In 1859, on this day a company of US Marines intercepted a hijacked Baltimore & Ohio train in West Virginia. Onboard was a stolen cache of weapons which had been seized from the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry by a band of murderous abolitionists. Their leader, "Captain" John Brown (pictured, left) advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end slavery, having led the infamous Pottawatomie Massacre at "Bleeding Kansas".
All Change on the Baltimore & Ohio ExpressDuring the fierce fire fight that ensued, Brown and his two sons Owen and Oliver were all killed.
Modern history would malign the anti-hero of Harper's Ferry as a demented dreamer, a special category of terrorists reserved for the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Osama Bin Laden. Because an African-American baggage handler on the train named Hayward Shepherd had confronted the raiders but was rescued by the timely intervention of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry (pictured, right).
The brave rescue of a freed slave made Lee a national hero, and the award of a Badge of Military Merit doubtless influenced his later decision to accept the command of Union forces during the brief War of the States in 1861-2.
In his memoirs, President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Lee's style of audacious military leadership had saved the lives of a great many peace-loving Americans. Because at Bull Run, Lee forced an early, decisive battlefield victory over the Confederate Army in northern Virginia by appointing a like-minded subordinate who seized the armoury at Harper's Ferry.