In composing our narratives, it is tempting to jump from John Brown's death in 1859 to dramatic
martial scenes of men in blue--white and black--marching into battle against rebel forces in the Civil War. While the ultimate outcome of the war was the defeat of southern rebels and the end of slavery, the two outcomes were not held as equal objectives by the federal government when the war began in 1861. A realistic historical sketch of the Civil War must include the fact that despite his alleged life-long hatred of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was willing to avoid war at the onset, even at the cost of allowing slavery to be contained in the slave states. It was Southern greed, prejudice, and hubris that caused the rebels to mistake Lincoln for John Brown and reject his compromise.
Consequently, when the South seceded, Lincoln sent federal troops to save the Union, not free the slaves. Indeed, it took much of the war for Lincoln's social and political sensibilities to catch up with those of the abolitionists, since his sine qua non was the preservation of the Union until late in the war. Of course, this was not an exceptional position. Lincoln's agenda was typical of many whites in the North who didn't want to overturn slavery, but felt compelled to support a military prevention of Southern secession.
To no surprise, the abolitionists were not enthusiastic about Lincoln's election and were disappointed with the way the newly elected Republican administration put black liberation on the back burner in order to prioritize saving the Union. It is also no surprise that many whites disdained John Brown and expressed antipathy toward his surviving widow and children. Even though a segment of the antislavery population sympathized with Brown, many of them considered him a kind of Don Quixote figure, who meant well despite his erroneous effort to free the slaves. Many others simply disdained Brown, like proslavery Democrats who would even show political contempt toward his family. A good example of this is found in the case of Salmon Brown's effort to join the Union army.
|Salmon Brown--as he would|
have looked around 1862
(West Virginia State Collection)
In 1862, twenty-six-year-old Salmon Brown, was still single and at home with his mother and younger sisters. His older half-brothers, John Jr., Jason, and Owen had long left the fold, and his two full brothers, Watson and Oliver, had died at Harper's Ferry. Salmon was "the man in the family" at North Elba when the war started, and at first he felt duty-bound to support the cause, lending his hand in starting the 96th New York Regiment.
But no sooner had Salmon donned his uniform that a protest began to arise against his promotion on the grounds that he was the son of John Brown. Protests were varied: some stated simply that they were opposed to Brown's legacy; others did not want him ascending to a command position in the event that his superior officers were struck down or fell to sickness in the war. Finally, others complained that they feared the hostile retaliation of the Confederates if they fell into rebel hands under Salmon's command. Complaints became so great that he not only lost his lieutenancy, but felt it necessary to resign from the army, stating that his continued presence in the 96th would only impair its usefulness.1
On April 22, 1862, Jason Brown, who was nearly forty years old, penned a fascinating letter to his younger half-brother. Initially, Jason apologized, apparently for having been such a poor correspondent and for having neglected him. Jason appealed that he was not showing favoritism by not having written--that is, apparently he worried that Salmon would think that his neglect was based on the fact of their different mothers (Jason's mother was Dianthe Lusk, John Brown's first wife, who died in 1832; Brown married Mary Day, Salmon's mother, the following year).
In his letter, Jason knows of Salmon's recent disappointment, although he adds in a postscript that he had just found out that he had been offered the rank of lieutenant. Evidently, the reason for Jason's letter was that Annie, Salmon's younger sister, had sent him a copy of Salmon's resignation letter to the army. "I am very glad that you did not go with a regiment of men who are ashamed of the son of a man who dared to do right! Ashamed of a man who dares to think an speak for Justice and truth," Jason wrote.2
He continues the letter by affirming Salmon's decision and expressing his gladness that he had "escaped from a regiment of men who I believe would be willing to die to save the infernal cause of this war"--in other words, Jason believed that many Northern men were yet willing that slavery continue, and were fighting only for the preservation of the status quo. He then mentions that he too had considered enlisting, but had not done so because his wife Ellen was in poor health. Nor had his older bachelor brother, Owen, enlisted. However, John Brown Junior had already enlisted, and Jason writes that he hopes that he too would "resign and come home," and that no other family member would serve in the army until "the Government is willing to do right."3
The Browns had consistently taken an abolitionist and egalitarian stance and found the circumstances quite dissatisfying, and Jason's sentiments reflected those of John Junior's as well. Junior had been the first to become involved in the army in late 1861, when he assisted in raising a company of sharpshooters from Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. After his company was mustered into the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, Junior complained.4 "We are all feeling very sore about serving under Proslavery Gen. Halleck," he wrote to Jason that previous month.5
Henry Halleck, a Northern Democrat, was given command of the western theater by Lincoln in 1862. He was eventually transferred to the east by the President, but he was disliked by antislavery people in the west because of his Democratic sympathies, which Junior thus rightly characterized as "proslavery." Junior sought and obtained a medical discharge in May 1862, although there were some, like Charles Auiger, an Ohio neighbor, who believed he had faked his health problems (claiming rheumatism) in order to get out of the army. Auiger thought John Junior fearful of war, which may be the case.6 Despite being his father's namesake (and the chief pensioner of his father's legacy), John Junior was never distinguished as a fighting man.5 Even so, it is reasonable to assume that he likewise had political reasons for backing out of military service.
This certainly was Jason's sentiment:
It seems to me that the mass of the white people of this wicked nation would rather that millions of its best men should die in this war than to do the least act of justice to the 4 million slaves or in any way interfere with the accursed thing (Slavery). I have lost all desire to have anything to do in that war till the nation is ready to do right. . . . As long as slavery is to be protected let proslavery men fight. I shall stay at home for the present.7
In the meantime, Jason concluded, he was still struggling with debt and poverty--the unfortunate "estate" that John Brown left his family after giving everything, including his life, for the cause of freedom. "I think we as a family have sacrificed enough for the present," Jason wrote. "At least till the people are willing to stop fighting to protect slavery."8
L. DeCaro, Jr.
1 See G.W. Palmley, "A visit with a son of John Brown," Montgomery News, 20 August 1915, in Boyd B. Stutler Collection.
2 Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, to Salmon Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 22 April 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
4 John Brown Jr., Humboldt, Kan., to Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, 25 March 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
5"Biographical Resume" under Inventory and Calendar of John Brown, Jr. (Columbus: Ohio State Historical Society).
6 See Katherine Mayo's interview with Charles D. Auiger, 4 Jan. 1909, in JB in Cleveland, March 1859, and in Ohio folder, Box 4, John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
7 Jason to Salmon 22 April 1862.