Most people know that Robert E. Lee served in the United States Army with distinction, especially during the Mexican-American War. Yet, many do not know that Lee played a major role in putting down a rebellion against the United States just prior to the Civil War. 

On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and a group of over 20 men, raided the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). They were attempting to start a slave uprising and destroy slavery in the United States.

Brown’s audacious plan was doomed to failure from the outset. While most people north of the Mason-Dixon line had generally approved of what Brown’s ultimate goal was, even the most fervent abolitionists felt it was foolhardy at best. It was indicative of how far the country had drifted apart and had become hopelessly divided. Brown would be hung for his actions but the country would soon be drawn into a bloody civil war. Brown’s aim of stopping slavery would become a reality just a few years and about 620,000 deaths later. 

Brown had struggled financially throughout his life and had had numerous lawsuits taken out against him. But his entire life was altered after he attended an anti-slavery meeting in 1842. The thought of ending the practice of slavery would consume the rest of his days. Reportedly, he planned on conducting a slave insurrection as early as 1848.

Brown went from talking to doing. After moving to the border state of Kansas, Brown, his sons and others retaliated for a pro-slavery raid in Lawrence, Kansas. Looking for blood, Brown and his men crossed the Pottawatomie Creek and attacked three family cabins, murdering five men with swords. These actions kicked off a summer of guerrilla-style attacks that would foretell what was to come. 

Brown went east and received financial support from fervent abolitionists who supplied him and his 22-man assault team with 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and 950 pikes. Brown and his sons rented a small farm four miles away in Dargan, Maryland in the name of Isaac Smith. There, they began to prepare. Brown even tried to recruit Frederick Douglass as a liaison with the slaves they hoped to free and arm. Douglass declined, believing that Brown was making a futile attempt. According to Douglass, Brown’s plan was “an attack on the federal government” that “would array the whole country against us.” “You will never get out alive,” he said to Brown.

The federal arsenal, one of six for the United States Army, contained about 100,000 muskets and rifles. Brown’s plan was to raid it and use its weapons to lead an uprising of the area’s slaves. Then, his goal was to lead them into Tennessee or perhaps all the way to Alabama.

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The small Dargan farmhouse was crowded and the men kept indoors during daylight hours. His daughter and daughter-in-law would cook and keep watch. The men would only leave the house in darkness to drill. He was convinced the slaves would flock to his banner and fight the slaveholders of the area. (He believed that up to 250 slaves would join his forces.) He was wrong.

On the night of October 16, Brown set off with his plan. He left four men as a rearguard at the farm, including one of his sons. He sent a small detachment under John Cook Jr. to capture Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington, at his Beall-Air estate and take him hostage. Brown also wanted some of Washington’s slaves, and two relics of General George Washington, a sword allegedly presented to Washington by Frederick the Great and two pistols that were given by Marquis de Lafayette. Brown considered these two prizes as talismans.

The rest of the men went with him into Harpers Ferry. Initially, things went well. The raiders captured several night watchmen, cut the telegraph wires, and stopped a train that had pulled into the station. 

The first casualty of the raid was a harbinger of the things to come. In a cruel twist of fate, Hayward Shepherd, a free black man who was working as a baggage handler on the train was shot and killed by the raiders. Brown allowed the train to continue, believing that word of their raid would galvanize the slaves in the area making them rush to their aid. Once again, Brown was wrong.

Brown’s men were able to take the armory although the townspeople were beginning to form up against him.

Early on October 17, the local militia was alerted and captured the bridge across the Potomac, cutting Brown’s escape route. The locals and militia were soon encircling the armory in an attempt to surround the raiders. The shooting began and four civilians, including Harpers Ferry’s mayor, were killed.

Realizing his situation was becoming hopeless, Brown took nine hostages and moved into the small engine house, which later became known as John Brown’s Fort. He and his men barricaded the doors and windows and began sporadic gunfire with the militia. Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag for an official parlay. 

The militiamen, having already seen several of their neighbors shot down, was having none of it. It shot the two men, mortally wounding Watson and taking the other man, Aaron Dwight Stevens, prisoner. During the subsequent fusillade, Brown’s other son, Oliver, would also become mortally wounded. He would die the next day. One of Brown’s raiders, William Leeman, who was just 20 years old, panicked and tried to swim the Potomac to safety. He was killed without getting far.

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A second militia company arrived at 1500 hrs and freed the 24 hostages from the guardroom.

By 1530 hrs, President James Buchanan had ordered Marines from their nearby D.C. barracks at 8th and I to Harpers Ferry to put down the raid. The Marines were placed under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was on leave from Texas with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment.

Accompanying Lee was Lt. J.E.B. Stuart who had been assigned to the new 1st Cavalry in the west.

Stuart was under the command of John Sedgwick, who would be the highest-ranking officer killed in the upcoming Civil War. Stuart had designed a new saber attachment for the cavalry and was given a patent. Sedgwick had granted him leave so that Stuart could sell his patent to the Army. When Stuart learned what was going on in Harpers Ferry, he volunteered as the aide de camp for Lee. 

Colonel Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart, who would be inexorably tied to the Confederacy as part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, hadn’t met before.

On the morning of the 18th, Lee sent Stuart under a white flag to offer Brown’s men a chance to surrender. If they refused, the Marines under the command of Lt. Greene were to attack the small engine house. Brown refused to surrender and walking away, Stuart waved his cap signaling their refusal. Greene’s men then stormed the small engine house and Brown and the remaining surviving raiders were captured.

Lee sent an after-action report to Washington, stating that Brown was “a madman” and that his plan reflected that. Lee also exonerated the blacks and slaves in Brown’s presence by stating: “The blacks, whom [Brown] forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance.”

Afterward, there were some historians who claimed that it was Stuart and not Greene who led the raid. While this may make for a more entertaining footnote to the entire war that was soon to transpire, it is not true. A letter that Stuart wrote to his mother after the incident gave some incredible insight into what happened. Stuart quickly put any ideas to rest that he led the assault and went out of his way to give the proper credit to Greene. Perhaps the most intriguing part of his recollections to his mother is that they could belong to any time.

“Colonel Lee was sent to command the forces at Harper’s Ferry. I volunteered as his aide. I had no command whatever. The United States Marines are a branch of the naval force, — there was not an enlisted man of the army on hand. Lieutenant Green was sent in command. Major Russell had been requested by the Secretary of the Navy to accompany the marines, but, being a paymaster, could exercise no command; yet it was his corps. For Colonel Lee to have put me in command of the storming party would have been an outrage to Lieutenant Green, which would have rung through the navy for twenty years. As well might they send him out here to command my company of cavalry…

      I, too, had a part to perform, which prevented me in a measure from participating in the very brief onset made so gallantly by Green and Russell, well backed by their men. I was deputed by Colonel Lee to read to the leader, then called Smith, a demand to surrender immediately; and I was instructed to leave the door after his refusal, which was expected, and wave my cap; at which signal the storming party was to advance, batter open the doors, and capture the insurgents at the point of the bayonet. Colonel Lee cautioned the stormers particularly to discriminate between the insurgents and their prisoners.

      I approached the door in the presence of perhaps two thousand spectators and told Mr. Smith that I had a communication for him from Colonel Lee. He opened the door about four inches, and placed his body against the crack, with a cocked carbine in his hand: hence his remark after his capture that he could have wiped me out like a mosquito. The parley was a long one. He presented his propositions in every possible shape, and with admirable tact; but all amounted to this: that the only condition upon which he would surrender was that he and his party should be allowed to escape. Some of his prisoners begged me to ask Colonel Lee to come and see him. I told them he would never accede to any terms but those he had offered; and as soon as I could tear myself away from their importunities I left the door and waved my cap, and Colonel Lee’s plan was carried out…

      When Smith first came to the door I recognized old Osawatomie Brown, who had given us so much trouble in Kansas. No one present but myself could have performed that service. I got his bowie-knife from his person, and have it yet.

      The same day, about eleven or twelve o’clock, Colonel Lee requested me, as Lieutenant Green had charge of the prisoners and was officer of the guard, to take a few marines and go over to old Brown’s house, four and a half miles distant, in Maryland, and see what was there. I did so, and discovered the magazine of pikes, blankets, clothing, and utensils of every sort. I could only carry off the pikes, as I had but one wagon. The next day I was occupied in delivering the various orders of Colonel Lee, and in other duties devolving on an aid-de-camp. The night after, Colonel Lee, Green, and myself, with thirty marines, marched six miles and back on a false alarm among the inhabitants of a district called Pleasant Valley.

  The prisoners having been turned over to the United States Marshal, Colonel Lee and the marines were ordered back to Washington. I went with him, and this terminated my connection with the Harper’s Ferry affair.”

John Brown was brought to Charles Town and put on trial for treason against the State of Virginia. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. On December 2, the day of his execution, he wrote in his final will an omen that would come true: 

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

Four other raiders were executed on December 16, 1859, and two more on March 16, 1860.

Lee was given the rank of full Colonel in March of 1861 signing a new oath to the U.S. But after Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy, of which he had mixed feelings. In a letter he wrote to George Washington Custis, Lee said: 

“Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.”

Stuart resigned and rose to become a Major General in the Confederate Cavalry. He was killed in action at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in 1864.