Sledgehammer used during Harpers Ferry raid on exhibit

TRIANGLE, Va. – One of the sledgehammers used by Marines during John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 is now on display in the “Defending the New Republic” gallery at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

The sledgehammer is displayed near a diorama depicting the historic scene, and was donated to the Museum by the Rissler family of Charles Town, W.Va., who owned the sledgehammer for nearly 100 years.

The sledgehammer has a storied past. In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown raided the Unites States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in an attempt to arm slaves and initiate a revolt throughout the South. In addition to taking over the arsenal, Brown captured local civilians and held them hostage in the engine house of the Armory.  Upon hearing news of the raid, the Marines responded promptly.

Under the command of Col. Robert E Lee, USA, and led by Lt. Israel Green, USMC, a detachment of Marines from 8th and I were sent to quell the uprising. They arrived at Harpers Ferry on Oct. 17, 1859.

On the morning of Oct. 18, Lee’s aid, Lt J.E.B. Stuart offered to accept Brown’s surrender, which Brown vehemently refused. Upon Stuart’s signal, three Marines wielding sledgehammers attempted to break down the engine house doors, but the doors held fast. Another group of Marines picked up a nearby ladder and successfully penetrated one of the doors, which allowed Lt. Green to rush inside where he quickly captured Brown. One Marine, Private Luke Quinn, lost his life in the raid. John Brown was arrested and later tried and hung for treason.

In the wake of the raid, a local bystander, Dr. Robert Randolph, picked up one of the three sledgehammers used by the Marines. Upon Dr. Randolph’s death, the sledgehammer was left to Joseph A. Dewar who subsequently sold it at an auction in 1914 to Richard Johnston. The tool was passed down through the family to Johnston’s great-grand-nephew, John Rissler. In August 2011, Rissler’s widow, Alice, presented the sledgehammer to the National Museum of the Marine Corps on behalf of the Rissler family.

“The Marines were told to take part in this assault with unloaded muskets, just bayonets, because they didn’t want to harm any of the hostages,” Ron Rissler, a member of the family said. “These men, within 24 hours of being on guard duty at the Navy Yard in Washington, came to Harpers Ferry and led the assault… One lost his life, Luke Quinn… If anyone deserves (the sledgehammer), it’s the Marine Corps.”

The National Museum of the Marine Corps is located at 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway, Triangle, Va., and is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. every day except Christmas.  Further information about museum activities and programs can be found at www.usmcmuseum.org.

To learn more about Civil War collectibles, check out our Warman’s Civil War Collectibles Identification and Price Guide, 3rd Ed. By Russell E. Lewis

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