“Some killing”

John Brown

We left John Brown on May 23, 1856. He had news of the fall of Lawrence and probably the caning of Charles Sumner. Convinced that someone must do something, and likely also that free state families now remained around Osawatomie at some peril, Brown resolved that something must be done. He went off and asked a man named James Hanway to come along for that something. Hanway told us that Brown informed him about what he had in mind, though he doesn’t say clearly if Brown mentioned murder or if he just made a general reference to some kind of reprisal. Either way, it sounds like Brown approached him personally and at least somewhat in private. On the balance, that seems the most likely version of events.

Salmon Brown told a different story, which will bear a look.

The general purport of our intentions -some radical retaliatory measure – some killing- was well understood by the whole camp. You never heard such cheering as when we started out. They were wild with excitement and enthusiasm. The principal man -the leader- in council that resolved on the necessity of Pottawatomie, -was H.H. Williams: I do not know that I ought to tell this since he himself has not; but it is the fact. He was wholly determined that the thing must be done. He knew all those men on the Pottawatomie, better than any of us. He lived among them -was familiar with all their characters. he was now the most active of us all in urging this step. And not fifteen minutes before we left to go to Pottawatomie I saw him, myself, write out a list of the men who were to be killed and hand it to father.

One should view a statement by a participant decades later in the vein of everyone sharing in his crime and casting the real instigator as someone else with a mine or two of salt. Salmon has an obvious interest in vindicating himself and his martyred father. Spreading the blame around at least makes them less singular militants and more of their times. It paints the coming murders as something in the air, which anybody might do. As such, could one really hold them responsible? Or rather, might one view them as acting in the right?

Williams depicts himself as surprised to learn of the killings, which he obviously could not manage honestly if Salmon told the whole truth here. But if he did know then he has every reason to disassociate himself. Salmon casts him as the kind of man happy to dream up violence, but unwilling to get his own hands dirty:

Then, when it was all over, and he found out how the people down at home took it, he got scared. He hadn’t the backbone to stand by his own mind, against popular opinion, -he went back on his own radical measures, weakened, did not confess to his own share in their origin, and counselled peace. In fact, he got scared.

Salmon paints an intensely unflattering picture of Williams. One can’t read him and fail to imagine some after the fact score settling. But that still leaves us with two different versions of what went on at the Rifles’ camp that day. In Hanway’s, John Brown recruits people individually and tells them what he means to do. In Salmon’s, everyone in the camp understands that Brown meant murder from the get-go.




“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.

“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.

“So calculated to unMan me”

John Brown

One more John Brown letter. Regular posts resume Monday.

Osawatomie Kansas Territory 1st Feby 1856

Dear Wife & Children every One

Your & Watsons Letter to the Boys, & Myself of Decem 30th & Jany 1st were received by last Mail. We are all very glad to hear again of your welfare; & I am particularly grateful when I am noticed by a letter from you. I have just taken out Two Letters for Henry One of which I suppose is from Ruth. Salmon & myself are so far on our way home from Missouri; & only reached Mr Adairs last night. They are all well & we know of nothing but all are well at the Boys Shantees. The weather continues very severe; & it is now nearly Six Weeks that the Snow has been almost constantly driven (like dry Sand) by the fierce Winds of Kansas. Mr, Adair has been collecting Ice of late from the Osage River; which is 9 1/2 Inches thick, of perfect clean sollid Ice, formed under the Snow. By means of the sale of our Horse & Wagon: our present wants are tolerably well met; so that if health is continued to us we shall not probably suffer much. The idea of again visiting those of my dear family at North Elba; is so calculated to unMan mme that I seldom allow any thoughts to dwell uppon it: & I do not think best to write much about it. “Suffise it to Say”; that God is abundantly able to keep both us, & you: & in him let us all trust. We have just learned of some new; & shocking outrages at Leavenworth: & that the Free State people there have fled to Lawrence: which place is again threatened with an attack. Should that take place we may soon again be called uppon to “buckle on our Armor”; which by the help of God we will do: when I suppose Henry, & Oliver will have a chance. My judgment is; that we shall have no more general disturbance until warm weather. I have more to say; but not time now to say it. So farewell for this time. Write.

Your Affectionate Husband & Father

John Brown

The startling news

John Brown

Henry H. Williams, who lived near the Pottawatomie, got the word on Wednesday, May 21, 1856. The Border Ruffians, under the leadership of IB Donaldson and Samuel Jones, had come for Lawrence again as long expected. He mounted up and rode the ten miles “to arouse” the Pottawatomie Rifles under the command of John Brown’s son. At about four in the afternoon, everyone gathered where the Osawattomie and the California road met. They waited on two other companies, the Marion Rifles and Pomeroy Guards, but only two men showed from those groups.

The roused Rifles soon had a second messenger from Lawrence, who contradicted the previous and seems to have said they should stay put and wait on further word. They would have none of that and resolved to go and find out the situation for themselves. That brought them to a third messenger, who reported the town’s surrender and subsequent destruction.

This startling news was received in silence by the company. Then the word “Onward” was passed along the line, and although scarcely a word was spoken, the thoughts of every man could be read in his countenance. We pushed on, and a messenger was dispatched the arouse the settlers at Osawattamie.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

More bad news came in: No free state militia operated in or near Lawrence. The Border Ruffians held Blanton’s Bridge and still had a force in Lecompton. That looked like more than thirty-odd men could handle, so they camped at Prairie City and hoped that more men would appear. Company C of the Kansas Volunteers and the Pomeroy Guards joined them on May 23. That evening, the news came that proslavery men had taken Charles Robinson off his steamer and hauled him back to Kansas.

That got the Rifles and company moving, aimed at intercepting Robinson at Palmyra and rescuing him. There the Marion Rifles finally appeared. While they waited for the free state governor to come by, John Junior and a small group went to check on Lawrence, finding Robinson’s house burned and both presses ruined:

the town was sacked according to “Law and Order” by a posse of 400 South Carolinians, Georgians, and Border Ruffians

The militias considered their next course. Lawrence would not fight for itself and they couldn’t carry that battle on their own, so everyone agreed to go home and look to their own defense.

On our return from Palmyra we received intelligence of a disturbance on Potawatamie Creek, in which five men were killed.

Never tell John Brown the odds

John Brown

John Brown went to Kansas to fight and he didn’t like it one bit that the antislavery leadership denied him his chance. No fool, he understood the double talk in the Wakarusa peace settlement. Charles Robinson and James Lane could say they conceded nothing, but the same language permitted others to argue that they had. This made them fundamentally duplicitous in Brown’s mind and he regretted thereafter that he abandoned his plan to go draw some proslavery blood on his own. Redpath, writing with a few years’ hindsight, add that the treaty and the Free State party’s official line

only served to postpone the inevitable conflict then rapidly approaching, and to demoralize the spirit of the Free State party. It occasioned, he thought, the death of many Northern men, whom, encouraged by this compromising action, the marauders, on their return, murdered in cold blood or in desultory warfare.

Brown may have seen it that way at the time. We can look ahead and agree with him that murders and strife came, though connecting them with the Free State party’s disinclination to hazard large-scale violence would take more doing. John Brown didn’t go around eating bugs and raving like the cartoon madman of popular memory, but he also lacked any formal military experience -in his earlier life he paid fines rather than take part in the militia- and seems largely uninterested in the practicalities of battle. He knew he needed weapons and where to use them. When to strike or how seem not to have troubled Brown too much.

Redpath tells that Brown didn’t care to hear the odds.

‘What are five to one?’ said he, ‘When our men would be fighting for their wives, their children, their homes, and their liberties against a party, one half of whom were mercenary vagabonds, who enlisted for a mere frolic, lured on by the whiskey and the bacon, and a large portion of the others had gone under the compulsion of opinion and proscription, because they feared being denounced as abolitionists if they refused?’

Maybe. People with something to fight for may fight harder, but that doesn’t ensure victory. It also neglects how many of those men Brown thought seduced by whiskey and bacon could claim just the same motives. If Kansas fell to freedom, then it may fatally undermine slavery in Missouri. In Southern thought, that would almost certainly lead to a genocidal race war. They, as white men, expected to win that fight in the end. They also knew that in such a war, their own homes and families might not survive to the end.


Silencing John Brown

John Brown

We left John Brown just after James Lane got him to come back from his planned assault on the proslavery forces still besieging Lawrence. Brown thought very little of the Free State political leadership. He condemned Lane as a man without self-respect and Charles Robinson as a man with no principles at all. Brown had come back to Lawrence in time to see Governor Shannon give a speech on the peace settlement, followed by calls for Lane and Robinson. Lane gave a big talk, Robinson demurred, and John Brown decided that he had things to say.

Some time has passed since we discussed the Wakarusa War at length, Gentle Readers. For right now, remember that the Free State leadership negotiated a peace essentially in secret with Governor Shannon and the proslavery militants. These same leaders constantly preached restraint even as bullets flew, asking their men to endure potshots without answering them for nerve-wracking days on end. Many must have thought that their superiors’ timidity cost Thomas Barber his life. They also suspected that this peace treaty, which no one had seen, might give up too much without a fight.

Redpath relies on William Phillips here:

Captain Brown got up to address the people, but a desire was manifested to prevent his speaking. Amidst some little disturbance, he demanded to know what the terms were.

Phillips’ strategic tact here speaks volumes. “A desire was manifested” and “some little disturbance.” People manifested their desires and made a disturbance. Phillips, himself usually taking a harder line than the free state leadership, declines to name names. He wrote his The Conquest of Kansas as much as a propaganda document as a history and it seems he wanted to acknowledge dissension in the ranks without making it too clear to outside readers. In discussing the murders at Potawattomie, Phillips blames the Indians and deems the whole affair cloaked in mystery, so it doesn’t look as though he meant to make Brown into a lone bad apple.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

If anything, Phillips casts Brown as a principled voice in just Redpath’s vein. He has Brown say that

If he understood Governor Shannon’s speech, something had been conceded, and he conveyed the idea that the territorial laws were to be observed. Those laws they denounced and spit upon, and would never obey -no! Here the speaker was interrupted by the almost universal cry, “No! No! Down with the bogus laws! lead us down to fight first!” Seeing young revolution on the tapis, the influential men assured the people that there had been no concession. They had yielded nothing. They had surrendered nothing to the usurping Legislature.

Redpath does one better and names “the politicians” who wanted Brown silent as Lane and Robinson. Though not an explicit call out, he bothers to give Brown’s precise opinions of only those two men when discussing the situation. He cites their decision to keep the text of the treaty secret as further evidence and only Robinson and Lane would have had the ability or interest in doing that.



Tact, Ingenuity, and Alcohol: The Browns go to Kansas, Part 6

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left John Brown bound and determined to blow up the fragile peace ending the Wakarusa War and draw some blood from proslavery men. He got together about a dozen men and started on the way, but James Lane stepped in and got him to come back to Lawrence. Lane then tried to get Brown into “a council of war”. John Brown had better things to do than listen to Lane, Charles Robinson, and company explain the delicate situation. According to Redpath, Brown answered:

Tell the General,” he said, “that when he wants me to fight, to say so: but that is the only order I will ever obey.”

In a footnote, Redpath explains Brown’s refusal by giving an account of his estimation of the Free State leadership, in Brown’s own words:

“I am sorry for friend Lane,” he remarked, as we were speaking of his blustering style of oratory; “I am afraid he does not respect himself.”

Lane did deliver the big talk and had shamelessly gone from preaching moderation to militancy when he saw which way Kansan opinion ran. He came to Kansas to restore his political fortunes and would probably have taken any course that served that purpose. Before all of this, he lost his House seat specifically because he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson had better antislavery bona fides, but also hewed to a far more cautious style of resistance. The rank and file didn’t admire his sensibilities on that point and he seems to have lacked the oratorical power to make them compelling. Brown thought, in light of Robinson’s “subsequent conservatism”

“What a pity it is, that men when they begin life, should not get hold of some fixed principles-make up their minds that they are right, and then hold to them. he did not do that. That is his fault.”

Shameless and unprincipled or not, they met Governor Shannon when he came into Lawrence and got him to sign an authorization for free state militias. Redpath admits that what Lane and Robinson got out of Shannon, both in the authorization and sending the Missourians home, did the antislavery cause good. He praises their “diplomatic tact and Yankee ingenuity” the paragraph after he writes that they got Shannon thoroughly drunk beforehand.

Redpath paints Brown as unsympathetic to the politics of the situation, but not ignorant of them. He saw in the peace settlement a capitulation. By taking endorsement from the territorial government, the Free State party acknowledged that its militias needed Governor Shannon’s blessing. They departed from the hard line that Kansas had no governor, or had one in Charles Robinson, and so compromised the purity of their position.

“To draw a little blood” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left John Brown at the close of the Wakarusa War. He showed up for the siege of Lawrence, armed to the teeth, and a militia company quickly formed around him. Brown then tried to convince the antislavery men to launch an attack on the proslavery headquarters at Franklin. He tried that a few times and each time it seems that the free state leadership intervened to put a stop to it. When they announced their negotiated peace, Brown had about had it with them.

Brown’s first biographer, James Redpath, told his readers all that to show how the Free State party lost their nerve. They could talk a good game, complete with a resolution to contest the slave code of Kansas “to a bloody issue.” When the bloody issue came,

the politicians quibbled; sought other grounds to stand on; “planted themselves on the law;” restrained the ardor of the people which sought to drive the ruffians homeward or to the grave; saw good Thomas Barber murdered in the open day for the crime of having visited their own; and yet, with hundreds of invaders of their soil within sight, who were sacking their cabins and robbing and imprisoning their citizens, they calmly “urged them not to allow the daily outrages to drive them to commence hostilities!”

Redpath either didn’t appreciate the political complexities, including that an outnumbered force might well lose a battle, or ignored them to paint a better picture of John Brown as the righteous man of Kansas. It would not do to admit that the bloody issue phrasing came from Andrew Reeder’s pen, in resolutions he demanded the free state party adopt as a condition of his remaining in the territory and joining with them. If anything, that might make the whole business look dubious. Careful politics don’t often make for the best public relations.

Still, Brown’s hagiographer speaks to the essential frustration of the rank and file antislavery men around Lawrence that day. They came all this way and endured considerable stress. They built earthworks while proslavery men took potshots at them. They waited for days on end. The enemy robbed their homes. We should not neglect the political grievances, but the siege had strains all its own capped off by the death of one of their fellows.

James Henry Lane

Feeling the indignity of it all, Brown tried an attack anyway. Redpath reports that

he did not hesitate to express his contempt for the “Committee of Safety”-most of them ox-intellects, vainly striving to fill an office fit for lionhearts only-and to denounce the political preachers of peace as recreant to their recent and loudly-vaunted resolutions. He went out at once with a dozen men to meet the Missouri invaders-“to draw a little blood,” as he styled it-but, at the earnest entreaties of General Lane, he returned to town without doing it.

“Retired in disgust” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 4

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

Asked to come, with guns, John Brown set his mind on going to Kansas. He had no money to go and to arm himself or supply his sons who had already gone, but a quick appeal to an antislavery convention fixed that. Brown would set out on a holy mission to fight slavery, protect his children, and generally make himself and his frontier expertise available to white colonists.

His first biographer, James Redpath, stresses that Brown never meant to make his own future in Kansas. Proslavery men cast him as a fanatic for that, bent on trekking across the country to fight someone else’s battles. I doubt any said the same about Jefferson Buford. Redpath spends a page defending Brown from that onslaught. His defense amounts to the argument that Brown came to help his sons as well as to fight slavery. Furthermore, even if Brown had done just as his enemies thought and come all that way for one cause, so what?

John Brown did not dare to remain tending sheep at North Elba when the American Goliath and his hosts were in the field, defying the little armies of the living Lord, and sowing desolation and great sorrow on the soil set apart for his chosen people. Either Freedom has no rights, and the Bible is a lie, or John Brown, in thus acting, was a patriot and a consistent Christian.

At this point, Redpath has Brown finally make his trip. He catches his readers up with election fraud, the bogus legislature and its laws, which he witnessed himself. Then we go into the murder of Charles Dow and all that followed. Redpath has John Brown arrive as the proslavery army comes across from Missouri to invest Lawrence in retaliation for its citizens rescuing an antislavery militia leader who proslavery sheriff Samuel Jones arrested on dubious grounds. Redpath quotes an eyewitness to Brown’s arrival in the same town:

the old man, John Brown, and his four sons, arrived in Lawrence. The balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State hotel, they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short, heavy broadsword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire-arms and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box, with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable, and were received with great eclat.

In the parlance of a later era, we might call the Browns’ adornment tacticool. Gerritt Smith’s money went a long way, apparently. Some enthusiasts among Lawrence’s defenders happily formed a company around him. The Browns and their company didn’t sit idle, but under his command

commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the command of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin, and make an attack upon the pro-slavery forces encamped there.

The Free State leadership, desperately trying to avoid a battle, loved all that exactly as much as you’d expect. Brown’s attack plans would have destroyed their careful strategy to present themselves as law-abiding citizens who had nothing to do with any militancy and only bore arms in self-defense. When peace broke out, Brown “retired in disgust.”