Harpers Ferry —Part I

The American Civil War did not just happen one day. It was a travesty long expected even as men spoke of saving the Union. The trigger events included: The Missouri Compromise (1820), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), The Wilmot Proviso (1846-1850), The Compromise of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional book titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, and John Brown’s Raid of Harpers Ferry in 1859.

John Brown was born in 1800, the son of Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. His roots were deeply religious, and his life experiences nothing if not tragic and depressing. Married twice, he raised twenty children. A tanner by trade, his businesses failed one after another. Moving again to the ideologically progressive community of Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown felt at home at a place emotionally invested in the abolition movement. Perhaps the murder of a Presbyterian minister by a pro-slavery mob pushed him in this direction. In any case, by 1855, Brown learned from his sons living in Kansas that pro-slavery forces were militant and dangerous to abolitionists. Determined to help protect his family and oppose the pro-slavery movement, Brown went to Kansas with brief stops in Albany, New York and the Western Reserve section of Ohio where he obtained moral and financial support for his cause.

Kansas John Brown, 1856
Kansas John Brown, 1856

In Kansas, things were heating to a boil: on the one side, ruffians threatened to take the state by force if necessary and establish a pro-slavery government. Standing opposed to this movement was Brown and his followers, equally dedicated to bringing Kansas to statehood as a free state. The sacking of Lawrence, Kansas in 1856 and Preston Brooks’ caning of Charles Sumner angered Brown. Before the Pottawatomie Massacre, 8 people had lost their lives in the Kansas dispute; after abolitionists massacred the Doyle family in May 1856, 29 were killed in retaliation —hence the name, Bleeding Kansas.

John Brown returned to the east where he raised funds and gathered forces. By now, Brown was convinced that the only solution to the slavery problem was through violent action. He intended to attack slave owners. Harriet Tubman, who had access to networks and resources that could assist Brown, joined him. For his part, Brown felt that the creation of a state for freed slaves and a demonstration that he was fighting for them would lead to a massive slave revolt across the south.

Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. He rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland under the name Isaac Smith; there he awaited thee arrival of his recruits. They never materialized. In late August, Brown met with Frederick Douglas and revealed his plan for attacking the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Douglas had known about the plan for some time and had encouraged blacks not to join Brown in this endeavor. In late September, Brown’s pikes arrived; there were 950 of these. The plan called for a Brigade of 4,500 men … Brown had 21 (16 white, 5 black). His troops ranged in age from 21 years to 49. Twelve had served with Brown in Kansas. Brown led his force of 18 men in an attack on October 16, 1859. Brown left three men at the farmhouse as a rear guard.

Brown’s men were armed with Beecher’s Bibles, code name for the breech loading Sharps Rifles smuggled to him by the cowardly insurrectionist Henry Ward Beecher: always selecting a weaker intellect to do his bidding, never able to quite get it done himself —which I feel is typical of the so-called progressive mindset. The weapons were called Beecher’s Bibles because he shipped them in crates marked as “books.”

In seizing the armory, Brown gained access to 100,000 muskets and rifles. He planned to use these weapons to arm local slaves, and then heading south, draw off more slaves from plantations and fight only in self-defense. This strategy, Brown felt, would collapse one county after another, denying economic viability within pro-slave states.

Brown met no resistance entering the town of Harpers Ferry. They cut telegraph wires and captured the armory by defeating a single watchman. Next, Brown rounded up hostages, including the great-grandnephew of George Washington, Colonel Lewis Washington. They spread word everywhere to all slaves that their liberation was at hand. An eastbound train approached the town and the baggage master attempted to warn passengers of the insurrection. Brown’s men opened fire and killed Hayward Shepherd, the baggage master, who became the first casualty of the Brown insurrection. He was also a free black man. Two of Washington’s slaves also died in the raid.

The first word of the raid came from by telegraph by A. J. Phelps, the Through Express passenger train conductor. His abbreviated message: “Express train bound east under my charge was stopped this morning at Harper’s Ferry by armed abolitionists. They have possession of the bridge and the arms and armory of the United States.” News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and then on to Washington by later morning. In the meantime, local farmers and shopkeepers pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights from the town, some local men received wounds from Brown’s men.

Colonel Robert E. Lee, 1858
Colonel Robert E. Lee, 1859

A message reporting the insurrection at Harpers Ferry arrived on the desk of Secretary of War John B. Floyd late in the morning of October 17, 1859. Floyd was not known as an able administrator but on this particular morning, there was no time for the shuffling of paper, or spending too much time on minute details. Floyd was a Virginian and well aware of the events surrounding Nat Turner’s rebellion and what happened at Haiti at the start of the century. He sent a telegram to Fort Monroe and by noon, Captain Edward O. C. Ord with 150 artillerymen was already on his way to Baltimore, the first stop on the way to Harpers Ferry. Floyd also summoned from his home across the river Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, who would command the military response.

President Buchanan suggested to Mr. Floyd that he was not moving fast enough. There were no troops closer to the scene of the action than at Fort Monroe and he was in a quandary about what to do. He was unable to find any troops closer to Harpers Ferry than those under Captain Ord were. Then, miraculously, Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey offered Floyd a solution: United States Marines. Shortly thereafter, the Chief Clerk of the Navy Department galloped through the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard and asked for First Lieutenant Israel Greene, who was temporarily in command of the Marine Barracks. Asked how many Marines Greene had at his disposal, Greene answered, “around ninety men.”

Upon return to the Navy Department, Toucey sent an order to Colonel Commandant John Harris: “Send all available Marines at Head Quarters under charge of suitable officers by this evening’s train of cars to Harpers Ferry to protect the public property at that place, which is endangered by a riotous outbreak.” Once the Marines arrived at their destination, they would serve under the command of the senior Army officer present.

Colonel Harris was concerned that First Lieutenant Greene may lack the necessary experience to command such a force of Marines; after all, he only had twelve years service. The only other senior officer was Major William W. Russell, the paymaster. Russell, a staff officer, probably had less field experience than did Lieutenant Greene. Harris placed Russell in charge of the Marine contingent, assisted by First Lieutenant Greene. Greene, meanwhile, demonstrated detached professionalism making sure that each of his eighty-six Marines had drawn necessary equipment for field operations: musket, ball, rations. Because no one had a clear idea what was going on at Harpers Ferry, the Marines also prepared two 3-inch howitzers. At 1500 hours, Russell and his Marines boarded the westbound train for Harpers Ferry.

Published by


Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “Harpers Ferry —Part I”

  1. In a broad, conceptual sense, the long brewing of tensions as you report leading up to the Civil War harks of our currently divided union.

    As I read through the beginning of your story here, I was wondering where the US Marines would fit in. Now I see…but this time, it sounds as if the Marines were adequately supplied armament-wise. The breath of the weaponry captured by Brown was astounding to say the least.

    And a question: Is this Captain Ord the one and the same as that in Ft. Ord?


  2. Yes, the same fellow.

    Our nation has seldom been “united,” and never for very long.


  3. Around here, Harper’s Ferry is a big tourist attraction. And John Brown is a hero.

    My father often opined to the contrary about John Brown. “A nut!” Dad declared. That outburst was followed by historical details, but I’ve long since forgotten those details — probably because Harper’s Ferry is locally deemed a site honoring the great hero John Brown.

    I’ve visited Harper’s Ferry. Once. Everything there is outrageously overpriced. Just sayin’.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series.


Comments are closed.