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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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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.” 


KC Keagy said...

I am so excited that I found this wonderful blog. My uncle spent many years researching John Henri Kagi, a distant relative of my family. I have now taken up the same chase and find that the story is fascinating. I am intrigued by the motives that drove John Henri to follow John Brown to Harpers Ferry and his inevitable death. I have visited several John Henri cites in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Harpers Ferry.

Once again thanks

Kathy Keagy Elmore

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Dear Kathy,

I'm sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you for your encouraging remarks. I'm most grateful for my associate Scott Wolfe's contributions, especially about Brown's raiders. Incidentally, many years ago when I was a high school student in western Pennsylvania, there was a young lady in my school named Keagy. I suppose she would have been a distant relative of yours. John Henri Kagi was a marvelous young man indeed.