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