- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
The troops were quartered in the armory buildings, sentinels were duly posted, and with a feeling of perfect security the weary community sunk into repose.
By daylight on Tuesday morning everything was astir. Everybody was moving towards the armory gate; men in the dress of civilians and men in militia uniforms, men with arms in their hands, and men without, white and black,—all pressing toward the same point.
Inside the enclosure all was quiet. Brown was silent in his fort; the Marine sentinels were pacing slowly back and forth; the rest of the troops were in their improvised barracks. All was still and orderly, where but a few hours before had been confusion and noise and wounds and death. The people outside crowded up to the fence enclosing the grounds, and to the gate. Those in the front rank could almost have touched the wall of the engine house. The short street I have referred to as extending from the armory fence to the houses on the bank of the Shenandoah river; was densely packed along its whole length. So was Shenandoah street far beyond the armory premises. The windows in the surrounding houses were crowded. The railroad platform was filled to overflowing. All eyes were directed to one spot. All were awaiting the final act of the drama. It was realized that the affair was now in the hands of the United States Government. Civilians and citizen soldiers who had been pounding away all the day before, were now alike mere spectators.
Many were the rumors and speculations that passed through the crowd. Some thought Brown would now certainly realize the hopelessness of his situation, and would surrender at discretion. They little knew the nature of the man.
The situation was curious. The day before, no man would have willingly exposed any part of his body within gunshot of that little brick building. Now a dense mass of humanity surrounded it on every side, large numbers being but a few feet distant. Had Brown opened fire from his loopholes, every shot would have wrough[t] death. But had he ventured to do so, his remains and those of his comrades, would not have afforded material enough for a coroner’s inquest.
My brother and I, though not in front, were in a position from which we could easily see all that passed in the yard.
Time dragged and people became impatient. At last all was ready and the Marines filed from their barracks. Expectation was now on tiptoe, and perfect silence fell suddenly upon the multitude. The main body of troops was drawn up out of range of the engine house. Two detachments were formed, each consisting of ten or twelve men, commanded respectively by Lieutenants Stuart and Green. They were arrayed in column near the engine house door. Stuart then advanced to the door and demanded the surrender of Brown and his men. Brown replied by renewing his proposition to evacuate, provided he should be allowed to retreat a certain distance, before pursuit was begun. This was of course rejected, and Brown in turn refusing to surrender unconditionally, Stuart stepped aside and gave a signal. At once two stalwart marines from his detachment, armed with what seemed to be a heavy sledge hammer assailed the door with Titanic blows. But it was in vain. The tough mass of wood and iron resisted their efforts and they retired. What was to be done?
Near at hand was lying a long and heavy ladder. Stuart saw it. In an instant the whole of his detachment had seized it. Using it as a sort of modern battering-ram, they rushed upon the door.
While these proceedings were going forward, the detachment of Lieut. Green stood expectant.
No eye witness can ever forget the bearing of that gallant officer. He stood erect in front of his men- motionless as a statue. His head was thrown proudly back; his countenance expressive of high resolution. His men too were steady and determined.
Once—Twice—the impromptu battering ram thundered upon the door. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash and a fragment of the door some two and a half feet wide, and extending from top to bottom, was hurled in upon the defenders.
In less time than I can attempt to tell it, the motionless figure of Lieut. Green sprang into life. He leaped through the breach, followed by his men. Fortunately for him his foot tripped on the tongue of the engine or hose carriage, and he fell. At the moment, Brown himself fired; but the ball, intended for Green, struck the unfortunate Marine who followed, and he lived but few hours. Another Marine was slightly wounded in the face.
In an instant Green was upon his feet, and assailing Brown with his sabre.
It was afterwards claimed by Brown and his friends that Green sabred him after he was down and had surrendered; but the truth is that Brown not only tried to shoot him as he came in, but resisted and tried to kill him to the last. Green had no alternative but to disable him. After all, Brown’s wounds were by no means serious.
When the Marines entered the building, there was nothing appreciable to the excited spectators but noise, confusion and smoke. Not more than five minutes could have elapsed, before the soldiers emerged, bringing their prisoners, and after them, the citizens who had been kept so long in “durance vile.”
Then, and not until then, the breathless silence outside was broken, and from thousands of throats rose a shout, that rent the air.