U.S. Marines Storming the Engine House
|"AT ALL TIMES READY ...;"|
THE MARINES AT HARPER'S FERRY
Bernard C. Nalty
MARINE CORPS HISTORICAL REFERENCE SERIES NO. 10
THE UNITED STATES MARINES AT HARPER'S FERRY, 1859
Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps
Washington, D. C. ~ Revised 1962
DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY
HEADQUARTERS UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
WASHINGTON 25, D. C.
REVIEWED AND APPROVED 11 JAN 1962
H. W. BUSE, JR.
Brigadier General, U. S. Marine Corps
Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3
"I must also ask to express...my entire commendation of the conduct of
the detachment of Marines, who were at all times ready and prompt in the
execution of any duty."
~~ Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee
from his report to the Adjutant General of
the suppression of John Brown's Raid.
James Ewell Brown Stuart, First Lieutenant, U. S. Cavalry, was enjoying
six months' leave from his frontier post at Fort Riley, Kansas Territory.
Yet, the joys of coming home to Virginia had not made him forget that he was a
cavalryman by profession. On the rainy morning of 17 October 1859 he had
ridden over the muddy streets of Washington to the office of the War
Department, and now he sat waiting to speak with Secretary of War John B.
Floyd. Jeb Stuart had an idea for a new type strap to fasten a cavalryman's
sabre to his belt. While the young lieutenant was rehearsing in his mind for
the coming interview, the Secretary himself was face to face with the spectre
of a slave insurrection.<1>
John B. Floyd was a poor administrator, a failing which almost resulted
in his removal from office;<2> but on this day there was no need for paper
shuffling. Word had come by way of Baltimore that an insurrection had broken
out at Harper's Ferry. A band of armed men had captured the United States
arsenal there and was formenting a slave rebellion. A native of Virginia, the
Secretary most have heard the oft-told tales of the Haitians revolt against
their French masters with all its barbarism. Nor had any son of the Old
Dominion forgotten Nat Turner's Rebellion, a slave uprising which occurred a
generation before and claimed the lives of 55 whites in a single bloody
Swinging at once into action, Floyd fired off a telegram to Fort Monroe;
and by noon Captain Edward O. C. Ord with 150 coast artillerymen was on his
way toward Baltimore on the first leg of the journey to Harper's Ferry.<4>
There was no question as to who
would command operations against the insurgents. Floyd called for his chief
clerk and set him to writing orders summoning to the War Department Brevet
Colonel Robert E. Lee, then on leave at his estate, Arlington, just across the
Potomac from the Capital.
Message in hand, the harassed aide came dashing out of the office, only
to halt when he spied the forgotten cavalry officer. Stuart, by now
thoroughly bored, was easily persuaded to deliver the sealed envelope. Even
as this message was speeding toward its destination, President James Buchanan
called upon Secretary Floyd to move even faster a demand which was to bring
the Marine Corps into the picture.<5>
Since there were no troops nearer the scene of the uprising than those en
route from Fort Monroe, Floyd was powerless to comply; but Secretary of the
Navy Isaac Toucey quickly offered a solution to his dilemma. About noon
Charles W. Welsh, chief clerk of the Navy Department, came riding through the
main gate of the Washington Navy Yard. He sought out First Lieutenant Israel
Greene, temporarily in command of Marine Barracks, Washington, and asked how
many Leathernecks were available for duty. Greene estimated that he could
round up some 90 men from both his barracks and the small Navy Yard
detachment. He then asked Welsh what was wrong. The civilian told him all he
knew--that the armory at Harper's Ferry had been seized by a group of
abolitionists and that state and federal troops already were on the march.<6>
Mr. Welsh reported back to the Navy Department, and Secretary Toucey at
once began drafting an order to John Harris, Colonel Commandant of the Corps.
"Send all the available marines at Head Quarters," he wrote, "under charge of
suitable officers, 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." Once they arrived at their destination, the Leathernecks would be
under the command of the senior Army officer present,<7> in this case Colonel
As the senior line officer on duty at the Navy Yard, Israel Greene
assumed the burden of organizing the expedition. Major William W. Russell,
Paymaster of the Corps, was detailed to assist him; but Russell, a staff
officer, could not exercise command over the force. Colonel Harris felt that
the presence of a more mature person--Greene, after all, had only a dozen
years' service to his credit---might prevent unnecessary bloodshed.<8>
Working with the major, Greene saw to it that each of his 86 men had drawn
musket, ball cartridges, and rations. Since no one knew for certain the strength or exact position of
the insurgent force, two 3-inch howitzers and a number of shrapnel shells were
made ready. At 1530, the Leathernecks clambered aboard a Baltimore and Ohio
train and rattled off toward Harper's Ferry.<9>
While Secretary Toucey was busy alerting the Marines, Jeb Stuart had
returned from Arlington with Colonel Lee. Once again the lieutenant waited in
the Secretary's anteroom as Floyd outlined the crisis to Lee. There was no
need to stress the savage implications of a slave uprising; for the colonel
had been stationed at Fort Monroe when Nat Turner had put aside his hoe to
take up the sword, and he well remembered the terror that followed. He
recalled, too, how militia, regulars, and Marines from Norfolk had scoured the
Virginia countryside before bringing Turner to bay deep in the vastness of
Dismal Swamp. After receiving the latest intelligence from western Virginia,
Lee was handed orders placing him in overall command of the effort to suppress
Accompanied by Stuart, Floyd and Lee hurried to the White House where the
colonel was given a proclamation of martial law to issue if he should see fit.
In addition to the proclamation, Lee acquired an aide. Certain that a fight
of some sort was at hand, Stuart volunteered to accompany him to Harper's
Ferry, and Lee accepted. Still in civilian clothes, the colonel hurried to
the railroad station, but the Marines already had left.<11>
The next train to leave the national capital was the Baltimore express.
At 1700 Lee and Stuart boarded the train in the hope of catching up with the
column at Relay House, a station near Baltimore where the troops had to change
trains. They were too late, and the expedition rolled off toward its goal
without its commanding officer. Lee then wired the stationmaster at Sandy
Hook, Maryland, to hold the trainload of Leathernecks until he and his aide
arrived. For the time being, all the two officers could do was wait.
Fortunately they were not delayed for long. John W. Garrett, president
of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, learned of Lee's plight and ordered a
locomotive to Relay House. Aware that a few moments wasted might cost him his
job, the engineer opened wide the throttle. At 2200 Lee arrived at Sandy
Hook, on the Maryland side of the Potomac across the bridge from Harper's
Ferry. Major Russell and Lieutenant Greene were waiting as the Army officers
descended from the cab.<12> Lee now learned the details of the insurrection.
It had happened so quickly. On the night of 16 October, at about 2230,
18 armed men led by a farmer who called himself Isaac Smith--some said he was
"Old Osawatomie," John Brown of Kansas--padded across the covered, wooden
railroad trestle leading into the town and made a prisoner of one of the
bridge tenders. Next the raiders had strolled undetected through the darkness
of the gates of the United States armory. They leveled their pistols at a
startled watchman and quickly gained access to the buildings.
The leader of the band then sent out patrols to take hostages. Most
prominent among the captives was Lewis W. Washington, a colonel on the staff
of Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia and the great-grandnephew of George
Washington. His captors forced him to hand over to them a sword given the
first President by Frederick the Great of Prussia.<13> During the nightmare
that followed, this sword hung at the side of the man called Smith.
While the prisoners were being rounded up, the second bridge tender,
Patrick Higgins, wandered out onto the span in search of his partner. In the
darkness he collided with two of the raiders who had been posted as guards. A
single punch floored one of them, and as the other fired wildly, Higgins
sprinted back to town. The angry, red crease etched lightly across his scalp
by a rifle bullet was proof enough that Harper's Ferry was under attack.
The raiders next showed their hand when the eastbound night express
neared Harper's Ferry. Afraid that the bridge had been weakened, a railroad
employee flagged the train to a halt short of the trestle. A party of
trainmen walked out onto the span to investigate but were driven back by a
volley of rifle fire. Mortally wounded by the self-appointed liberators was
Shephard Hayward, a freed slave. Until dawn the raiders held the train at
Harper's Ferry. Then the locomotive gingerly eased its cars across the
bridge, gathered momentum, and roared off toward Frederick City, Maryland.
There it halted while the conductor wired a garbled report of the insurrection
to the railroad's main office in Baltimore. This news was relayed to the
governors of Maryland and Virginia; militiamen were alerted and sent marching
toward the embattled town. Next a telegram was dispatched to the Secretary of
War, and now, at last, Colonel Lee and the Marines had arrived on the
To the colonel's experienced eye the situation did not appear critical.
Harper's Ferry swarmed with militia; and although the state troops were
disorganized, ill-trained, some of them drunk, there were enough of them to
prevent the raiders escaping into the hills. Nor was there any point in posting the
proclamation of martial law. There were too few federal troops to patrol the
streets, and the citizen soldiers who would have to assist them were perhaps
the least orderly group in town.
Since the situation was fairly well in hand, Colonel Lee hurried off a
wire informing Captain Ord that his artillerymen turned infantry, would not be
needed at Harper's Ferry. They were to halt at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.<15>
Learning that the militiamen, whatever their faults, had at least forced
the insurgents to barricade themselves in a single small building on the
armory grounds--the Engine House--Lee decided to attack as quickly as
possible. Because of the danger to the hostages, a night assault was out of
the question, so the colonel, his aide, and the Marines crossed the river to
await the dawn.<16>
About 2300 on the night of 17 October, Greene led his men across the
covered bridge and into the armory yard to relieve the militia posted around
the raider bastion. The insurgents had taken refuge in a stone building,
about 30 by 35 feet, which housed the armory's fire fighting equipment. Three
entrances, each separated from its neighbor by a stone abutment, pierced the
front of the structure. Two of these were guarded by heavy, nail studded,
double doors, while on their left was an equally strong single door.<17> To
assault a band of determined men, frontier guerrillas who had proven
themselves to be deadly marksmen, would not be an easy task.
As the Marines moved out, Lee was busy laying his plans. First he
drafted a surrender ultimatum addressed to the person in command of the
insurgents--Lee was not yet certain that Brown was leading the raid--to be
delivered by Lieutenant Stuart at the colonel's order. Should the raiders
refuse unconditional surrender, there would be no bargaining with them. At a
signal from Stuart, the assault party would batter down a door and pounce on
the enemy with bayonet and rifle butt. There could be no shooting because of
the danger to the hostages.<18>
Selecting men to make the assault posed a touchy problem in federal-state
relationships. Since the uprising was directed mainly against the slave
states, even though federal property was involved, Lee offered the honor of
spearheading the attack to the militia. The officer in charge of Maryland
troops, who maintained that his only mission was to protect the townspeople,
declined. He could see no reason for sacrificing Maryland lives to avenge an insult to a sister state; besides, Marines
were paid for this kind of work. Nor was the Virginia militia colonel eager
to erase the stain of insurrection from the honor of the Old Dominion; let the
"mercenaries," as he called the Marines, do the job. The veteran Army
officer, still clad in civilian clothes, then turned to Israel Greene,
splendid in his dress uniform. Would the Marines storm the engine house?
Greene whipped off his cap and accepted with thanks.<19>
At about 0630 Greene received his instructions. Twelve men were to form
the storming party, with an equal number in reserve. In addition, a detail of
three men, each of whom had been issued a heavy sledge hammer,<20> was to
accompany the assault party and batter down the center doors of the engine
house. Twenty-seven Marines, with Greene and Russell at their head, gathered
close to the engine house but out of the insurgent's line of fire to await
Two thousand pairs of eyes were fixed on Jeb Stuart as he strode, bearing
a flag of truce, toward the engine house to deliver Lee's ultimatum. Tensely
the throng of spectators waited for the drama to unfold. Standing on a small
rise in front of the makeshift fort was Robert E. Lee, looking every inch an
officer in spite of his grimy clothing and tired face. Near him, dressed as
though for parade, were the blue-clad Marines.
Now Stuart halted before the building and called for "Mr. Smith." The
center doors opened a few inches. There, carbine in hand, stood the lean,
fierce figure of old John Brown, the anti-slavery zealot who had caused so
much bloodshed on the banks of Osawatomie Creek in Kansas. Stuart recognized
him at once.
The lieutenant repeated Lee's demand for immediate surrender, but Brown
tried desperately to bargain. From inside the building came the cries of the
hostages, pleading that Lee cooperate with their captor. Satisfied that Brown
would not listen to reason, Stuart spun aside, pressed his back against the
abutment, and waved his hat, that gaudily plumed chapeau which would become
his trademark during the Civil War.<21>
Instantly the Marines sprang to the assault. Three of them flailed away
with their sledge hammers; but the center doors, now slammed and bolted, held
fast. Inside, Brown removed the historic sword from his belt, placed it
reverently upon one of the fire carts, then joined the four raiders yet
unwounded in trying to beat back the assault. From within the building came
the bold words of Lewis Washington. "Don't mind us," he shouted. "Fire!" Lee
recognized the voice. "The old revolutionary blood does tell," was his quiet
Suddenly the thudding hammers stopped. During the charge, Green had seen
a ladder lying near the engine house. Now he ordered his men to snatch it up
to use as a battering ram. Its second blow splintered the door, and the
Leathernecks came spilling into the building just as Brown was reloading his
Armed only with his light dress sword, Greene jumped from the cover of
the abutment and bounded through the opening. Behind him came Major Russell,
weaponless but brandishing a rattan switch. The darkened interior rocked to
the echoing shots. The third Marine to scramble through the shattered door,
Private Luke Quinn, took a fatal bullet in his abdomen. The fourth man,
Private Mathew Ruppert, was slightly wounded in the face;<24> but these
casualties could not stem the blue-clad tide.
The first figure to rise from the gloom as Greene rushed forward was that
of Lewis Washington, an old friend. The Virginia aristocrat strode up to the
officer, warmly took his left hand, then, pointing to a bearded man fumbling
with a carbine, said, "This is Osawatomie." With all his strength Greene
slashed at Brown with his sword. The first blow left a deep cut across the
back of his neck; but the frail blade bent double on Brown's ammunition belt
when Greene thrust at his heart, and John Brown was spared for the
In a moment the engine house was filled with wildly charging Marines. A
sniper posted under one of the engines was bayoneted to death; sharpened steel
pinned a second raider to the wall. Greene then called a halt to the
onslaught as the two unwounded raiders surrendered.<26>
Three minutes of fierce action had ended a 32-hour reign of terror. None
of the hostages was harmed, but the Marines suffered two men wounded, one of
them fatally. Brown, his wounded and semi-conscious son, and four able-bodied
riflemen had defended the engine house. Of these, two were killed, Brown
himself was wounded, and the others taken prisoner.<27>
All that remained was to deliver the prisoners to the jail at
Charlestown, a journey which proved uneventful. Upon their return to Harper's
Ferry, rumors of a new uprising, this one at the village of Pleasant Valley,
Maryland, greeted the Marines. Lee, Stuart, Greene, and 25 men marched the 5
miles to this sleepy hamlet on the night of 19 October, but, as the colonel
expected, all was calm.<28>
The slave uprising had not materialized. The pikes with which John Brown
had hoped to arm the rebels were never issued. Yet, the raid on Harper's
Ferry, this ill-planned, poorly executed attempt to free men in bondage,
hastened "the inevitable conflict."
In this conflict the four officers who took part in Brown's capture were
to find themselves sorely tried in spirit and body. Only Major Russell was to
remain with the Union, dying in office as Paymaster of the United States
Marine Corps in October 1862.<29> The exploits of Lee and Stuart are too well
known to recount. Israel Greene, literally the Sword of the Union at Harper's
Ferry, also joined the Confederate cause.
A New Yorker by birth, a Wisconsinite by rearing, a Virginian by
marriage, and a Marine by profession, Greene's services were much sought after
when the time came to choose up sides in 1861. Declining appointment both as
a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia infantry and as colonel in the Wisconsin
militia, Greene accepted a captaincy in the fledgling Confederate States
Marine Corps. As a major and Adjutant and Inspector of the Corps he served
throughout the war at Confederate Marine headquarters in Richmond until his
capture and parole at Farmville, Virginia, in April 1865. Returning to the
west, Greene settled in Mitchell, South Dakota, where he died in 1909, 50
years after his moment in the glaring spotlight of history at Harper's
Ferry--a visible symbol of the great struggle that tore the nation asunder and
put it back together again.<30>
1. John W. Thomason, Jr., "Jeb Stuart" (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
1934), p. 47; Allan Keller, "Thunder at Harper's Ferry" (Englewood, N. J.:
Prentice-Hall, 1958), p. 66.
2. Keller, op. cit., p. 67; James E. Walmsley, "Floyd, John Buchanan,"
"Dictionary of American Biography" (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931),
v. 6, pp. 482-483.
3. Harvey Wish, "Nat Turner's Rebellion," "Dictionary of American History"
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946), v. 4, p. 56.
4. A. Eric Bubeck, "Colonel Lee and the Marines at Harper's Ferry," "Marine
Corps Gazette," v. 33, no. 12 (Dec 1949), p. 51; Douglas Southall Freeman, "R.
E. Lee; A Biography" (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934), v. 1. p. 396.
5. Thomason, op. cit., p. 47.
6. Israel Green [sic], "The Capture of John Brown," "North American Review,"
v. 141, no. 6 (Dec 1885), p. 564.
7. Toucey to Harris, 17 Oct 1859, copy in Subject File: HARPER'S FERRY,
(Historical Branch, Headquarters, USMC).
8. Toucey to Russell, 5 Nov 1859, "Officer of the Marine Corps," v. 6,
Records Group 80, National Archives.
9. Toucey to Harris, "loc. cit." Green, op. cit., p. 564; muster rolls, MB,
Navy Yard Yard, Washington, and MB, Washington.
10. Freeman, op. cit., v. 1, pp. 394-395; Keller, op. cit., pp. 53-54.
11. Keller, op. cit., pp. 68-69; Freeman, op. cit., v. 1, pp. 394-395.
12. Keller, op. cit., pp. 98, 125.
13. Testimony of Colonel Lewis Washington in U. S. Congress, Senate, "Senate
Committee Report No. 278, 1st Session, 36th Congress."
14. Keller, op. cit., pp. 37-44.
15. Lee to Ord, telegram, 18 Oct 1859, "Suppression of John Brown's Raid,"
Records Group 94, National Archives.
16. Freeman, op. cit., v. 1. p. 396; Keller, op. cit., pp. 125-126; Lee to
the Adjutant General in "Senate Committee Report," op. cit.
17. Green, op. cit., pp. 564-565; contemporary sketches and a photograph of
the engine house taken shortly after the Civil War.
18. Freeman, op. cit., v. 1. pp. 396-397.
19. Ibid., p. 398.
20. Keller, op. cit., p. 147; Lee to Adjutant General, loc. cit.
21. J. E. B. Stuart to his mother, 31 Jan 1860, copy in Biography File:
STUART, J. E. B., Historical Branch, Headquarters, USMC; Green, op. cit., pp.
22. Freeman, op. cit., v. 1. p. 399; Keller, op. cit., p. 149.
23. Green, op. cit., pp. 566-567.
24. Appendix C, Lee to Adjutant General, 19 Oct 1859, "Suppression of John
Brown's Raid," Records Group 94, National Archives; muster rolls, MB,
Washington and MB, Navy Yard, Washington.
25. Green, op. cit., pp. 566-567.
27. Keller, op. cit., pp. 150-151.
28. Lee to Adjutant General, loc. cit.; Freeman, op. cit., v. 1, p. 401.
The following year another rumor--that Greene was to receive a sword from a
grateful Virginia legislature--enraged Stuart. The latter felt that he, a
volunteer, should share in any honors given Greene who was, after all, acting
29. Biography File: RUSSELL, William Worthington, Historical Branch,
30. Ibid., GREENE, Israel.