From Hell on Wheels to Midnight Rising:
The Pottawatomie Killings and Popular Culture
We all know that the image of John Brown in popular culture is negative, and that many people in the United States think of him mainly as the leader of the “Pottawatomie massacre” in the war-torn Kansas Territory prior to the Civil War. From films like Santa Fe Trail (1940) to Skin Game (1971), Hollywood was fairly consistent in portraying the Old Man’s historical forte as sheer homicide. Furthermore, it should be evident that this violent image of John Brown is not just based upon a lack of historical information. Many people in this nation despise John Brown. Yet if they hate him, they also love to hate him—that is, they love to tell his alleged story (which really is their story about him) in cinematic, journalistic, and even historical narratives. For many people, there is even a certain romance in Brown the fanatical prairie killer, not unlike the romance of Jesse James in the “old west.” Yet whereas James is rendered as a sympathetic figure, Brown is almost always portrayed as a merciless, fanatical killer, or as a sincere man with unusually flaws in his moral and psychological fiber. Nor has this contemptuous view of Brown receded after such important breakthrough books as David Reynolds’ John Brown Abolitionist (2005) or Evan Carton’s Patriotric Treason (2006).
“John Brown is a cold-blooded murderer!”
If you doubt my word, just check out this video excerpt from an episode of AMC’s current post-Civil War series, Hell on Wheels, about the adventures of a Southern anti-hero character, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). Bohannon, a former slave master and rebel soldier, becomes involved with a westward railroad project while seeking revenge against some murderous Union soldiers. Of course, it is not unusual for Hollywood to portray the Southerner as the central figure, whether hero or anti-hero. Most movies related to the Civil War and “the old West” are sympathetic to the South, and often have portrayed the North as ruthless, invasive, and tyrannical. Filmmaker Kevin Wilmott has rightly observed that most westerns really are “southerns” anyway, and this is no less true of Hell on Wheels.
In the following excerpt, the somewhat drunken Bohannon is sought out by the soul-seeking camp preacher, Nathanial Cole (Tom Noonan). In their exchange, Preacher Cole confesses that prior to the war, he had ridden alongside “Martyr John Brown” in “Bleeding Kansas.” The scene is worth observing:
By all accounts, this is a good scene—well acted and quite authentic in detail, down to the murky camp and the eerie background noises. It is also reasonably framed: in 1865, one would get a Southerner’s attention quickly by declaring association with the hated John Brown. Many white Southerners still hate his guts.
Yet having viewed this excerpt, one should know that it is flatly wrong in historical terms. First, no such person as Nathaniel Cole was involved in the Pottawatomie killings, particularly no drunken killer as Preacher Cole claims to have been prior to his conversion. Second, the five Southerners killed at Pottawatomie by Brown’s men were not slave owners, nor were they killed simply because they were Southern and pro-slavery. Brown peacefully interacted with proslavery Southerners in Missouri and Kansas territory in 1855-56, and never treated them with insult, let alone violence. The five men killed at Pottawatomie were targeted because they were conspiring murder and terrorism in conjunction with invading proslavery “hordes” (as Brown liked to call them). Third, broadswords were used to expedite the midnight killings without drawing too much notice, not as an expression of murderous contempt. And the swords were well sharpened, finely honed instruments of death. The kind of dull-edged hacking described by the fictional Preacher Cole is simply the flourish of Hell’s scriptwriters. Brown intended the Pottawatomie strike to be done quickly and in stealth in order to remove the major figures of proslavery aggression in the vicinity, and to eradicate their imminent assault upon Osawatomie, especially as it targeted the militant egalitarian Brown family. In this light, the Pottawatomie killings were quite successful.
The distinction between history and Hell on Wheels is clear. This is not just the stuff of drama in a contemporary western. To be sure, the evocation of “Bleeding Kansas” in the dialogue and the revelation that Preacher Cole is a reformed butcher makes for a good story. But it is also an example of how popular culture sees John Brown, and how reverentially easy it is for film makers, novelists, and more serious writers to draw deeply from the bloody well of the John Brown myth in “American” popular culture. It works for them, not just as a cinematic effect, but also in homage to an “American” cultural dogma. Thus, when the penitent Preacher Cole confesses to the impenitent rebel Bohannon about his past involvement in Kansas, the latter turns and responds—like any red-blooded American—in almost creedal confession: “John Brown was a cold-blooded murderer!” This belief is deeply imbedded in the civil religion of white America, the underside of the beautification of Abraham Lincoln as the American messiah—slain on Friday, as Emil Ludwig once wrote, “like a prophet.”
“First Blood” is the title of chapter four of Tony Horwitz’s widely reviewed literary masterpiece, Midnight Rising. It is the part of his book where he deals quite necessarily with the Pottawatomie incident before moving toward the climax of Brown’s raid and death in Virginia. In fairness to Tony, “First Blood” promisingly sets up the circumstances of “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856, showing that free state Kansans had good cause to fear proslavery terrorism, especially considering that hundreds of pro-slavery militants had invaded the territory in May 1856. Likewise, he acknowledges somewhat that Brown’s kin and community in Osawatomie were on the proslavery radar, although he fails to sufficiently explain the extent to which the Browns—as extreme abolitionists—were particularly despised and targeted by neighboring proslavery conspirators. Furthermore, Tony tends to underplay the extent of the pro-slavery violence already in the territory, especially considering that the actual “first blood” of “Bleeding Kansas” had already been drawn by Southerners: five free state men were murdered before Brown’s men ever began sharpening their swords.
While Tony is honest about the proximity and threat of an army of pro-slavery thugs, he decidedly concludes that the only reason that Brown and his men struck five pro-slavery neighbors near the Pottawatomie Creek is because “Brown was enraged” over their successful assault upon Lawrence, Kansas, a free state town. This, says Tony Horwitz, was the reason for the Pottawatomie killings—as he puts it: “. . .Brown needed no further spur to carry out his Gideon-like mission” (p. 49). Then, after describing the gory killings, Tony opines:
The Browns and their allies cast the killings as an act of self-defense: a preemptive strike against proslavery zealots who had threatened their free-state neighbors and intended to harm them. The Browns’ defenders also denied any intent on their part to mutilate the Kansans. Broadswords had been used to avoid making noise and raising an alarm; the gruesome wounds resulted from the victims’ attempts to ward off sword blows. But this version of events didn’t accord with evidence gathered after the killings. (p. 53)
Of course, anyone who has studied the Pottawatomie incident knows that at this point, Tony is acting neither as journalist nor as historian, but as an American storyteller promoting the same “American ‘gospel’ story” as the screenplay writers of Hell on Wheels. Even though his historical framework is obviously far more factual, there is a great deal in “First Blood” that suggests an overlooking and/or manipulating of the facts. At best, this chapter fails as history because it simply does not present a fair treatment of the evidence. At worst, Tony has set up the story to invoke the bloody, violent image of Brown by insisting that this beloved American myth is history.
We know this is the case for many reasons.
First, Tony acknowledges that Brown’s allies have argued that the killings were based in self-defense, that is, that they were preemptive and justifiable given the extremely dangerous circumstances of the war-torn territory in May 1856. Tony admits the presence of a large number of proslavery thugs near the free state center of Osawatomie, but the danger they present seems to vanish in the narrative. Ultimately, it is only Brown’s alleged vendetta that matters. Indeed, Tony does not weigh the fact that the threat upon Osawatomie was imminent and that there is evidence that the five men killed under Brown’s orders were collaborating with these invading proslavery forces.
Second, Tony completely ignores the testimony of John Brown Junior and others who said that the Old Man made careful investigation into the involvement of these proslavery neighbors in a murderous conspiracy. Knowing the sources, it appears to me that Tony is selective in his use of the historical evidence--ignoring the testimony of Brown’s son Salmon and son-in-law Henry Thompson, which at least would balance out our understanding of Pottawatomie. Not only were Salmon and Henry confident that the attack was necessary, but even John Junior and Jason, who opposed it at the time, came to acknowledge the necessity of killing the Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman.
Thirdly, Tony not only ignores the abundant evidence in favor of Brown, but he privileges the testimony and claims of the Southerners—what he calls “the evidence gathered after the killings.” Not only does he fail to weigh their testimony, but he flies in the face of the best historical work on the subject, especially the discussion about Pottawatomie published in Robert McGlone’s carefully researched and deeply considered bio-study, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (2009). Even if Tony wished to ignore my biographical approach to Pottawatomie, serious scholars cannot condone the extent to which he ignored Robert McGlone’s well-researched and seriously considered effort, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (2009).
Yet even if “First Blood” is simply not a reliable chapter, it has been skillfully tailored to suit the beloved myth of the homicidal John Brown. Tony thus infers things about the Pottawatomie killings that are untenable, but which serve the worst image of Brown in Kansas. Most notably, he claims that Brown personally killed James Doyle, one of his inimical neighbors, by shooting him in the forehead. To the contrary, the primary sources and logical analysis of the incident call for the conclusion that Brown shot Doyle’s corpse at the conclusion of the deathly raid. From Oswald Villard to Robert McGlone, historians have never questioned the fact that Brown killed no one with his own hand despite giving the orders for the killings. Yet Tony insists that the man was gunned down in cold blood by Brown at the onset of the attack, claiming that this is more “plausible,” even though he can offer no real evidence, and even though he is running against the conclusion of every serious biographer regardless of their view of Brown. In fact, the only “evidence” he offers is a juxtaposed quotation from John Junior that has no direct bearing on the incident.
Fourthly, Tony infers that the five men killed at Pottawatomie were deliberately mutilated by Brown and his men. Yet he overlooks the obvious fact that their severed arms and hands were defense wounds, and that the men were essentially executed, not deliberately maimed, mutilated, or otherwise tortured. Despite the inference, then he refers to the killings as a “public execution.” But aren't public executions typically carried out before the public--typically in daylight and in the presence of witnesses? (think of the cruel manner in which the Nation of Islam publicly assassinated Malcolm X). To the contrary, the Pottawatomie killings were not “public,” nor did they reflect terroristic priorities. Rather, the killings were done at night, by surprise, and sufficiently removed from the sight of other associates and family members. The fact that Brown and his men said nothing when seizing these men except that they were prisoners, further suggests that the reason for the attack was strategic. These men were not primarily killed as examples (although they inevitably became examples after the fact), but as enemies taken by surprise—neutralized before they themselves could take violent action upon the Browns and other free state neighbors in the vicinity. Interestingly, while Tony quotes John Brown Junior, it was Junior who later spoke of the Pottawatomie killings as a case of the Browns “getting a jump” on their enemies.
Fifthly, as disturbing as the scene at Pottawatomie may be to us in retrospect, it is unwarranted for Tony to make it more than it was. For instance, the swords were clearly used because an extended series of gunshots in the night would have drawn attention. Yet Tony bucks this explanation even though it is the most logical. Nor is it sufficient for him to say that some of the Southern testimony says that multiple shots were heard; this claim is neither tested nor trustworthy, and must be weighed against the full array of evidence, including the testimony of surviving participants like Salmon Brown. Brown’s men, who were on site and involved, said there was one bullet fired—one shot into the head of a dead man. While Tony is right in considering the peculiarity of shooting a dead man in the head, he simply has no sufficient basis to change the story to suit the bloody American myth.
Along with the evidentiary and strategic conclusion that the shooting occurred at the end of the assault (when Doyle was already dead), Tony fails at least to consider possible reasons that Brown might have shot Doyle’s body. For instance, he may have momentarily feared that the man was alive and suffering; or he may have done it because he wanted to make his mark on the very man who would have done far worse to him and his sons; or he may have regretted after the fact that he had not struck a lethal blow on his own, and so fired a shot into Doyle’s body; finally, it may have been a combination of any one of these reasons with the need to signal his men—which is what his son Salmon assumed. I fear that in this case, Tony has seen only what he wants to see.
Finally, Tony blames the subsequent violence of “Bleeding Kansas” essentially on the Pottawatomie killings. He writes: “If it was Brown’s intent to bring on a full-fledged conflict, he got his wish” (p. 55). The problem with this rationale, which dates back to Oswald Villard in 1910, is that pro-slavery violence was already escalating before the Pottawatomie killings. Considering the growing majority of free state voters in the territory and the corollary desperation of pro-slavery forces to seize Kansas for slavery, the escalation of pro-slavery terrorism was primarily due to the larger intention of the South. While the Pottawatomie episode sent shock waves through Missouri and into the South, and while it thoroughly unsettled the hubris of proslavery bullies in Kansas, it was itself only one aspect of “Bleeding Kansas.” Southern terrorism in the Kansas territory was the context of escalating violence in that territory in 1856; without escalating violence, the South knew there was no way of gaining control of Kansas in order to make it into a pro-slavery state. It was Southern pro-slavery desperation and lawlessness that bears the blame for this escalation, not John Brown’s notably bloody act of counter-terrorism.
“First Blood” is a chapter rife with problems. Even admitting that the Pottawatomie episode is both unpleasant and difficult to nail down in its entirety, it is irresponsible to ignore what the most progressive and painstaking studies have concluded: the attack was an expression of territorial civil war; it further marked the desperation of one faction which was vulnerable and living under threat of attack without recourse to local or federal assistance; and the Pottawatomie “victims” were singled out because of their involvement in a deadly conspiracy, not because they were pro-slavery people. According to Salmon Brown, Doyle was upbraided by his own wife at the time he was seized by Brown’s men. She scolded him essentially for bringing the attack upon himself by his “devilment,” which was an admission of his guilt. Her subsequent testimony to her husband’s innocence is suspect, and it is problematic for Tony to make such uncritical and selective use of available sources. Similarly, he fails to contextualize the sickening aftermath of the episode, in which Owen Brown was conscience-stricken about having killed some of these men with a sword. Many a soldier has gotten sick after taking a life in battle; even men fighting in self-defense may afterward express remorse and regret for killing their enemies. Owen was a gentle soul by all accounts. Brown’s son-in-law Henry Thompson, another killer, was likewise a man of gentle character, both men of great moral conscience. It would have been aberrant if they were not bothered by the experience. Yet neither man ever discredited the killings nor repented for their participation. Indeed, they defended the necessity of the action.
Hell on Wheels is pure fiction and Midnight Rising is a work of history. Yet both presume a narrative of slaughter-and-blood in keeping with the American myth of John Brown. The invocation of this figure is at once sentimental and frightening, even as it is both enthralling and vexing. Both works highlight the mantra of John Brown the “cold blooded" killer. And when his story is told, it is by invocation of dark midnight and bloody sword.