“Old John Brown has done it!”

John Brown

The holidays got in the way of blogging, Gentle Readers. I hope you had a good time too and that our 2018 will have substantially more good news than 2017 did.

When last we left Kansas, the antislavery men around Osawatomie got word that proslavery forces moved again on Lawrence. The Pottawatomie Rifles, led by John Brown’s son, and the man himself set out to link up with other militia groups and go to the town’s relief. Contradictory messages kept the company uncertain of what to do until the town surrendered and the proslavery men ran amok. Disheartened, the Rifles decided they could do no good at Lawrence on their own and turned for home.

I have all this from a Henry Williams, who wrote it for the New York Tribune. Williams has John Brown Junior go into Lawrence on May 25, where he saw the destruction. Then the company met and decided on going home. Everyone went home separately, so Williams loses track of the Browns from that point.

John Brown did not take the news out of Lawrence well. In June, he wrote to the family back at North Elba that

Lawrence was destroyed in this way: Their leading men has (as I think) decided, in a very cowardly manner not to resist any process having any Government official service it, notwithstanding the process might be wholly a bogus affair. The consequence was that a man called a United States marshal came on with a horde of ruffians which he called his posse, and after arresting a few persons turned the ruffians loose on the defenceless people. The robbed the inhabitants of their money and other property, and even women of their ornaments, and burned considerable of the town.

Leaving aside Brown’s military judgment, a lifelong habit of his own, he has the facts about right. He left out that the militiamen turned for home after a meeting with Second Lieutenant John R. Church, First Cavalry, who informed them of his orders to disperse any armed bands he found. At some point in these few days, probably on the 25th when the other companies that had joined the Rifles split up, the elder Brown and his company parted ways with Junior’s men.

On May 27, the Pottawatomie Rifles arrived home. They had a new captain in our newspaper correspondent Henry Williams. John Junior had come upon and freed a pair of enslaved people. Villard’s biography explains the fallout, quoting a letter of Junior’s on the point:

“The arrival of those slave sin camp next morning caused a commotion,” so their liberator has recorded. “The act of freeing them, though attended by no violence or bloodshed, was freely denounced, and in accordance with a vote given by a large majority of the men, those free persons, in opposition to my expressed will, were returned to their master.

The man who took them back got a saddle for his troubles. One good turn among white men must have deserved another.

The Rifles took up arms to keep white men free or at least saw freeing slaves as more trouble than they wanted just then. Actually seizing enslaved people and freeing them did ask more of white Americans than abstract condemnations and returning enslaved people to their enslavers would fit broadly into the antislavery mainstream in Kansas even prior to this. With Lawrence destroyed and the free state leadership under arrest, even more committed antislavery men might not want to stick their necks out in the moment.

The same day they deposed Junior as captain of the Rifles,

a rider came tearing into camp -his horse panting and lathered with foam- and without dismounting yelled out: “Five men have been killed on Pottawatomie creek, butchered and most brutally mangled, and old John Brown has done it!”

Jason Brown, Villard’s source for this, wrote that the news brought “great excitement and fear” which turned the company resolutely against both of the Brown boys.

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