The Virginia Campaign of John Brown (Part I)

The first installment in a six-part series about the abolitionist rebel, written by one of the New Englanders who secretly funded his efforts and featuring excerpts of his own writings

This is part one of a six-part series. Read part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, and part six here.


Events in history, as all who read history know, have their importance measured by final results, rather than by their apparent magnitude at the moment. The passage of the Rubicon by Cæsar, about which Lucan makes so much ado, and Plutarch tells one of his striking anecdotes, would have had no significance but for the victories that followed it and placed the adventurous general at the head of the Roman empire. And again, the assassination of Cæsar, startling and dramatic as it was, had actually no historical result, and only serves to mark the date of transition in Rome from one form of government to another. The short campaign of John Brown in Virginia, fifteen years ago, not only possesses the dramatic interest that belongs to a striking event, but will always be worthy of note as the beginning of that forcible attack upon a form of slavery and a political power which within two years afterward convulsed the whole world with its consequences. It was the first decisive act of an inevitable tragedy, and such were its romantic features that, in the lapse of time, it will no doubt be gravely expounded as a myth to those who shall read American history some centuries hence. There seems to be no reason why John Brown, any more than William Tell, should escape this skeptical and generalizing spirit, which transforms history and even biography into a record of natural science. “Kind Arthur,” says a recent Welsh writer who resolves history into astronomy, “is the Great Bear, and perhaps this constellation, being so near the pole, and visibly describing its circle in a small space, is the origin of the famous Round Table.” Will there come a time when the Underground Railroad shall be regarded as typical of some geologic transition, and the foray at Harper’s Ferry pass for the legendary symbol of a chemic reaction? Perhaps so; but in the mean time it will be best for those who know the matters of fact, just as they took place, to put these upon record, in order that this perversion or vaporization of genuine history may be deferred as long as possible.

John Brown was, indeed, no mythical nor in any respect dubitable personage. It was his fortune to play a great part, but no son of Adam was ever less theatrical in his aim, or more intensely practical in his result. An idealist in spirit, he was a realist in activity, and accomplished the grand task assigned to him with a plain, forthright sincerity which comports little with the romantic circumstances of his life and death. He was easily and naturally great,

And, as the greatest only are,
In his simplicity sublime.

His character needs, therefore, only to be honestly set forth; not to be adorned with epithets and compliments. The chronicle of his life is his best monument.

Concerning the early life of John Brown I can add little to what has been written. But it is due to the reader, who may never have seen the fragment of an autobiography which Brown wrote in 1857 for the son of his friend, the late Major Stearns, that a paper so valuable in itself, and so characteristic of the writer, should here be reprinted. It first appeared in Redpath’s Life of Captain Brown, published in Boston in 1860, having been placed in Mr. Redpath’s hands by Mrs. Stearns. The lad to whom it was addressed was then about twelve years old, and the letter was evidently written for his amusement and instruction, with no thought that it would ever become public. As first printed, and as here reproduced, it is spelled, punctuated, and italicized exactly as Captain Brown wrote it. If it thus indicates, what was probably true, that Brown could spell no better than Claverhouse, and was as regardless of “stops and marks” as any old Roman stone-cutter or Greek scribe, it also shows what a piquant and forcible style he used, both in speech and on paper. It was after hearing this paper read that Miss O——, of Medford, remarked, “If Captain Brown had not been called, in the providence of God, to a very different work, what charming stories he could have written for young children!” The original manuscript, which I have often seen in former years (for Harry Stearns was one of my pupils), fills six pages of closely written letter-paper, without division into paragraphs. It was written during the summer when Hugh Forbes was drilling a small company of his men for the Virginia campaign, in the western part of Iowa.


RED ROCK, IOWA, 15th July, 1857.

My Dear Young Friend, —

I have not forgotten my promise to write you; but my constant care, & anxiety have obliged me put it off a long time. I do not flatter myself that I can write any thing that will very much interest you: but have concluded to send you a short story of a certain boy of my acquaintance: & for convenience and shortness of name, I will call him John. His story will be mainly a naration of follies and errors; which it is to be hoped you may avoid; but there is one thing connected with it, which will be calculated to encourage any young person to persevering effort: & that is the degree of success in accomplishing his objects which to a great extent marked the course of this boy throughout my entire acquaintance with him; notwithstanding his moderate capacity; & still more moderate acquirements.

John was born May 9th 1800, at Torrington, Litchfield Co, Connecticut; of poor but respectable parents: a decendant on the side of his father of one of the company of the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth 1620. His mother was decended from a man who came at an early period to New England from Amsterdam, in Holland. Both his Father’s & his Mother’s Fathers served in the war of the revolution: His Father’s Father; died in a barn at New York while in the service, in 1776.

I cannot tell you of any thing in the first Four years of John’s life worth mentioning save that at that early age he was tempted by Three large Brass Pins belonging to a girl who lived in the family & stole them. In this he was detected by his Mother; & after having a full day to think of the wrong: received from her a thorough whipping. When he was Five years old his Father moved to Ohio; then a wilderness filled with wild beasts, & Indians. During the long journey which was performed in part or mostly with an ox team; he was called on by turns to assist a boy Five years older (who had been adopted by his Father & Mother) & learned to think he could accomplish smart things in driving the Cows; and riding the horses. Sometimes he met with Rattle Snakes which were very large; & which some of the company generally managed to kill. After getting to Ohio in 1805 he was for some time rather afraid of the Indians, & of their Rifles; but this soon wore off: & he used to hang about them quite as much as was consistent with good manners; & learned a trifle of their talk. His Father learned to dress Deer Skins, & at 6 years old John was installed a young Buck Skin — He was perhaps rather observing as he ever after remembered the entire process of Deer Skin dressing; so that he could at any time dress his own leather such as Squirel, Raccoon, Cat, Wolf or Dog Skins; & also learned to make Whip Lashes: which brought him some change at times; & was of considerable service in many ways. — At Six years old John began to be quite a rambler in the wild new country finding birds & Squirels, & sometimes a wild Turkeys nest. But about this period he was placed in the school of adversity: which my young friend was a most necessary part of his early training. You may laugh when you come to read about it; but these were sore trials to John: whose earthly treasures were very few & small. These were the beginning of a severe but much needed course of discipline which he afterwards was to pass through; & which it is to be hoped has learned him before this time that the Heavenly Father sees it best to take all the little things out of his hands which he has ever placed in them. When John was in his Sixth year a poor Indian boy gave him a Yellow Marble the first he had ever seen. This he thought a great deal of; & kept it a good while; but at last he lost it beyond recovery. It took years to heal the wound; & I think he cried at times about it. About Five months after this he caught a young Squirrel tearing off his tail in doing it; & getting severely bitten at the same time himself. He however held to the little bob tail Squirrel; & finally got him perfectly tamed, so that he almost idolized his pet. This too he lost; by its wandering away; or by getting killed: & for a year or Two John was in mourning; and looking at all the Squirrels he could see to try & discover Bob tail, if possible. I must not neglect to tell you of a very bad & foolish habbit to which John was somewhat addicted. I mean telling lies: generally to screen himself from blame; or from punishment. He could not well endure to be reproached; & I now think had he been oftener encouraged to be entirely frank; by making frankness a kind of atonement for some of his faults; he would not have been so often guilty of this fault; nor have been obliged to struggle so long in after life with so mean a habit. John was never quarelsome; but was excessively fond of the hardest & roughest kind of plays; & could never get enough [of] them.

Indeed when for a short time he was sometimes sent to School the opportunity it afforded to wrestle & Snow ball & run & jump & knock off old seedy wool bats; offered to him almost the only compensation for the confinement, & restraints of school. I need not tell you that with such a feeling & but little chance of going to school at all: he did not become much of a schollar. He would always choose to stay at home & work hard rather than be sent to school; & during the warm season might generally be seen barefooted & bareheaded: with Buck skin Breeches suspended often with one leather strap over his shoulder but sometimes with Two. To be sent off through the wilderness alone to very considerable distances was particularly his delight; & in this he was often indulged so that by the time he was Twelve years old he was sent off more than a Hundred Miles with companies of cattle; & he would have thought his character much injured had he been obliged to be helped in any such job. This was a boyish kind of feeling but characteristic however.

At Eight years old John was left a Motherless boy which loss was complete & permanent, for notwithstanding his Father again married to a sensible, inteligent, & on many accounts a very estimable woman: yet he never addopted her in feeling: but continued to pine after his own Mother for years. This opperated very unfavourably uppon him; as he was both naturally fond of females; & with all extremely diffident; & deprived him of a suitable connecting link between the different sexes; the want of which might under some circumstances have proved his ruin.

When the war broke out with England, his Father soon commenced furnishing the troops with beef cattle, the collecting & driving of which afforded him some opportunity for the chase (on foot) of wild steers & other cattle through the woods. During this war he had some chance to form his own boyish judgment of men & measures: & to become somewhat familiarly acquainted with some who have figured before the country since that time. The effect of what he saw during the war was to so far disgust him with military affairs that he would neither train, or drill; but paid fines; & got along like a Quaker until his age finally has cleared him of Military duty.

During the war with England a circumstance occurred that in the end made him a most determined Abolitionist: & led him to declare, or Swear: Eternal war with Slavery. He was staying for a short time with a very gentlemanly landlord once a United States Marshall who held a slave boy near his own age very active, intelligent and good feeling; & to whom John was under considerable obligation for numerous little acts of kindness. The master made a great pet of John: brought him to table with his first company; & friends; called their attention to every little smart thing he said, or did: & to the fact of his being more than a hundred miles from home with a company of cattle alone; while the negro boy (who was fully if not more than his equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed; & lodged in cold weather: & beaten before his eyes with Iron Shovels or any other thing that came first to hand. This brought John to reflect on the wretched; hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children: for such children have neither Fathers nor Mothers to protect, & provide for them. He sometimes would raise the question is God their Father?

At the age of Ten years an old friend induced him to read a little history; & offered him the free use of a good library; by; which he acquired some taste for reading: which formed the principle part of his early education: & diverted him in a great measure from bad company. He by this means grew to be very fond of the company, & conversation of old & intelligent persons. He never attempted to dance in his life; nor did he ever learn to know one of a pack of cards from another. He learned nothing of Grammer; nor did he get at school so much knowledge of common Arithmetic as the Four ground rules. This will give you some general idea of the first Fifteen years of his life; during which time he became very strong & large of his age & ambitious to perform the full labour of a man; at almost any kind of hard work. By reading the lives of great, wise & good men their sayings, and writings; he grew to a dislike of vain & frivolous conversation & persons; & was often greatly obliged by the kind manner in which older & more inteligent persons treated him at their houses; & in conversation; which was a great relief on account of his extreme bashfulness.

He very early in life became ambitious to excel in doing any thing he undertook to perform. This kind of feeling I would recommend to all young persons both male & female: as it will certainly tend to secure admission to the company of the more inteligent; & better portion of every community. By all means endeavor to excel in some laudable pursuit.

I had like to have forgotten to tell you of one of Johns misfortunes which set rather hard on him while a young boy. He had by some means perhaps by gift of his Father become the owner of a little Ewe Lamb which did finely till it was about Two Thirds grown; & then sickened & died. This brought another protracted mourning season: not that he felt the pecuniary loss so much: for that was never his disposition: but so strong & earnest were his atachments.

John had been taught from earliest childhood to “fear God & keep his commandments;” & though quite skeptical he had always by turns felt much serious doubt as to his future well being; & about this time became to some extent a convert to Christianity & ever after a firm, believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible. With this book he became very familiar, & possessed a most unusual memory of its entire contents.

Now some of the things I have been telling of; were just such as I would recommend to you: & I wd like to know that you had selected these out; & adopted them as part of your own plan of life; & I wish you to have some definite plan. Many seem to have none; & others never stick to any that they do form. This was not the case with John. He followed up with tenacity whatever he set about so long as it answered his general purpose: & hence he rarely failed in some good degree to effect the things he undertook. This was so much the case that he habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings. With this feeling should be coupled; the consciousness that our plans are right in themselves.

During the period I have named John had acquired a kind of ownership to certain animals of some little value but as he had come to understand that the title of minors might be a little imperfect; he had recourse to various means in order to secure a more independant; & perfect right of property. One of those means was to exchange with his Father for some thing of far less value. Another was by trading with others persons for something his Father had never owned. Older persons have some times found difficulty with titles.

From Fifteen to Twenty years old, he spent most of his time working, at the Tanner & Currier’s trade keeping Bachelors hall; & he officiating as Cook; & for most of the time as forman of the establishment under his Father. During this period he found much trouble with some of the had habits I have mentioned & with some that I have not told you off: his concience urging him forward with great power in this matter: but his close attention to business; & success in its management; together with the way he got along with a company of men, & boys; made him quite a favorite with the serious & more inteligent portion of older persons. This was so much the case; & secured for him so many little notices from those he esteemed; that his vanity was very much fed by it: & he came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit; & self-confident; notwithstanding his extreme bashfulness. A younger brother used sometimes to remind him of this: & to repeat to him this expression which you may somewhere find, “A King against whom there is no rising up.” The habit so early formed of being obeyed rendered him in after life too much disposed to speak in an imperious & dictating way. From Fifteen years & upward he felt a good deal of anxiety to learn; but could only read & studdy a little; both for want of time; & on account of inflammation of the eyes. He however managed by the help of books to make himself tolerably well acquainted with common arithmetic; & Surveying: which he practiced more or less after he was Twenty years old.

At a little past Twenty years led by his own inclination & prompted also by his Father, he married a remarkably plain; but neat industrious & economical girl; of excellent character; earnest piety; & good practical common sense; about one year younger than himself. This woman by her mild, frank, & more than all else: by her very consistent conduct; acquired & ever while she lived maintained a most powerful; & good influence over him. Her plain but kind admonitions generally had the right effect; without arousing his haughty obstinate temper. John began early in life to discover a great liking to fine Cattle, Horses, Sheep, & Swine: & as soon as circumstances would enable him he began to be a practical Shepherd: it being a calling for which in early life he had a kind of enthusiastic longing: together with the idea that as a business it bid fair to afford him the means of carrying out his greatest or principle object. I have now given you a kind of general idea of the early life of this boy; & if I believed it would be worth the trouble: or afford much interest to any good feeling person: I might be tempted to tell you something of his course in after life; or manhood. I do not say that I will do it.

You will discover that in using up my half sheets to save paper; I have written Two pages, so that one does not follow the other as it should. I have no time to write it over; & but for unavoidable hindrances in traveling I can hardly say when I should have written what I have. With an honest desire for your best good, I subscribe myself,

Your Friend

P. S. I had like to have forgotten to acknowledge your contribution in aid of the cause in which I serve. God Allmighty bless you; my son. J. B.

* * *

After the fruitless effort made by young Brown to obtain an education for the pulpit (of which some mention was made in The Atlantic Monthly for April, 1872) he seems to have applied himself strenuously to a life of manual labor. Until his twenty-sixth year he resided chiefly in the town of Hudson, Ohio, and his ordinary occupation was that of a tanner, the same which General Grant was then learning in another part of the same State. From 1826 to 1835 he carried on this business at Richmond, near Meadville, in Pennsylvania. It was said of him there, “that he refused to sell his leather till the last drop of moisture had been dried out, declaring that he would not sell water for sole-leather.” In Pennsylvania, too, he refused to do military duty, and always paid his fine like a Quaker, rather than encourage war by his example, little foreseeing that after his death a million soldiers would march to battle singing his praise, and inspired by his courageous warfare.

It appears that he formed his definite plan for an attack upon slavery is its stronghold as early as 1838, when he was living in Ohio, having returned from Pennsylvania. His plan then was substantially what it was afterwards, but he had not so carefully worked out its details, nor had he furnished himself with the requisite military and general knowledge. He kept it steadily before him from that time onward, educated himself for it, trained his children to engage in it, and made it as much a part of his household discipline as were his morning and evening prayers. His wife told me in 1860 that she had been pledged to aid in the great work for twenty years, and that he ever since had been seeking men worthy to subscribe with him to the solemn vows he had assumed. John Brown himself had said to me in 1857, when I asked him how his wife could consent that he should so constantly expose his life and exile himself from home: “I have always told her that when the time came to fight against slavery, that conflict would be the signal for our separation. She made up her mind to have me go years before this, and when I did go she got ready bandages and medicines for the wounded.” What was more to the purpose, she sent her own sons, Watson and Oliver, to fight by his side, and they fell by his side at Harper’s Ferry. One after the other, as his sons grew toward manhood, he opened his purpose to them, and enlisted them for his long-deferred campaign.

In 1848 Brown sailed for Europe on business connected with his wool trade, and traveled over a considerable part of England, France, and Germany. The only record of this journey seems to have been the conversations in which he alluded to it; and that which has found its way into the biographies is one I held with him while driving from Concord to Medford, one Sunday in April, 1857. He then told me that he had kept the contest against slavery in mind while traveling on the Continent, and had made an especial study of the European armies and battle-fields. He had examined many of Napoleon’s positions, and assured me that the common military theory of strong places was unsound; that a ravine was in truth more defensible than a hill-top. So it is, for an army of heroes, as Leonidas demonstrated at Thermopylæ; but for ordinary warfare, we may believe that Napoleon was right. Brown often witnessed the evolutions of the Austrian troops, and declared that they could always be defeated (as they have since been in Italy and elsewhere) by soldiers who should manœuvre more rapidly. The French soldiers he thought well drilled, but lacking individual prowess; for that he gave the palm, and justly, to our own countrymen. He returned from Europe more in love than before with American institutions, and more than ever convinced that slavery must be destroyed. He came back poor, for his mercantile ventures had failed; it was not destined that he should grow rich, as he had hoped, and thus be able to aid the oppressed from his abundance. Ever afterwards he accepted cheerfully the narrow path of poverty, but gave all his spare time to the work he had at heart.

In 1849 he first visited Gerrit Smith at his home in Peterboro’, on what would have seemed, to most people, a fool’s errand. It was about the time that Mr. Smith, who owned vast tracts of land in the Adirondack woods, had offered a farm in that wild country to any colored man who would settle on it and reclaim it. John Brown had heard of this offer through the newspapers, and he sought the acquaintance of the liberal landlord, to make a proposition of his own. “I was brought up in the woods, and am acquainted with the ways of a new settlement; I will take a farm among your new tenants and show them how to clear and cultivate their land. I will employ such of them as I can, and will look after them as a good neighbor ought; I will be a kind of father to them.” Mr. Smith gave his new friend the title to a tract of wild land, to be paid for by installments, and John Brown soon settled his family upon it, and began again the hard life of a backwoodsman, which he had endured as a boy among the pioneers of northern Ohio. His object in this was threefold, as he afterwards explained it to me. Besides his desire to aid the poor negroes, his neighbors, he hoped to find among them some who would become his soldiers; and he knew that he could train and equip his men there without attracting suspicion. Moreover, he wanted a place of refuge for his wife and children when he should go on his campaign, — a place where they could live frugally, and learn those habits of industry and thrift which he thought indispensable. At this time his youngest son was ten years old, and his two daughters, who were afterwards my pupils, were six years and three years old.

The region chosen for his home, and afterwards for his grave, is singularly picturesque, but rough and bleak. I have visited it but twice: first in the summer of 1857, when I was charged by some friends of Captain Brown, in Boston, with the agreeable duty of purchasing an addition to the farms of his wife and his eldest daughter, to maintain them better while he was fighting for freedom in Kansas; and again in February, 1860, when the hero was lying in his snow-covered grave, and the house that sheltered his family was full of sorrow and pain. In the summer, for a few months, this wilderness is charming. The mountains rise, grand and beautiful, on all sides; the untamed forest clothes their slopes and fills up the plains and valleys, save where the puny labors of men have here and there rescued a bit of fertile land from its gloom. On such spots the houses are built, and around them grow the small cultivated crops that can endure the climate—grass, grain, potatoes, and a few garden vegetables. The wild fruits are in abundance, the woods (in 1857) were full of game, and the streams and lakes of fish. But the mode of life is rude and primitive, with no elegance, and little that we should call comfort. Many of the dwellings are log-cabins, and in the whole township of North Elba, where the Browns lived, there was then scarcely a house worth a thousand dollars, or one which was “finished” throughout. Mrs. Brown’s house, at that time, had but two plastered rooms, yet two families lived in it, and at my second visit two widowed women besides, whose husbands were killed at Harper’s Ferry. I slept on both occasions in a little chamber partitioned off with a rude frame-work, but not plastered, the walls only ornamented with a few pictures; and in winter the snow sifted through the roof and fell upon the bed. I arrived at nightfall, on my second visit, closely pursued from the shore of Lake Champlain by a snow-storm, which murmured and moaned about the chamber all night, and in the morning I found a small snow-drift on my coverlet, and another on the floor near my bed. The newborn babe of Oliver Brown (the captain’s youngest son, who had been killed at Harper’s Ferry four months before) died in the house that night, and the poor young mother did not long survive.

A word in passing may be given to those brave young men, who deserve many words of praise, — the sons of John Brown. At the time the Missouri Compromise was repealed, in 1854, he had seven sons and a son-in-law living. Four of these were children of his first wife; of the three others, the youngest was a boy of fifteen, and the next in age was but eighteen. The son-in-law, Henry Thompson, was a stalwart farmer, of New Hampshire origin, whose family connections were at North Elba, where, I believe, he still remains with his wife, Ruth, the eldest daughter of Brown. All were active, enterprising persons, fond of labor, inured to hardship, and expecting, as their father had taught them, to earn their living with the toil of their own hands. The narrow circumstances of the family made it quite necessary that these young men should support themselves somewhere. Several of them were living in Ohio, where, also, in 1854, their father had his home. Scarcely had the passage of the Nebraska Bill opened Kansas to slavery, when the Brown family, young and old, decided to cast their lot there. Love of freedom, love of adventure, and a desire for independence in fortune combined to tempt the young men, and three of them started for Kansas in 1854, where they settled early in the spring of 1855. The place which they selected was in Lykens County, on the Pottawatomie River, not far from the town of Osawatomie, which their father afterwards made famous. The other men of the family, some with their wives, joined them from time to time, but the whole nine, including Captain Brown, were never in Kansas together. For a long time the father, with six sons and his son-in-law, was there, and they all rallied to the defense of Lawrence in May, 1856.

John Brown himself went to Kansas in the fall of 1855, having already, in the spring of that year, taken his wife and infants back to their home in the Adirondack Mountains. Late in June, 1855, he was present at an antislavery convention in Syracuse, New York, where money was raised to assist him in arming his family in Kansas. He writes to his wife, under date of “Syracuse, June 28, 1855,” as follows: —

“I reached here on the first day of the convention, and I have reason to bless God that I came; for I have met with a most warm reception from all, so far as I know; and, except by a few sincere, honest peace friends, a most hearty approval of my intention of arming my sons and other friends in Kansas. I received to-day donations amounting to a little over sixty dollars—twenty from Gerrit Smith, five from an old British officer;1 others giving smaller sums with such earnest and affectionate expressions of their good wishes as did me more good than money even. John’s two letters were introduced, and read with such effect by Gerrit Smith as to draw tears from numerous eyes in the great collection of people present. The convention has been one of the most interesting meetings I ever attended in my life; and I made a great addition to the number of warm-hearted and honest friends.”

Five months after this letter was written, John Brown was. quietly settled at Osawatomie in Kansas, with his sons about him, when they were summoned to the town of Lawrence by the news of a threatened attack from the “Border Ruffians” of Missouri. With four of his sons he hastened to the besieged town. As they drove up to the Free State Hotel, they were all standing, tall and well armed, in a lumber wagon, about the sides of which stood rude pikes, made of bayonets fastened to poles. Each man wore an artilleryman’s sabre strapped to his side, and carried a rifle and revolvers. These were the arms (purchased in part by the Syracuse contributions) which had been carried into Kansas by John Brown in the early autumn, and this was their first employment—to save Lawrence from destruction. Bloodshed was for the present avoided, however, by skillful negotiations, in which Brown took no part, and he soon withdrew with his men to Osawatomie. This was just four years before his execution. From that time forward he was a marked man, and his name became formidable in Kansas and Missouri.

His opinions on the question of slavery and the rights of the colored people were well known in Kansas, and were regarded as extreme at that time. In a political meeting in Osawatomie, he had very early denounced the policy of excluding negroes from the new State. Such a proposition excited his wrath and scorn; he was no believer in a “white man’s government,” and thought that liberty for the negro meant something more than “the glorious privilege of work,” as Andrew Johnson once defined it. Nor did he believe in gradual emancipation, as Abraham Lincoln did, nor in peaceful emancipation of any kind. He said to a friend in Kansas, “I have been at your abolition meetings, and your scheme is perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a hundred years. Peaceful emancipation is impossible; the thing has gone beyond that point.” The truth of this saying was not quite so clear in 1856 as it is now.

The settlers of Kansas, by no means all heroes, soon discovered that their new champion had other views than they. He was no squatter, but even then “his soul went marching on.” He had come there to aid his sons and their neighbors against the Missouri marauders; but that was not his main purpose. He saw that Kansas was the battleground between slavery and freedom, and he wanted the warfare on the right side to be something more than defensive. He longed to attack slavery on its own ground, and there destroy it. The time, he thought, had come to carry out his darling scheme, and he made many enemies among the timid “Free-State men” by striving to do so.

In the disturbances of 1856 he was very prominent, particularly at the fights of Black Jack and Osawatomie, in both of which he won a victory over numbers far superior to his own force. He had enlisted a small band of true men, and with these, from May to September, he ranged the Kansas prairies at intervals, executing justice on the oppressors of the people. It was a portion of his band that committed the so-called “Pottawatomie murders” in May, 1856, but Captain Brown himself was not then present, although he afterwards fully justified the act. It has often been said that he took part in this deed, but that, he assured me more than once, was not the fact.

At various times during the summer of 1856, Captain Brown was pursued by the United States troops, then stationed in Kansas, and finally left the Territory, in September, to avoid them. As he passed northward through Nebraska and Iowa, retreating slowly out of the land he had rescued from slavery, he left behind him the grave of one of his sons; another son by imprisonment and outrage had become a maniac; yet another son and a son-in-law had been severely wounded. The old hero himself was sick and destitute; he had been waging war at his own cost, as well as at his own risk, and scarcely a dollar of the money so freely contributed in New England and elsewhere had reached the man who could best have used it. It has been common to assert that these sufferings and losses incited Captain Brown to take revenge upon the slave-holders for what they had inflicted on him and his. Another explanation has also been given, and this may be quoted in the words of Henry Ward Beecher: “The shot that struck the child’s heart crazed the fathers brain. I mourn the hiding or obscuration of his reason.” But it is idle to speak of him as insane who was wiser than any of us in his foresight. The simple truth is that Captain Brown went to Kansas in pursuance of his long-cherished design, and while he gained experience, and perhaps strength of purpose, there, he brought away with him neither malice nor insanity.

This is part one of a six-part series. Read part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, and part six here.
  1. The late Captain Charles Stewart, who had served under Wellington in India.