“Now something must be done”

John Brown

On May 25, 1856, the Pottawatomie Rifles and associated free state militia companies learned of Lawrence’s surrender and sack. After some discussion, they agreed to disperse to their homes. It probably helped that the United States Army arrived with orders to get every militant on hand back where they belonged, instead of gathered up and ready to start a little war. On the way back to Osawatomie, John Brown Junior lost his captaincy of the Rifles on the grounds that he freed a pair of slaves, which no one much liked, and that his father killed five people. That brings him up to May 27, with his father largely unaccounted for in that time. The version he gave his family via letter tells us little more. On the way home they stopped three proslavery men, who they released sans horses.

We were immediately after this accused of murdering five men at Pottawatomie

According to Jason Brown, the elder John Brown and his six-man company departed a bit before the 25th. They’d gone through the night to reach Prairie City with the others, but left there in the morning on Friday, May 23. He felt a stronger urgency than the others, as Jason later related:

Father cooked for our company. While he was cooking breakfast, I heard him, Townsley and wiener talking together. I heard Townsley say: ‘We expect to be butchered, every Free State settler in our region,’ and Townsley pleaded that help should be sent. I heard their talk only in fragments. Then I heard father say to Weiner: ‘Now something must be done. we have got to defend our families and our neighbors as best we can. Something is going to be done now. We must show by actual work that there are two sides to this thing and that they cannot go on with impunity.’

This happened on the morning of the departure, but before Brown and his small band left; Jason remained with the Rifles. Brown must have decided on some kind of action before leaving, as he went recruiting. James Hanway, one of the Rifles, has a statement on that in Sanborn’s Life and Letters of John Brown. A messenger came into camp, Hanway thinks one of Grant’s sons, and told that proslavery men had gone around Pottawatomie making a new round of threats against the free staters. That would match George Grant’s statement well enough; the news might have come directly from the threat to Squire Morse.

Old John Brown, who had a firm belief that Providence directed his steps in all undertakings, immediately raised a small party of men, and visited those who had been the instigators of this threatening movement. I think it was May 23, about two P.M., that John Brown and his party left our camp. When Brown was packing up his camp kettles, etc., at Middle Ottawa Creek, I was invited to become one of the party, by one of the eight who formed the company. I was informed at the time of the purpose of the expedition, and the necessity there was to carry out the programme.

Hanway took a pass and might have spoken with the benefit of hindsight, but it doesn’t strain credulity to imagine Brown spoke openly of violent reprisals against proslavery men. He had to have a sympathetic audience in a group literally formed to fight for a free Kansas, particularly if they just then also had news of Charles Sumner’s caning to further outrage them, as Salmon Brown thinks they did. Salmon didn’t know for sure, decades after the fact, but news could have reached Kansas via telegraph by that point and the company seems to have had regular messengers in and out of camp to bring it to them.

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