Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter I: Services in the United States Army: Supresses "John Brown Raid" at Harper's Ferry

The Document

I saw but little of my father after we left West Point. He went to Texas, as I have stated, in '55 and remained until the fall of '57, the time of my grandfather's death. He was then at Arlington about a year. Returning to his regiment, he remained in Texas until the autumn of '59, when he came again to Arlington, having applied for leave in order to finish the settling of my grandfather's estate. During this visit he was selected by the Secretary of War to suppress the famous "John Brown Raid," and was sent to Harper's Ferry in command of the United States troops.

From his memorandum book the following entries were taken:

"October 17, 1859. Received orders from the Secretary of War in person, to repair in evening train to Harper's Ferry.

"Reached Harper's Ferry at 11 P.M.... Posted marines in the United States Armory. Waited until daylight, as a number of citizens were held as hostages, whose lives were threatened. Tuesday about sunrise, with twelve marines, under Lieutenant Green, broke in the door of the engine-house, secured the insurgents, and relieved the prisoners unhurt. All the insurgents killed or mortally wounded, but four, John Brown, Stevens, Coppie, and Shields."

Brown was tried and convicted and sentenced to be hanged on December 2, 1859. Colonel Lee writes as follows to his wife:

"Harper's Ferry, December 1, 1859.

"I arrived here, dearest Mary, yesterday about noon, with four companies from Fort Monroe, and was busy all the evening and night getting accommodation for the men, etc., and posting sentinels and piquets to insure timely notice of the approach of the enemy. The night has passed off quietly. The feelings of the community seem to be calmed down, and I have been received with every kindness. Mr. Fry is among the officers from Old Point. There are several young men, former acquaintances of ours, as cadets, Mr. Bingham of Custis's class, Sam Cooper, etc., but the senior officers I never met before, except Captain Howe, the friend of our Cousin Harriet R---.

"I presume we are fixed here till after the 16th. To-morrow will probably be the last of Captain Brown. There will be less interest for the others, but still I think the troops will not be withdrawn till they are similarly disposed of.

"Custis will have informed you that I had to go to Baltimore the evening I left you, to make arrangements for the transportation of the troops.... This morning I was introduced to Mrs. Brown, who, with a Mrs. Tyndall and a Mr. And Mrs. McKim, all from Philadelphia, had come on to have a last interview with her husband. As it is a matter over which I have no control I referred them to General Taliaferro [General William B. Taliaferro, commanding Virginia troops at Harper's Ferry].

"You must write to me at this place. I hope you are all well. Give love to everybody. Tell Smith [Sydney Smith Lee, of the United States Navy, his brother] that no charming women have insisted on taking care of me as they are always doing of him--I am left to my own resources. I will write you again soon, and will always be truly and affectionately yours,
"Mrs. M. C. Lee. R. E. Lee"

Next: Commands the Department of Texas

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee, http://www.historyofwar.org/sources/acw/lee_letters/chapter01h.html, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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