Top Ace

My guess is that some folks have a natural (instinctual) flying ability; Chuck Yeager may have been one of those people. But if it doesn’t come naturally, then most people learn to fly the hard way. If there is one thing I know about flying, it is that flying will kill you. Nowhere is this truer than when flying high performance aircraft where there is not a lot of room for pilot or mechanical error. I personally enjoy reading the stories of these brave men; stories that lead you to conclude many of them had angels for co-pilots.

Francis Stanley Gabreski (1919-2002) (a.k.a. Gabby) found that he was interested in flying while attending Notre Dame in 1938, but at this point in his life, Gabreski was an ordinary young man with unimpressive grades at a prestigious university. College officials almost forced him out of college at the end of his freshman year but, fortunately, he rebounded. It was also about this time when his private flight instructor told him that he did not have the knack for flying. Gabreski had some soul-searching to do during that summer.

Boeing PT-17
Boeing PT-17

It was toward the beginning of Gabreski’s sophomore year when Germany attacked Poland. Gabreski’s parents migrated from Poland at the turn of the century; as a proud Pole, Gabreski found a renewed interest in flying and having listened to a presentation by Army Air Corps recruiters, he decided to enlist as an aviation cadet. After his induction, Gabreski attended primary flight training at Parks Air College in Illinois. His flying performance was sufficiently mediocre and his pilot instructors wondered if he had what it takes. They insisted that he pass an elimination check ride before continuing to the next phase of his training. He passed.

Gabby continued his training at Gunter Army Air Base in Alabama, completing advanced flight school at Maxwell Field, Alabama in the North American AT-6 Texan. Having earned his pilot’s wings, he received his commission as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air corps. In March 1941, he was on his way to his first assignment —Wheeler Field, Hawaii.

Curtiss P-36
Curtiss P-36

Upon arrival in Hawaii, the 15th Pursuit Group assigned Gabreski to the 4tth Pursuit Squadron. He began training to fly the Curtiss P-36 and P-40. Not long after that, Gabby met his future wife, Kay Cochran. Not long after than, the Japanese Imperial Navy came calling on December 7, 1941. Wheeler Field was a primary target of the Japanese, which caused a great deal of confusion at the airfield. Gabby and his squadron mates did manage to get a few P-36 fighters in the air, but by the time they were able to get armed and airborne, the Japanese had already withdrawn. Gabreski remained at Wheeler through the summer of 1942 training in the newer model P-40 and Bell P-39.

Now that President Roosevelt declared a state of war to exist between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan, Gabreski became keenly interested in the European War and how Polish Air Squadrons were doing with the Royal Air Force. Realizing that the United States did not have many experienced fighter pilots, and because he spoke Polish fluently, Gabreski volunteered to serve as a liaison officer within the RAF with Polish Air Squadrons so that he could learn from their experiences. The Air Corps approved his request and in September 1942, Gabreski was promoted to captain and ordered to attend briefings in Washington DC.

Supermarine Spitfire IX
Supermarine Spitfire IX

In October, Captain Gabreski reported to the Eighth Air Force, 8th Fighter Command, which was at the time a rudimentary headquarters. Gabreski tried to arrange an assignment with 303 Squadron, but they had already been withdrawn for rest and recuperation. In January 1943, Gabby posted with 313 Squadron at Northolt where he flew a new fighter aircraft called the Super-Marine Spitfire (Mark IX). His first encounter with the Luftwaffe occurred on February 3, 1943 when a group of Focke-Wulf (Fw)-190s jumped his squadron. In Gabreski’s excitement, he failed to properly apply sound aeronautical tactics; he failed to bring down a single aircraft. He learned an important lesson about keeping one’s cool under pressure. In all, Gabby flew twenty missions with the Poles, engaging in combat only once.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

In late February, Gabreski joined the 56th Fighter Group where he flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, he quickly became a flight leader; his success resulted in some resentment by his squadron mates —his arrogant personality did little to improve this. Gabreski received a promotion to major in May 1943; when his squadron commander was promoted in the following month, the Group Commander ordered Gabby to assume command of the 61st Fighter Squadron over two officers that were more senior. This sort of thing does happen in the course of a military career, but it did not endear Gabreski to his officers and the situation worsened still when both of these more senior officers were lost in combat in late June. Meanwhile, Gabreski still had not achieved a single kill.

His first kill came on August 24, 1943; an Fw-190 over Dreux, France —but he continued to receive criticism from other squadron pilots because his attacks were so hastily conducted that his wingmen had no opportunity to also engage. This did not seem to concern Gabreski.

On November 26, 1943, the Eighth Air Force assigned the air group to cover the withdrawal of B-17 bombers from Bremen, Germany. The P-47s arrived on station and found the bombers under heavy attack. During this engagement, Gabreski earned his fourth and fifth kills.

That month, the Colonel Robert Landry temporarily relieved Colonel Zemke as Group Commander, but because he lacked combat experience, command of combat missions fell to the deputy commander and operations officer, who by this time was Gabreski. When Zemke resumed command in January 1944, Gabreski relinquished command of the 61st Fighter Squadron and served as Air Group operations officer.

Gabreski arranged to have two Polish pilots assigned to the 56th Fighter Group to help ease a shortage of pilots, a shortage resulting from end-of-tour rotation of seasoned combat pilots. Five more Polish pilots were accepted in April; they called themselves “Polish Flight.”

By March 1944, Gabreski had earned 18 victory credits with six multiple kill missions. He ranked third overall in the ETO “Ace Race.” At this time, only two other officers had more kills: Major Robert S. Johnson, and Major Walker M. Mahurin. Both officers rotated back to the states in May 1944. After receiving his promotion to lieutenant colonel, Gabreski assumed command once more of the 61st Fighter Squadron. On May 22, 1944, Gabby shot down three Fw-190 aircraft. He tied Major Johnson’s record for aerial kills on June 27 (passing by Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record), and on July 5, 1944, became the leading Ace in the European theater. With 28 victories, Gabby matched the number of victories in the Pacific theater, achieved by Richard Bong.

Gabreski reached 300 combat hours on July 20, 1944; it was time to rotate home, and marry Kay Cochran. On the morning of his scheduled rotation back to the states, Gabby requested to fly one final escort mission. By that evening, Gabreski became a welcomed guest in a German Oflag. He remained as such until the end of the war.

After the war, Gabreski served as a chief test pilot, attended Engineering Flight Test School, and then decided to accept a position with Douglas Aircraft. [1] He was recalled to active duty in 1947, sent back to complete his degree at Columbia University, and resumed his US Air Force career flying the F-80 and F-86. He received his promotion to colonel in 1950.

Gabreski joined the Korean War in 1951; he and others delivered the F-86E to the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group at Kempo Air Base. On July 8, 1951, Gabby shot down a MiG-15, followed by additional kills on September 2, 1951 and October 2, 1951.

F-86E Sabre
F-86E Sabre

At this time, a growing MiG presence threatened the B-29 attacks along the Yalu River. Fifth U. S. Air Force created a second Sabre wing by converting the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing from F-80s to F-86s —amazingly accomplished within a ten-day period. Fifth Air Force assigned Gabreski to command the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Suwon Air Base. During its first seven months, the 51st scored 96 MiG kills with only two operational squadrons, comparing favorably with its rival 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, which operated three squadrons. Meanwhile, Gabby scored 3 ½ more MiG kills, making him a jet ace. [2]

Gabreski’s aggressive leadership helped the United States to achieve and maintain air superiority over the Korean peninsula … but it also led Gabreski to violate international rules of engagement. Chinese (and possibly Russian) MiGs were stationed in China; they would fly missioned into Korea, and then escape back into Chinese air space and “MiG sanctuary.” Gabreski and Lieutenant Colonel Walker M. “Bud” Mahurin quickly tired of this behavior and resolved to do something about it. In early 1952, Gabreski and Mahurin planned and executed a mission during which time the F-86E turned off their IFF equipment and overflew two Chinese air bases.

Col. Frances S. Gabreski USAF 1958
Col. Frances S. Gabreski USAF (1958)

Gabreski, meanwhile, continued to receive criticism from other pilots; if not about one thing, then about something else. Part of this had to do with his stubborn nature and his fierceness in combat. In spite of some claims that he exaggerated kills, or that he had little regard for his wingmen, other pilots swore that he was the finest jet pilot in the Air Force.

Upon his return to the United States, the City of San Francisco honored Gabreski with a ticker tape parade on Market Street —but this was a long time ago when San Francisco was still an American city.

Francis Stanley Gabreski is one of only seven American pilots to become an air ace in more than one war. Officially credited with 123 combat missions in Korea, he achieved 289 missions during his 26 year his career. He retired from active duty in November 1967. He passed away on January 31, 2002 and accorded full military honors at his funeral on February 6, 2002.

Colonel and Mrs. Gabreski had nine children in their 48-year marriage. Two sons were graduates of the USAF Academy; Terry L. Gabreski, his daughter-in-law, achieved promotion to lieutenant general in August 2005; she served as the highest-ranking female in the US Air Force until her retirement in 2010.


[1] I do not know this for certain, but I suspect that the odd move from Air Force Officer to Douglas Aircraft Corporation and return to active duty had to do with the fact that the US Army Air Corps was in the process of conversion to the United States Air Force.

[2] One-half of a kill is credit for an assist to another pilot.

Lieutenant Colonel Commandant

Franklin Wharton Lieutenant Colonel Commandant
Franklin Wharton
Lieutenant Colonel Commandant

Franklin Wharton was born into a prominent Philadelphia family on July 23, 1767. He had forsaken a successful business career to enter the Marine Corps, receiving a commission to Captain in August 1798. Captain Wharton’s first assignment took him to the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia, but within a few weeks, he was assigned to the frigate USS United States. He commanded the ship’s Marine Detachment until the close of the so-called Quasi-War (1801).

At the age of 36 years and only five years of service as a Marine, Franklin Wharton was appointed Major Commandant of the Marine Corps. He was the third commandant, following Lieutenant Colonel William Ward Burrows I. When the nation’s capital was moved to Washington DC, Wharton was advanced to the rank and position of Lieutenant Colonel Commandant and the first Commandant to occupy the official residence of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which continues to serve in that capacity.

At the time Wharton assumed his office, the US Navy was engaged with the Barbary Corsairs. The Commandant’s principal task was supplying Marines to serve aboard an increasing number of frigates. At the conclusion of the Barbary Wars, Congress demanded an inflexibly frugal economy. As ships returned from the North African coast, they were either decommissioned or their crews were significantly reduced.

By 1810, the mood inside the Nation’s Capital was grim; there was a war coming, and the difficulties facing the Marine Corps were considerable. Even after the formal commencement of hostilities with the British, Congress refused to increase the size of the Corps. Congress nevertheless expected Wharton to supply Marines for duty at sea; Marines participated in land engagements at Annapolis, Fort McHenry, Portsmouth, Chaney Island, Bladensburg, and in New Orleans.

Funding was not Wharton’s only problem. The Act of 1798 was written in such a way to produce significant confusion from the office of the Secretary of the Navy down through both the Navy and Marine Corps chain of command. The Secretary of War interpreted the legislation to mean that while Marines served aboard ship, they belonged to the Navy; when Marines served ashore, they belonged to the ranking Army commander of that department. Even while at war with Great Britain, Marine officers were placed under arrest and court-martialed for refusing to obey the orders of a senior Army officer. This problem did not “go away” until 1834.

To make matters worse for Wharton, there were a few Marine officers who greatly desired to become Marine Corps Commandant, and one of these in particular began to encourage others to publicly question Wharton’s competence to remain in office. Of concern to a few was Wharton’s “failure to take to the field” as the British approached Washington. In fairness, it was a confusing time. There was no rapid communications, and I am quite certain that Wharton did not know with any degree of certainty the displacement of his forces. With important documents in hand, Wharton and his staff made their way to the Washington Navy Yard. Although instructed by the Secretary of the Navy to rally at Frederick, Maryland, Wharton placed himself at the disposal of Commodore Thomas Tingey, U. S. Navy, and Commandant of the Navy Yard. Tingey instructed Wharton to leave the Navy Yard; he was set to set it afire. Wharton, it was said, seemed confused. He left the Navy Yard by small boat.

One of Wharton’s political enemies, the insubordinate Brevet Major Archibald Henderson, argued that Wharton has injured the good reputation of the Marine Corps. Charges were filed and the Secretary of the Navy ordered a court-martial, which convened on September 20, 1817.

The President of the Court was Colonel William King, 4th Infantry, U. S. Army. Board members included Colonel T. J. Jessup, 3rd Infantry, U. S. Army, Major Richard Smith, USMC, Major J. M. Davis, General Staff, U. S. Army, Captain Robert D. Wainwright, USMC. The Specific charges made by Brevet Major Archibald Henderson were as follows: Charge 1: Neglect. Specification 1, that LtCol Wharton never commanded any parade in the Marine Corps; Specification 2, that LtCol Wharton never commanded any Marine Corps unit in the field; Specification 3, that LtCol Wharton never inspected any Marine Corps unit; Specification 4, that LtCol Wharton neglected to provide Captain Robert D. Wainwright the information he needed to execute the sentence of a courts-martial; and Specification 5, that due to LtCol Wharton’s neglect, Private Peter Moore had been unnecessarily and oppressively held in confinement beyond the end of his enlistment.

The charges were outlandish, of course and LtCol Wharton was acquitted of all charges, but the episode created ill feelings among the Corps’ senior officers. Lieutenant Colonel Wharton died while serving in office a little less than one year later, on September 1, 1818.

Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Wharton did make substantial contributions to the efficient organization of the emerging Marine Corps. For the first time the uniforms and equipment were standardized for all Marines, traditions and practices well established and reinforced, and it was during his command that the United States Marine Corps Band began their award winning tenure as “The President’s Own.” Colonel Wharton is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, New York City.

Archibald Henderson did eventually become Commandant of the Marine Corps; a post he held for 39 years —but not before he battled with Major Anthony Gale over the right of succession. Gale was eventually cashiered from the Marine Corps after a year in office but given Henderson’s revolting behavior toward Wharton, we can only imagine what intrigues he might have arranged against Anthony Gale.

Gone to Fight the Indians —Part II

At the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, the Commanding General of the U. S. Army was Major General Alexander Macomb. There were only four other flag officers serving at the time: Brigadier Generals Edmund P. Gaines, Winfield Scott, Thomas Jesup, and Zachary Taylor.

The first American commander of the Seminole War was Winfield Scott. Scott initiated a conventional military strategy against the Seminoles; Napoleonic style maneuvers typical of Army doctrine at the time. With three converging columns, Scott marched on the main Seminole camp near present-day Lake Apopka. The Seminoles responded by scattering into the Florida swamps and resolved themselves never again to mass in one place.

Scott’s ineffectiveness early in the war was likely the result of public quarreling with General Gaines over Macomb’s appointment; Scott simply could not focus. Neither could Scott negotiate with the Seminoles. Not bargaining from a position of strength, the Seminoles saw no basis to relinquish their hit and run resistance strategy.

BrigGen Thomas S. Jesup
BrigGen Thomas S. Jesup

Brigadier General Jesup, however, proved to be a more effective field commander. Having successfully suppressed a Creek uprising in western Georgia, Jesup realized that the only way the Americans could defeat the Indians was to employ unconventional tactics. He mustered a force of 9,000 men (half of whom were regular army) and a battalion of Marines consisting of 38 officers, 400 enlisted men. Jesup organized the Army of the South into two brigades. On January 8, 1837, Jesup gave Colonel Henderson command of the Second Brigade. To Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Miller he gave responsibility to guard convoys moving between Tampa Bay and the Army depot at Fort King (near present-day Ocala, Florida).

General Jesup directed his commanders to begin a series of search and destroy operations that soon produced a positive result. Over time, Jesup was able to wear the Indians down with small attacks that threatened their families and their sources of supply. It was an effective counter to Osceola’s hit and run strategy.

On January 23, 1837 near Lake Apopka, a detachment of Captain John Harris’ company of horse Marines engaged a large body of Seminoles; the Indians quickly disengaged into the thick underbrush. Five days later, Colonel Henderson led a force into the Swamp to locate and engage the main body of Indians. When allied Indians made contact with the Seminoles, Henderson set in a line of Marine and Army marksmen along the Hatchee-Lustee River. Allied Indians and Seminole engaged in a lively exchange of fire, and when the fire slackened among the Seminoles, Henderson knew the enemy had begun their withdrawal. Captain Harris aggressively attacked across the 20-yard wide river. Mounted Marines captured some women and children; also taken were one hundred packhorses, and 1,400 head of cattle. The warriors escaped, taking their dead and wounded with them.

Having lost their families and food supply, Seminole warriors sued for a parley in March 1838. Several chiefs consented to a truce and relocation to the Arkansas Territory; they signed an armistice on March 6, 1838 agreeing to assemble at Fort Brooke for removal. Every indication was that the war was over, except that Osceola and Arpiucki (a.k.a. Sam Jones) did not come in. Henderson received promotion to Brevet Brigadier General, the first Marine Corps officer to hold general officer rank; Captain Harris received advancement to Brevet Major. Henderson returned to Washington in May leaving the command of 189 Marines at Tampa Bay to Brevet Lieutenant colonel Miller. According to the agreement, Seminoles began to assemble at Tampa Bay; everyone was convinced the war was over. It was not.

Late at night on June 2, 1838, Osceola led warriors into a poorly guarded encampment outside Fort Brooke, captured the compliant chiefs and their followers (numbering around 700 Seminole), and forced them to un-surrender. The war began anew —and continued for another five years. Osceola’s refusal to surrender led General Jesup to employ unconventional negotiations. In October 1838, Osceola and Coeehajo agreed to parley with General Jesup under a flag of truce. During the meeting, Jesup seized both men and took them into captivity. Osceola died of Malaria at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina three months later; he was just 33-years-old. Some sectors criticized Jesup for his un-gentlemanly tactics, but it did result in removing Billy Powell from his position as a revered Seminole leader.

Meanwhile, the Americans continued to use unconventional tactics against the hostiles. Brigadier General Walter Armistead destroyed 500 acres of Seminole crops. In another instance, Colonel Harvey had his men dress as Seminole warriors as a means of entrapping hostiles. Harvey also received $55,000 from the US Congress to bribe Seminole chiefs to bring in their bands. Braves were paid $500.00 to surrender; their wives $100.00.

In the summer of 1838, the Navy put together a special landing force consisting of small ships and dugout canoes. They called it a Mosquito Fleet. It gradually increased it strength to 652 men, which included 130 Marines. The fleet based at Tea Table Key; its mission to interdict gun smugglers from Cuba in their attempt to funnel arms and ammunition to the hostile Seminoles. Schooners patrolled off shore, barges ranged close in to shore, and canoes patrolled estuaries.

BrigGen William J. Worth
BrigGen William J. Worth

In 1841, the Seminole War was costing the US government $1.1 million annually. By this time, Brigadier General William Jenkins Worth led the war effort in South Florida. He viewed the cost of continuing the war irresponsible and convinced the Congress to leave remaining Seminoles in peace if they stayed in the southwest part of south Florida. Those left in Florida included bands led by Holata Mico (Billy Bowlegs), Arpicochi, Chipco, and the black Seminole leader Kunta Kinte [1]. The black Seminoles were especially determined to keep fighting; their point of view being that dying was better than enslavement. Well, the United States of America had had enough of the Seminole War but now that the American Army had caught the tiger, the tiger was not letting go. The Seminole Wars continued for another 40 years and the last Native Americans living in the Everglades never surrendered. Between 1835 and 1842, the US lost 1,466 men to combat or disease. Sixty-one Marines died in the conflict.


  1. Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 1933
  2. American Military History, Army Historical Series, 2013
  3. Dictionary of Wars, Anchor books, 1987
  4. D. Burzynski, The First Leathernecks: A Combat History of the US Marines, 2013
  5. D. Ekardt, U. S. Marines in the Second Creek and Second Seminole Wars, 2013

[1] Just kidding; his name was Thlochlo Tusternuggee (Tiger Tail)

Gone to Fight the Indians —Part I

Trail of Tears
Trail of Tears

It all began innocently enough, as most things do that come out of our nation’s capital. The words even sound reasonable and benevolent: An Act to provide for an exchange of land with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi. The construction of nice sounding words is what lawyers and lawmakers do for a living.

Early in the Nineteenth Century, the Mississippi Territory mostly belonged to the Creek Indian Confederacy. This native population lived in towns, which became significant political and tribal cultural centers were equally important to the personal identity of the people who lived in those towns. The Creek Nation consisted of two primary divisions: those known as the Upper Creek, who occupied territories along the Coosa, Alabama, and Tallapoosa Rivers in central Alabama, and the Lower Creek who lived in the areas along the lower Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee, and Flint Rivers in Southwestern Georgia. These areas generally corresponded to the upper and lower trade routes that connected the Creeks with South Carolina. Although confederated, it was a loose alliance with each tribal town governing itself. The alliance was more important during time of war or during political negotiations with encroaching colonial settlements.

The Removal Act of 1830 came almost as a second shoe to drop following the Red Stick War, fought between 1813 and 1814. Also known as the Creek Indian War, the essence of this conflict was a civil war that occurred mostly in Alabama and along the Gulf Coast. The Red Stick faction deeply resented the federal government’s meddling in Indian affairs, while the Lower Creek factions benefitted from trade with the Americans and sided with them against the traditionalists. A third group of Muscogee existed: the Creeks who ran away. In the Creek language, the word for runaway is simanooli. Today we call these Muscogee Indians, Seminoles.

What makes the Creek Indian War complex is the number of factions and agents involved. An abbreviated version of this was:

• Upper Creek militancy resisting American territorial and cultural encroachments;
• Obstinacy among the Lower Creek, who favored white civilization;
• Foolishness among federal bureaucrats meddling in matters that did not concern them; and
• British and Spanish agents who kept the Indians agitated.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act had the support of non-Native people in the south who were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the civilized tribes. Georgia, the largest state at that time, was engaged in a very contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee people. President Jackson sought to resolve this dispute by removing the Indians from their ancestral lands. There was also significant opposition to the Indian Removal Act: Christian missionaries protested the legislation—notably Jeremiah Evarts, and joining him was New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Tennessee Congressman David Crockett.

The wording of the act strongly suggested that Indian removal was a voluntary process: an exchange of land carries with it the connotation that there would be some discussion, negotiation, and a fair swap. It was none of these things. The federal government put great pressure on Native leaders to sign removal treaties, but nearly everyone associated with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Lenape tribes understood that eventually, whites would send them to a new location. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1832 was the “go” signal.

The first removal treaty was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830; Choctaw Indians in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the west. In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota resulted in the removal of the Cherokee. The remaining tribes decided they would not leave without a fight; the Seminoles were no longer running away. To assist the Seminole in their resistance were the Black Seminole, or fugitive slaves living among the Seminole people.

Brevet Brigadier General Archibald Henderson, Commandant of the Marine Corps
Brevet BrigGen Archibald Henderson Commandant of the Marine Corps

During the summer of 1835, Archibald Henderson marched a battalion of United States Marines south to confront Native Americans who decided they would rather fight than switch. It was a long walk; by the time the Marines arrived in southern Alabama, the Creek refusal to relocate to western lands was already resolved. Rather than locating, closing with, and destroying highly agitated Indians, the Marines patrolled the border of Georgia and Alabama on foot and by steamboat. In October, Henderson’s battalion joined with that of Lieutenant Colonel William H. Freeman at Fort Brooke, Florida. Henderson reorganized his force into a regiment of six companies, the strength of which was more than half that of the entire Marine Corps in 1835. Augmenting the Marines were 750 Creek Indian Volunteers. Henderson detailed Marine Corps officers to command some of the Native forces.

Colonel Henderson could not know that he and his Marines would participate in the longest and most costly of all Indian conflicts in the history of the United States. For seven years (1835-1942), eight different generals fought a frustrating war against an elusive adversary, aided by inhospitable terrain, hot, humid weather, and insect borne disease. Concentrating superior modern firepower and discipline against an enemy with no flanks, no lines of communication, no political or industrial bases proved an impossible task for such notable men as Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor.

Opposing America’s finest generals was Billy Powell (1804-1838), a man of mixed Creek-Scotch-Irish-English parentage. Billy’s mother raised him as a Creek Indian. Following their defeat in 1814, Billy’s mother took him south into Florida along with other Red Stick refugees. We know him today as Osceola, the influential leader of the Florida Seminole and one of the southern Creek who decided not to abide by the terms of a treaty negotiated with the United States government.

The Seminole’s first demonstration against forcible relocation was the massacre of a column of 110 soldiers led by Brevet Major Francis Dade on December 28, 1835. There were three survivors to the attack, but Seminoles killed one of those the next day. Of the two remaining survivors, one had no clear memory or understanding of what had transpired. What we know of the event we learned from one solitary survivor. The Second Seminole War was the result of this massacre along with an order to round up and kill every hostile.

Not everyone agreed with this policy: Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock participated in the search for and discovery of the remains of Major Dade’s company. In his journal he wrote about that discovery and his opposition to US policy: “The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government.”

Continued Next Week

Harpers Ferry —Part II

Meanwhile, Colonel Lee and First Lieutenant James Ewell Brown Stuart were meeting with Secretary Floyd as he outlined the crisis. The savage implications were obvious to Lee; he had been at Fort Monroe when Nat Turner set aside the plow to take up the sword. Lee was well aware of the panic that the Turner Rebellion had caused. After receiving the most recent intelligence on the situation at Harpers Ferry, Colonel Lee hurried to the White House where the president handed him a proclamation of martial law, should he need it. Certain that a fight of some kind would result, Stewart volunteered to accompany Lee. Still in civilian attire, the Colonel rushed to the railway station … the Marines already well on their way. A telegram ordered the Marines to delay at Sandy Hook, Maryland —there to await the arrival of the officer commanding.

Colonel Lee arrived at Sandy Hook, which was just across the river from Harpers Ferry, at around 2200 hours. Major Russell and Lieutenant Greene were present on the platform to greet Lee. Lee listened patiently to the briefing accorded him on the events of the previous twenty-four hours. To Lee, the situation did not appear critical. He withheld the martial law decree because he lacked the federal troops needed to patrol the town. Next, Lee sent a telegram cancelling Captain Ord’s movement to Harpers Ferry. Lee would not require any additional troops.

Colonel Lee decided to attack as soon as possible, but hoping to avoid unnecessary danger to the hostages, a night assault was out of the question. Colonel Lee, his aide, and the Marines crossed the river and awaited dawn. At 2300, Lieutenant Green led Marines across the covered bridge and into the armory yard to relieve the militia posted there. The insurgents had taken refuge in a stone building, which housed the armory’s fire fighting equipment.

As the Marines worked their way into position, Colonel Lee began to work on his plan for the next morning. He first drafted a surrender ultimatum, but he was not yet certain who commanded the insurrectionists. Lieutenant Stuart would deliver the ultimatum at Colonel Lee’s direction. Lee decided he would not bargain with these usurpers. At a signal by Stuart, the Marines would batter down the door to the firehouse and pounce on these enemies with bayonet and rifle butt. There could be no shooting because of the danger to the hostages.

Israel Greene (1824-1909)
Israel Greene (1824-1909)

Colonel Lee was sensitive to the fact that the President had imposed federal troops in a community that belonged to a sovereign state. The information in Colonel Lee’s possession was that this was an insurgency directed toward slave-owning states. While true the insurgents were hold up in a federal facility, the Maryland state militia was first on the scene. On this basis, Colonel Lee offered the honor of leading the attack to the officer in charge of the state militia. He declined saying that his only mission was to protect the townspeople at Sandy Hook; beyond that, the Marines were paid to take such risks. Colonel Lee then turned to the militia officer commanding Virginia troops and offered the honor to him. He also declined, suggesting that he was perfectly willing to allow the “mercenaries” to do the job. Finally, Colonel Lee turned to First Lieutenant Greene and asked of him, “Sir will you accept the honor of leading the attack?” Greene removed his hat, bowed slightly, and responded, “Gladly, sir.”

At 0630, Greene received his orders: form twelve men into a storming party; another dozen men behind them would be the storming party’s reserve. Three additional men in each party would arm themselves with sledgehammers to knock down the door. Twenty seven Marines, with Green and Russell at their head, would gather close to the engine house, but out of the insurgent’s line of fire, there to await Lieutenant Stuart’s signal.

Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart marched forward bearing a flag of truce. Halting his line of march before the engine house, he called out, “Mr. Smith.”

The center doors opened a few inches. There, carbine in hand stood Kansas John Brown; lean, fierce looking, and the cause of the Osawatomie Creek massacres. Stuart recited Colonel Lee’s demand for immediate surrender, but Brown wanted to bargain. Stuart stepped out of the line of fire and gave his signal. The Marines leapt immediately into their assault, three flailing away with sledgehammers on the cedar doors quickly shut and held fast.

From inside the firehouse came the plea of Colonel Washington, “Don’t mind us, Fire!” Colonel Lee recognized the man’s voice and said quietly, “The old revolutionary blood does tell.”

Harpers Ferry: The Assault
Harpers Ferry: The Assault

Lieutenant Green suddenly noticed a ladder lying near the engine house. Ordering his men to snatch it up, the Marines used it as a battering ram; its second blow smashed through the opening and the Marines stormed inside just as Brown was loading his weapon. Armed with only a light dress sword, Greene jumped from the cover of the abutment and rushed through the opening, Major Russell (unarmed) right behind. The darkened interior rocked to the echoing sounds of gunfire. The third Marine inside was Private Luke Quinn, who caught a bullet in his abdomen; the fourth Marine slightly injured in the face.

The first figure to arise from the gloom of the engine house was Colonel Washington who walked toward his friend Lieutenant Greene, embraced him, and then pointed to John Brown saying, “There is Osawatomie.” With all of his strength, Greene slashed Brown with his sword. His first blow left a deep cut across his neck, but the frail blade of the dress sword bent double on Brown’s ammunition belt when Green attempted to thrust it into his heart. Thus, John Brown was spared for the hangman.

The 32-hour siege ended in only three minutes. No harm came to any hostage. 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, and others taken prisoner. All prisoners received accommodations at the Charles Town jail. A slave uprising had not occurred; the pikes provided by traitors from Massachusetts went unused. In the final analysis, John Brown was a useful idiot to the progressive mentality. Harpers Ferry was an ill-planned, poorly executed attempt to defy the lawful authority of states. Nevertheless, it did accomplish one thing: it provided one more trigger leading our nation to civil war.

As with many officers of this period, First Lieutenant Israel Greene, United States Marine Corps, would have to make a decision. A New Yorker by birth, a Wisconsinite by rearing, a Virginian by marriage, and a Marine by profession, several states sought his services when the time came to choose sides in 1861. He declined an appointment as lieutenant colonel in the Virginia infantry; he declined to accept appointment as a colonel in the Wisconsin militia. He instead accepted a captaincy in the Confederate Marine Corps. As a major, serving as adjutant and inspector, Israel Greene survived the Civil War. After his parole in 1865, Greene took his wife and family west to Mitchell, South Dakota. There he lived out the balance of his days. He passed away in 1909 at the age of 84 —fifty years after his short moment in the spotlight of America’s history.


Post Script
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.
—Robert E. Lee, Brevet Colonel, Army of the United States