"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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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Perfuming the Pig and Other Historical Lies: Paul Petersen’s Quantrill of Missouri: The Making of a Guerrilla Warrior

In my sojourning on the internet I happened to come upon an article about the pro-slavery terrorist, William Quantrill, published in The Conservative (Nebraska City, Neb.) in 1898. My search had brought me to a reference to Brown, of course, but the peculiar claim of the author drew me down another path. In the article, the author, a former captain in the Kansas cavalry, states that Quantrill was a young associate of John Brown, becoming “one of his best men” prior a sudden “conversion” to the pro-slavery cause. According to this article, Quantrill turned against the free state side due to an “embittered mind” and because he had been betrayed by a free-state friend. Of course the notion that Quantrill had been an associate of John Brown is complete fiction. Quantrill’s appearance on the Kansas scene occurred after Brown’s death, although Quantrill knew of Brown through the jaded perspective of pro-slavery Missourians.

This untenable claim sparked a passing interest in Quantrill, particularly because I was aware that he was born in Ohio, not the South. Not willing to devote an entire afternoon to the study of historical vermin, I did find an author of interest in a quick search who appears to be a flagrant apologist of Quantrill. In an online article about Quantrill by Paul Petersen, a biographer of Quantrill, the author writes:
Everything about Quantrill's life has been greatly distorted by prejudicial historians and journalists. The hatred of his Kansas enemies and of those he fought against during the war were manifested in writings and were grossly exaggerated by those who had never come face to face with him. Only sensational claims previously heard by those who had cause to try to blacken his name because of their own political views and sectional feelings have been noted for history.
I found this an interesting claim, considering it is almost precisely what I would say is true about the way John Brown has been treated. Although I was unconvinced that Quantrill was the heroic figure portrayed in Petersen’s article, I extended my consideration to his book, Quantrill of Missouri: The Making of a Guerilla Warrior (Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing, Inc., 2003). It seemed to me that if Petersen could make such an appeal on behalf of his hero, he should at least be cognizant of the role that prejudice has played in the negative portrayal of Brown by historians and journalists over the past century. Unfortunately, Petersen proved otherwise. The very sins he decries on behalf of Quantrill are the ones he commits against John Brown.

In fact, Petersen's treatment of Brown is worthy of the worst southern screeds written in the 19th century. Petersen says that John Brown came to the Kansas territory after John Jr. wrote to request arms and ammunition, a fact true enough. But he and his brothers merely found life "difficult" in Kansas, which is why they wrote asking for weapons to fight "the pro-slavery faction" (p. 6). Were Petersen truthful with the facts, he would acknowledged that the Browns and other free state settlers were facing blunt terrorism and violence at the hands of invading pro-slavery thugs. There was no mere “pro-slavery faction” to fight—it was an invasive movement of pro-slavery terrorists.

As to Brown himself, Petersen says that he had a "curious" past, which is typical terminology for this writer. Typically, Petersen writes in a tone and uses certain terms that suggest his bias. For instance, he exaggerates Brown's business failings and lawsuits and mentions Brown having had twenty children from two marriages as if it were a mark of immorality. Petersen purports that Brown helped to fund a publication called A Call to Rebellion, which is completely unfounded. To Petersen, Brown is a leader who gathered desperate criminals with whom he plundered and murdered along the Missouri border (p. 7). Equally problematic, he writes that Brown knew all the pro-slavery thugs that he and his men killed in May 1856. This is not the case. Furthermore, Petersen provides little or no scholarly references and his narrative is evidently fraught with errors, suggesting that he is probably just as untrustworthy in his positive report concerning Quantrill.

In fact, Petersen writes with the accent of a Klansmen, particularly in his tendency to highlight and emphasize the fact that some of Brown’s associates and followers were foreigners. He mistakenly labels the great John Henrie Kagi as an Austrian (p. 19), which is not true. But even when he is correct, Petersen seems to suggest that there is something sinister about the fact that Brown would have foreigners, especially Jews, as allies—some of whom he labels quite incorrectly as “foreign anarchists” and “henchmen” (pp. 19, 20, 30).

As to Quantrill, Petersen offers little in the way of explaining or making reasonable basis for Quantrill’s passionate devotion to the pro-slavery side. Sounding like a re-warmed Confederate, Petersen writes that Quantrill foresaw the "subjugation" of the South by the North following Brown's raid (p. 20), as if the South were not conspiring to secede for years prior to the unfortunate outcome at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Like the murderous John Wilkes Booth in the same era, Quantrill wrote in a personal letter about his disdain for the free state side, his resentment of Brown, and his utter contempt for those who saw Brown as a hero (p.21).

Petersen says that Quantrill was a Kansas settler and school teacher, which is true enough. He also acknowledges that he stood on the margins of the conflict between Missouri and free state Kansans, "a spectator of the events transpiring along the border" until he was victimized by a jayhawker (p. 17). Quantrill typically conferred with southerners about the injustices perpetrated by free state “jay-hawkers.” While there is no doubt that free state attacks took place upon pro-slavery communities, Petersen fails to acknowledge that it was pro-slavery fanaticism that brought this kind of violence down upon Missouri. The facts of history show that the free state migrants in Kansas were peaceable and ill-prepared for warfare. Free state people only took up the gun because they were left with no choice in the face of pro-slavery thugs and violence. Petersen is entitled to love the bad guys and stand on the wrong side of history, but it is hard to take him seriously in light of the fact that his analysis of the problem of slavery is non-existent in discussing Quantrill's homicidal devotion to the South.

As to Quantrill himself, Petersen writes that he “weighed the actions of the pro-slavery men against those of the free-state men and found the preponderance of unjustifiable deeds clearly against the free-state side" (p. 17). If this is true, then Quantrill was either stupid or depraved in his outlook, and the truth seems to be closer to the latter. Quantrill was not stupid. He was a school teacher, a cunning conspirator, and a loyal devotee to white supremacy. Along with a personal vendetta that he felt because of being victimized by free state raiders, the only thing that Petersen can say to explain Quantrill’s hostility toward the North was that he was embittered in mind. These strong feelings ultimately led Quantrill "to mete out his own kind of justice and revenge" (p. 18) by murdering free state settlers in Lawrence, Kansas.

However, as Petersen reveals, there was a truly malignant side in Quantrill’s character long before he became a pro-slavery terrorist and murderer. Posing as "Charly Hart," Quantrill went as far as joining the free-state side so that he could spy on his future victims and get revenge against the men who had personally harmed him and the pro-slavery side in Missouri. As a school teacher who boarded with various settlers including free state people, he was taken into the confidence and friendship of free state people whom he privately intended to destroy, As “Charly Hart,” Quantrill hid his malicious sentiments and pretended to be a free-state sympathizer, while privately blaming his free-state neighbors for all of the difficulties and denying the integrity of any newspaper reports concerning southern outrages being committed against free state people (p. 18). It is true that Brown sent John Cook to Harper's Ferry to spy out the town and work in advance of the raid; but neither Cook nor Brown intended such malice and murder as Quantrill designed.

Petersen has done anything but show a man of integrity in his portrayal of William Quantrill. Although he attempts to reason that Quantrill must have been a good man in order to have the support of Confederate soldiers, etc., this is not very convincing. An array of men won the support of Confederate officers, from Lee to Forrest, and Quantrill was far closer to Forrest than to Lee. Unlike John Brown, who was ultimately admired even by his southern captors, Quantrill never won the admiration of his foes, nor did he leave behind a redemptive story that has proven transcendent despite his critics. We may concede that in a civil conflict, crimes and deprecations may take place on either side of the conflict. But we do not concede that John Brown was one such criminal, but rather one defending himself and his family from such criminals as later personified in the person of Quantrill.

Finally, to explain Quantrill’s violent terrorism one must strike at the heart of the issue, something that Petersen and other romancers of the South invariably refuse to do. The driving force of Quantrill’s life was his racism and his devotion to white supremacy. Only strong racism can explain why he would sympathize so desperately with the pro-slavery cause when he had no personal or familial roots in southern life. Only strong racism can explain why Quantrill preferred to claim that he was born in a slave state when he was actually born in a free state. Only strong racism can explain why he hated John Brown and the free state community. Only strong racism can explain his murderous, malicious, and wicked career as an anti-free state terrorist.

One may baptize a pig in the finest perfume but that doesn’t make it any less a pig. One may dress up the devil like the angel Gabriel, but that will not make him any less sinister, nor justify a message of deceit. But this is precisely what Petersen has done, and what other apologists of the South have done. Even the best figures in history have problems, deficiencies, and question marks over their heads; yet a fair and honest treatment requires that the wheat be separated from the chaff. John Brown was a flawed man (although no more flawed than our nation's greatest heroes), but he was certainly a good one. He lived and died to see the end of slavery. William Quantrill was a villain, a man of depraved thought albeit smart and industrious in his deceit and malice. Brown killed in defense and out of necessity, and refused to pursue personal vengeance; Quantrill killed from motives of malice, revenge, and prejudice. He bemoaned the downfall of slavery and grieved for a spoiled and decadent southern society. Brown died a martyr for the oppressed and left a legacy that lovers of freedom find irresistible. Quantrill died in an ambush and left a corpse to rot with the institution of slavery itself. No one sings of Quantrill's soul "marching on" because most people with a sense of history recognize that there is little marching room in hell.

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