The Gun Maker

There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms.  One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them.  This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society.  Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies.  I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements.  Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”

Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons.  War is not for amateurs.  Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men.  History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster.  There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge.  Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.

The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War.  Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force.  Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons.  When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France.  It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war.  In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.

Some Background

The Puckle Gun

The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute.  The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew.  The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm).  The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base.  To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.

Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons.  The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier.  It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition.  Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition.  The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition.  Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.

Gatling Gun

One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design.  Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons).  It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911.  It was not an easily transportable weapon.

Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare.  Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power.  No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare.  Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.

The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor.  The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914.  Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss[1], Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen[2], Mauser, and others.

First World War 

The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun[3].  While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.

Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines.  But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments.  Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.

America’s War Department in 1914 was inept.  Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress.  Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t.  Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war.  Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.

In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications.  One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR).  Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge.  After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.

On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.

In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory.  At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon.  To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning.  Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.

What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions.  It would be a massive undertaking.  Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer.  Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production.  One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.

The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division.  The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September.  The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.

B. A. R.

The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons.  Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division.  The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR.  Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs[4], whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war.  Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.

The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s.  The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War[5], Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.

The Man

The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.

John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855.  His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah.  The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852.  As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.

John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts.  He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company.  In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8.  He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.

John Moses Browning

Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP.  He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents. 

The Legacy

What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy.  John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.

We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights.  The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage.  Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal.  Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.

If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.

Sources:

  1. Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
  2. Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker.  New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  3. Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia.  New York: Dodd-Mead.
  4. Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms.  Globe-Pequot, 2008.
  5. Willbanks, J. H.  Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.

[2] Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen.  They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.

[3] The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean.  The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.

[4] Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s.  During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs.  During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound.  In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers.  In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods.  Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them.  Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.

[5] Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II.  The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists.  Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II.  The United States  government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.

Admiral of the Navy

Some background

As with most military officers of the 19th century, George Dewey was born into a prominent family that offered him the resources and support that he needed to achieve great success in life —and George Dewey did exactly that.  George’s father Julius was a physician in Montpelier, Vermont; an astute businessman (one of the founders of the National Life Insurance Company), and a devoted Christian.  George had two older brothers and a younger sister—all of whom received a good education.  When George reached his fifteenth birthday, his father sent him to the Norwich Military School (now Norwich University), where he studied for two years.

In 1854, George received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy; it was a time when the cadet corps was small —averaging only around one-hundred midshipmen per class.  Of course, the naval and military academies aren’t for everyone; each class experienced a significant attrition rate, which made the graduating class about a small percentage of its freshman populations.  George’s graduating class advanced fourteen young men, with George finishing fifth.  From then on, George Dewey served with distinction on several ships.  At the beginning of the American Civil War, Dewey served as an executive lieutenant on the USS Mississippi, a paddle steamer frigate assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron and later participated in operations at New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Donaldsonville.  In 1864, Dewey was transferred to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron for service on USS Colorado under Commodore Henry K. Thatcher.  Colorado took part in the two battles at Fort Fisher (Wilmington, North Carolina).  It was during the second battle that Dewey’s tactical ability and courage under fire led to favorable mention in the New York Times.

Following war time service, Dewey followed the normal progression of a naval officer.  Promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Dewey served as the executive officer[1] of the USS Colorado, served at the USNA at Annapolis, and as a shore survey officer with the Pacific Coast Survey.  While serving in this billet, George lost his wife due to complications of childbirth.

After four years of survey work, Commander Dewey received orders to Washington where he was assigned to the Lighthouse Board.  It was an important assignment and one that gave him access to prominent members of Washington society.  By every account, Dewey was popular among the Washington elite.  The Metropolitan Club invited him to apply for membership; it was a leading social club of the time.

In 1882, Dewey assumed command of USS Juniata with the Asiatic Squadron.  Promoted to Captain two years later, he assumed command of USS Dolphin, which was one of the original “white squadron” ships of the Navy[2].  In 1885, Dewey was placed in command of USS Pensacola, where he remained for three years.  Pensacola was the flagship of the European squadron.  From 1893-96, Dewey served as a staff officer at Naval headquarters.  He was advanced to Commodore[3] in 1896.

When the navy began looking for a new Asiatic Squadron commander, no one seriously considered Commodore Dewey because he was too junior in rank.  As it turns out, though, Dewey’s Washington-area assignments and his membership in the Metropolitan Club paid off.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt interceded with President McKinley for Dewey’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron.  It was a fortunate turn of events for the United States.

Dewey assumed command of the Asiatic Fleet in January 1898 and departed for Hong Kong to inspect US warships at the British colony.  Upon arrival in Hong Kong, Dewey learned of the destruction of USS Maine in Havana Harbor.  Even though skeptical of the possibility that the United States would go to war against Spain[4], Dewey readied his squadron for war.  Washington dispatched USS Baltimore to Hong Kong and Dewey purchased the British colliers Nanshan and Zafiro, retaining their British crewmen.

Spanish-American War

At the time Congress declared war against Spain, the United States military was a shamble.  The Army was barely capable of confronting hostile Indians in the American west, much less a major European power.  The Army was understrength, underequipped, undertrained, and worse than this, an incompetent officer corps led it.  The Navy was in a rebuilding process (thanks to Roosevelt), and the strength of the Marine Corps was small and widely distributed throughout the world.  The only edge the United States had against Spain was that the Spanish military was in far worse shape.

When the United States declared war, the United Kingdom quickly asserted its neutrality.  As a neutral power, the British governor ordered the US fleet out of the harbor.  Dewey removed his squadron into Chinese waters near Mirs Bay, north of Hong Kong.

The congressional declaration came on 25 April, retroactive to 21 April.  Five days before the Congressional declaration, however, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered the formation of an expeditionary battalion of Marines.  By 21 April, the First Marine Battalion[5] was already embarked aboard ship and headed for Key West, Florida for staging and final preparations for war.  Meanwhile, the US Army was still trying to figure out how to organize regiments for duty in the field.

On 27 April, Dewey sailed from Chinese waters aboard his flagship USS Olympia with orders to attack the Spanish Fleet at Manilla Bay.  Three days later, the Asiatic Squadron was poised at the mouth of Manilla Bay.  He gave the order to attack at first light on the morning of 1 May 1898.  Dewey’s squadron soundly defeated the Spanish in a battle that lasted only six hours.  The Spanish fleet was either sunk, captured, or scuttled; fortifications in Manilla were rendered moot.  Only one American sailor died in the assault, an older chief petty officer who suffered a heart attack.  Owing to his success at Manilla, Dewey was advanced to Rear Admiral on 1 May 1898. 

The U. S. Coast Guard Joins the Fight

At the time of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, US Coast Guard Revenue Cutter McCulloch was at sea on an extended shakedown cruise from Hampton Roads to her assigned station at San Francisco.  On her arrival in Singapore orders were received to proceed with all possible speed to Hong Kong and report to Commodore Dewey for further duty.  The ship arrived on 17 April and sailed with the fleet for Mirs Bay and a week later, to Manila.  While a smaller vessel and not built for naval service she was a very welcome and valuable addition to the Asiatic Squadron.  McCulloch performed excellent patrol and dispatch services throughout the period of hostilities and until November 1898 when she resumed her voyage to San Francisco.

On 29 June 1898 McCulloch received a signal from Olympia; which read “Spanish gunboat sighted bearing north-west apparently attempting to reach Manila, intercept and capture.”  McCulloch broke her record getting under way and set a course to get between the gunboat and the foreign shipping of Manila.  The unidentified ship changed her course to meet the cutter head on flying a flag at the fore, a pennant at the main, and a flag at the gaff, all of which were indistinguishable because of the light.  However, upon closing with the ship, McCulloch discovered that she was flying a white flag at the fore. After heaving to, a boarding officer discovered that the ship was the Spanish gunboat Leyte, which had escaped during the early morning of 1 May.  Leyte had remained in hiding in one of the numerous rivers emptying into the bay but could neither escape to sea or avoid the attacks of the Filipino insurgents and so her commanding officer decided to surrender.

McCulloch’s prize crew hauled down the Spanish flag and raised the US flag.  The prize crew promptly proceeded to Olympia and anchored off her starboard quarter. McCulloch accompanied her and sent a whale boat to the Leyte to take her commanding officer and the prize master to the flagship.

That morning, McCulloch had refueled in a manner customary to the Coast Guard, but not to the Navy.  Moreover, a heavy rain squall had kicked up a choppy sea.  When the whale boat came alongside Olympia, the prize master and captured Spanish captain mounted the gangway and were promptly escorted to Admiral Dewey, who was sitting, as usual, in a wicker chair on the quarter deck.  The prize master saluted and said, “Sir, I have to report the capture of the Spanish gunboat Leyte.  I herewith deliver the officer commanding on board.”  If the prize master anticipated a hero’s welcome, he was disappointed.  Admiral Dewey looked up sharply and said, “Very well, sir … and I want to tell you that your boat’s crew pulls like a lot of damn farmers.[6]

From that wicker chair on the quarterdeck there was very little that went on in Manila Bay that escaped Admiral Dewey’s sharp eyes.  His tongue was known as rapier sharp[7].

Philippine Occupation

All was not going well for the Americans in the Philippines.  With the defeat of Spain, Philippine nationalists revealed themselves and they were not entirely pleased about having to exchange one colonial master for another.  In 1895, Emilio Aguinaldo joined other nationalists seeking to expel Spanish colonials and achieve national independence through armed force.  While Dewey was attacking the Spanish from the sea in 1898, Aguinaldo was attacking them from land.  Initially, Dewey and Aguinaldo enjoyed a cordial relationship, but within six months, Dewey was threatening to shell Aguinaldo’s forces in order to allow the unopposed arrival of US Army forces under the command of Major General Wesley Merritt[8] who was tasked to take formal possession of Manilla on 13 August 1898.

In May, Major General (of volunteers) Elwell S. Otis, U. S. Army was dispatched to the Philippines with reinforcements for Merritt.  In late August, Otis replaced Merritt as Commander, Eighth Army and military governor of the Philippines.  As the military governor, first Merritt and later Otis were supreme in all matters ashore.  Because the Philippine Islands was America’s first extraterritorial possession, there was an associated learning queue; mistakes were made, and occasionally, American arrogance got in the way.

Of issues pertaining to jurisdiction and policy in the Philippines (generally) and to the local vicinity of Manila (particularly), there was no single point of view and not all questions were settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Under these circumstances, there were occasions when someone stepped on someone else’s toes  Admiral Dewey had wanted to subdue Manilla, but in lacking enough land forces to achieve it, had no other option than to wait for the arrival of the US Army.

The affairs of the newly acquired territory were conducted by a joint board in which Admiral Dewey and General Otis were its most influential members. Meetings were held on shore and were usually agreeable affairs, but not always.  Admiral Dewey had little patience for long-winded discussions; on one occasion, having listened to blather long enough, stormed out of the meeting and returned to his ship.

In order to properly police the Pasig river and the adjacent back country it was necessary to have an efficient riverine force.  This duty fell to the Army.  Four vessels were so employed: the Oeste, a large tug given to the Army by the Navy; the Napindan, the Covadonga and the larger Laguna de Bay, which served the river patrol’s flagship.  The two latter-named boats were chartered or commandeered vessels.  Laguna de Bay had sloping casemated upper works and looked like a small edition of the confederate Merrimack [later, CSS Virginia].  All four vessels were protected with boiler plate and railroad iron.  This small fleet was manned by the 3rd US Artillery[9].

Occasionally this non-descript collection of river boats, which were mission-sufficient (but far from “ship shape”) would come out of the Pasig river for a turn in the bay on some business or other.  Now, since the waters of the bay were within Admiral Dewey’s domain, each time one of the river craft went beyond the lighthouse Dewey became apoplectic with rage and would order them back.  It happened too frequently, which prompted Dewey to send Otis a terse note warning him that the next time he found a river craft operating in the bay, the Navy would sink it.  The river craft never again reappeared in Manilla Bay.  General Otis was the better man in this instance by not challenging Dewey’s warning.

Admiral Dewey was ordered back to the United States on 27 September 1899.  Upon arrival, he received a hero’s welcome, which involved parades in New York City and Boston.  By an act of congress, Dewey was promoted to the special rank of Admiral of the Navy in 1903, his date of rank retroactive to 1899.  The congressional act provided that when such office became vacant, upon Dewey’s death, the office would cease to exist.  He was, therefore, the only officer of the United States Navy to serve in that rank, one he retained until his death on 16 January 1917.  George Dewey served as a naval officer for 62 years.

Sources:

  1. Adams, W. H. D.  Dewey and Other Great Naval Commanders, a Series of Biographies. New York: G. Routledge, 1899.
  2. Albion, R. G.  Makers of Naval Policy 1798-1947. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980.
  3. Barrett, J. Admiral George Dewey: A Sketch of the Man. New York: Harper, 1899.
  4. Dewey, G.  Autobiography of George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
  5. Ellis, E. S. Dewey and Other Naval Commanders. New York: Hovendon Press., 1899.
  6. Love, R. W. Jr.  History of the U.S. Navy, 1775-1941. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] Second in command.

[2] The squadron of evolution (white squadron) was a transitional unit in the late 19th century.  It was composed of protected cruisers (Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) and dispatch boats (Dolphin and Yorktown).  Bennington and Concord joined the squadron in 1891.  USS Chicago served as the squadron admiral’s flag ship.  Having both full rigged masts and steam engines, the White Squadron was influential in the beginning of steel shipbuilding.

[3] In 1896, Commodore was a one-star rank junior to Rear Admiral.  In 1899, the navy abandoned the rank (revived during World War II) and used it exclusively as a title bestowed on US Navy captains placed in command of squadrons containing more than one vessel or functional air wings not part of a carrier air wing.  Today, the equivalent rank for commodore is Rear Admiral (Lower Half), and even though such persons wear two stars of a Rear Admiral, they are equivalent to the one-star rank of brigadier general in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

[4]  Dewey believed there was little to gain from a war with Spain.  Dewey had a short view of the situation because there was much at stake in this conflict.

[5] Five days before the declaration of war, Acting Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered Major General Charles Heywood, Commandant of the Marine Corps, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  The battalion was named the First Marine Battalion and placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, a 40-year veteran of service as a Marine.

[6] It is the responsibility of seniors (officers or enlisted men) to lead and mentor their subordinates.  There can be little doubt that Admiral Dewey was an irascible fellow; I have worked under such men myself.  But I believe Dewey’s snappishness resulted from his own training, his uncompromising insistence that subordinates exhibit pride in their seamanship and strive for perfection in the art and science of the naval profession.

[7] Story related and passed down from Captain Ridgley, U. S. Coast Guard, who at the time served aboard McCulloch.

[8] Merritt served in the Civil War as a cavalry officer with additional service in the Indian wars and the Philippine-American War.  After Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish Fleet, Merritt was placed in command of the newly formed Eighth Army Corps.  Merritt, with all available troops in the United States, departed for the Philippines form San Francisco in early June 1898.  In August 1898, Merritt became the first American military governor of the Philippine Islands.

[9] It was no small matter to train artillerymen to operate water craft.

Divided Nation – Divided Corps

EGA 1850-002In the first few years following the War of 1812, the United States Marine Corps fell into a period of institutional malaise.  There were two reasons for this: first, the United States government was unwilling to fund a corps of Marines in larger numbers than needed for service aboard ships of the U. S. Navy.  From the outset, the US Marine Corps has always received scant funding, staffing, and equipment.   Second, as was the custom in those days, Marine Corps officers were appointed and commissioned through political patronage.  The sons of wealthy or politically connected families received commissions; it did not matter whether these appointees were good leaders or even skilled in the art and science of armed warfare.  Lacking quality leadership and innovation, the Marine Corps simply “existed.”  Political patronage continues to exist in the selection of candidates for the United States’ military and naval academies; those wishing to attend either of these must be nominated of a member of Congress.

In 1820, Archibald Henderson was appointed as the Marine Corps’ fifth commandant.  He remained in this position for 38 years—so long, in fact, that he became convinced that the Marine Corps belonged to him.  He willed the Marine Corps to his son, but of course, the will didn’t stand up in court.  During Henderson’s tenure, however, the Marine Corps undertook expeditionary missions in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Key West, in West Africa, the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, and against the Seminole Indians as part of the Seminole Indian [1] and Creek Indian Wars [2].

Andrew Jackson was not a fan of the Marine Corps, but Commandant Henderson was able to thwart Jackson’s attempt to disband the Marine Corps and combine it with the U. S. Army.  In 1834, congress passed the Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps.  The Act stipulated that the Marine Corps was an integral part of the Department of the Navy.  Jackson’s attempt was the first of many challenges to the Marine Corps as part of the United States Armed Forces.  In any case, Archibald Henderson personally led two battalions of his Marines (half of the entire Marine Corps back then) in the Seminole War (1835).  In 1846, US Marines participated in the Mexican American War (1846-48) and made their famed assault on the Chapultepec Palace, later celebrated in the Marine Corps Hymn.

Henderson’s tenure as Commandant ended with his death in 1859 (aged 75 years).  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States and civil war loomed on the near horizon.  After Lincoln’s inauguration, southern states began to secede from the union.  Many officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were from southern states; out of a sense of duty to their home states, officers began to resign their commissions.  About one-third of the Marine Corps’ commissioned officer strength resigned and accepted commissions in the Confederate States of America.  Essentially, this large migration of officers left the US Marine Corps with mediocre officers.  A battalion of Marine recruits, having been thrown into the First Battle of Manassas (Virginia) in 1861 were soundly defeated by rebel forces.

USMC Infantry 1862Union Marines performed blockade duties, some sea-based amphibious operations, and traditional roles while afloat.  US Marines also participated in the assault and occupation of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  These were signal events that enabled the union to gain control of the lower Mississippi River and denied the CSA a viable base of operations on the Gulf Coast.  In any case, poor leadership had a negative impact on the morale of serving Marines.  Few officers were interested in commanding Marine detachments or battalions; they were content to secure administrative positions.  In total, the USMC strength in 1861 was 93 officers and 3,074 enlisted men.  President Lincoln authorized an additional 1,000 enlisted men, but a shortage of funding hindered the recruiting effort.  Marine recruits were not offered recruitment bonuses (as in the Army and Navy), their length of enlistment was longer, and they earned $3.00 less pay each month.

The U. S. Marine Corps did not enjoy the confidence of the Congress in 1863 and congress proposed transferring the Marines to Army control.  The draft resolution was defeated when Colonel Commandant John Harris [3] died in office, the Secretary of the Navy forced several officers to resign or retire, and Major Jacob Zeilin [4] was named to replace Harris.  Zeilin, although 59-years old at the time, was a combat veteran with a good reputation, whose duties were executed well enough to earn him the first Marine Corps commission to general (flag rank) officer.  Still, neither Harris nor Zeilin considered the employment of Marines as an amphibious assault force.

Despite poor leadership among the officers, seventeen enlisted Marines received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry during the Civil War.  Thirteen of these men served as noncommissioned officers and performed the duties of gun captain or gun-division commander.  By the end of 1864, the recruitment of Marines improved with changes to conscription laws and additional funds to pay a recruiting bounty.  During the war, 148 Marines were killed in action; 312 additional men perished from other causes (illness/accident).

CSMC Uniform 1862The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC) was established on 16 March 1861 with an authorized strength of 46 officers and 944 enlisted men.  The actual strength of the CSMC never came close to its authorized strength.  In 1864, the total strength of the CSMC was 539 officers and men.  Heading the CSMC as Colonel Commandant Lloyd J. Beale, who previously served the US Army as its paymaster.  He had no experience as a Marine, which meant that his subordinate officers, who were Marines, had little regard for his leadership ability.  He was simply a bureaucrat, and everyone treated him as such.

The CSMC was modeled after the USMC, but there were important differences.  In the south, Marine companies were structured as permanent organizations.  The fife was replaced by the bugle, and CSMC uniforms were designed somewhat similar to those of the Royal Marines.

Confederate Marines guarded naval stations at Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, and Wilmington and manned naval shore batteries at Pensacola, Hilton Head, Fort Fisher, and Drewery’s Bluff.  Sea-going detachments served aboard Confederate ships, including the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) in 1861, and as part of the naval brigade at the Battle of Saylor’s Creek.  The Confederate Marines did perform well-enough, but as with their Union counterpart, the officer corps was plagued with laziness and paltry bickering over such things as seniority, shore duty, and administrative (staff) assignments.  The enlisted men, as has become a Marine Corps tradition, observed this petty behavior, shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes, and went on with their duties.

The Confederate States of America ceased to exist with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House.  In the post-war period, U. S. Marines began a period of introspection about the roles and missions suitable for a small corps of Marines.  The Navy’s transition from sail to steam negated the need for Marine sharpshooters aboard ship.  Without masts and rigging, there was no place for Marines to perch.  What evolved was an amphibious role for Marines during interventions and incursions to protect American lives and property.

In 1867, Marines took part in a punitive expedition to Formosa [5] (Taiwan).  A few years later in 1871, Marines participated in a diplomatic expedition to Korea —its purpose to support the American delegation to Korea, ascertain the fate of the merchant ship General Sherman, and to sign a treaty assuring aid to distressed US merchant sailors.  When the Koreans attacked US Navy ships, the diplomatic effort turned into a punitive one.  In the subsequent battle of Ganghwa, which involved 500 sailors and 100 Marines, nine sailors and six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their intrepidity in armed conflict.  Neither of these two expeditions were overwhelmingly successful, but the action did manage to start a conversation within the Navy and Marine Corps about amphibious warfare.

USMC Sgt 1890Then, in October 1873, a diplomatic dispute involving the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain caused concern in the United States about its readiness for war with a European power.  It is known as the Virginius Affair.  Virginius was a fast American-made trade ship hired by Cuban insurrectionists to land men and munitions in Cuba, to be used to attack the Spanish regime there.  The ship was captured by Spain, who declared that the men on board were “pirates” and Spain’s intention to execute them.  Many of these freebooters were American and British citizens.  Spain did in fact execute 53 of these men and only halted the process when the British government demanded it.  There was talk inside the US that the American government might declare war on Spain.  Eventually, the matter was resolved without resorting to arms, but the incident did set into motion a new (and henceforth, ongoing) role for the U. S. Marines.

In 1874, the US Navy and Marines conducted brigade sized landing exercises in Key West.  Additional training exercises were conducted on Gardiners Island in 1884, and Newport, Rhode Island in 1887.  Subsequently, in the 35-years between the end of the American Civil War and the end of the 19th century, Marines were engaged in 28 separate interventions.

Sources:

  1. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War.  Four volumes, 1997-2000).  White Mane Publishing.
  2. Scharf, J. T. History of the Confederate States Navy from its Organization to the surrender of its last vessel.  Fairfax Press, 1977.
  3. Tyson, C. A. Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871.  Marine Corps History Division, Naval Historical Foundation, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] There were three distinct wars: 1816-19, 1835-42, 1855-58.  In total, the Seminole Wars became the longest and most expensive Indian wars in US history.

[2] Also, Red Stick War, and Creek Civil War.

[3] Harris served as a US Marine for 50 years.  As commandant, his tasks were challenging.  He lost one-third of his officers at the beginning of the Civil War, was forced to give up a full battalion to augment the US Secret Service, and came to grips with the fact that with such a small force, there is little the Marine Corps could contribute to the Union effort.  Harris was more or less content to remain “out of sight” and comply with Navy Regulations as best as he was able.  Accordingly, US Marines did not play a major role in expeditions and amphibious operations during the Civil War.

[4] General Zeilin approved the design of the now-famous Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblem of the U. S. Marine Corps (1868).  He is additionally credited with establishing many Marine Corps customs and traditions that remain with the Corps to this very day, including the Marine Corps Hymn, the officer’s evening dress uniform, and adoption of the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis.”

[5] When the bark Rover was wrecked and its crew came ashore in Formosa, natives attacked and massacred them.  The US Navy landed a company of sailors and Marines to avenge this insult to American soverignty, but the enemy employed guerrilla tactics, which forced the landing force back to their ships.  The lesson learned as a result was that Marines would have to learn how to think outside of the box.

Retribution

Just north of the equator on the island of Sumatra is a rich pepper-growing region known as Acheen. It has been part of the American trade routes since the 1790s when New England merchant ships stopped along the island’s west coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice used to flavor and preserve food. It was all part of a lucrative trans-Atlantic trade arrangement with Northern European trading partners.

In January 1831, the American merchantman Friendship dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper. However, instead of pepper, Malay pirates boarded the ship, murdered most of its crew, absconded with its cargo, beached the ship, and ran away laughing. The ship was eventually recaptured and returned to her owner, but not before the owner sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.

At the time of the protest, the American frigate Potomac was tied up at New York, rigged and ready to sail to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific. Navy officials soon changed her route to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. After five months at sea, Potomac anchored five miles off the coast of Quallah Battoo disguised as a Danish East Indiaman.

Quallah Battoo 1832At two on the morning of 6 February 1832, nearly 300 sailors and Marines entered the ship’s boats and moved off to attack the Malay pirates. In command of the Marines were First Lieutenant Alvin Edson and First Lieutenant George Terrett. Once ashore, the assault company was divided into four platoons, each of these assigned to one of the forts guarding the town of Quallah Battoo. As the first streaks of daylight appeared, Edson led his contingent to a fort nestled in the jungle behind the town. Within minutes of the Marine’s approach, Malays were alerted and intense fighting ensued. Rushing forward, significantly outnumbered Marines exhibited superior discipline and enthusiasm managed to breach the outer walls and capture the fort. Edson, leaving Terrett in charge at Tuko de Lima, took with him a small guard and proceeded through the town to join in efforts to capture the second fort.

It was not long before kris-wielding Malays accosted the small detachment of Marines. Lieutenant Edson was proficient in the use of his Mameluke Sword to dispatch the attackers. Within moments, the second fort fell to the Americans. Then, having dismantled the forts and set the town ablaze, sailors and Marines were recalled to the Potomac, their mission accomplished by 10:00 a.m.   Later in the day, ship’s company stood to render honors to the killed in action, one sailor, and two Marines. The next morning Potomac moved to within a mile of the town and shelled it … a final parting shot to remind the Malay pirates: do not mess with the United States of America.

Endnote: this all occurred back when the American people elected strong presidents who were themselves proud to be an American.

Sources:

  1. D. Philips, Pepper and Pirates: Adventures in the Sumatra Pepper Trade of Salem, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949)
  2. N. Reynolds, Voyage of the United States Frigate Potomac, Under the Command of Commodore John Downes, During the Circumnavigation of the Globe, in the years 1831, 1832, 1833, and 1834 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835)

Painting by Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR (Deceased)

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

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.