Read CHAPTER V of Old John Brown The Man Whose Soul is Marching on , free online book, by Walter Hawkins, on


John Brown was now at his work; no longer the mere fingers, but the soul of him had found a task. He set before himself this object, to free Kansas from the slave-holders’ grip.

The Free-State men had met and agreed to pay no taxes to a Legislature illegally elected. They organized a rival government, and brought themselves into violent antagonism to the Federal Authorities at Washington for President Pierce and his Cabinet, which included the renowned Jefferson Davis, backed the pro-slavery Legislature and its following of ruffians. The town of Lawrence, which the Free Staters held, was taken and pillaged by a wild mob under the leadership of the United States Marshal, and we find the Browns in a company marching to its relief. There was much skirmishing, during which two of Brown’s sons were taken prisoners. Only the constant vigilance and undaunted courage of a few desperately bold men kept heart in the lovers of liberty. But they (often led by John Brown) escaped the government officials who sought to arrest them and sped to the help of those who were marked as the victims of the marauders. So slowly did the Federal Authorities awake to the situation that for a time there seemed little protection to be expected for persecuted lovers of liberty.

We must now form some estimate of the two sides in this irregular warfare in which John Brown all through the summer of 1856 was so prominently engaged.

On the one hand were those whom the slave-holders relied upon for the most part to do their dirty work ruffians, many of them from the neighbouring State; men who did not work, but who lived a wild life not cultivating a tract of land around their rude dwelling-place like honest settlers, but fishing, shooting, and thieving for a living preferring the atmosphere of a Slave State as more favourable to their life of lawlessness and plunder, and finding inspiration in the whisky-bottle for such deeds of devilry as have been described.

Upon the other side, waging a guerilla warfare for little else was possible against enemies who preferred sneaking outrages to pitched battles were little companies of some score or two. Captain John Brown’s company was ever to the fore. He felt that outrage had gone far enough unchecked, and that it was time honest men took the aggressive and struck terror into cowards’ hearts. They were not without fierceness, but it was the fruit of honest anger. Rifles in their judgement went not ill with Bible-reading and prayer but we have heard of such before. Armed Roundheads and Scotch Covenanters combined prayer with sword exercise. In this camp, morning and evening prayers were an institution; uncivil treatment of prisoners was a gross offence; no intoxicating liquors were permitted. One by-law runs: ‘All profane, vulgar, or ungentlemanly talk shall be discountenanced.’ What! do these rough men set themselves up to be gentlemen! Yes, according to Emerson’s own meaning when he says of Brown’s supporters:

’All gentlemen, of course, are on his side. I do not mean by “gentlemen” people of scented hair and perfumed handkerchiefs, but men of gentle blood and generosity, “fulfilled with all nobleness,” who, like the Cid, give the outcast leper a share of their bed; like the dying Sidney, pass the cup of cold water to the wounded soldier who needs it more. For what is the oath of gentle blood and knighthood! What but to protect the weak and lowly against the strong oppressor! Nothing is more absurd than to complain of this sympathy, or to complain of a party of men united in opposition to slavery. As well complain of gravity or the ebb of the tide. Who makes the Abolitionist! The slave-holder. The sentiment of mercy is the natural recoil which the laws of the universe provide to protect mankind from destruction by savage passions. And our blind statesmen go up and down, with committees of vigilance and safety, hunting for the origin of this new heresy. They will need a very vigilant committee, indeed, to find its birthplace, and a very strong force to root it up. For the arch-abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenanndoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before Slavery, and will be after it.’

John Brown and, at one time, six of his sons were in the company. Many were rejected who offered for service, not for lack of physical stature, but moral. ‘I would rather,’ said John Brown, ’have the smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera all together in my camp than a man without principles. It is a mistake to think that bullies are the best fighters. Give me God-fearing men men who respect themselves; and with a dozen of them, I will oppose a hundred of these ruffians.’ These are the men, then, who were found in Kansas woods, with bare heads and unkempt locks, in red-topped boots and blue shirts, taking their hasty meals or fitful sleep, their horses tied to the tree-trunks ready for swift mounting at the first signal of danger. No sounds of revelry betray their hiding-place; the spirit of the man in their midst, with Puritan nobility in his rugged face, and a strange, awe-inspiring unworldliness in his talk, has entered into them. No novice is he in the affairs of either world this or the Unseen. At night he will look up to the stars that glitter above the still camp and talk like a theologian, moralizing upon the fact that while God’s stars are unerring in their courses God’s human creatures are so erratic. But he is no mere dreamer; you may see him, when the enemy is known to be near, sleeping in his saddle, with his gun across it, that he may be no sooner awake than ready. One who knew not of this habit was once imprudent enough to touch him in his sleep, as he wanted to speak to him; he had only time to knock up the swiftly pointed barrel with his hand and John Brown’s bullet grazed the intruder’s shoulder.

One of the first deeds in this campaign, and the one that certainly first turned the tide and caused the pro-slavery ruffians to feel that they had need to look to their own safety, and would not be suffered with impunity to murder whom they chose and fire honest men’s houses like fiends let loose, was the midnight massacre at Pottawatomie. Along a certain creek there lived five of these incendiaries and outrage-mongers who were specially notorious. A report reached Brown that they were sworn to sweep the neighbourhood clear of Abolitionists, not forgetting ‘those Browns.’ That they were to be kept in terror by such a gang seemed to Brown an unrighteous state of things, and he formed the desperate design of visiting them first. But he loved not slaughter for slaughter’s sake. Not only could he strike upon occasion, but he could be just in his rough-and-ready fashion. He argued within himself, ’I shall be right in killing these men if I am sure they intend these murders, but I will not act upon mere report.’ Disguising himself, he started with two men to carry a surveyor’s chain, and one to carry a flag. No coward was this man. He would put his life in peril rather than act on mere suspicion. So he ran his lines past the houses of these five men, and they naturally came out to see what this surveying business was. Brown told them, as he looked through his instrument and waved the flagman to this side or that, ‘Yours is a grand country. Are there many Abolitionists about here?’ In his pocket-book he jotted down the answer ‘Yes,’ and, swearing great oaths, they told him that they meant to sweep the region clear of them in a week. ‘Are there some called Brown?’ ‘Yes,’ and man by man they swore the Browns should be killed by their hands. Back he went saying to himself, ’If I understand the Book these are murderers, they have committed murder in their hearts.’ Ere many nights were passed eight men were requisitioned from the camp. They stole forth armed with short cutlasses, and next morning the ghastly news spread abroad that five corpses had been found by that creek. John Brown, jun., said, ’The only statement that I ever heard my father make in regard to this was “I did not myself kill any of those men at Pottawatomie, but I am as fully responsible as if I did."’ It was a terrible act; we cannot wonder that it came as a great shock to many who had the cause of liberty at heart, but when questioned about it the old man was always reticent, and would only say, ‘God is my Judge.’

The result was unmistakable. From that moment John Brown’s name became a terror to the evildoers of that quarter. The free settlers felt there was another fate than extermination for them, and the impotent administration at Washington first began to see that this hitherto submissive majority of free settlers must be reckoned with. A writer said years after, ‘It was like a clap of thunder from a clear sky.’ There are acts that can only be morally estimated by a careful consideration of the prevailing circumstances, and in this case they are such as we, well housed and protected folk, thank God, know not. Those who knew this man through and through were swift to testify, ’Whatever may be thought of John Brown’s acts, John Brown himself was right.’ No personal end had he to serve; his harvest was privation, suffering, death. He had no personal vengeance to wreak, and when revengeful words were spoken in his hearing he soon lifted the conversation to a sublime level.

‘That,’ said he, ’is not a Christian spirit. If I thought I had one bit of the spirit of revenge I would never lift my hand. I do not make war on slave-holders, but on slavery.’

Henceforth John Brown’s little band was famous. A few days after the Pottawatomie tragedy we find him engaging a company under Captain Fate, who professed, with doubtful authority, to be the emissary of the Government. Hearing after prayer meeting one Sunday they are in the neighbourhood, he is quickly in pursuit as soon as night has set in, and in the morning with a handful of men he is exchanging brisk fire with the enemy. Presently Fred Brown, a wild-looking man of the woods, who has been left in charge of the horses, comes riding upon a pony none too large for its ungainly burden. He waves his long arms, shouting, ’Come on, boys, we’ve got ’em surrounded and cut off their communications.’ The enemy are scared at the apparition, and their captain, thinking there is no fathoming the plots of these Browns, sends a lieutenant forward with a flag of truce. John Brown asks, ’Are you captain!’ ‘No.’ ‘I will talk with him, not with you.’ Captain Fate advances with much parley. ‘Any proposition to make?’ impatiently asks John Brown. ‘No.’ Then he (John Brown) has one unconditional surrender; and with eight men he has soon secured twenty prisoners. So all through that summer Brown was wellnigh ubiquitous in harassing the enemy, and their dispatches betray their terror of him by ludicrous exaggerations of his achievements. But it is certain he lived as nearly up to his terrible reputation as he could. At Franklin, at Washington Creek, and at Osawatomie we find him in evidence. Here are extracts from his letters in reference to the attack made by the pro-slavery men at the last-mentioned place. ’On the morning of August 30 an attack was made by the ruffians on Osawatomie, numbering some 400, by whose scouts our dear Frederick was shot dead.’ (This was his son, and it was by a Methodist preacher’s rifle he was killed. Such was the support which the pulpit sometimes gave in those turbulent days to the slavery cause.) ’At this time I was about three miles off, where I had some fourteen or fifteen men over-night that had just enlisted under me. These I collected with some twelve or fifteen more, and in about three-quarters of an hour I attacked them from a wood with thick undergrowth.

’With this force we threw them into confusion for about fifteen or twenty minutes, during which time we killed or wounded from seventy to eighty of the enemy as they say and then we escaped as we could with one killed, two or three wounded, and as many more missing. Jason (another son) fought bravely by my side. I was struck by a partly spent shot which bruised me some, but did not injure me seriously. “Hitherto the Lord has helped me, notwithstanding my afflictions."’

Later there was a futile attack upon Lawrence by 2,700 Of the Border ruffians, and while the governor claimed afterwards the credit for the failure of the attack, it is certain that his dilatory intervention had less to do with the result than the prompt action of a couple of hundred defenders of the place who made a dash outwards towards the advancing rabble. Mounted on a grocer’s box in the main street, John Brown thus addressed them before action: ’If they come up and attack don’t yell, but remain still. Wait till they get within twenty-five yards of you: get a good object: be sure you see the hind sight of your gun then fire. A great deal of powder and lead is wasted on aiming too high. You had better aim at their legs than at their heads. In either case, be sure of the hind sights of your guns. It is from the neglect of this that I myself have so many times escaped; for if all the bullets that have ever been aimed at me had hit, I should have been as full of holes as a riddle.’

All these skirmishes from a military point of view were trivial, but from a political standpoint they were crucial. They saved Kansas, and made free election at length possible. Brown and his men were ‘incarnate earnestness,’ says one writer, and it was that fervent devotion which made all that followed possible. It became impossible for a government to wink at arson and murder. ’Take more care to end life well than to live long,’ the old man used to say, and he exemplified his doctrine.

His reckless bravery was proverbial. After one of their successful skirmishes a wounded Missourian wished greatly to see the redoubtable John Brown before he died. The captain went to the wagon where he lay and said, ’Here I am; take a good look at me; we wish you all no harm. Stay at home, leave us alone, and we shall be friends. I wish you well.’ The dying man looked at him from head to foot, and, reaching out his hand, said, ’I don’t see as you are so bad. You don’t look or talk like it. I thank you.’ Clasping his hand, the old captain said, ‘God bless you,’ and his tears were the Amen. Thus tender was he ever with his prisoners, despite his fierceness.

At length the United States Government saw the free settlers were in no abject mood, and stepped in to their relief. John Brown saw the dawn of better days, and then travelled away northward, worn and sick, with a fugitive slave as a kind of trophy hidden in his wagon. Before long he found security and peace for a while at North Elba, New York, at the house of Gerrit Smith.