History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

From the Field—

by H. Scott Wolfe*
“…the product of generations of misinformation, negative portrayals, and unchecked carelessness in historical and journalistic writing.” Lou DeCaro Jr., in his post of 7/25/11
Were you able to view the recent episode of History Detectives on PBS?… The show highlighting the identification of the potential “John Brown pike?” An Ohio man had purchased such a weapon at a Chagrin Falls antique store, and wished to investigate whether it was, as he stated, “an important part of American history, or a broomstick with a bowie knife on top.”

The star “detective” on the case was Wes Cowan, a Cincinnati auctioneer. When he took time out from congratulating himself for selling an early daguerreotype of Brown for a hundred thousand bucks, Cowan attempted to determine the origins of the pike…the blade of which was stamped: “18 C. HART & SON 59.” The “research” was conducted through several interviews and some superficial history a la Google.

Not surprisingly, the script contained some of the customary asides…stale as last week’s loaf and as false as Aunt Tillie’s eyelashes…in regard to the Old Man’s motivations at Harper’s Ferry. Brown, of course, sought to “seize guns stored there, and ignite a slave revolt throughout the South.” Ho-hum.
But I must credit the show for publicizing an important fact…one commonly ignored even by John Brown aficionados. Most subscribe to the belief that Charles Blair, the Collinsville, Connecticut blacksmith, produced the thousand pikes ordered by the Old Man. In reality, because of time delays and lack of payment, Blair subcontracted the job to one Chauncey Hart of nearby Unionville. It was Hart’s name that appeared upon the pike featured in the television program.

Blair himself, when he testified before the “Mason Committee” investigating the “late invasion” of Harper’s Ferry, stated: “…I went out of town and got a man by the name of Hart to finish up this work for me. Mr. Hart was an acquaintance of mine, whom I had formerly known, and I knew him to be engaged in edge-tool manufacturing, a competent man to do it, and I submitted the whole thing to him.”

Truly an interesting bit of John Brown trivia. But wait!! If only the show had ended with this revelation!! No…it instead ended with a gratuitous postscript under the headings of “From the Archives” and “Follow-up.” And it did not deal with pikes. It dealt with Pottawatomie.
The brutal caning of Mass. Sen. Sumner on May 22,
1856 had no impact on the Pottawatomie incident

I had been watching this History Detectives episode with my wife. And as the narrator droned on about the events preliminary to the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” my mind was still fixated on Charles Blair, Chauncey Hart and edged weapons. But then I heard those fateful words:
“On May 21st, 1856, some 750 armed proslavery men, known as border ruffians, attacked the Free State town of Lawrence. Just a day later came news that antislavery Senator Charles Sumner had been attacked on the Senate floor by South Carolina Senator (?) Preston Brooks.  For John Brown, news of the beating was the last straw.”
“What’s your problem?” inquired the wife. (She had noted that my body had visibly stiffened, my head rolled uncontrollably, and I was unconsciously uttering unspeakable epithets absorbed in my youth from my Great-Uncle Elmer.)

“They said it again!” I blurted.

“Said what?”

“That the news of the Sumner caning reached Brown in Kansas and set off his fuse before Pottawatomie!” (I now nervously paced the floor, my hands clasped to my temples.)

“So? How do you know it didn’t?” responded the contrarian.

“Because it was physically impossible!” I shouted at the dear one who prepares my meals.

“Why, smartie pants? What about the telegraph…or trains…or a newspaper?” she persisted.

The sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, May 21, 1856
“Just look at the calendar!” (I moved in for the kill.) The ruffians sack Lawrence on the 21st, right? Sumner is caned in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of the 22nd. How does Brown, on the plains of frontier Kansas, learn of it on the same day? Did the New York Tribune rent a Space Shuttle? The telegraph ended at St. Louis…and the tracks to St. Joseph would not be finished until the ‘60s. What did they do? Hire an Olympic swimmer at St. Charles and have him paddle up the Missouri with a message in his trunks?”

“It does seem kinda funny,” the victim of my inexorable logic whispered.

“Let’s go out for Mexican,” I compassionately responded.

Obviously, this had not been the first time I encountered such “pop” history programs…or even serious historical or biographical works…playing the John Brown/Charles Sumner card. It demonstrates the same “unchecked carelessness in historical and journalistic writing” I mentioned above. Sources…or even one’s common sense…are not consulted. And writers simply accept the statements in prior volumes and incorporate them as “facts.” The inevitable result is the perpetuation of false history.

I have encountered the same situation as I collect biographical material on the life of Civil War General John Aaron Rawlins…the Chief of Staff and Secretary of War of Ulysses S. Grant. To the devotees of Grant, Rawlins has always been the proverbial stone in their shoe…a threat to the reputation of their Hero. His role as advisor has been relentlessly minimized…and his role as temperance advocate and “conscience” to his Chief is avoided at all hazards. The Grant partisans required a foil to explain Rawlins’ anti-liquor passions, and settled upon his father…James Dawson Rawlins…who they portray as a shiftless, family-deserting alcoholic. Some Grant biographies solidly place the elder Rawlins prone in a gutter. The problem is that James Dawson Rawlins was a solid citizen, not a raging alcoholic. But as the recent spate of Grant biographies demonstrate, each author picks up the story from the last book to be published…neglects original research…and thereby perpetuates false history.

Salmon Brown "garnished" his account
of Pottawatomie later in life
The story in which Brown is informed of the Sumner caning…on the eve of Pottawatomie…appears to have begun with an interview of the Old Man’s son, Salmon conducted by Katherine Mayo, on October 11-13, 1908, fifty-two years after the fact.  Mayo was then serving as Oswald Garrison Villard’s assistant in preparing his classic, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910). At that time Salmon…no doubt embellishing and blending events of long ago…stated:
By daylight next morning we had reached the top of the hill south of the Wakarusa—a high ridge—where we halted to rest. Here, while watching the smoke rising over the town of Lawrence, a messenger named Gardner met us with the evil news that Lawrence had already fallen, telling us also of the brutal assault upon Senator Sumner by Bully Brooks. He carried the message hidden in his boot. At that blow the men went wild. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch. Father decided then—on the news of Sumner’s assault, which showed that violence had reached even to the halls of Congress—to do what was done at Pottawatomie. . . .
On page 154 of his biography, Villard writes essentially the same account: “As we turned back with the evil news (the fate of Lawrence) and had just got to the top of the hill south of the Wakarusa-the high ridge,” says Salmon Brown, “a man named Gardner came to us with the news of the assault upon Senator Sumner of Bully Brooks—carrying the message hidden in his boot. At that blow the men went crazy—crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch.”

As they say, this was “the rabbit, that dislodged the pebble, that loosed the avalanche.” Some succeeding Brown biographers picked up the story…thereby perpetuating the myth. Others…happily…ignored it.

We should recognize one who debunked it…that being Jules Abels, in his 1971 biography, Man on Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. On pp. 62-63, Abels writes:
In 1913, Salmon Brown, then seventy-seven years old, and again in 1917, gave what purported to be a full story. Salmon’s account seems untrustworthy in many ways. He told of the men viewing Lawrence afire from the top of a hill south of the Wakarusa on the morning of May 23. This is contradicted by others, who stated they were miles away. Then he told how a messenger that morning brought news of the brutal caning in the United States Senate in Washington, D.C. the day before, of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina…THIS MUST HAVE BEEN SALMON’S IMAGINATION, SINCE THE TELEGRAPH DID NOT EXTEND FURTHER WEST THAN ST. LOUIS AT THE TIME AND THE NEWS COULD NOT HAVE COME UNTIL SEVERAL DAYS LATER. (emphasis my own)
But we are not out of the woods yet…as recent books and popular history programs have proven. We are all too familiar with “John Brown’s Holy War,” the PBS “American Experience” presentation that scrambles history more than a farm-fresh egg. The narrator tells of the ruffians sacking Lawrence (“and not one abolitionist dared to fire a gun”), and then continues:
Within hours, Brown received another disturbing report, this time from Washington. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was working on the Senate floor when a Southern Congressman suddenly began smashing Sumner’s head with a cane. Sumner was beaten to an inch of his life. This news reached Brown and his men that May afternoon in Kansas…At that…the men went crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch. . . .
The script then states that Brown retreated to the woods “to converse with God,” only to emerge with “a revolver in his belt,” and then lead his men “toward the cabins by Pottawatomie Creek.”

But don’t give the recent Brown biographies a free pass either.

David Reynolds, in his John Brown: Abolitionist (2005), states that the events that “added fuel to John Brown’s desire for retaliatory vengeance” included “continued assaults on Free State people; the sack of Lawrence by border ruffians; and news of the vicious caning of Senator Sumner by Preston Brooks in the U.S. Senate. . . .” Evan Carton, in Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (2006), relates this story:
On May 23, other men had begun to gather in the Brown’s camp at Ottawa Creek. Most were from Osawatomie, but a few had come from Lawrence. One of the latter had been in the ravaged town the previous evening, when a telegram had arrived bearing the news that Sumner had been caned by Preston Brooks and lay near death. ‘It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch,’ Salmon Brown recalled years later.
So now there was a telegraph office in Lawrence? On May 22nd? Apparently it had escaped the plunder of the dastardly ruffians.

So at the risk of didacticism, allow me to provide “the finishing, decisive touch” to this essay…by simply stating the old axiom of “don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”—or in John Brown biographies.

Check your sources. Rely on common sense. Concentrate on primary research…and not on the last work that happens to have been published. It is only in this way that false history…particularly in regard to controversial figures such as John Brown…will NOT be ceaselessly repeated.

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

POSTSCRIPT: Toward Revisiting the Kansas Narrative

This week, I've been able to share two significant insights on this blog that have overturned "conventional" assumptions about John Brown's activities in the Kansas Territory in 1856.  The first, by our friend in Osawatomie, Grady Atwater, points out that the attack on Osawatomie in August 1856 by proslavery thugs was not the direct result of John Brown's role at Pottawatomie that previous May, and that Brown, in fact, tried to discourage young "hotheads" among the free state radicals in their plan to attack New Georgia, a neighboring proslavery village.  Rather than seeing Brown as the trouble-making, incendiary figure who can be blamed for "Bleeding Kansas," Atwater shows that Brown showed strategic reservation about this attack and counseled against it.  This only strengthens our contention that the common yackety-yack of historians in summing up Brown in Kansas is flawed and must be revisited with greater research and serious correction.   Certainly, Villard's biographical conclusions about Brown in Kansas (and Harper's Ferry) cannot go unquestioned because, as I've argued repeatedly over the years, his biases distorted the record (notwithstanding Katherine Mayo's important field research on his behalf).  Brown must be seen in Kansas as responding to proslavery terrorism, not initiating terrorism. 

On the heels of Atwater's insightful piece, H. Scott Wolfe, a grassroots researcher on Brown, recently corresponded with me, as reported in the article above, raising the question of the Sumner-Brooks episode's impact on Brown in regard to the Pottawatomie incident.  Our brief exchange not only prompted me to revisit this episode, but also happily became the occasion for Scott to further explore the "Caning by Sumner" incident.  His careful reflection and research has yielded important results that should be noted by every serious Brown scholar and any other writer presuming to narrate the Pottawatomie incident.  The much repeated notion that Brown and company were driven "insane" by the report of the Sumner caning has informed too many narratives about Pottawatomie despite its unreliability.  As Wolfe shows, Jules Abels questioned it back in 1971, while both Reynolds and Carton have accepted the claim at face value.  I have overlooked the Sumner incident in my treatments of Pottawatomie, but only because I have argued that the killings were exclusively a result of local developments in the territory and Brown's desperate actions were driven by real circumstances framed by a personal nadir of sorrow brought about by the death of his father back in Ohio.  I must admit, however, that I never seriously considered the reliability of the Sumner caning notion until Scott Wolfe raised it in correspondence.

As a result of Scott's prompting, I went to my files and noted that the claim that Sumner's caning impacted Brown and his men's actions at Pottawatomie was traced back to a single source, as noted by Scott Wolfe, in Mayo's interview with Salmon Brown in October 1908.  However, Salmon prepared a narrative of the same incidents in a 1901 letter (also in Villard's collection) written to to "Friend Holmes," whom I assume was James H. Holmes.  Salmon's concise summary here is authentic, with no Sumner garnish, and makes more sense:

We traveled all night and in the gray of the morning were on the top of the Walkerusa [sic] hills and could see the smoke of the Free State hotel, which was already nearly in ashes and Col. Buford just south of the Pottawatomie with four [hundred] armed men from the extreme South to enforce the Border-Ruffian laws[;] why should we not make a scattering of the Border-Ruffian officials on the Potawatomie [sic] who had told us to our teeth that they would get rid of us first of all.

It is reasonable to expect that were the Sumner caning incident of such importance, Salmon would have mentioned it to Holmes; furthermore, his version of the events leading up to the Pottawatomie attack strikes to the heart of what happened.  The people killed by Brown’s men were “officials” of the proslavery terrorists—that is, they were collaborators with conspiratorial intent.

Interestingly, Robert McGlone dismisses the Sumner caning story in his 2009 biography (compare p. 74 and note, p. 350).  McGlone is a careful scholar and he follows Abels in putting aside the account as unreliable.  What surprises me about McGlone, however, is that he does not bother to trace it to Salmon Brown, nor to raise his “memory” thesis, in which he points out the distortions and revisions that sometimes take place in later accounts provided by eyewitnesses.  Unfortunately, while McGlone has tended to abuse perfectly reliable memories and eyewitness accounts, he completely missed the opportunity to show how an aging Salmon Brown’s memory of the incidents of May 1856 were distorted in his 1908 interview.

These recent discussions point out a number of things: First, that historical scholarship is really dependent on grassroots research.  Second, John Brown scholarship is not a closed book at all—quite to the contrary, there is still a lot of work to be done.   Finally, besides further research, the John Brown literature of the 20th century needs to be critically reassessed in a number of ways, including the Pottawatomie incident.  From Brown’s personal business career to Kansas, and then to Harper’s Ferry, the conventional narrative is just not trustworthy.  Nor is the “mainstream” narrative that is spun in popular articles and television documentaries to be taken seriously, as exemplified in the recent travesty about Brown portrayed in “The Story of Us” on the History Channel.--LD

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