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There were approximately 50 Marines, who travelled to Harpers Ferry as part of the Corporals Course Professional Military Education trip, not much less than the total force of Marines who took a stand against John Brown's militia.

Photo by Photo by Jeremy Beale

Marines visit Harpers Ferry to learn the importance of being ’Always Ready’

10 Jan 2018 | Jeremy Beale/Staff Writer Marine Corps Base Quantico

As part of the Corporals Course, Marine Corps Base Quantico (MCBQ) Headquarters and Service Battalion (H&S Bn) joined Marine Corps University (MCU) in conducting a Professional Military Education (PME) trip in December to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with approximately 50 Marines going to learn about one of the catalysts to the Civil War.

Familiarization in Marine Corps history and lineage is a quintessential part of a Marine’s training and education because as Marines participate in such trips they are strengthening leadership, sharpening critical and creative thinking and are provided an understanding of the nature of war and its concepts. The Marine Corps is so dedicated to PME that they are one of the few military services that provide training on-site as it enhances the Marine’s understanding by experiencing the actual sites of battles and other important historical sites. Marines are expected to know and understand history to be better leaders.

The Corporals Course, a primary level enlisted PME course for Marine E-4s conducted at installations across the Marine Corps, is a three week course designed to teach junior Marines how to serve as ethical leaders, professional warfighters, and sound decision makers.

Ultimately, the institution educates Marines on the history and foundations of the Marine Corps by creating exemplary leaders by allowing them to study comparisons between post and modern war tactics and the pivotal decision making that previous leaders brought to the table.

“By studying the historical events of the past, Marines in the Corporals Course were able to enjoy a morale building event off base and develop a deeper appreciation for the area’s rich heritage,” said Maj. Michael Pretus, H&S Bn Assistant Operations officer and trip organizer. “As a result of this PME, Marines developed a deeper appreciation for the expeditionary traditions of the Corps and our ethos of mission accomplishment and small unit leadership.”

The Marines’ tour guide for Harpers Ferry, Brad Gerstbrein, course director of MCU-USMC College of Distance Education and Training, took Marines through the streets of the town and described the plight surrounding abolitionist John Brown.

In October 1859, Brown created a slave uprising attacking Harpers Ferry in opposition to a government which compromised in the face of slavery. The campaign lasted three days before a detachment of 90 Marines helped conclude a potentially catastrophic event.

According to Pretus, the dramatic story demonstrates the ability of Marines to improvise and adapt to a rapidly changing mission and display the courage and discipline that ultimately allow Marines to defuse a very tense and explosive situation.

During the 1859 campaign, Harpers Ferry was known as a major manufacturer of rifles and ammunition, which produced and stored approximately 100,000 rifles within their armory.

Brown’s militia attacked the town of Harper’s Ferry, holding the armory and the surrounding area hostage for approximately 36 hours.

The militia was disorganized and incited chaos. It was not long before Brown and his men retreated from the main armory and entrapped themselves inside a brick and slate engine house detached from the armory.

With casualties rising on both sides, the President of the United States called 90 Marines to action from the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia to gain control of the town.

The Marines were under the command of Army Col. Robert E. Lee, Lt. J.E.B Stuart and Marine Lt. Israel Greene.

The Marines deployed at a moment’s notice, before Lee and Stuart. According to Gerstbrein, as a result of the campaign, Lee wrote in a letter, “Marines are always ready,” a phrase widely coined in Marine culture today.

Within a few hours, the Marines had arrived at Harpers Ferry to diffuse the situation. When the local militia had forced Brown’s militia to retreat to an engine house detached from the town’s armory.

As the Marines stood in front of the engine house Greene commanded the Marines with similar tactics used by Marines today.

Greene sent a breach unit of three Marines with sledgehammers, a 12 man attack unit, followed by a 12 man reserve unit.

The Marines were unable to breach the building with sledgehammers, but the attack unit was able to breach the building with two blows from a ladder lying a few feet away.

During the breach, the Marines suffered their only fatality as a private first class was mortally wounded.

Despite the casualty, the Marines tactics proved effective as the Marines breach of the engine house led to the end of Brown’s campaign. In the aftershock of the breach, Greene struck Brown with a ceremonial saber, immobilizing Brown in two blows.

After Brown was captured, the campaign ended and Brown was carted to Charleston, South Carolina where he was sentenced to death. But, with mixed feelings of Brown’s sentence, a country became divided.

Some believed Brown died a terrorist, where others believed he died a martyr. This belief rang true for many after Harpers Ferry, as there was no room left for compromise in the fight to abolish slavery.

Nevertheless, the acclaimed sentiment of Marines continued on, no matter the clime and no matter the place Marines are always ready.


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