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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. I
p394
Chapter XXIII

An Introduction to Militant Abolitionism

Lee returned home from the court-martial in New York and put all his energy behind the autumn work at Arlington in the belief that he could soon complete the last of the necessary repairs and rejoin his regiment. He was busy at this on the morning on October 17, 1859, when Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class."Jeb" Stuart arrived with a sealed note from Colonel Drinkard, chief clerk of the War Department. The message was a brief order for Lee to report to the Secretary of War immediately.1

Setting out at once, in civilian clothes, Lee soon learned that the government had received from John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, news of a mysterious insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Va. Trains had been stopped; firing had been heard; rumor had it that strangers had entered the town in large numbers and were inciting the slaves to a rising. What that might imply, nobody had to tell Lee, for he had been at Fort Monroe when the Nat Turner insurrection had occurred, that bloody massacre which the South for almost twenty years had been fearing the Negroes would repeat. The place of the insurrection seemed chosen with a design that made it potentially the more serious, for in Harpers Ferry, at the junction of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers, the United States maintained an armory and arsenal, where rifles were made and stored.2

It might be a serious affair, calling for instant action. Troops had been ordered from Fort Monroe during the morning; the service of Maryland militiamen had been accepted; a detachment of marines from the Washington navy yard had been ordered to the scene; Lee was to take command of all the forces, acting p395 with his brevet rank of colonel. Orders were quickly issued,3 and Lee went with the secretary to the White House, accompanied by Lieutenant Stuart, who had been at the War Department negotiating for the use of his patent on a sword-attachment when he had been requested to carry the message to Arlington. Sensing trouble, Stuart had immediately asked the privilege of going with Lee.4

Not knowing the magnitude of the rising, the President and his military adviser prepared for the worst, and drew up a proclamation, which Lee was authorized to use if conditions justified. Armed with this document, and without waiting to put on a uniform, Lee hurried with Stuart by train to the Relay House, eight miles from Baltimore, whither the marines had gone from Washington at 3:30 P.M. to take the train for Harpers Ferry.5 The two officers arrived after the cars for Harpers Ferry had left, but Lee was told that a locomotive would soon be brought up to carry him to his destination. He accordingly telegraphed orders to the marines on the train ahead of him to stop at Sandy Hook, slightly more than a mile from Harpers Ferry, and to await his arrival. The senior line officer with the marines was a lieutenant, Israel Green. They were accompanied by Major W. W. Russell, but he was a paymaster and could not take command. But this time alarm was general. Rumor had swollen the number of insurgents to 500. Lee so notified the secretary at 7:45 P.M.6

Aboard a roaring locomotive, Lee reached Sandy Hook at 10 o'clock and found the marines waiting for him there, along with four companies of Maryland militia, under a brigadier general of that state. Lee learned quickly that the bridge to Harpers Ferry was open, that the number of the insurgents had been greatly exaggerated, and that those who had survived a day of desultory fighting with the militia had taken refuge in the fire-engine house, within the armory enclosure. They had carried with them a number of hostages whom they had captured during the night of October 16‑17, when they had first descended on Harpers Ferry. Firing, slow and half-hearted, was still in progress. The leader p396 of the band, Lee heard, was a man styling himself Smith, who had been seen at Harpers Ferry and in Maryland before the attack. Lee ascertained, too, that Harpers Ferry was already swarming with Virginia militia and armed citizens, and that the engine house could be surrounded with little difficulty. There were troops enough, and to spare, for the only work ahead — that of storming the place. For this reason Lee telegraphed instructions to Baltimore that the troops dispatched from Fort Monroe should not be sent on. The message was duly received by the commanding officer, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. O. C. Ord, whose name Lee was to hear more than once in the years that lay ahead.7 Lee decided, also, to refrain from issuing the President's proclamation, because he did not deem the rising of such moment as to justify the document.8 At 11 o'clock P.M. that night (October 17), he crossed the river and placed the militia in the armory enclosure with marines. His inclination was to attack at once, but he feared that if he entered the engine house in the darkness the hostages, who included some of the most prominent men of the neighborhood, member slain in the mêlée.9 He determined to survey the ground, to make ready for an assault on the engine house at daylight, and, meantime, to drawº up a summons to the insurgents, in case they might be induced to yield and to give up their prisoners. This was the letter he addressed to the men in the armory, of whose identity he was not yet certain, though it was reported, about this hour of the night, that the leader of the gang was one John Brown, a notorious antislavery partisan from Kansas:10

Headquarters Harpers Ferry,   
October 18, 1859.            

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.

R. E. LEE                                                                      
Colonel Commanding United States Troops.11         

Lee gave this message to Stuart about 2 A.M. and told him to deliver it, under a white flag, at the door of the engine house when directed to do so by a subsequent order. Lee intended to have the militia paraded and drawn up around the armory by the time he gave that order so that the insurgents would see he was not bluffing when he said the place was surrounded. Stuart was then to read the message to the insurgents, and was to tell them that if they accepted the terms they were to surrender their arms at once and give up their hostages. Lee did not believe the insurgents would do this, and he had to figure on the possibility that after they had refused his terms, they would threaten to kill, or might actually slay their captives, unless allowed safe conduct from the place. How would Lee guard against this? He decided that if he stormed the engine house the instant the insurgent leader declined to surrender he could probably save the hostages. Accordingly he told Stuart not to entertain any counter-proposal, but to give a signal the very moment the insurgent rejected his demand. On that signal, a storming party was to batter in the door and attack the insurgents with the bayonet. No shots were to be fired, lest some of the hostages be hit.12

Who were to form the storming party? Lee felt that as the insurrection was apparently directed against state authority, the p398 militia, if they desired to do so, should have the honor of capturing the invaders. About 6:30, therefore, he asked Colonel Shriver, head of the Maryland volunteers in Harpers Ferry, whether his men wanted to deliver the assaults. Shriver immediately declined. His soldiers, he said, had only come to help the people of Harpers Ferry. "These men of mine," he went on, "have wives and children at home. I will not expose them to such risks. You are paid for doing this kind of work." Lee then inquired of Colonel Robert W. Baylor, senior officer of the Virginia militia companies, whether he wished to organize the forlorn hope. Baylor also declined. Lee thereupon turned to Lieutenant Green of the marines, to know if he wished the honor of "taking those men out." Green doffed his hat and warmly thanked Lee, who thereupon told him to pick twelve men from his detachment as a storming party. Green immediately did so and selected a dozen others as a reserve. Three were told off to break in the doors of the engine house with hammers, and all of them were instructed personally by Lee to employ only the bayonet. He explained to them, also, how to distinguish the captured civilians, and he ordered them not to injure the slaves in the building, unless the Negroes offered resistance. This last order was prompted by lack of knowledge whether the Negroes were in the conspiracy.

It was 7 o'clock on the morning of October 18 when arrangements were complete, and the light was sufficient for the assault to be made. In civilian clothes still, and unarmed, Lee took his stand on a slight elevation, about forty feet from the doors of the engine house. Stuart was ready with his flag of truce. He and Green had agreed that a wave of Stuart's hat was to be the signal that the insurrectionists rejected the terms. Green and his selected twenty-four men were close by but out of the line of fire, which had virtually ceased during the night. The militia were in position, surrounding the building at a little distance. The whole population of the town and most of the countryside had gathered to witness the assault. Fully 2000 people were looking on when Stuart advanced with his flag to the entrance of the engine house. In answer to his summons, a gaunt, begrimed old man opened one of the doors about four inches and thrust out a carbine. p399 Stuart, who had been on duty in Kansas, immediately confirmed the identification of this man. He was none other than "Ossawatomie" John Brown. Stuart read Lee's terms, which Brown at once began to argue. He wanted assurance that he would be permitted to leave the town with his prisoners and his wagon. He must be free to cross the bridge into Maryland, and to go along the road by the canal to a certain point. Then he would liberate his captives. Almost before Stuart could announce that Lee would entertain no counter-proposal, Brown was advancing another compromise. The hostages in the engine house overheard all this, of course, and some of them began to importune Stuart to call to Colonel Lee and see if he would not modify the terms set forth in the note. One voice from within cried out in a very different tone, "Never mind us, fire!" The speaker was Lewis W. Washington, grandnephew of the general. Lee, who knew him well, recognized his inflections and remarked quietly, "The old revolutionary blood does tell!"13

Stuart continued trying to explain that Lee would not consider any other terms. Brown babbled on; the hostages kept up their appeal. It was a long parley. Finally Stuart broke away, stepped from in front of the house, and waved his hat. On the second three of Green's marines advanced with their sledgehammers and tried to batter down the doors with them. The defenders opened fire almost as soon. In a moment it became evident that the doors were secured in such a way that they would spring inward under every blow. Green ordered the men to drop the hammers and move away. Looking about him, he saw a long ladder lying on the ground nearby, and he told some of his men to pick this up and use it instead of the sledges. Major Russell, with nothing in his hand but a rattan switch, advanced with these marines to the doors. One thrust of the improvised battering-ram was futile. At the next a ragged hole was splintered in one door. Lieutenant Green came from the abutment, where he had been directing the attack, and crept through the hole, armed only with his light dress sword. Russell followed him. The next man, a marine private, was shot down, mortally wounded. The fourth was struck in the face by a bullet. A few seconds more and the detachment p400 was all inside. Three minutes after Stuart had given his signal, the affair was over. There were four dead men on the floor, two of whom had been killed prior to the assault that morning. One man was dying from an earlier bullet. Brown himself was be bleeding from the wounds inflicted by Lieutenant Green's sword and was thought to be mortally wounded. Two others were uninjured. The hostages, thirteen in number, were dirty and half-famished, but all of them had escaped bullets and bayonets. Colonel Lewis Washington refused to come out until a pair of gloves were brought, so that his neighbors might not see his soiled hands.14

The dead and the wounded were carried from the building and were laid on the grass. John Brown was soon removed to the paymaster's adjacent office. The day before there had been talk of violence on the part of half-drunken rowdies, but there was nothing of the sort now. Lee's authority was fully respected, and he was left to handle the situation as he saw fit. He had not regarded the affair at any time after his arrival as of great consequence,15 and he now considered the "invasion" at an end. In a brief report filed about this hour for the Secretary of War, he no longer dignified John Brown's men as insurrectionists, but dismissed them as "rioters."16 A little later in the day, however, he took care to send two parties across the Potomac into Maryland to search for missing men and to seize Brown's depot of arms.17

About 1 o'clock that afternoon arrived Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia, Senator James M. Mason, and other dignitaries. All of them wanted to see and question Brown, whose injuries had been found by a surgeon to be superficial. Lee had Brown's wounded lieutenant, Aaron Stevens, brought over from the hotel and laid beside his chief, but before permitting Brown to be quizzed he told him that he would exclude all the visitors if they annoyed him or caused him pain.18 Brown was willing, indeed anxious, to talk, and for three hours answered his questioners and argued with them on slavery. Lee's part in the interview was p401 confined to noting the names of those whom Brown mentioned as members of his party. After he left Brown, Lee took the names Brown had given him and checked them, with Stuart's assistance, by the known dead and captured, and by a roll of the band that had been found at Brown's Maryland headquarters.19 Some papers that seemed to throw light on the real purpose of the foolish attempt, Lee forwarded to the War Department by Major Russell, who was ready to return to Washington. In successive brief reports during the day he kept the secretary apprised of events.

As for the troops, Lee thought the militia might readily be dismissed but he deemed it necessary to keep the marines on the ground temporarily. His one concern was over the disposition of Brown and the other prisoners, and on this point he asked the instructions of the Secretary of War.20 No decision having been reached at that time determining how the prisoners were to be tried, the War Department instructed Lee to place Brown and the other survivors in the joint custody of the United States marshal and of the sheriff of the county (Jefferson) where the insurrection had been attempted.21 Lee made a final check of the conspirators on the morning of October 19 with Andrew Hunter, whom Governor Wise had designated as prosecutor;22 then Lee had the prisoners removed by train to Charlestown, the county seat, under Lieutenant Green and an escort of marines.

As this seemed to him the last scene in his part of the drama, he began to draft his final report and to prepare the marines for their return to Washington. That night, about 9 o'clock, a wild tale came to Harpers Ferry that an attack had been made by insurrectionists on the village of Pleasant Valley, Md., some five miles away. Lee thought the story improbable but proceeded there in person with Stuart, Green, and twenty-five marines, only to find the village quiet and the report entirely false.23 He returned to Harpers Ferry, brought his report down to that hour, took his command back to Washington on the train leaving at 1:15 A.M., and the next morning, October 20, completed the report and p402 presented himself at the War Department.24 The Virginia state authorities had not complained at the withdrawal of the marines and had, if anything, been disposed to take the whole case in their hands; but shortly after Lee's departure Governor Wise entered a protest at the withdrawal of the Federal force and pointed out the unprotected condition of Harpers Ferry.25

After a few days at home, and about a fortnight's service on a board of officers considering the form of ceremonials and parades,26 Lee was ordered back to Harpers Ferry. The radical abolitionist element in the North had been aroused to a frenzy by the assumed "martyrdom" of Brown. Irresponsible men were filling the mails with threats to rescue him and to harry Virginia in revenge for the impending execution of the man. Governor Wise had become deeply alarmed lest these threats be carried out, and while ordering Virginia militia and cadets to Charlestown he had asked President Buchanan to send Lee to Harpers Ferry again with sufficient troops to repel any attempt to seize the arsenal. The President had regarded the reports Wise forwarded him as "almost incredible,"27 but on November 29, he had the Secretary of War issue the necessary orders to Lee.28 Lee first went to Baltimore to make arrangements for transferring the four companies of troops that were being sent him by steamship from Fort Monroe. Then he proceeded with them to Harpers Ferry, where he arrived about noon on November 30 and posted guard.29 The next day he met Mrs. John Brown. She had come to ask permission to say farewell to her husband, who had been convicted and was to be hanged at Charlestown on December 2. Lee had no control over the prisoner or the execution and could only refer the sad woman to General William B. Taliaferro, commander of the Virginia troops.30

The day of Brown's execution passed without the appearance p403 of any of the desperadoes who were supposed to be massing. At Harpers Ferry nothing more exciting happened than the arrival of Brown's body and its transshipment to Philadelphia. Although Lee improved the idle time of the troops by drilling them in target practice, he and the men alike were glad when orders came on December 9 for a return on December 12 to their station.31 The country continued to debate bitterly the rights and wrongs of Brown's attempt, but the affair seems to have affected Lee very little. It influenced his views of pending political questions not at all, for he had very quickly made up his mind regarding Brown. "The result," he said in his report of October 19, written within thirty hours after the capture of the engine house, "proves that the plan was the attempt of a fanatic or madman. . . ."32 He did not believe that the Negroes would respond to such appeals as Brown had made, and he troubled himself no more about it. From the time of his return home after his second journey to Harpers Ferry there is only a casual reference or two to John Brown in the whole of his correspondence during the rest of his life. If he felt depression at the display of hysterical sympathy with Brown, and at the appearance of bitter anti-Southern spirit in the North, he doubtless reflected that there were also extremists in his own section.

Lee had expected that the work at Arlington would have progressed far enough by the end of October to make it possible for him to leave at that time for Texas,33 and he had procured an assignment of duty in Washington for Custis, so that the prospective master of Arlington might supervise the estate.34 Orders had been issued prior to December 14 for him to join his regiment, but these had been suspended, at Senator Mason's request and without Lee's knowledge, in order that he might be a witness in the Harpers Ferry investigation.35 He was called on January 10, 1860, but was asked only a few unimportant questions — chiefly to explain how he had prepared his list of the raiders and what he had found about the guarding of the armory in normal times.36 p404 This duty discharged, Lee was assigned on February 6, 1860, to temporary command of the Department of Texas, according to his brevet rank, with headquarters in San Antonio. It was a distinction, of course, to have departmental command, but as it was an accidental appointment, due to the fact that no colonel of the army was in Texas, Lee attached no importance to it.37

After he waved good-bye to his family and set out for Texas on February 10, 1860,38 Lee was to spend less than three months of the remaining ten years of his life under the friendly old roof of Arlington. Like the fated victim in a Greek tragedy, he was coming under the influences of forces he could not control, forces against which it was futile for him even to struggle. Those last months of homely hard work at Arlington had merely rendered his destiny more certain. Some other Southern-born officers, sent for long tours of duty on distant stations, had lost contact with their states and with the social implications of the doctrine of states' rights. The development of the concept of a nation had eclipsed in their minds the older principle that a man's first duty was to his state. It had never been so with Lee. Often his post of duty had been close to Virginia. Always he had come back to Arlington as frequently as he could, no matter where he had been assigned. The spirit of Virginia had been alive in his heart every hour of his life. It had become more potent than ever during 1857‑59, when he had sensed her feeling, had seen her reaction to the hostility of abolitionists, and had mingled much with his countless cousins, whose faith in Virginia's political rightness was as unquestioning as their belief in God. While in Texas, during the next fourteen months, he was to read of the coming crisis in a full understanding of how Virginia interpreted it. Having ploughed her fields, he had a new sense of oneness with her. He was a United States officer who loved the army and had pride in the Union, but something very deep in his heart kept him mindful that he had been a Virginian before he had been a soldier.


The Author's Notes:

1 J. B. Floyd, Secretary of War, to Colonel Drinkard, MSS., Oct. 17, 1859 (two letters), A. G. O.

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2 O. W. Villard: John Brown, A Biography After Fifty Years (cited hereafter as Villard), 433.

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3 MS. A. G. O., vol. 6, S. O. 194, Oct. 17, 1859.

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4 H. B. McClellan: The Life and Campaigns of . . . J. E. B. Stuart (cited hereafter as H. B. McClellan), 28; Villard, 449.

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5 The B. & O. at that time had no direct line between Washington and Harpers Ferry.

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6 Lee to Secretary of War, MS., Oct. 17, 1859, 7:45 P.M.; A. G. O.

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7 Lee to the Adjutant General, U. S. A., MS., Oct. 18, 1859; A. G. O. Cf. Correspondence Relating to the Insurrection at Harper's Ferry, 17th October, 1859 (Maryland Senate Document Y, March 2, 1860, p19; cited hereafter as Md. Doc. Y).

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8 The only mention of this proclamation is in Lee's MS., report of Oct. 19, 1859, A. G. O. Along the side of the paragraph referring to the proclamation is the contemporary pencilled word "omit." Nothing in the published document, the "Mason Report," indicates this omission. That is why the incident escaped the biographers of Brown. The content of the proclamation is not known. It probably established temporary martial law. The "Mason Report" is the Report of the Select Committee of the Senate appointed to inquire into the late Invasion and Seizure of the Public Property at Harper's Ferry (Senate Com. Report No. 278, 1st sess., 36th Cong., Washington, 1860; the "testimony" in this report has separate pagination).

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9 Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia telegraphed Lee to "make no terms with the insurgents before I reach you" (Md. Doc. Y, p20), and subsequently believed that Lee had acted on his suggestion, but "Jeb" Stuart thought it doubtful whether Lee ever received Wise's message and was sure Lee acted on his own initiative. See Stuart's statement in Jones, L. and L., 106‑7.

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10 Cf. report of Associated Press Correspondent Fulton, dated midnight, Oct. 17‑18, 1859; Md. Doc. Y, p19.

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11 Mason Report, 43‑44.

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12 Lee in Mason Report, 41‑42.

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13 Mason Report, 67.

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14 The best general narrative of the storming of the engine-house is in Villard, 451‑55; for Lee's official account, see Mason Report, 40‑43. Stuart's letter describing the affair is in H. B. McClellan, 29‑30; Green, years afterwards, wrote his version in North American Review, December, 1885.

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15 Green, loc. cit., 568.

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16 Lee to Secretary of War, MS., Oct. 18, 1859 [received 10:30 A.M.]; A. G. O.

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17 Lee's report, loc. cit., 42.

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18 Villard, 456.

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19 Lee in Mason Report, Testimony, 46.

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20 Lee to Secretary of War, Oct. 18, two MS. reports and one telegram; A. G. O.

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21 Villard, 470.

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22 Lee in Mason Report, Testimony, 46.

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23 Lee's report, ibid., 43; Villard, 470‑71.

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24 Lee in Mason Report, Testimony, 46. Cf. Lee's brief diary entries for this period, in R. W. Winston: Robert E. Lee (cited hereafter as Winston), 71‑72.

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25 Henry A. Wise to President Buchanan, MS., Oct. 24, 1859; MS., A. G. O.; Calendar Va. State Papers, vol. 11, 81‑82.

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26 MS. A. G. O., Nov. 2, 22, 1859; vol. 6, S. O., 214, 229. He served with this board Nov. 10‑22, 1859.

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27 Villard, 524.

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28 MS., order of Nov. 29, 1859, in Lee's autograph, signed by the Secretary of War, A. G. O.

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29 MS. A. G. O., Lee to A. G., Nov. 30, 1859.

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30 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 1, 1859; R. E. Lee, Jr., 22‑23.

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31 MS. A. G. O., Lee to A. G., Dec. 10, 1859.

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32 Mason Report, 42.

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33 MS. A. G. O., Lee to A. G., Oct. 1, 1859.

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34 Jones, L. and L., 109.

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35 J. M. Mason to Secretary of War, MS., Dec. 13, 1859; Secretary of War to J. M. Mason, MS., Dec. 14, 1859; MS. A. G. O.

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36 Mason Report, Testimony, 46‑47. For Lee's report on a controversy with the Maryland volunteers, regarding captured arms, see Lee to A. G., MS., Dec. 24, 1859; A. G. O.

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37 Cf. Lee to unnamed correspondent, 1860: "My present position being but accidental . . . " (Mason, 70).

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38 R. E. Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, MS., Feb. 9, 1860; Duke Univ. MSS.


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