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Marine Corps museum gets historic hammer
Family donates hammer head Marines used in capturing insurrectionist John Brown at Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

 Alice J. Rissler shakes hands with one of the ceremonial 'guards' dressed in an 1839 field uniform after her family's gift of a 28-pound sledgehammer head during a ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle.
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Date published: 8/11/2011


An unusual piece of history was entrusted to the National Museum of the Marine Corps yesterday.

A dense, heavy piece.

Twenty-eight pounds of steel, to be exact.

"The sledge," as its last private owners called it, is the head of one of the sledgehammers that Marines used to batter the doors of abolitionist John Brown's hideout at Harpers Ferry on the eve of the Civil War.

Officials at the museum in Triangle received the rare artifact with delight and fanfare yesterday from the West Virginia family who had preserved it since 1914.

Four generations of the Rissler family--ages 7 to 94--were on hand for the ceremony beneath the soaring "mast" of the museum's distinctive atrium. The building's design echoes the profile of the Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II.

Eighteen Rissler family members came from Charles Town, as well as North Carolina and Maryland, to participate in the hand-over.

Having four generations attend such an event was a first for the 5-year-old museum, Director Lin Ezell said. "To the whole Rissler family, we are so grateful for what you've done and the decision you've made," she said.

An important addition to the museum's Civil War collection, the artifact will be put on display in the museum's "Defending the New Republic" gallery as soon as a special case can be built, Ezell said.

An exhibit in that gallery, with a giant mural, photos and a diorama, interprets the Marines' assault on the Harpers Ferry fire-engine house where Brown and his raiders took refuge.

Gretchen S. Winterer, curator of the museum's general collection, told those assembled for yesterday's ceremony that the sledgehammer recalls "a very turbulent time" in American history.

Raiding the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Brown seized about 40 hostages, Winterer said. He aimed to arm slaves and start a revolt throughout the South.

President James Buchanan ordered the Marine Corps to quell the revolt and restore peace to the Potomac River town. Responding overnight, Marines were outside the engine house, with Col. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart of the U.S. Army, on Oct. 18, 1859.

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One of three sledgehammers used by Marines at John Brown's Raid Only two are known to still exist. The other is part of the National Park Service's collection at Harpers Ferry, on display at the John Brown Museum. This sledge was picked up by Dr. Robert Randolph, an eyewitness to the events at Harpers Ferry on Oct. 18, 1859. Upon Dr. Randolph's death, the sledge was left to Joseph A. Seward, who subsequently sold it at auction in 1914 to Richard Johnston. The donor is Alice J. Rissler; her late husband, John, was the great-nephew of Richard Johnston. The sledge has been in the Rissler family for 97 years.

--National Museum of the Marine Corps