I could see Harpers Ferry only as a trap of steel*

October 16th: The bearded patriarch / With the Old Testament eyes

October 17th: He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so few

At daybreak on the 18th of October, Colonel Lee sent his aide de camp, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, to the door of the engine house with an offer. He wrote in his Report Concerning the Attack at Harpers Ferry, “Knowing the character of the leader of the insurgents, I did not expect it would be accepted.” The offer read:

Colonel Lee, United States army, commanding the troops sent by the President of the United States to suppress the insurrection at this place, demands the surrender of the persons in the armory buildings. If they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept in safety to await the orders of the President. Colonel Lee represents to them, in all frankness, that it is impossible for them to escape; that the armory is surrounded on all sides by troops; and that if he is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.

And indeed, it was not accepted. Lt. Stuart gave the signal, and two Marines who had been provided with sledgehammers began to batter at one door of the engine house. As Col. Lee reported,

The fire-engines within the house had been placed by the besieged close to the doors. The doors were fastened by ropes, the spring of which prevented their being broken by the blows of the hammers. The men were therefore ordered to drop the hammers, and, with a portion of the reserve, to use as a battering-ram a heavy ladder, with which they dashed in a part of the door and gave admittance to the storming party. The fire of the insurgents up to this time had been harmless. At the threshold one marine fell mortally wounded. The rest, led by Lieutenant Green and Major Russell, quickly ended the contest. The insurgents that resisted were bayoneted. Their leader, John Brown, was cut down by the sword of Lieutenant Green, and our citizens were protected by both officers and men. The whole was over in a few minutes.

The Provisional Army of the United States was defeated. Six civilians were killed, nine were wounded. Two Marines died, one shot in the abdomen and the other in the face during the storming of the engine house. Ten members of John Brown’s Provisional Army were killed, five were captured (including John Brown), and seven escaped (four who had been at Harpers Ferry and the three left behind at Kennedy Farm). Of those who escaped, two were captured not long after in Pennsylvania. Owen Brown, Francis Meriam, Charles Tidd, Barclay Coppoc, and Osborne Anderson were the only ones who managed to escape retribution.

Israel Green, a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, later wrote his account of what happened during the storming of the engine house. I have not used it here; Green wrote it in 1885 and what jumps out immediately is that he got the date wrong. He may be pardoned for being sketchy on the details 26 years later, but attempts to report them anyway and I regard it as slightly dubious.

Osborne Anderson wrote an account of the events at Harpers Ferry, the only one from one of John Brown’s Provisional Army. His account, written in 1861, seems much more reliable.

* A line from Frederick Douglass’s 1881 speech at Storer College


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  1. […] 18th: I could see Harpers Ferry only as a trap of steel * Title from Stephen Vincent Benet’s long poem “John Brown’s Body”. […]

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