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

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Interview: Steven Lubet

The John Brown the Abolitionist blog is pleased to present a new interview feature, and students and interested readers will be happy that our first interview is with Steven Lubet (the "t" in Lubet is not silent), who has added two noteworthy books in recent years to the John Brown study. Steve is the Edna B. and Ednyfed H. Williams Memorial Professor of Law and the Director of the Fred Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law.  Steve teaches courses on Legal Ethics, Trial Advocacy, Lawyer Memoirs, and Narrative Structures and is the author of fifteen books and over one hundred articles on legal ethics, judicial ethics, and litigation.  He has also published widely in the areas of legal history, international criminal law, dispute resolution, and legal education.  He blogs at The Faculty Lounge.

Steve’s latest book is The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2015), which tells the stories of the African-American abolitionists who joined John Brown’s attempt to free the slaves of Virginia. His other related book is John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (Yale University Press, 2012); finalist for the Society of Midland Authors Biography Award).  Read a more extensive biographical sketch on his academic website here.

JAB: I’m wondering first if you would discuss how the work of a legal scholar has led you to doing so much history.  You’ve written now extensively on the John Brown story, but you have also addressed other themes in history.  What is it about historical research that informs your sensibilities as a legal scholar, and how has your specialization in law informed your treatment of historical themes?

SL: It all began with Wyatt Earp.  My original plan was to use the OK Corral prosecution as a way of illuminating contemporary trial strategy.  So I didn’t set out to become a historian; I was just looking for a way to make my legal writing more interesting to readers. But the more deeply I got into the story, the more I realized that the historical context was inseparable from the lawyers’ art. Of course, I know that as an abstraction from the beginning, but writing about a nineteenth century trial really made it more concrete.

JAB.      You and I have some initial correspondence that goes way back, perhaps more than fifteen years ago—I think when you were preparing Nothing but the Truth: Why Trial Lawyers Don't, Can't & Shouldn't Have to Tell the Whole Truth (2001).  Was this your initial inroad into the John Brown story, and why was he a factor in that work?

As I was working on the Wyatt Earp material, I began looking for other historical trials that could be used as examples of lawyering.  I came across John Brown almost by accident, and I used the trial as the basis for a law review article and a book chapter.  I’m afraid that my initial work on Brown was not very good, given that it considered only very the end of the story.  I hope nobody reads it now.  I will say that I made one important point by calling the Harper’s Ferry prosecution the “most consequential trial in U.S. history,” which I think is still accurate.  Other cases may have been more consequential by virtue of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, but Brown’s trial had a greater impact on American history than any other trial court case.

JAB.     I am assuming that your work on John Cook and John Anthony Copeland were part of a larger interest in the John Brown that had been with you since at least your writing Nothing But the Truth.  Over the decade between the Nothing But the Truth and the publication of John Brown’s Spy, had you been thinking of writing further on the Old Man, and how did you then decide to focus on Brown’s men?

SL: Murder in Tombstone (my Wyatt Earp book) was very well received, and my agent asked me to write another book about historical trials.  I wanted to address something with more contemporary resonance than an Old West shootout, so I began looking at cases under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  It turned out that there were quite a few such cases, and the represented an early version of what we now call the civil rights bar.  The result was a book called Fugitive Justice, which involved in-depth treatment of four important fugitive slave cases in the decade before the Civil War.  Fugitive Justice included an epilogue about John Brown, explaining how resistance to slavery eventually led to Harper’s Ferry.  In the course of writing and researching the epilogue, I came across the Cook and Copeland trials, which eventually led to John Brown’s Spy and The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry.

JAB. For better or worse, how has your understanding of the John Brown story changed over the years of your research?  Do you understand Brown the same in 2016 as you did in 2000?

SL: My understanding of Brown was thin in 2000, essentially limited to his persona at trial.  I hope I have achieved a much broader understanding in the years since, including a far deeper appreciation of his egalitarianism and profound opposition to slavery, which was indeed unique for his time.  I have learned a great deal about abolitionist lawyers who were sincere in their struggle against slavery, but Brown stands out for his total dedication to the cause.  I have also learned about the risks undertaken by members of the free black community in the north, which has not been sufficiently recognized.

JAB.     For those who may be interested in reading your life of John Cook, what are some nuggets you might share about John Brown’s Spy?   Did your research on Cook prove the man you expected to find or were you surprised by him in any way?

SL: The greatest surprise about John Cook was his similarity to some of the radicals I knew in the 1960s peace movement.  He was attracted to the cause not only out of principle, but also for the sense of excitement it brought to his life.  He was very human in that regard, but not fully dependable.  Nonetheless, Brown ended up trusting Cook with some of his most sensitive assignments, either in error or out of necessity.

I was also surprised by the great amount of material that was available regarding Cook, none of which had been previously published, including letters, memoirs, and several of his poems (which, I have to say, were pretty good, all things considered).

JAB.      After Cook, you took on the story of another Harper’s Ferry raider who stood trial and was hanged.  What drew you to John Anthony Copeland and was the research and materials you had access to in preparing The “Colored” Hero of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery?

SL: Just as JB’s Spy was a follow up to Fugitive Justice, “Colored Hero” was started from research that I had not used in the Cook biography.  Unfortunately, the antebellum press paid much less attention to the African-Americans in Brown’s party than to well-educated white men like Cook, so I had to dig much deeper to get the story.

JAB:  Similarly, what highlights might you wish to share about the Copeland book that you would want people to know, perhaps even investigate in reading your book for themselves?

SL: Here are a couple of facts I discovered that have never been known before:  There was a connection between John Copeland and Brown’s Chatham conference, and that may have been how Copeland and Lewis Leary (both from Oberlin) were initially alerted to Brown’s plan. There was also a connection between Copeland (and therefore Brown) and Thomas Ruffin, the racist chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.  Ruffin’s cousin Edmund was a leading secessionist firebrand who was present at Brown’s execution and was later given the honor of firing the first shot at Fort Sumter.

JAB.     You are now one of the leading contributors to the literature on the John Brown theme in the 21st century, and your work has provided significantly to our study.  Would you consider exploring further the lives of Brown’s men?  I know that Brian McGinty wrote about Brown’s trial (2009).  Do you think there are any other legal history aspects that might be further explored in the Brown story?

SL: My current plans do not include writing anything more about John Brown, but one should never say never.

JAB.     I do not know if you know R. Blakeslee Gilpin personally and I do not want to put you on the spot; I do not know him and have no personal reason to dislike him as such, although I reviewed his John Brown book and found it rife with errors and biographically untrustworthy, at least in the chapters specifically about Brown’s life.   I was, then, a bit annoyed when he reviewed John Brown’s Spy in Civil War History a couple of years ago, and presumed to write of that it “does not make a convincing case that any of the individual raiders, particularly John Cook, deserve more than ‘an extended magazine article.’”  In fact, I found it hard to believe that someone who lives in such a poorly constructed glass house of scholarship would presume to throw such stones at an important book like John Brown’s Spy.  How would you respond to Gilpin’s criticisms?

SL: As an undergraduate history major in the 1960s, I was deeply influenced by the school of “New Left Historians,” who argued that history should be taught “from the bottom up,” rather than on the “great man” theory.  I still believe that we can learn a great deal by studying the lives of ordinary people, rather than concentrate only on their leaders.  Gilpin’s criticism therefore struck me as quite bizarre.  Of course, I don’t expect every reviewer to like my books (although review of JB’s Spy were otherwise excellent), but it seemed almost cynical for a historian to dismiss the stories of ordinary men who gave their lives to fight slavery.

JAB.   My last question might have been the first question.  When did you first hear of John Brown and what did you first learn about him?  Would he have been a hero in the context of your own upbringing, or would he have been a problematic figure to those who helped you construct your initial worldview?

SL: My parents were active in the civil rights movement from the time I was a small child, as were my paternal grandparents in the 1930s (my maternal grandparents did not live in this country), so I was not really exposed to the negative stories about John Brown that were common in the 1950s.  I learned instead that he was heroic, although somewhat misguided.  In my upbringing, slavery was the ultimate evil in U.S. history, and there was nothing redeeming about the Confederacy or the “Lost Cause,” which was the direct predecessor of Jim Crow, Bull Connor, and George Wallace.  If Brown was not a figure to be emulated, he was certainly someone to be respected.

Other books of interest by Steven Lubet:

Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial (Harvard University Press, 2010; honorable mention, Langum Prize for American Legal History);  The Importance of Being Honest: How Lying, Secrecy and Hypocrisy Collide with Truth in Law (NYU Press, 2008); Lawyers’ Poker: 52 Lessons that Lawyers Can Learn from Card Players (Oxford University Press, 2006); Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp (Yale University Press, 2004), and Nothing But the Truth: Why Trial Lawyers Don’t, Can’t, and Shouldn’t Have to Tell the Whole Truth (NYU Press, 2001).

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).