When John Brown seized Harpers Ferry and threatened to spark a slave insurrection, officials in Washington concluded only one man could stop him: Colonel Robert E. Lee.
Depending on your source, John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry raid was the prelude to or the catalyst of the American Civil War. Yet for the small group of United States Marines and the larger forces of Virginia and Maryland militias who responded to the emergency, what transpired on those October days was a passing act of violence directed against civil order. Indeed, for the U.S. Army officer dispatched to handle the crisis, it was simply a valuable exercise in police tactics, federal versus local authority, and hostage situations. But although his subsequent Civil War career would raise him to the status of a national icon, the consequences of the decisions made by Colonel Robert E. Lee on October 17 and 18, 1859, surge through American history with a force that is still undiminished.
October 17, 1859, began unexceptionally for U.S. Secretary of War John B. Floyd. A Virginian with no military or administrative experience, he had been appointed in 1857 after helping to elect James Buchanan president. Floyd’s day changed dramatically once he was handed a wire, sent at 10:20 a.m., from John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, reporting a “serious affair at Harper’s Ferry,” Virginia. (In mid-19th-century America, railroads not only carried people and goods, they represented an extensive communications infrastructure. With stations linked by telegraph, and companies staffed by resourceful individuals who kept their ears to the ground, railroads were often the first source for breaking news from distant places.)
Garrett asserted the town was under the control of “large bands of armed men, said to be abolitionists….The guns from Armory have been taken for offensive use, and the leaders notify our men that no trains shall pass.”
Floyd acted immediately, for Harpers Ferry was both an important nexus of rail and river traffic and the location of a major federal arsenal. He viewed the matter as strictly an army problem that needed an army solution. The nearest available reaction force was 130 miles away at Fort Monroe, which was on the Virginia Peninsula across the Chesapeake Bay from Norfolk. Orders were immediately issued for the coastal artillerymen based there to be dispatched to Harpers Ferry. When it came to picking a leader for the expedition, however, Floyd did the unexpected. Ignoring any available active officers in town, he decided there was just one man for the job—52-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, then on an extended family leave in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
Lee had served on Major General Winfield Scott’s staff in the Mexican War, and as an engineer and a scout he carried out several dangerous missions. Scott, now the army commander in chief (but out of town when the raid arose), claimed Lee was “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” Floyd was familiar with Lee’s outstanding career record as a military engineer, superintendent at West Point, and now second in command of the Texas-based 2nd Cavalry. Ordering his chief clerk to summon Lee at once, Floyd gathered up his notes and scurried to the White House to brief the president.
Stepping out of his office with Floyd’s orders in hand, the clerk spotted a young officer in civilian clothes on leave who was angling to meet with the secretary of war regarding a device he had designed to help cavalrymen more easily mount and dismount while wearing a saber. Serendipity now played its part. Not only was Lieutenant James Ewell Brown Stuart acquainted with Robert E. Lee through his friendship with Lee’s son Custis, he was available and interested in taking the messenger job. Hurriedly borrowing a uniform coat and sword, Jeb Stuart—the all-important envelope in hand—strode out to his horse and spurred off toward Arlington.
President Buchanan approved of the steps taken by John Floyd with one exception. The Pennsylvania-born Democrat understood the South enough to know that even the whiff of a possible slave insurrection would spread panic, so a rapid response was essential. But by Floyd’s plan, it would take too long for the coastal artillerymen to reach Harpers Ferry: The Fort Monroe troops had to ferry across Hampton Roads to the railhead at Norfolk, then take a train north via Petersburg and Richmond. Floyd had to find some more readily available troops. He checked with the secretary of the navy, Isaac Toucey, who felt there might be enough Marines on duty in Washington to handle the assignment.
It was about midday when Toucey’s chief clerk rode into the Washington Navy Yard looking for the officer in charge. He found First Lieutenant Israel Greene, who thought he could muster about 90 men from the nearby Marine barracks and the small navy yard detachment. Quickly briefing Greene on what he knew, the clerk told him to get his force ready, then hurried back to the Navy Department. Orders were promptly cut to the Marine commandant to forward all available men “by this evening’s train of cars to Harper’s Ferry to protect the public property at that place, which is endangered by a riotous outbreak.”
Lieutenant Greene got the assignment, backed by Major William W. Russell who, as paymaster, could not exercise a field command. (The more seasoned Russell was presumably added to the group to check any recklessness on the part of the younger Greene.) The men packed a full battle kit, including ball-cartridges, ammunition, and rations, as well as bayonets. For reasons never explained, the Marines assembled in their parade dress uniforms. Time was wasting, so rather than send them back to change, Greene told them to come as they were.
Jeb Stuart, meanwhile, found Robert E. Lee at his estate, Arlington House. According to a Lee family slave named Jim Parks, Stuart rode up, saluted, and handed a note to Lee, who quickly summoned his carriage. Floyd’s orders were to come at once, and Stuart would have mentioned the urgency crackling in the secretary’s office, so Lee decided not to return to the main house to change into uniform. Accompanied by Stuart, he crossed the Potomac to meet with Secretary Floyd, who briefed him on the mission and promoted him to brevet colonel to ensure he would have the necessary authority once on the scene. Then the pair (with Stuart still tagging along) went to the White House to confer with the president.
Several possible responses to the “riotous outbreak” were discussed; Buchanan made clear his concerns about not letting the incident spread beyond Harpers Ferry and provided Lee with a martial law proclamation, to be invoked at the officer’s discretion. Shortly after Lee departed, the president was handed the latest update from B&O chief Garrett: “Our agents report by telegraph that seven hundred whites and blacks are in arms and in full possession of the U.S. Armory. They report also that the slaves are taken possession of by the insurrectionists. It is a moment full of peril.”
It was past 3:30 p.m., and when Lee and Stuart (now signed on as aide for the expedition) finally reached the train station, they discovered that the determined Lieu- tenant Greene and his Marines (86 men and 2 officers) had already passed through on their way to Harpers Ferry. Lee had to play catch-up, but the railroad helped with a special engine that delivered him and Stuart to Relay House (about eight miles south of Baltimore) not long after 7 p.m.
There was no direct track line from Washington to Harpers Ferry at the time, forcing travelers to change over at Relay House. The information Lee had when he left Washington was still too inconclusive for any operational planning. Rumors abounded. By all accounts Lee remained calm, which was no small feat: As a young army officer posted to Fort Monroe in 1831, he had seen firsthand the widespread panic that gripped white communities there when a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner embroiled a nearby county. In 1857, Lee had become personally associated with the issue when he assumed stewardship of his late father-in-law’s property, which included nearly 200 slaves. While Lee did not protest the slave system, he hoped and believed that in time it would fade away. His subsequent descriptions of the troublemakers at Harpers Ferry as rioters or insurgents and not abolitionists suggest he maintained his professional distance from the Great Southern Nightmare; he never wrote more than a few words about the Brown raid through the rest of his life.
Lee reached Relay House to find Lieutenant Greene and his men still a jump ahead of him. He now exerted his command authority by sending a telegraph down the line for the Marine officer, telling him to get off at Sandy Hook, a mile east of Harpers Ferry, and await his arrival. When B&O chief Garrett learned that Lee and Stuart were waiting for a train not scheduled to arrive for many hours, he released a special engine and car from Baltimore that chugged down to Relay House to take the pair on board. At 7:45 p.m., before departing, Lee sent a dispatch to the secretary of war reporting his situation. It was most likely between 11 p.m. and midnight when Lee and Stuart reached Sandy Hook. A crowd of reporters was already on hand, “in force strong as military,” one railroad man observed.
Lee’s first task was to acquire reliable intelligence about what was actually happening in Harpers Ferry. Greene was able to provide some details. The scale of the uprising was much smaller than the depictions reaching Washington, and the conditions in town were not dire. The town had been attacked by just 19 raiders (there had been 22 in all; 3 remained behind as a rear guard and later escaped). It was never close to the 700 originally reported. Some four companies of local minutemen and dozens of irate citizens had fought them throughout the day, causing the survivors—now down to five men—to barricade themselves within the armory enclosure inside a sturdy brick building that housed its fire engines. Against this good news, Lee learned that Brown’s men had taken hostages from the local community, including Lewis W. Washington, a great-grandnephew of the first president. Still, matters seemed stable enough that he pocketed President Buchanan’s martial law authorization as unnecessary. In a paragraph stricken from his published after-action report by government officials sensitive to states’ rights concerns, Lee explained that he refrained from using the authority because he “found the condition of affairs so different from what seemed to have been contemplated by the President in his proclamation.” It was approaching 1 a.m. when he crossed the railroad bridge into town to consult with Colonels Robert W. Baylor and Edward Shriver, commanding the Virginia and Maryland militias, respectively.
From their explanations, Lee put together a narrative of recent events that he later recounted to the army’s adjutant general:
I learn that a party of insurgents, about 11 p.m. on the 16th, had seized the watchmen stationed at the armory, arsenal, rifle factory, and bridge across the Potomac, and taken possession of those points. They then dispatched six men…to arrest the principal citizens in the neighborhood and incite the negroes to join in the insurrection….As day advanced, and the citizens of Harper’s Ferry commenced their usual avocations, they were separately captured, to the number of forty, as well as I could learn, and confined in one room of the fire engine house of the armory, which seems early to have been selected as a point of defense. About 11 a.m. the volunteer companies from Virginia began to arrive….These companies…forced the insurgents to abandon their positions at the bridge and in the village, and to withdraw within the armory enclosure, where they fortified themselves in the fireengine house, and carried ten of their prisoners for the purpose of insuring their safety and facilitating their escape, whom they termed hostages….After sunset more [militia] troops arrived [from Virginia and Maryland].
Baylor and Shriver had separately been in contact with the raider leader, whose demand never varied: safe passage out for him and his men plus some of their hostages. The militia officers rejected the terms, and, unaware that U.S. forces were coming, agreed that an assault was necessary. They had considered mounting a dawn bayonet attack on October 18, worried that a gun battle would endanger the hostages. Lee concurred with their analysis, but first he had to secure the government property. At his instruction Lieutenant Greene’s Marines relieved the militia units within the armory compound.
At the same time, Lee had other militia units clear the nearby streets to ensure no curious or raucous civilians interfered with his military operation. It was probably during this late-night meeting that the two militia commanders voiced their suspicion that the rebel leader was the notorious John Brown of Kansas. Infamous throughout the South as a violent abolitionist, Brown had played a prominent role in the armed struggle to keep Kansas from entering the Union as a slave state. [See “John Brown’s Blood Oath,” page 22.] Men under his command had committed murder, but it was Brown’s valiant though unsuccessful defense of a Free State settlement called Osawatomie against proslavery raiders that earned him the enduring nickname of “Osawatomie Brown.”
The militia colonels had no solid evidence to back their claim, so Lee would have tagged the identities of the raiders as “unconfirmed.” (The mention of Brown’s name would have perked Stuart’s ears; while on duty in Kansas with the 1st U.S. Cavalry, he had personally encountered the man in 1856.) The meeting broke up around 2 a.m. A light rain was falling, making everyone wet and cold.
Maryland militia colonel Edward Shriver understood that a handpicked group of volunteers from his command would lead the bayonet attack. Lee may well have initially agreed, but he likely then conferred with Lieutenant Greene, because he decided that only professionals would undertake the mission, and delayed so informing Shriver. (Stories circulated afterward that the two militia colonels were each offered the honor of making the assault and each refused, but such an exchange is not mentioned by Baylor, Shriver, or Lee.) Lee was having a hard time reining in his impatience to act. As he later explained: “But for the fear of sacrificing the lives of some of the gentlemen held by them as prisoners in a midnight assault, I should have ordered the attack at once.”
Back inside his special car, Lee decided that enough troops were on hand and advised the adjutant general to redirect the Fort Monroe contingent to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. He then dispatched a brief situation report to the secretary of war, in which he vowed “to secure and protect the rioters.” Lee next scratched out the formal request for the rebels to capitulate, which he intended to have Lieutenant Stuart present at first light:
Colonel Lee, United States army, commanding the troops sent by the President of the United States to suppress the insurrection at this place, demands the surrender of the persons in the armory buildings.
If they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept in safety to await the orders of the President. Colonel 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.
All this was completed by perhaps 4 a.m., so Lee had a brief rest, his first since Stuart had summoned him from Alexandria the previous morning. Admiring the way Lee had already wrestled order out of chaos, Stuart said of Lee, “I presume no one but myself will ever know the immense but quiet, service he rendered the state and the country.” When Lee opened his eyes a short time later the rain had stopped, but the sky was still gray.
Lieutenant Greene had had several opportunities to observe the place held by the insurgents. “The building was of stone, perhaps thirty feet by thirty-five,” he recollected. “In the front were two large double doors, between which was a stone abutment….They were double-battened doors, very strongly made, with heavy wrought-iron nails.” There was an even more formidable-looking single door on the left front, making the best way inside through those stout double doors.
Greene remembered it being 6:30 a.m. when “Colonel Lee gave me orders to select a detail of twelve men for a storming party, and place them near the engine-house in which Brown and his men had intrenched themselves.” Greene did Lee one better by arranging his force into two squads of 12 men, one to assault, with another in reserve. Leading the way would be three Marines carrying sledgehammers to smash open the doors. The brevet colonel made it a special point, as Stuart recollected, to caution “the stormers particularly to discriminate between the insurgents and their prisoners.” Slaves were also to be spared unless they offered resistance. Lee was adamant that there be no pause in the action once events began. “My object was,” he said, “with a view of saving our citizens, to have as short an interval as possible between the summons and the attack.” In a bit of psychological warfare, he had several militia companies ringing the outer perimeter reveal themselves so the hostage holders could see that escape was impossible.
As the chosen men gathered in the predawn gloom, Greene and Stuart agreed upon a signal. Stuart would wear his distinctive plumed hat during the parley, and when the moment came for the troops to come forward he would step back and wave it. Lee, as Lieutenant Greene afterward noted, “stood on a slight elevation, about forty feet from the engine-house….He was in civilian dress, and…wore no beard, except a dark mustache, and his hair was slightly gray. He had no arms upon his person, and treated the affair as one of no very great consequence, which would be speedily settled by the marines.” The time was passing 7 a.m., when Lee nodded for Stuart to present his terms to the rebel leader they still referred to as Mr. Smith. (Lee afterward admitted that, based on what he had been told about “the character of the leader of the insurgents, I did not expect it would be accepted.”)
Stuart described what happened next in a letter to his mother:
I approached the door in the presence of perhaps two thousand [civilian and militia] spectators, and told Mr. Smith that I had a communication for him from Colonel Lee. He opened the door about four inches, and placed his body against the crack, with a cocked carbine in his hand.
Stuart said he immediately recognized “old Osawatomie Brown,” the troublemaker he’d encountered in Kansas.
The parley was a long one. He presented his propositions in every possible shape, and with admirable tact; but all amounted to this: that the only condition upon which he would surrender was that he and his party should be allowed to escape. Some of his prisoners begged me to ask Colonel Lee to come and see him. I told them he would never accede to any terms but those he had offered; and as soon as I could tear myself away from their importunities I left the door and waved my cap, and Colonel Lee’s plan was carried out.
The first squad of Marines rushed the door. The three hammer men frantically pounded away, but the doors were buttressed by the heavy fire engines and held in place with some slight slack so that they dissipated the impacts without breaking. “Those inside fired rapidly at the point where the blows were given upon the door,” observed Greene. Watching his men flail unsuccessfully for a few minutes, the officer hollered for them to stop. “Just then,” he recalled, “my eye caught sight of a ladder, lying a few feet from the engine-house, in the yard, and I ordered my men to catch it up and use it as a battering ram….The men took hold bravely and made a tremendous assault upon the door. The second blow broke it in. This entrance was a ragged hole low down in the right-hand door, the door being splintered and cracked some distance upward.”
Greene, carrying only his light dress sword, was the first to wriggle through, followed by Major Russell, waving nothing more than a rattan switch. Immediately behind them were two armed Marines; the first, Private Luke Quinn, was shot in the abdomen, the second, Private Matthew Ruppert, was hit in the face. But more grim-faced leathernecks pushed in behind them, their bayonets flashing. Greene was met by Lewis Washington (an old friend), who pointed out the rebel leader: It was Brown indeed, and he was crouching to reload his carbine.
The adrenaline-powered officer slashed at Brown’s head, but only gashed his neck. A hard thrust against Brown’s chest struck either an ammo belt or a belt buckle and doubled up the blade. Finally, in frenzied frustration, Greene pummeled John Brown into unconsciousness with his sword hilt.
Behind him the Marines were taking care of business. (Said Greene afterward: “A storming assault is not a play-day sport.”) Those entering behind Quinn and Ruppert apparently caught the defenders reloading or seeking cover. One resister found hiding under a fire engine was bayoneted; another was literally pinned to the wall by Marine steel. In about three minutes, by Colonel Lee’s watch, the fighting was over. The nine hostages were hungry and dirty but unhurt, the rebels either dead or captured. Lee’s entry team had done its job. In reporting these events at 8 a.m., the B&O’s man on site summed it up: “I never saw so thrilling a scene.”
The two wounded soldiers were carried outside where a doctor in the Maryland militia tried but failed to save Private Quinn. Private Ruppert would live to fight another day, making the Marine losses one killed, one wounded. Of the five insurgents defending the engine house, two had been killed in the action, one (John Brown) wounded, and two taken unhurt. (Of the remaining raiders who entered the town, eight more were dead, two were captured, and four were on the run. Two of those four were eventually captured and executed.) As the first of the pinioned prisoners was spotted, cries of “Hang them!” burst from the crowd, prompting the Marines to close ranks to protect their charges. Kneeling next to the wounded John Brown, Jeb Stuart carefully relieved him of his bowie knife, keeping it as a souvenir. Looking wearily about him, Lieutenant Greene was reminded that his men had traveled from Washington and gone into battle still wearing their dress outfits. He never forgot how the “the bright blue uniform of the marines” gave “color and life to the picture.” He also recalled how the aristocratic Lewis Washington refused to leave the building until someone brought him gloves to cover his soiled hands. It just wouldn’t do for a Virginia gentleman to be seen in public with dirty paws.
Lee may have quashed the nascent rebellion, but his work was far from done. His men searched the insurgents and their belongings. After identifying possible local arms caches, Lee dispatched troops to investigate and confiscate the weapons, including some 1,500 pikes. The prisoners were secured while Lee awaited the arrival of state authorities who would assume custody. When several dignitaries presented themselves, Lee courteously checked first with Brown (whose wounds he initially believed were mortal) to see if he was up for company. He was, and listening in as the radical talked, Lee said he heard him avow “that his object was the liberation of the slaves of Virginia, and of the whole South; and [acknowledge] that he has been disappointed in his expectations of aid from the black as well as white population, both in the Southern and Northern States.” Lee would later dismiss Brown’s raid as “the attempt of a fanatic.”
Lee continued to troubleshoot on October 19, including personally investigating a frantic though false report of marauders operating nearby. That day, Lieutenant Greene and a Marine detachment escorted the prisoners to Charles Town. On October 20, two days after the assault, the U.S. Marines and their temporary army commander took a train back to Washington. About a month after Colonel Lee’s return to the capital, President Buchanan invited him to dinner. Lee would travel once more to Harpers Ferry to oversee security for the execution of the rebel leader on December 2. (Six more of Brown’s 22 men were executed: four in mid-December and two in mid-March, 1860. Five escaped and were never punished).
Robert E. Lee had handled his unexpected assignment with dispatch, intelligence, and focus. He had managed the always tricky task of coordinating with local volunteer units, coolly ignored histrionic estimates of rebellious elements until he could verify numbers for himself, and promptly settled on a direct, no-frills plan of attack that suppressed the rebels and saved the hostages. Once he had Brown in custody, he made sure that Brown would face a legal panel and be punished in accordance with the law rather than at the hands of a mob.
But by carrying out his mission so promptly and professionally, Lee extended the Harpers Ferry story to a trial and execution that provided John Brown with national coverage for his cause, and a sympathetic portrayal that helped enshrine his martyrdom.
Waves rippling from the Harpers Ferry incident were not dispersed by Brown’s death. One day after his execution, a rising politician named Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Leavenworth, Kansas, during which he said: “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. So, if…you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with. We shall try to do our duty.”
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.