JOHN BROWN AT HARPERS FERRY: MARINES ANSWER THE CALL
On the morning of October 17th 1859, panic gripped Washington D.C. as
word reached the Capital that John Brown of Kansas and a group of armed
abolitionists seized the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry Virginia and
kidnapped several prominent citizens of the town. By noon, President
James Buchanan had verified the facts of the situation and had taken
action. Troops from the Maryland and Virginia Militia were summoned to
Harpers Ferry but the President wanted Federal troops to handle this
situation. Accordingly, the 3rd US. Army Artillery Regiment at Fort
Monroe was alerted however it soon became clear that army troops could
not arrive on the scene for two days. Instead, Marines stationed at
Marine Barracks Washington were pressed into service. By 3:20 PM a
detachment of eighty-six marines commanded by 1st LT. Israel Greene USMC
boarded a train bound for Harpers Ferry. Greene was assisted by Major
William Russell USMC Paymaster of the Corps who was sent to advise the
Secretary of War John Floyd had other ideas regarding the overall
commander of the operation. Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee U.S. Army was on leave
in nearby Arlington Virginia preparing to report to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry
in Texas. Orders were sent by courier to Colonel Lee. The courier was Lt.
James E.B. Stuart who was waiting to meet with the Secretary of War.
Stuart offered his services to Lee as aide de camp and the two headed for
the War Department.
As the Marines hit the rails to danger, the situation in Harpers Ferry
rapidly deteriorated. The Jefferson County Militia exchanged gunfire with
Brown's band and two failed assaults on the engine house resulted in
heavy casualties. The abolitionists killed Fontaine Beckham, the Mayor of
Harpers Ferry, and the militia captured and killed William Thompson one
of Brown's men.
The Marine detachment arrived at the Sandy Hook station near Harpers
Ferry by 9:30 pm. Later in the evening they were joined by Colonel Lee
and Lt. Stuart. By dawn on October 18th 1859, Lee, Stuart and Greene
approached the arsenal and the compound was surrounded by Maryland and
Virginia Militia. Believing this to be a state matter, Lee offered both
the Maryland and Virginia Militia the honor of storming the engine house
where a dozen of Brown men and hostages were . Both commanders declined
and Colonel Lee turned to Lt. Greene and his Marines.
Lt. Stuart was sent to make a surrender demand to John Brown. If it was
rejected , he was to wave his hat as a signal. A force of 12 marines with
sledgehammers would be sent to make a entry into the engine house. Stuart
made his demand and John Brown to make counter demands over the yelling
and screaming of the hostages. The young cavalry officer lost patience
with the situation and waved his hat. Two large marines with sledgehammer
tried in vain to open the heavy doors to the engine house. Greene saw a
large ladder lying near by and ordered 5 marines on each side of the
ladder to ram the door. The door opened on the second attempt and Lt.
Greene and Major Russell leaped through the breach followed by Marines
with bayonets. The inside of the engine house was covered in smoke. Lewis
Washington, grand nephew of George Washington, assisted Green in locating
John Brown who was preparing to fire a rifle. Lt. Greene struck Brown on
the back of his neck with his sword and then thrust it into Brown's side.
The abolitionist would have died on the spot if Greene had been wearing a
regulation sword however, in his haste Israel Greene had brought his
light dress sword which was not as deadly. Two of Brown's men, Jeremiah
Anderson and Dauphin Thompson fell beneath marine bayonets. Marines Pvt.
Luke Quinn made the ultimate sacrifice while Pvt. Matthew Ruppert
received a gunshot wound to the face. The entire conflict took less that
Israel Greene and his Marines assisted Colonel Lee in searching for more
of Brown's men in the surrounding countryside. The Marine detachment was
back in their barracks in on the morning of October 20th. Lt. Colonel
Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to Marine Commandant Harris praising the
action of the Marines at Harpers Ferry.
History well documents what happened to Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart in
the coming years but it is interesting to note that Israel Greene left
the Corps to become a Captain in the Confederate Marine Corps.
The Marine action at Harpers Ferry was more than an interesting footnote
to history. Lt. Greene and his detachment were a rapid deployment team
sent into a hostile situation . This may have been the first time U.S.
Marines were used in this capacity but it certainly was not the last. It
would be a pattern seen throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.
Information on this subject was gathered from The United States Marine
Corps in the Civil War- The First Year by David M. Sullivan
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