grandfather, grandmother, and certain others of my honorable ancestors used to sing a song which in their day was among the "best sellers." Folks don't sing it any more. It's lost its pep. The mournful strains don't fit in with modern jazz, and besides, the man about whom it was written is almost forgotten. It was a humdinger in its time though, and the words of the plaintive air used to get me guessing.

The first verse went like this:

Even as a youngster I could understand if the said John Brown was dead, it was only right and proper that the "a-mouldering" prodess should be going on. But I couldn't understand then, and still have difficulty in trying to visualize, a "marching soul." So I'll pass the buck to the men who wrote it.

Marines Took John

Years later I learned that it was the U. S. Marines who captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry. I also learned that Brown's life was spared on that occasion largely through the efforts of Lieut. Israel Greene, of the Marines, when the said Israel Greene walloped John Brown in the engine-house between the Shenandoah and the Potomac. He did you know.

The capture of John Brown set the whole U. S. A. aflame. Feeling was strong between the North and South over the slavery question. And the John Brown incident hurried along the disagreements which led to the Civil War.

Col. Robert E. Lee, who led the Marines on their expedition against Brown, afterwards became famous as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate forces. His aide-de-camp was Lieut. J. E. B. Stuart, who also won distinction in the Civil War as Lee's" Chief of Cavalry. Other characters who became famous or infamous formed part of the cast in the "John Brown Drama."

It was on October 17, 1859, that the Marines set out from Washington on their quest for Brown. Col. Lee's little force consisted of 106 Marines, noncoms and privates, under the command of Lieut. Greene. The Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of War were at the station to see them off and to give Col. Lee his instructions.

He Had Them Guessing

That morning news of Brown's raid had been flashed to all parts of the country, but no one knew how many men Brown had or how many troops it would take to subdue them.

The train departed in the late afternoon and followed the banks of the Potomac on its fifty-six mile journey to Harpers Ferry, where it arrived at about 11 p. m. One can imagine the little force of Marines detraining in the inky darkness of the tiny village, not hearing a shot, and wondering if the enemy was reserving his fire to lure them into ambush.

Almost up to the time of the arrival of the Marines, John Brown, alias Smith, alias several other names, had the "situation well in hand." In the vernacular of today he had "gotten away with murder."

The audacity of the man can be realized when it is known that his total force in the Harpers Ferry raid consisted of himself and about twenty followers.

Brown had rented a farm in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry from the "Widow Kennedy," and made this farm his headquarters while he plotted the overthrow of slavery. In order to deceive the community he went about the business of farming in the usual way. He made frequent trips to Harpers Ferry, and even received his mail at a hotel there, having instructed his correspondents to address him as "I. Smith."

John Brown Takes Arsenal

On the night of the sixteenth his band quietly stole into the sleeping village. Brown, according to his biographer, was driving an ordinary farm wagon, while the rest of the band was mounted. Overcoming a sentry at the bridge which spanned the Shenandoah River he entered the village, captured another sentinel at the government arsenal there, and took over the entire property without firing a shot.

Brown had hoped that his capture of the arsenal would be the signal for a general uprising of the negro slaves. His plans failed to mature.

When the village awoke the next morning they gradually realized that "Farmer Smith" had put one over on them, so to speak. He was in complete control of the Government works and most of the village-and with only twenty men.

Small bodies of militia were summoned from Shepherdstown, Frederick and Baltimore, and some desultory firing started, during which there were casualties on both sides, with the odds in favor of the militia.

When Brown saw that the "jig was up," he immediately transferred some of the most influential prisoners he had taken to a brick engine-house, which stood within the arsenal enclosure. He had loop-holes cut in the walls and prepared to make a last stand.

The Marines Arrive

Such was the situation at 11 o'clock on the night of the seventeenth when the Marines arrived.

Col. Lee sent his aide, Stuart, under a flag of truce, to the engine-house to demand the surrender of Brown. The raider refused. It was decided to postpone the attack until the next morning.

At sunrise the following day, Lieuts. Stuart, Greene and twelve Marines of the party again approached the engine-house.

"Are you ready to surrender and trust to the mercy, of the Government?" shouted Stuart.

"No," answered Brown, "I prefer to die here!"

The Marines went into action ready to give John his preference. First they tried to batter down the door. It failed to give way. They threw aside hammers, seized a long ladder and used it for a battering ram and forced a small aperture in the door, at the same time rolling back the engine a short distance.

What happened in the next few moments is related by Capt. Dangerfleld, one of Brown's prisoners, who says he stood within three feet of the raider when the Marines burst in the door.

"Lieut. Greene, of the Marines, forced his way through the aperture, jumped on the top of the engine and stood a second amid a shower of balls, looking for John Brown.

What He Did to John

"When he saw Brown he sprang about twelve feet at him, giving an underthrust of his sword, striking Brown about midway of the body, and raising him completely from the ground. Brown fell forward, with his head between his knees, while Greene struck him several times over the head, and, as I then supposed, split his skull at every stroke.

"Of course I got out of the building as quickly as possible and did not know until some time later that Brown was not killed.

"It seems that Greene's sword, in making the thrust, struck Brown's belt and did not penetrate the body. The sword was bent double. The reason that Brown was not killed when struck on the head was that Greene was holding the sword in the middle, striking with the hilt and making only scalp wounds."

Brown and others of his followers who were not killed in the raid on the engine-house were taken to Charlestown, W. Va., where Brown was tried, convicted and hanged, the execution taking place the following December. A writer of the time says that one of those who witnessed the hanging of Brown was John Wilkes Booth, who was in Charlestown with Company F of the Richmond, Va., militia. Booth afterward assassinated President Lincoln.

Two Sons Killed

Brown's widow had his body removed to North Elba, N. Y.-up in the Adirondacks-where two of his sons who fell in the Harpers' Ferry affair were afterward taken and buried beside their father.

I don't know if John Brown's body is still "a-mouldering" and I sincerely hope his soul is enjoying the tranquility it apparently didn't enjoy in earlier years. I might paraphrase a line of Marc Antony's and say: "I come to bury John Brown-not to praise him."

I plead guilty to resurrecting the story to give full credit to one Israel Greene and his bunch of Leathernecks who materially hastened John Brown's demise 'way back in 1859.