Colonel Robert E. Lee had taken a leave of absence from the military. His father-in-law had recently passed away and left him a large, but decaying plantation called Arlington, along with 196 slaves. Adjusting to life as a planter did not come easy for him.
Lee was working at Arlington when a rider approached. It was twenty-six year old JEB Stuart who, as luck would have it, had been in the War office that morning when news of a slave rebellion reached Washington. Secretary of War John B. Floyd ordered the young cavalryman to cross the Potomac River and bring Col. Lee to the War Department.
Without wasting time to change into military garb, Lee met with the Secretary and President James Buchanan. Details were hard to come by, but initial reports estimated that some 3,000 men had captured the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and had armed local slaves. The president had already decided to send in a company of marines, as well as four companies of Maryland militiamen. Lee was in command and Stuart would serve as his aide.
When Lee arrived at Harpers Ferry, he learned that the initial estimates were wrong. Local militiamen and area farmers had done an admirable job. They had already blocked the main escape routes and the assailants were pinned in a small brick building. Lee had a plan.
He told the militia companies and the local farmers to leave the area. The marines surrounded the building.
At about 2 am, Lee wrote a note to the people in the armory building. He told them they had no escape and they must surrender immediately. If they resisted, Lee told them he could not “answer for their safety.”
Lee gave the note to JEB Stuart and told him to deliver it under a flag of truce. If Stuart encountered any difficulty in delivering the message, Lee told him to give a sign and the marines would storm the building.
At 7 am, 148 years ago today, Stuart moved into position. As he was cautiously approaching the building, the door opened slightly. A bearded man leveled the a muzzle in his direction and took aim. Stuart knew he could go no further, but he stood his ground. He opened Lee's mesasge and began to read aloud.
A voice from inside the building interrputed Stuart. The man said he had hostages and instead of surrendering, he proclaimed that he would “rather die here.” Satisfied with his refusal, Stuart backed away from the building and signaled to Lee.
The marines stormed the building. As they struggled to break the door down, John Brown fired his musket in their direction. In the ensuing chaos, two of the marines were shot and one died from his wounds. Once inside, Lt. Israel Green recognized Brown, who was busy trying to reload his musket. Green drew his sword and stabbed Brown in the neck. In less than three minutes, the situation was under control. The hostages were free and Brown had been taken alive.
Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Senator James M. Mason of Virginia, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrived in Harpers Ferry that day and personally questioned Brown for more than three hours.
They concluded that Brown was not simply a madman or a fanatic, but he was guilty of the most serious crimes applicable under the law. Justice needed to be swift. They charged him with murder, inciting a slave rebellion, and treason against the state of Virginia.
His trial would begin in nine days.