Col John Harris, Commandant of the US Marine Corps 1859-1864. He wears the 1859 full dress uniform for a field officer: the dark blue double-breasted frock coat, trimmed on collar and cuff flaps with gold lace loops and scarlet piping. (United States Army Military History Institute)
n the night of Sunday, October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and his 22 followers seized the US Arsenal at Harper's W Ferry, Virginia, in a vain attempt to incite an armed slave rebellion in the Southern States. Quickly surrounded by local militia, Brown and his men took hostages and fortified themselves in a nearby brick-built engine house. Shortly after noon the next day John Harris, Colonel-Commandant of the US Marine Corps, based at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, received an order from Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey to send "all the available Marines at Head Quarters... by diis evening's (rain of cars to Harper's Ferry to protect the public property at that place, which is endangered by a riotous outbreak."
Within a matter of hours Lt Israel Greene and 86 Marines, plus two 12-pounder Dahlgren howitzers, were westbound on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. They disembarked about a mile short of Harper's Ferry at 10pm that night, and were joined by 150 soldiers under Col Robert E. Lee and Lt J.E.B.Stuart. The Marines were marched across the railroad bridge, and by midnight they had surrounded the engine house. Waiting until dawn the next day, Lee held a council of war with his fellow officers. Since hostages were being held it was impossible to use the howitzers. He decided to send Lt Stuart under a flag of truce at sunrise to try to persuade Brown to surrender; if this failed, Stuart was to raise his arm as a sign, and the Marines would rush the doors. Predictably, Brown refused Lee's terms, and the assault began with 24 Marines led by Lt Greene. An eyewitness and correspondent of the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported:
"Immediately the signal for attack was given, and the marines... advanced in two lines on each side of the door. Two powerful fellows sprang between the lines, and with heavy sledge hammers attempted to batter down the door. The door swung and swayed, but appeared to be secured with a rope, the spring of which deadened the effect of the blows. Failing thus to obtain a breach, the marines were ordered to fall back, and twenty of them took hold of a ladder, some forty feet long, and advancing at a run, brought it with tremendous power against the door. At the second blow it gave way, one leaf falling inward in a slanting position. The marines immediately advanced to the breach, Major [William W.] Russell [the Corps Paymaster who, as a staff officer, could not command] and Lieutenant Greene leading the way. A marine in the front fell; the firing from the interior is rapid and sharp, they fire with deliberate aim, and for the moment the resistance is serious and desperate enough to excite the spectators to something like a pitch of frenzy. The next moment the marines pour in, the firing ceases, and die work was done, whilst the cheers rang from every side, the general feeling being that the marines had done their part admirably."
During the melee John Brown was wounded by a thrust from Israel Greene's dress sword, while all but two of his followers were either killed or captured. Hauled out and laid on a mattress, Brown later declared: 'You may dispose of me very easily. I am very nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled - this Negro question, I mean. The end is not yet."
It was the end, however, for Irishman Luke Quinn, the only Marine private killed during the assault. Another 620,000 Americans in either blue or gray uniforms would die during the Civil War fought between 1861-65 before the question of slavery and state rights would finally be settled, and the Marines of both North and South were involved throughout the conflict.
US Marines commanded by LtCol Robert E.Lee, 2nd US Cavalry, batter down the doors to the fire engine house at Harper's Ferry during the John Brown rebellion in October 1859. The Marines are wearing 1839 pattern fatigue uniforms and caps, although the new uniform regulations had been introduced in January of that year. (Anne S.K.Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)
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