"Of all the men who were said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died. . . . I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He has earned immortality. He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret. He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land." Henry David Thoreau<>"It would be difficult to find a parallel in all history for John Brown and his career."J. M. Buckley<>"His conversation was of the most pleasant and instructive character. One thing I observed that he never said a word that did not mean something. He always talked directly to the point and every word was big with meaning." C. G. Allen<>"It would have been as easy to drive a shadow into the centre of a block of granite as to force a pro-slavery falsehood into his brain or heart." James Redpath<>“People don’t realize, I believe, how thoughtfully Mr. Brown went into that expedition with the idea of sacrificing himself. All his preparations were made calmly and he went away as though going on a mere business trip. . . . he had weighed it all." Lyman Eppes<>"All that the courts could take cognizance of was a watch and a Bible and a few old guns. But to humanity he had left a firmer faith in virtue and in liberty." Clarence Macartney<>"He did much in his life and more in his death; he embodied the inspiration of the men of his generation." Theodore Roosevelt<>"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass<>

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

John Brown: Six Longstanding Errors and Assumptions Corrected

John Brown
Media myth: The wild-eyed John Brown
(Raymond Massey) of Santa Fe Trail
Six Longstanding Errors and Assumptions Corrected

1. Error:
John Brown suffered from some sort of mental health problem. 


There is no historical evidence that Brown suffered any sort of mental health problem.  Brown’s alleged insanity originated when friends and family tried to get his death sentence commuted in 1859 with affidavits appealing to his “monomania.”  Brown denied these appeals and they were understood as a mere legal device that neither Brown nor his captors took seriously.

There is no evidence that Brown ever suffered from mental illness of any kind, no testimony or discussion that might lend such a notion, and there are explicit denials from his wife and others of any insanity issues.  In the 20th century, the alleged insanity issue was raised by historians and writers, who imputed mental illness or delusion to Brown but did so out of prejudice.  In more recent years, sympathetic theories of bipolar disorder, etc. have been renewed, although once more there is no evidence or testimony that even suggests Brown was mentally unstable.  This is a difficult lie to dislodge because it has become a cultural assumption despite the lack of evidence.

2.  Error:
John Brown was a terrible businessman, a complete and utter failure at everything he tried in business.


Brown failed in business, first in a series of endeavors in the mid-to-late 1830s, then again in partnership with magnate Simon Perkins, Jr.  However, failure in the first phase was not unusual in an economy without a federal bank, limited liability protection, insurance, and other financial safety nets available to business people today.  The uneven and troubled antebellum economy was particularly hard on businesses in “western” states like Ohio at this time.  Brown’s troubles in Ohio were rooted in using credit and getting deep into real estate speculation at the wrong place and time.  When he declared bankruptcy in 1842, he was among many others who lost heavily in business ventures.

By reputation and practice, Brown was actually quite successful in livestock work, and in the 1840s became nationally known, at least in the north, as a specialist in fine sheep and wool.  His expertise and knowledge about sheep breeding and wool care is documented in agricultural journals at the time.  To say that Brown was a failure in business overlooks the fact that he was actually considered an expert in that field and between 1844-46 was single-handedly responsible for the widespread reputation of the flock owned by Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio.

The disappointment in business with Perkins pertained to a joint venture in which he and Brown endeavored to start a commission house to assist wool growers.  At this period, wool growers were unorganized and lacked a consistent method of production, and at the same time were beset by the maneuvering and controls of New England manufacturers.  Brown and Perkins tried to offset this problem but were ultimately defeated by the powerful manufacturers.  The demise of their firm in 1849 has often been simplistically portrayed as a “failure,” although in fact it was more of a defeat.  Brown was actually visionary in trying to unite and empower the wool growers; this was accomplished in the same region in the early 20th century.

Finally, Brown did not turn to abolition because of bitter disappointment in business.  It is true that Brown had early on dreamt of being a kind of antislavery magnate who could use wealth to assist black people and the antislavery cause.  However, he was always interested in the antislavery movement, even during his busiest periods as a businessman.

3.  Error:
John Brown murdered five innocent proslavery people on Pottawatomie Creek in the territory of Kansas in 1856.


Brown in Kansas: Typically
misrepresented as a terrorist 
John Brown’s adult sons had settled in the Kansas territory at the time when proslavery thugs and terrorists began to seek to use violence to force slavery upon the free state majority; the Browns were outspoken in their views on black equality, which made them particularly reprehensible to local proslavery people.  A cadre of local proslavery men formed a conspiracy to remove the Browns and support the invasion of proslavery thugs in doing so.  John Brown and other free state people learned of this action, and without recourse to aid from the law, decided to do something that would end the conspiracy, save his family, and send a message to proslavery leaders about their terrorism.  Brown with the support of some of his sons and some other neighbors agreed that extreme measures had to be taken and so launched a preemptive strike against the conspirators, taking them from their homes in the dead of night and executing them with swords.  Essentially a guerilla action in the field, the killings were precise, strategic, and had no collateral damage; five of the seven conspirators originally targeted were killed, all of them being in some way associated with the proslavery designs of invaders, and all of them willing participants in some aspect of the plot.  The killings put an end to the immediate threat, and local proslavery participation in any sort of plotting against free state neighbors was pushed back significantly.  It would take three months before the proslavery invasion could be reorganized in an assault upon Osawatomie, a free state community close to the Brown settlements.

 The Pottawatomie killings were not an acts of terrorism, but rather martial killings in a context of guerilla warfare, and in a situation where the Browns had no resort to protection by local or federal law enforcement, most of which were proslavery people, or loyal to the proslavery government in Washington D.C.  The Pottawatomie killings did not initiate violence in the territory, since the proslavery thugs had already killed five free state men, and the larger arc of proslavery activity was consistently violent and terroristic, whereas Brown’s conduct in the territory had been consistently peaceful until the threat of imminent assault upon his family and free state associates became a real danger.  

4.  Error:
John Brown raided the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859 in order to get weapons.


This hackneyed claim is wrong in several ways:

First, Brown raided Harper’s Ferry the town, along with the entire government operation, properly, the armory, which consisted of the works as well as arsenal. 

Brown and his men leaving their Maryland farm
to attack Harper's Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859
 Second, after his defeat, Brown explicitly denied that he wanted the Harper’s Ferry weapons and the evidence backs up his claim.  Brown brought no wagons to load the weapons, and no weapons were evidently seized throughout his whole time of occupation of the town and armory.  Brown actually posted two men to guard the arsenal—apparently to prevent citizens from gaining access to the arms during his occupation.  One armory staff person later testified that Brown’s men opened the weapons and looked at them, but none were removed or distributed, and no provision was made to do so.  Brown himself told reporters that he didn’t want the Virginia weapons because they were inferior to the Sharps rifles that he already had (his guns could fire more and reload faster than the older style guns produced at the armory). Brown had actually toured both federal armories and specifically made extended observation of Harper’s Ferry weeks in advance of the raid.  The whole idea that he sought the weapons originated in the proslavery press.

The best answer to why Brown seized Harper’s Ferry came from his own lips as conveyed through journalists: he sought to make a political demonstration.  The demonstration of seizing the armory was not part of his original plan, but became so in his thinking after what took place in Kansas in 1856—the seizure of a Missouri arsenal by proslavery people.  Brown later said that his idea of seizing the armory began that year, so this is most likely the reason, that he wanted to point out to the proslavery Buchanan administration that they had done nothing about the invasion of a federal armory by proslavery people.

Again, there is no evidence that cases of Harper’s Ferry guns were removed or loaded during the whole time of Brown’s seizure of the town and armory.  There were no wagons and no evident interest in taking the guns, so the whole notion is a myth born out of the paranoia of Virginians and the indignation of her politicians, like Senator James Mason.

5.  Error:
Brown intended to launch an insurrection in Virginia.


Brown repeatedly and consistently denied that insurrection was his intention, but he was found guilty of insurrection by a proslavery Virginia court.  The question is whether historians are interested in repeating the court’s charge or if they are interested in understanding Brown’s intention.
A 19th century sketch of the Harper's Ferry fire engine
house, where Brown made his last stand

Naturally, slaveholders and their courts would interpret any effort to incite a liberation movement as “insurrection.”  However, in historical and strategic terms, Brown did not want to incite insurrection because he understood insurrection to mean a servile war—a conflict between slaves and masters where the former are armed with the intention of destroying slavery by destroying masters.  Servile wars, whether Spartacus in antiquity, or Nat Turner in 1831, involved mass killing of the master class, including children who were qualified as property owners.  To Brown, insurrection was servile war and this he both dreaded and opposed as a strategy.

As relayed from interviews, Brown characterized his effort as a kind of armed rescue and a grand demonstration.  The emphasis of his movement was not immediate and pervasive warfare and bloodletting, but a campaign of minimalist violence—fighting in defense of his efforts to lead away enslaved people.  His major focus was building an expansive system of satellite groups in the mountains and outlying regions throughout the South, their purpose being to destabilize slavery, lead of enslaved people in increasing numbers, and spread in a southwestward direction from Virginia.

There is no doubt that Brown intended the use of force, and that he expected fighting, but he did not want insurrectionary violence, rather hoping to throw the Southern economy into panic and make it impossible for the business and traffic of slavery to operate.  This would further exacerbate the occurrences of runaways, which was already a growing problem in the South, and discourage proslavery defenders by showing the fallacies of the proslavery rationale.

6.  Error:
Brown failed to attract enslaved people to his side.


This lie can be directly traced to the immediate claims and statements of the proslavery press after the raid--a lie that was picked up Southern politicians, and unfortunately swallowed by moderates in the North.  The South relied very heavily upon the myth of black loyalty and contentment and it was critically important for Virginia authorities to portray local blacks as having been disinterested in and distrustful of Brown.  Quite the opposite is true: there is sufficient evidence that local enslaved people rejoiced and greeted Brown’s men heartily; that blacks were gathering in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and waiting for his withdrawal from the town, since the object of his plan was to retreat to the nearby hills and mountains.  Brown had made contact with local blacks and there is a great deal of evidence that local blacks were extremely interested in Brown, even after his defeat.  The local enslaved community reacted to Brown’s defeat and prosecution by acts of arson targeting proslavery jurors, by sending fiery signals in the sky, and by increased numbers fleeing slavery despite Brown’s failure.  The testimony of a locally enslaved man named Antony Hunter (whose identity has been verified in the census of 1870) made to a Union officer during the Civil War was that hundreds of enslaved people were waiting on the periphery of Harper’s Ferry for Brown’s retreat from the town.  

Sunday, August 07, 2016

From the Field--

by H. Scott Wolfe

Long ago, during the late Pleistocene Era, when I first began chasing John Brown’s men, it was nearly impossible to find secondary works detailing the lives and deeds of the Old Man’s followers. For the most part, the soldiers of the Provisional Army were mere footnotes in the sundry biographies of their leader. It certainly was unlike the present, when Herr Doktor Lubet of Evanston produces full blown lives of the two Johns, Cook and Copeland.

Wayland biography 1961 (Wolfe photo)
As I haunted the used book stores (alas, a dying breed) to amass a personal John Brown library, I distinctly remember espying a slim, blue volume entitled: John Kagi and John Brown. My records indicate that I shelled out $17.50 for it. . . which, during that remote, poverty-stricken epoch, would probably have paid my electric bill for several months.

Published in 1961 at Strasburg, Virginia, the book was penned by John W. Wayland who, in his introduction, presents John Henri Kagi, Brown’s “Secretary of War,” as “my own near kin.” Wayland’s mother happened to be Kagi’s first cousin. The author justified his effort by stating that: “. . .inasmuch as I have in hand a number of intimate items concerning John Henri Kagi. . .that are not generally available to the public, I feel constrained to present them in this chronicle.”

Whatever the writer’s motivation, this researcher...normally compelled to blast such information out of the resistant bedrock of lugubrious libraries and cavernous courthouses...was elated. It was the first biography of one of the Old Man’s followers that these myopic eyes had ever gazed upon.

A life abridged.

John Henri Kagi (Kansas Memory)
He was a product of Bristolville, Trumbull County, Ohio. . . and was early a ripe fruit fallen from the antislavery vine. So much so that, during two early sojourns in his father’s native Shenandoah County, Virginia, his cousins lamented the fact that the youth often openly declared that “the colored race was as smart and good as the white.”

But the family controversy soon became a public one. . .particularly after he commenced teaching at a school in Hawkinstown, Virginia. He proved to be a skilled pedant. . .having already commenced the study of law, taught himself both phonography and French and become an accomplished debater. But the school was abruptly closed and the teacher banished. The reasons were expressed later by a Kagey (an alternate spelling of the surname) relation: “He tried to put bad feelings in the darkies around here towards their Masters.” He was threatened with arrest, and it was only through the intercession of Virginia family members that the local slaveholders “let him go back to Ohio with a promise never to come back here again.”
Aaron Dwight Stevens
(JB the Abolitionist Blog)

He then removed to Nebraska Territory, to the Missouri River community of Nebraska City, where he joined his older sister Barbara Ann and her husband, Allen B. Mayhew. This strategic location was to assume great importance when, because of the proslavery river blockade in the State of Missouri, it served as a terminus for the famous “Jim Lane Trail,” an overland route through Iowa which was utilized by antislavery settlers (including John Brown) in traveling to Kansas.

He continued his study of phonography and law and was admitted to the bar at the precocious age of 21. But by then the sectional strife in neighboring Kansas Territory had attracted his attention...and he soon was waging war with both the sword and the pen. He participated in a number of sharp engagements as a member of Company B of the 2nd Regiment of Kansas Free-State Volunteers. . .commanded by Aaron Dwight Stevens, then operating under the nom de guerre of “Colonel Whipple.” This association would endure until the final battle at Harpers Ferry.

John Henri Kagi with lady  (Kansas Memory)
He also began contributing correspondence and propaganda for a host of antislavery newspapers published both in Kansas and in the principle cities of the East. These militant activities culminated in his arrest and imprisonment at the proslavery town of Lecompton. Territorial Governor John Geary sought to pacify his domain by removing such sectional irritants as he and his comrades. But despite being jailed for over three months, his letters continued to be clandestinely smuggled to the outside world.

Upon his release, he resumed his role as gadfly, reporting upon the activities of the proslavery party. It wasn’t long until, as the Kansas Tribune reported, his enemies “resorted to those particular friends of southern institutions, the cudgel and revolver.” At the Court House in Tecumseh, Judge Rush Elmore, a “burly and fugacious” Alabamian offended by the youth’s newspaper commentary, assaulted him about the head with a heavy cane. The combatants, one stunned by the blow. . .and the other seeking refuge behind a pillar. . . commenced a seriocomical gun battle. Both were wounded, Elmore in the groin and he in the chest, his life saved by a thick memorandum book stuffed in his breast pocket.

Kagi's signature from an 1858 letter (JB the Abolitionist Blog)
Undaunted, he published a card in the Topeka newspaper, asking Judge Elmore to “accept the compliments of the ‘d—d abolition reporter,’ who is still alive, and who, while he continues to live, will endeavor to devote his humble efforts to the cause of freedom of the Press and speech here and elsewhere, and to Free Kansas.”

In the autumn of 1857, at Topeka, he first met John Brown. He was among the recruits enlisted to attend the Old Man’s projected military training school. . .and thereafter spent the winter at Springdale, Iowa, drilling and studying the Manual of the Patriotic Volunteer. . . while, for his letters, adopting the alliterative pseudonym Maurice Maitland.

He then served as a delegate to Brown’s Constitutional Convention, held in Chatham, Canada West. His phonography skills being of great utility, he was chosen to serve as Secretary. And after ratifying the Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States, the delegates chose him to serve as Secretary of War under their Provisional Government. Again, his experience with pen and sword was recognized by his peers.

Kagi's signature in July 1859 correspondence
(JB the Abolitionist Blog)
Returning to Kansas, he accompanied his Commander in Chief to the site of the infamous Marais des Cygnes massacre. He became a member of Shubel Morgan’s (a Brown pseudonym) Company. . .engaged in border warfare in association with the Free State leader James Montgomery. Following Brown’s dramatic liberation of eleven Missouri slaves, he accompanied the party, traversing the Jim Lane Trail and finally delivering the bondsmen to freedom in Canada.

He was then ordered to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he lodged at the boarding house of Mary Rittner. He (now corresponding under the name John Henrie) remained there until Brown’s raid was initiated, serving as a contact and forwarding agent for Brown’s men and munition shipments. He also accompanied his leader to the famous meeting with Frederick Douglass in a nearby stone quarry. . .where Brown unsuccessfully attempted to convince Douglass to join forces in the Harpers Ferry incursion.

On the night of October 16, 1859, he and his Kansas captain, Aaron Stevens, were among the first to cross the bridge into the Ferry. Along with two comrades, John Copeland and Lewis Leary, he was assigned to occupy the United States Rifle Factory, situated above the town on the banks of the Shenandoah River. The following day, as the local militiamen cut off all river crossings and besieged the factory. he was compelled to flee into the river...where he was shot dead, his blood mingling with the waters of his ancestral stream.


Mayhew Cabin  (Wayland 1961)
During those halcyon days of yore, as I set out to research John Brown’s soldiers, I vowed to personally visit all locations relevant to their lives. So it was with John Henri Kagi.

I remember sojourning at the Mayhew Cabin in Nebraska City, today still considered the oldest surviving structure in the State of Nebraska. To maintain my energy level, I enjoyed teetering stacks of pancakes at the nearby “John Brown Family Restaurant.” And I recollect swimming in the Shenandoah River. . .among the very rocks off Virginius Island where Kagi had sought shelter during his final, and fatal, dash for freedom. While the brisk current threatened to sweep my slender form into the Potomac and on to the Atlantic, I tried to visualize angry riflemen on the distant shore.

As I perused the Wayland book, my attention was immediately drawn to a pair of images, both taken in 1958 in Bristolville, Trumbull County, Ohio. One showed what the author called the “Kagey monument in the park”. . . and the other was labeled the “birthplace and early home of John Henri Kagi.” Needless to say, the bags were soon packed and this peripatetic infidel was on his way to the Ohio Western Reserve.

Kagey Monument 1958  (Wayland 1961)
But my interest in Bristolville was not simply in regard to Kagi...for the community had also been the early home of Charles Wesley Moffett, another of Brown’s Kansas recruits, whose grandchildren I had recently interviewed on their ancestral farm in Iowa. So for multiple reasons, I anxiously anticipated my visit to Trumbull County.

I found the “Kagey monument” upon a grassy mound in the midst of the Town Park, a Midwestern version of the classic New England village green. And I soon discovered that it had only a peripheral connection to John Henri Kagi. The marble shaft, topped by a funereal urn, was dedicated to the “Defenders of the Union from Bristol, Ohio,” and listed the names of fourteen local soldiers killed during the first two years of the Civil War. One casualty was Corporal Jacob A. Kagy, a John Kagi kinsman and member of the 14th Independent Battery of Ohio Light Artillery, killed at the 1862 battle of Shiloh in Tennessee.
Kagi Birthplace 1958  (Wayland 1961)

And then I soon located the “birthplace and early home,” just south of the park along State Route 45. The structure had been altered, but by comparing the size and arrangement of the east-facing windows with the image taken in 1958, I was satisfied that I had found the Kagi residence. So after a spirited photography session, I was off to nearby Salem, Ohio . . . to find the grave of raider Edwin Coppoc.


And there it stood, until just a couple of weeks ago. I was returning from a sojourn in New England and, in order to avoid Cleveland, Ohio and its Republican Nominating Convention, I turned the Hyundai a bit south to avoid the hustle and bustle. And then I saw Bristolville on the map. It had been a long time. . .let us say decades. . .since that initial visit. Why not a return?

Kagey Monument Today (Wolfe photo)
In the Town Park stood the monument. It is now accompanied by an Ohio Historical Society plaque, noting that the shaft is “Ohio’s First Civil War Monument,” erected in 1863. . .two years before Appomattox Court House. It is also surrounded by an iron fence, to discourage vandals who seem to have taken a liking to the marble urn at its summit.

And then this once facile mind, now beclouded with the cobwebs of age, sought to recollect the site of the Kagi birthplace. As I drove south on Route 45, I photographed virtually every residence...until I finally noted that distinctive window arrangement. . .one small window above, and a large and small window below.

I positioned the car across the road, and began firing away with my Canon. I wanted to approach more closely, but a rather bellicose pit bull was straining its chain near the side entrance of the house. I looked at my reflection in his eyes, and all I saw were two porterhouse steaks and a filet mignon.
Kagi Birthplace Today (Wolfe photo)

The canine crisis aside, the occupant of the house soon emerged. . .no doubt concluding that a sinister agent of the National Security Agency was creating a photographic file of his residence. As my bitter half dove for the back seat, he inquired as to my purposes. I asked if he knew of the history of his house. . .or whether the name John Henry Kagi struck a chord. He politely responded in the negative. . .and after apologies for the inconvenience, I drove off into the sunset.


The family historian, Franklin Keagy, once noted that John Henri Kagi “engaged in the military antislavery movement” from a “sense of duty to a friendless race, and in obedience to the teachings of Virginia’s greatest statesmen. . . .”

Window of Kagi Birthplace  (Wolfe photo)
So it was with the utmost irony that I examined my Bristolville photographs when I had returned home. There, in the side window of the birthplace of John Henri Kagi. . . John Brown’s Secretary of War. . .hung a flag. It was the St. Andrew’s Cross. Often mistakenly considered the Confederate National Flag. . .it was, in reality, the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s (the capturer of the Old Man) Army of Northern Virginia. . .whose soldiers marched off to war “in obedience to the teachings of Virginia’s greatest statesmen.” 

Monday, August 01, 2016

Take Note--
Viva Garibaldi!  The Italian Liberator Writes to Abraham Lincoln and about John Brown

In the summer of 1863, only a short time after the Union's grateful success at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln received a letter from Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the heroes of Italian Risorgimento ("rising again"), which resulted in the liberation of the Italian people from foreign powers and political control of the Vatican, and culminated in the formation of the modern Italian state in 1861.  Garibaldi and his famous "red shirts" invaded Sicily, and his "Expedition of the Thousand" in 1860 made him an international figure, who in turn took an interest in freedom movements, including  the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Garibaldi's letter to Abraham Lincoln is part of a larger story in which he was sought out as a possible leader in the Union army.  According to the Civil War Trust, the Italian leader was offered a Major General's role by Lincoln in 1862, which he declined.  Garibaldi had lived in the United States for a short time in the previous decade, and was not willing to leave the affairs of liberation in Europe to support Lincoln's army.  However some actual Garibaldini, or at least his Italian admirers, apparently did come to the support of the Union effort, along with other immigrants who identified with the "Red Republican" movement in Europe. The Civil War Trust also notes that the 39th Infantry of New York was named for Garibaldi during the war.

It almost goes without saying that Brown's death in Virginia as a martyr for black freedom resonated both across the Atlantic into Europe as well as into the Caribbean among Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and others seeking independence and liberation.   The hack job that historians in the United States accomplished regarding Brown during the 20th century has effectively erased from our national memory the degree of fame and admiration that Brown enjoyed posthumously at home and abroad. Whereas most people in the United States have been propagandized to associate Brown with killing and violence, he was in his own generation despised by only a few--mainly the slave holders and people of the South who generally preferred to worship terrorist-thugs like Jesse James because they represented "Southern rights."

The letter from Garibaldi is interesting for a couple of reasons beside the obvious fact of correspondence between two epic 19th century figures.  First, there is a real naivete in Garibaldi's perspective, first in his assumption that Lincoln was primarily a figure bent on liberation.  No doubt this resulted from the President having issued the Emancipation Proclamation effective at the beginning of that year.  However, the Proclamation was intended only to liberate enslaved people in rebellious states, probably to protect the legality of the Union army in gathering "chattel" that yet belonged to slave holders.  Certainly it was not the stroke of liberation that Garibaldi (and many others since then have) believed it to have been.  Needless to say, the legacies of Lincoln and Brown, respectively, have both been shaped by historical hyperbole, although in Brown's case it is almost always in the negative, whereas Lincoln has been almost deified in political terms.  Certainly, if any adjective best suits Lincoln as an emancipator, it is hesitant.

Another point that we would find somewhat embarrassing today is Garibaldi's self-identification as one of the "free children of Columbus."   It is true that Italian people in the United States historically harked to Columbus as a point of pride in their history, although I suspect this was as much manufactured for them by the Anglo establishment of the United States in their hopes of shaping and processing the flow of Mediterraneans that had started trickling into North America in the mid-19th century--a trickle that turned to a flood by the turn of the century.  That Garibaldi thought Columbus a heroic figure is no surprise; he had lived in New York for a short time and had been exposed to the rhetoric that greeted early Italian immigrants.  Like so many people, Columbus was yet known only as a hero of discovery and the advancement of western culture--and otherwise there were no Italian figures of an international nature to which Italian immigrants could attach themselves, although one wishes that Italian Americans subsequently would have traded in Columbus for Garibaldi himself, who is a much more admirable figure.

Finally, and the reason the letter is posted, is that Garibaldi assumed that Lincoln shared in his admiration for John Brown, whom he believed to be one of the great men in the history of modern civilization.  Lincoln may have winced when he read Garibaldi's words, calling him an "heir" to Brown's legacy, as well as his crediting Brown as having conveyed the teachings of Christ to his generation.  Of course, Garibaldi had undoubtedly read of Brown's famous words in a Virginia court in 1859, which included references to the the Golden Rule of Christ, so his association has merit, and was widely shared in that generation.   

This letter reminds us that throughout his presidency, and increasingly so perhaps, Lincoln was never free of John Brown's haunting legacy.  Although he had entered the White House with the intention of saving the Union with or without emancipation, in time Lincoln came to realize that he could not avoid doing precisely what Brown had hoped to do from the start--except with considerably less violence than Lincoln ultimately had to employ in order to destroy slavery.

Aug. 6, 1863          

In the midst of your titanic struggle, permit  me, as another among the free children of Columbus, to send you a word of greeting and admiration for the great work you have begun. Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure, You are a true heir of  the teaching given us by Christ and by John Brown. If an entire race of human beings, subjugated into slavery by human egoism, has been restored to human dignity, to civilization and human love, this is by your doing and at the price of the most noble lives in America.
            It is America,  the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens  another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.   

Source: Giuseppe Garibaldi, Scritti politici e militari, Vol. I: 350.  Edited by Domenico Ci├ámpoli (Rome 1907).           

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dwight Jenkins: "Inescapable thoughts and music upon visiting John Brown's grave"

Thursday, July 07, 2016

John Brown’s Iowa Correspondence, July 1857

If the record of his correspondence tells us anything about John Brown in 1857, it is that this was perhaps the busiest and most active year of his public life as a radical abolitionist.  By my reckoning, Brown wrote just over 160 letters in 1857, and unfortunately about fifty-six of them are no longer extant, and can be accounted for only because Brown kept a record of his correspondence in a journal. 
 The 1857 letters, when placed in chronological order, trace Brown’s movement westward, beginning with a good many letters written from New England in the first quarter of the year, and in April they show his return home to North Elba, New York, his movement within the latter state, and then his progress toward Ohio by June.  For the rest of that month, Brown moved between Ohio and Chicago, and ended up back in Ohio before moving farther west.  By July, we have Brown in Iowa, where the several letters presented here were written, including his famous autobiographical sketch for the son of his “Secret Six” support, George L. Stearns.   

For the rest of the year, Brown remained mostly in Iowa, with some trips over to the Kansas Territory, but the bulk of his correspondence shows him in Tabor, Iowa, on the extreme western side of the state.  At the end of 1857, as he proceeded eastward, the record shows his last letter written from Springdale, Iowa, on the northeastern corner of the state, on December 30; he remained in Springdale with his Quaker friends well into January before making an extended visit at the home of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York.

Iowa, July 1857

In the summer of 1857, Brown’s intention for Iowa was to reach Tabor, where he had intended to set up a training camp for his men.  Tabor was located in Fremont County, in the far southwestern section of Iowa, near the border of Kansas.  It had been his intention to have the training of his men overseen by the Englishman Hugh Forbes, ostensibly a former associate of the Italian patriot, Garibaldi.  Forbes disappointed Brown first by becoming difficult and abandoning his men in Iowa, and then by becoming a whining traitor who was far more interested in money than in liberation.  The more obvious issues that plagued Brown in the summer of 1857, however, were his lack of solvency despite promises of support from friends in the east.  Likewise, Brown was struggling with the Ague, a malarial kind of prairie fever and sickness that afflicted him off and on into the last year of his life.

Reaching Iowa City in Johnson County, in the northeastern section of the state, Brown wrote his first July letter of 1857, updating his wife Mary back home in New York State.  It is hard not to think that Brown was not thinking of his efforts in light of his Revolutionary forebears, noting that he had arrived in Iowa City two days before.  What follows is a literal transcription: 

Iowa City, Iowa, 6,th July, 1857.

Dear Wife & Children every one.  I reached this place on the 4th inst leaveing Owen behind with a team at Davenport, which we brought from Ohio; as the freight Cars did not run on the 4th. I expect him on today; & to start on our overland route in a day or two.  I have been midling well of late; & Owen is well.  I tried hard to send you some more Flour & some Leather from Ohio, & from Chicago; but could not make it out.  Possibly I may be able to send another small Draft before long.  I hope to hear all about how you get along all of you; when I get to Tabor; & I wish you to continue writing (Nelson Hawkins [)] at Tabor: till I direct differently.  To the God of my Fathers I commend you all. 

Your Affectionate Husband; & Father,

John Brown1

Brown mentions leaving his son Owen with a team of livestock at Davenport, which is located on the extreme eastern side of the state, while he had proceeded farther, though still in eastern Iowa.  This brief letter reveals Brown’s ongoing concern to provide for his family back home, and his constant need of cash, the latter being one of his biggest problems throughout the summer of 1857.  He instructs Mary to write to him at Tabor (on the extreme western side of the state), and to use a pseudonym, Nelson Hawkins.  In my research some years back, I discerned that this is not an invented name.  Nelson Hawkins was a young carpenter from the Akron area, and an associate of his adult sons Jason and John Junior. 

A Curious Issue

At this point, a curious issue arises in the chronology of Brown’s July 1857 letters from Iowa.  Not included here is the famous autobiographical letter that the abolitionist wrote to young Henry Stearns, the son of one of his most faithful supporters, George L. Stearns of Medford, Mass.  Brown apparently penned the sketch while he was waylaid in Iowa as a result of financial and physical problems, as his letters from this period reveal.  The autobiographical sketch is presented within his letter to young Stearns dated July 15, and written from “Red Rock, Iowa,” a town that was located at Red Rock, southeast of Des Moines.  However, the student’s curiosity arises when noting that Brown wrote letters to his wife and his son, John Junior, on July 17 and 18, respectively, further east in the town of Wassonville.   In other words, why would Brown have gone as far west in the state as Red Rock in Marion County on July 15 and then go back in an eastward direction to Wassonville in Washington County by July 17?

There are a few possible explanations for this curious movement.  

The first is that Brown could have misdated the letter to young Stearns when he wrote from Red Rock.  Did he write July 15 mistakenly, instead of, for example, July 25?  Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, made the observation that the abolitionist was known to date his letters incorrectly, and there are a number of cases where clearly he did so.  Of course, in fairness to Brown, these few dating errors over were made over a lifetime of letter writing, so I would not rush to the conclusion that the Red Rock letter is misdated.  My sense is that this does not provide a suitable explanation.  Still, if Brown was in Wassonville on July 17-18, the fact that he was farther west two days before still poses a question for students.

This portion of an 1860 map of Iowa shows where Brown left his son Owen at Davenport on the far eastern 
side, then moved on to Iowa City; from there he seems to have proceeded westward as far as Red Rock, 
where he started his autobiographical sketch on July 15; then, two letters from Brown were written on July 17-18, f
rom the more eastward location of Wassonville

The better explanation is that he had some reason to backtrack eastward after July 15, after he had begun writing his autobiographical sketch. As an aside, it is doubtful that Brown completed the entire sketch in one day, and probably was working on it for weeks.  Those acquainted with the manuscript of Brown’s autobiography know that it includes a letter to the elder Stearns, dated August 10, and written from Tabor, in Fremont County, on the extreme western side of Iowa.  Thus, while the autobiographical sketch is not of immediate concern here, it is likely that Brown had written it in snips and bits as he continued his painful trek across Iowa, finally completing it at his destination at Tabor.

As far as his backtracking eastward between July 15 and 17, the better explanation seems to have been necessity.  By all accounts, Brown was deeply frustrated during the trip due to the failure of supporters back in New England to come through with the monies that had been promised him in the earlier months of the year.  Then, too, he was sick with both the Ague and at some point he sustained a back injury, perhaps while loading and unloading the supplies that he was attempting to move to Kansas for the free state cause. 

However, the main reason that Brown backtracked eastward probably was money. The following month, Brown wrote to another supporter that after his time in New England (between January and April 1857), he had often been sick with the Ague and had “exhausted my available means towards purchasing such supplies as I should certainly need if again called into active service” in Kansas.  The dearth of cash, Brown wrote, forced him to “beg in my journey” to cover his expenses and the cost of freighting the supplies he was taking west.  Indeed, throughout his difficult trek westward, he wrote in another letter that he and his son Owen had lived on canned herring, crackers, and “sweetened water” for nearly a month, likewise sleeping outdoors in their wagon.  “This being the case,” Brown concluded, “I was obliged to stop at different points on the way & to go to others off the route to solicit help.”2

Wassonville on the English River
in Brown's era Project Wassonville 2007
Wassonville does not exist today, and local historians in Iowa refer to it as a ghost town of the mid-19th century.  But in Brown’s time, Wassonville was still vibrant if not thriving as a frontier trading post dating back nearly twenty years to its founding in 1849.  Wassonville was known for its mill site on the English River and became the early center of activity. Wassonville quickly grew into a significant trading post on the early trail leading up to Fort Des Moines.  More importantly, in the early 1850s, Wassonville served as a center for representatives of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, working to see Kansas admitted into the union as a free state.  If Brown was strapped for cash and needed to go “off the route to solicit help,” he may have been drawn to Wassonville for that purpose.

Interestingly, Wassonville would not otherwise have been a place of great comfort for Brown since it was a known for its whiskey sales, and was a place where hunting was popular.  Still, it was an active community with millwork and antislavery friends, so it was a good place to go for a Kansas hero looking for support.  Local records suggest that Brown came to Wassonville because of a sick mule (the problem actually was a sickly horse), but if Brown had gone as far west as Red Rock, it is more likely he had gone to Wassonville in the hopes of gaining financial assistance from antislavery sympathizers.

Brown wrote the first of two letters from Wassonville to his wife back in North Elba, on July 17.

Wassonville, Iowa, 17th July 1857

Dear Wife & Children every one

Since I wrote last I have made but little progress; having Teams & Waggons to rig up, & load: & getting a horse hurt pretty bad.  Still we shall get on just as well; & as fast as Providence intends: & I hope we may all be satisfeyed with that.  We hear of but little that is interesting from Kansas.  It will be a great privilege to hear from home again: & I would give any thing to know that I should be permitted to see you all again in this life.  But Gods will be done.  To his infinite grace I commend you all.

Your Affectionate Husband & Father

John Brown3

Brown’s frustration is close to the surface in this letter, although he was yet the master optimist, typically concluding that “we shall get on just as well” and “hope we may all be satisfyed [sic] with that.”  In his more detailed letter of disappointments to George Stearns on August 8, Brown thus concluded that although he was “mortyfied” (one of his favorite—albeit typically misspelled—words to express embarrassment and shame) by his many disappointments and problems, he had not given up.4 

A "Last & Final Separation"?

Mary Brown with Annie and Sarah
about seven years earlier, before
the birth of baby Ellen
A more poignant point of this letter is his passing statement that “I would give any thing to know that I should be permitted to see you all again in this life.”  One should not take these words lightly lest the bravery of the man is overrated to the exclusion of his true feelings and apprehensions.  In letters to Franklin Sanborn at this time, Brown revealed how hard it had been for him to leave Mary and their youngest children (Annie was barely fourteen, Sarah was eleven, and Ellen was not quite three).  It bothered him deeply that he was leaving them in economically vulnerable and difficult circumstances.   But he worried deeply that there was “at least a fair chance that it was to be a lastfinal separation.”  His concern—that he might die while fighting proslavery forces in Kansas, never to see his family again—“had lain heavily” on him.  In retrospect, one might forget this aspect of Brown’s humanity, that despite his much-attested bravery and his determination to carry out his plan beyond Kansas, he was quite aware of his own mortality and he worried for his loved ones should he die.  As Brown wrote to Sanborn in the summer of 1857, it quite pained him that he might fall while “far away” in Kansas, “perhaps never to return” home to Mary and the children.5

John Brown Jr.
Still stranded in Wassonville the following day, Brown wrote to his namesake back in Ohio.  Brown was close to John Junior, but it was quite clear that he would no longer be able to enlist his two elder sons, John and Jason, or his trusted son-in-law, Henry Thompson.  All three men were married, and all three had suffered in Kansas during the previous year, especially the Browns, whose homes had been burned by proslavery thugs, and whose families had been traumatized amidst the hardships, dangers, and sorrows they had known while in the territory. Besides the loss of property and frightening encounters with proslavery terrorism, they had lost their brother Frederick to murder the previous year; but more so, they had learned the lesson of Pottawatomie, that sheer bloodshed, even the most brutal kind of martial killing, would be necessary if they intended to fight slavery.   Kansas had brought them directly into civil war and they were repulsed by its realities. “The boy[s] have all determined both to practice & learn war no more,” Mary had written to her undaunted husband.  Yet it was now clear to John Brown that his beleaguered sons had “declined to return” to Kansas. This antipathy toward Kansas seems to have prevailed among the Brown men in 1857, with the great exception of thirty-four-year-old son Owen, bold and devoted albeit suffering with the disability of a “lame” arm.  Owen had joined his father straightaway, determined to assist him in the travel and labor of freighting arms and supplies to Kansas.

Wassonville, Iowa, 18th July, 1857.

Dear Son & Family

Owen Brown
As we are detained by getting a horse hurt, I have time to write a few words.  We (Owen & self) are travelling with Two teams; 3 Mules, & one horse.  Horse hurt himself pulling at his rope.  Think he will be able to go on soon.  I have had various hindrances, & some success; & some Ague since I left you.  Have things to make us quite comfortable on the road.  Have very hot days, & cold Nights.  Have heard but little from Kansas of late & that little would seem to indicate peace, till Fall; at any rate.  We both are midling well now; & would be very glad to hear from you (through Nelson Hawkins) at Tabor.  We want to know of your prosperity in all aspects; so far as consistent.  With earnest desire for your best good I remain

your Affectionate Father

[no signature]

Write what you hear from any of the family6 

In this letter, Brown provides some details, showing that Owen, who was previously left behind in Davenport, had rejoined his father in Wassonville—perhaps yet another reason why Brown may have digressed eastward in the state.  This brief letter is yet rich in details about difficulties and conditions, and Brown’s great desire both to get news from Kansas and from home.  Given Brown’s penchant for optimism, statements like “things to make us quite comfortable on the road” and that they were “midling [sic] well” more likely suggests the father and son were struggling to get along with minimal comforts in travel, although at least Brown seems to have been feeling better for the moment.   He continues to direct them to send all correspondence ahead of him to Tabor, where he intends to reach as soon as possible. 
      The last detail worth noting of this letter is its lack of signature. In later years, Brown’s children mutilated many of his letters by cutting away his signature for the purpose of sale or gift.  However, it appears that Brown intentionally did not sign this letter, no doubt for reasons of security.  It should be remembered that in 1857 he was a wanted man, and that he was approaching war-torn Kansas Territory once more.  He could not risk any of his correspondence falling into the wrong hands.--LD



            1 John Brown to Mary Brown, 6 July 1857, John Brown - Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library, New York, N.Y.
            2 John Brown to Franklin B. Sanborn, 13 August 1857, a copy of which is found in the Rosenbach Library and Museum Collection, Philadelphia, Pa.
            3 John Brown to Mary Brown, 17 July 1857, John Brown Collection, #299, Box 1, Folder 25, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kan.
            4 See John Brown to George L. Stearns, 8 August 1857, a copy of which is found in the Clarence S. Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Oh.
            5 John Brown to Franklin B. Sanborn, 13 August 1857; and Brown to Sanborn, 27 August 1857, in Chicago History Museum.

          6 John Brown to John Brown Jr., July 18, 1857, Box 2: Folder 2, John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Oh.