Harpers Ferry – Marines Take the Fort

Earlier this morning we made the drive up to Harpers Ferry to observe the Sesquicentennial events recalling John Brown’s raid of 1859.  With weather shading from “crisp” to “miserable,” I didn’t want to keep my four-year-old traveling partner out too long.  As most of the events planned were oriented to older audiences, we focused on “The Final Assault” event where the Marines are depicted storming John Brown’s Fort.  The event was timed to occur at roughly the 150th anniversary to the hour.

But of course, the “location” is a little out of place.

Original Location of the Armory Fire Engine House
Original Location of the Armory Fire Engine House

With changes to the railroad lines after the Civil War, the fire engine house was first torn down and used at various venues as an attraction.  Later the “fort” stood on the grounds of Storer College west of the original site.  In 1968 the Park Service brought the structure back to Lower Town, but about 100 feet from the original location.

John Brown's Fort Today
John Brown's Fort Today

Standing in front of the “fort” in this view are several living historians and U.S. Marines dressed in period uniforms.  Moments later, a USMC Gunnery Sergeant began a presentation detailing the events which unfolded on October 16-17, 1859.

Marine Presentation.  Hoohaa!
Marine Presentation. Hoohaa!

There’s something which Gunnery Sergeants learn along the way which allows them to “command” attention.   And it was a real treat to hear from a Marine, about actions taken by Marines.  The Gunny explained the background behind John Brown and the key events.  But his tone and focus was directed toward the military aspects of the raid and response. Particularly Gunny pointed out the arrival of Virginia Militia (some of which came from Loudoun County BTW) and later a detachment of US Marines on October 17.  The Army, of course, was represented by one Colonel Robert E. Lee and a Lieutenant Stuart using the moniker J.E.B.

Shortly into the presentation, a reenactor portraying John Brown stepped forward to offer his interpretation.

John Brown Speaks
John Brown Speaks

When the reenactor returned inside the “fort,” the Gunny then explained the events that unfolded on the morning of October 18.  Colonel Lee, faced questions of jurisdiction among those tactical problems presented by John Brown with his hostages.  At first Lee turned to the militia, then he asked the Marines to storm the building.  The Marines used axes in their first attempt to break down the door.

Axes Against the Door
Axes Against the Door

Not a good action shot, as I just missed the timing of the click.  But the two Marines front and center of the door were swinging axes, were we pretended the doors were shut.  Our narrator noted that the Marines then grabbed a ladder to use as a battering ram.

Ladder Against the Door
Ladder Against the Door

This, the narrator pointed out, turned out much more effective and soon the Marines were able to break into the “fort.”

The Marines Go In
The Marines Go In

Note one casualty laying to the left of the door.  This was Luke Quinn, killed as the party stormed into the engine house.  Our Gunny narrator pointed out the storming party was told that those who held their hands up were hostages.  Those who were holding weapons were obviously raiders.  Sort of simple rules of engagement, if you ask me.  (Perhaps another topic for another time!)

Shortly the Marines emerged with John Brown in custody, and the hostages set free.

John Brown Captured
John Brown Captured

Thus concluded the final assault.  The Gunny related some details of Brown’s trial and execution.  Then as a closing note, he pointed out that Harpers Ferry was, to the Marine Corps, sacred ground – one of the Corps’ battlefields where some of their number shed blood.

As related earlier, with the weather less than pleasant today, we cut our trip short.  Earlier in the day we’d stopped at Loudoun Heights to converse with Robert Moore, a.k.a. Cenantua, concerning the engagement fought there in January 1864.  So all told my “aide” and I were out in the elements for about 3-4 hours.  Yes, let me again say it’s rather convenient living in Loudoun County when planning Civil War related day trips!

So the Sequi is off and running.  I’ve had a week that has included a presentation from Ed Bearss, local author book fair in Leesburg, and finally the observance at Harpers Ferry.  I’m looking forward to the events as they start up again next year, and particularly over 2011-12.  This week was a good start!

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “Harpers Ferry – Marines Take the Fort

  1. Thanks for posting on today’s HF event. I was there Friday and Saturday, and was disappointed to not make it today. So, it was nice to live it through your experience. I’ll soon write some posts of my own ‘sesqui’ observances over the past few days. Thanks again for sharing yours! By the way, smart move in observing (I’m guessing) from the original site. Makes for a great visual perspective!

  2. Did the marines mention how Lt. Green stabbed Brown several times with his sword? One account says Brown wasn’t killed because when Green raced to the Ferry from D.C. on the 17th he buckled on his thin bladed dress sword by mistake.

    They probably didn’t mention the mutilation of some of the raiders bodies, too gruesome for the kids.

    I wish I could have been there. I got bogged down trying to post about the raid in real time because of the 13th Mass’s connection to the Engine House (via the bell they eventually took home to Massachusetts).

    I learned very quickly that the sources for the raid are plentiful, but contradictory and confusing!

    …Wish I lived closer…
    Thanks for posting these pictures. Its great to see since I can’t be there in person.

  3. Craig,

    Did you say the full colonel “asked” the sergeant in charge of the marines to storm the building? Interesting interpretation.

    You didn’t happen to record any markers from the 1862 escape while you were there, did you?

    1. Word choice on my part, Don, but keep in mind that Lee didn’t command the militia and his authority over the Marines was based on a temporary agreement at the top level (pre-Goldwater-Nichols you know!). Here’s the marker for the 1862 escape – http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=20532 – not much to be excited about, with only a few lines to “Grimes” and he is not mentioned by name.

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