“Wild and frenzied”

John Brown

James Townsley told posterity that John Brown had a plan. He meant to go down by the Pottawatomie and purge the entire area of proslavery whites. Townsley balked at that, but Brown wouldn’t let him leave the group. Wiping out the proslavery party in the vicinity does sound like a John Brown kind of plan, but his biographers tend to doubt Townsley here. John Brown could and would kill men, but only Townsley gives the general purge version of the story. The others agree that Brown intended a more precise strike than that, aimed at leading men who held office under the territorial government or who had otherwise threatened free state families.

Brown spent Saturday, the 24th of May, in the woods with his men. The news of Lawrence and Sumner had already driven them to a fever pitch; Salmon describes the group as “crazy”. Near to sundown, so not long before they made their camp, James Blood saw Townsley’s timber wagon. When he drew near, Brown called for him to stop. As Villard tells it:

Blood remembered afterwards that the men in the wagon were armed with rifles, revolvers, knives and General Bierce’s short heavy broadswords, for which John Brown had given him one of these cutlasses when in Lawrence during the Wakarusa excitement. Brown, Blood found to be very indignant that Lawrence had been sacked without a shot being fired in its behalf. He denounced the leading Free State men as cowards or worse. “His manner,” wrote Colonel Blood twenty-three years later, “was wild and frenzied, and the whole party watched with an excited eagerness every word or motion of the old man.”

Brown let Blood go, with the request that he keep his mouth shut about the unspecified secret mission that the group undertook just then. Blood went on and so did Brown’s company. Hindsight tempts one to imagine that Blood exaggerated the hold Brown had over his men at that point, but Brown had an intensity about him that many admired. He spent that Saturday, and the prior evening too, reminding everyone of the situation and what needed doing. Somewhere in this, Townsley claims he learned of the full plan for the first time and tried to back out. He might have spent some time trying to talk Brown out of everything and credits himself with keeping Brown for a solid day. The Marylander argued that Brown needed him as a guide, which Salmon disputes on the grounds that Weiner lived in the area and could have done that job.

Villard judges that the group needed a rest and that explained the delay. They spent the previous night on the march, then had a full day’s work before heading out on bumpy roads to their eventual camp. Anyone would need some sleep after all that and since Brown planned to attack at night, opportunity knocked. Townsley has himself argue with Brown about the plan for at least some of that time, but in the end he went along and later claimed he did so unwillingly. They got going around ten Saturday night, crossing Mosquito Creek near the Doyle’s and approaching a dark cabin. Someone -likely Brown- knocked on the door and received an answer in the form of a gun barrel shoved through a gap in the wall. According to Salmon,

at that we all scattered. We did not disturb that man. With some candle wicking soaked in coal oil to light and throw inside, so that we could see within and he could not see outside, we would have managed it. But we had none.

 

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