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

Published by


Retired Marine, historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “Harpers Ferry —Part II”

  1. Another wonderful series, sir, on a subject my 1960’s history books only touched on lightly. However, the tone focused on slavery from what I recall. The story casts a spotlight on another bit of Marine history.

    Even during WWII, intel was somewhat of a guess… as well as possibly dated or misinterpreted. The article refers to the intelligence upon which Lee then Lincoln acted upon. Was this by courier? Telegraph? I believed a telegraph system in the Military was still being developed?


    1. What you say is true, Koji. Telegraphy was in its infancy, but history shows us that the invention or innovation of military technology always finds a place in the mainstream of America. During the Civil War, the Union Army created a “Telegraph Corps,” the forerunner of today’s Signal Corps. They would follow in trace of the main body of infantry, erecting telegraph poles along the way. They would establish telegraphers in a tent not too far from the general officer commanding and rush messages to him as received. Communications were never “secure” and neither were any of the telegraph poles. Remember that the CSA had raiders such as John Mosby who operated almost with impunity behind Union lines.

      When the battle area became static, the army would build tall towers along the perimeter and each of these would communicate through signal flags. Mounted couriers and young runners remained in use on both sides, and I believe the CSA relied almost exclusively on these. If the CSA made use of telegraphy, I believe it may have been limited to reading the Union messages by tapping into their wires.

      Finally, the Union forces began to use helium balloons, which gave them a great view of the battlefield. Southern marksmen must have loved these balloons. My understanding here is that messages would be scribbled out on paper, wrapped around a rock, and dropped to the ground. And may the Lord have mercy on any corporal who hit an officer with his rock.


Comments are closed.