History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Sunday, April 23, 2017

"We As a Family Have Sacrificed Enough": The Browns' Civil War Disappointment (1862)

In composing our narratives, it is tempting to jump from John Brown's death in 1859 to dramatic 
martial scenes of men in blue--white and black--marching into battle against rebel forces in the Civil War. While the ultimate outcome of the war was the defeat of southern rebels and the end of slavery, the two outcomes were not held as equal objectives by the federal government when the war began in 1861. A realistic historical sketch of the Civil War must include the fact that despite his alleged life-long hatred of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was willing to avoid war at the onset, even at the cost of allowing slavery to be contained in the slave states.  It was Southern greed, prejudice, and hubris that caused the rebels to mistake Lincoln for John Brown and reject his compromise.

Consequently, when the South seceded, Lincoln sent federal troops to save the Union, not free the slaves.  Indeed, it took much of the war for Lincoln's social and political sensibilities to catch up with those of the abolitionists, since his sine qua non was the preservation of the Union until late in the war.   Of course, this was not an exceptional position.  Lincoln's agenda was typical of many whites in the North who didn't want to overturn slavery, but felt compelled to support a military prevention of Southern secession.

To no surprise, the abolitionists were not enthusiastic about Lincoln's election and were disappointed with the way the newly elected Republican administration put black liberation on the back burner in order to prioritize saving the Union.   It is also no surprise that many whites disdained John Brown and expressed antipathy toward his surviving widow and children.   Even though a segment of the antislavery population sympathized with Brown, many of them considered him a kind of Don Quixote figure, who meant well despite his erroneous effort to free the slaves.   Many others simply disdained Brown, like proslavery Democrats who would even show political contempt toward his family.   A good example of this is found in the case of Salmon Brown's effort to join the Union army.  

Salmon Brown--as he would
have looked around 1862
(West Virginia State Collection)
Salmon Brown

In 1862, twenty-six-year-old Salmon Brown, was still in North Elba with his family, which by now included his own wife and young daughter.*  His older half-brothers, John Jr., Jason, and Owen had long left the fold, and his two full brothers, Watson and Oliver, had died at Harper's Ferry.  Salmon was "the man in the family" at North Elba when the war started, and at first he felt duty-bound to support the cause, lending his hand in starting the 96th New York Regiment. 

But no sooner had Salmon donned his uniform that a protest began to arise against his promotion on the grounds that he was the son of John Brown.  Protests were varied: some stated simply that they were opposed to Brown's legacy; others did not want him ascending to a command position in the event that his superior officers were struck down or fell to sickness in the war.  Finally, others complained that they feared the hostile retaliation of the Confederates if they fell into rebel hands under Salmon's command.   Complaints became so great that he not only lost his lieutenancy, but felt it necessary to resign from the army, stating that his continued presence in the 96th would only impair its usefulness.1

Jason Writes

On April 22, 1862, Jason Brown, who was nearly forty years old, penned a fascinating letter to his younger half-brother.  Initially, Jason apologized, apparently for having been such a poor correspondent and for having neglected him.   Jason appealed that he was not showing favoritism by not having written--that is, apparently he worried that Salmon would think that his neglect was based on the fact of their different mothers (Jason's mother was Dianthe Lusk, John Brown's first wife, who died in 1832; Brown married Mary Day, Salmon's mother, the following year).   

In his letter, Jason knows of Salmon's recent disappointment, although he adds in a postscript that he had just found out that he had been offered the rank of lieutenant. Evidently, the reason for Jason's letter was that Annie, Salmon's younger sister, had sent him a copy of Salmon's resignation letter to the army.  "I am very glad that you did not go with a regiment of men who are ashamed of the son of a man who dared to do right! Ashamed of a man who dares to think an speak for Justice and truth," Jason wrote.2
Jason Brown, in later life
(Kansas State Historical
He continues the letter by affirming Salmon's decision and expressing his gladness that he had "escaped from a regiment of men who I believe would be willing to die to save the infernal cause of this war"--in other words, Jason believed that many Northern men were yet willing that slavery continue, and were fighting only for the preservation of the status quo.  He then mentions that he too had considered enlisting, but had not done so because his wife Ellen was in poor health.  Nor had his older bachelor brother, Owen, enlisted. However, John Brown Junior had already enlisted, and Jason writes that he hopes that he too would "resign and come home," and that no other family member would serve in the army until "the Government is willing to do right."3

The Browns had consistently taken an abolitionist and egalitarian stance and found the circumstances quite dissatisfying, and Jason's sentiments reflected those of John Junior's as well.  Junior had been the first to become involved in the army in late 1861, when he assisted in raising a company of sharpshooters from Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. After his company was mustered into the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, Junior complained.4  "We are all feeling very sore about serving under Proslavery Gen. Halleck," he wrote to Jason that previous month.5

Henry Halleck, a Northern Democrat, was given command of the western theater by Lincoln in 1862. He was eventually transferred to the east by the President, but he was disliked by antislavery people in the west because of his Democratic sympathies, which Junior thus rightly characterized as "proslavery." Junior sought and obtained a medical discharge in May 1862, although there were some, like Charles Auiger, an Ohio neighbor, who believed he had faked his health problems (claiming rheumatism) in order to get out of the army.  Auiger thought John Junior fearful of war, which may be the case.6  Despite being his father's namesake (and the chief pensioner of his father's legacy), John Junior was never distinguished as a fighting man.5  Even so, it is reasonable to assume that he likewise had political reasons for backing out of military service.

This certainly was Jason's sentiment:
It seems to me that the mass of the white people of this wicked nation would rather that millions of its best men should die in this war than to do the least act of justice to the 4 million slaves or in any way interfere with the accursed thing (Slavery).  I have lost all desire to have anything to do in that war till the nation is ready to do right. . . . As long as slavery is to be protected let proslavery men fight.  I shall stay at home for the present.7
In the meantime, Jason concluded, he was still struggling with debt and poverty--the unfortunate "estate" that John Brown left his family after giving everything, including his life, for the cause of freedom.  "I think we as a family have sacrificed enough for the present," Jason wrote. "At least till the people are willing to stop fighting to protect slavery."8  L. DeCaro, Jr.

* Editorial Note, 13 May 2016

I am grateful to my friend, Alice Keesey Mecoy, for alerting me to the error I made in the original version of this post.  In that error I represented Salmon Brown as being single in 1862, which is incorrect.  Alice thus writes: "But Salmon was not single in 1862.  He married Abigail Clarissa Hinckley on 15 Oct 1857 in North Elba.  They had an infant boy born and die in 1858, and Cora, who is buried with Annie Brown Adams in California, was born in 1860."  Of course, Alice, who is a meticulous student of the Brown family genealogy, is absolutely correct and I am grateful for her correction.  I should add, of course, that Alice Keesey Mecoy is a direct descendant of John Brown--the great great great granddaughter of John Brown through his daughter, Anne Brown Adams.



     1 See G.W. Palmley, "A visit with a son of John Brown," Montgomery News, 20 August 1915, in Boyd B. Stutler Collection.
     2 Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, to Salmon Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 22 April 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
     3 Ibid.
     4 John Brown Jr., Humboldt, Kan., to Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, 25 March 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
     5"Biographical Resume" under Inventory and Calendar of John Brown, Jr. (Columbus: Ohio State Historical Society).
     6 See Katherine Mayo's interview with Charles D. Auiger, 4 Jan. 1909, in JB in Cleveland, March 1859, and in Ohio folder, Box 4, John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. 
     7 Jason to Salmon 22 April 1862. 
     8 Ibid.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

In the News. . .

Swann's Africana American Auction Featured Rare Image of Harriet Tubman

The Swann Auction Galleries of New York conducted an auction of printed and manuscript African American documents on March 30.  The auction featured a wide range of materials covering three centuries, from 18th century abolitionist documents to images of boxer Muhammad Ali.  Most notable was the sale of an amazing 19th century photo album that was gifted to Emily Howland (1827-1929), the daughter of Quaker abolitionists from Sherwood, New York.  Howland had embraced  antislavery as a student, and after studying in Philadelphia she became a teacher in a school for black females in Washington, D.C.   After the start of the Civil War, Howland began working with recently liberated blacks in a "contraband camp," distributing food and clothing.  The term signified the legal status of enslaved people who came into the hands of Union forces, in recognition of their legal status as property of the slaveholders according to the Constitution.  (Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation targeted this particular status, declaring all enslaved people in rebel states as free--thus beyond the legal claims of slaveholders.)   Howland worked at Camp Todd, which was situated at Robert E. Lee's estate in Arlington, Va.

Howland received the album as a gift from her friend and mentor, Carrie Nichols, on January 1, 1864, while still working at Camp Todd.  She evidently added images to it in later years, although it is not clear which images were part of the original album gift.  As the Swann site observes, this album is "truly impressive," since it contains an array of images, including two carte-de-visite images of Harriet Tubman.  While one of the Tubman images is familiar, the other is new to us--taken of Harriet by Benjamin F. Powelson sometime between 1868-69, when the photographer resided on Genesee Street in Auburn, N.Y.   This would show Tubman as being somewhere between 48-  and 49-years-old.  Other images in the album are of John Willis Menard, the first black man elected to the U.S. Congress (and the first black politician to address Congress); antislavery figures like Charles Sumner, Lydia Maria Child, Samuel Ely, William Ellery Channing, Colonel C.W. Folsom, and also images of Charles Dickens and Maximilian of Mexico. There are also a couple of images of young black women that were either students or associates.

The album was successfully auctioned and the price realized at $161, 000.

*    *    *

The Adirondack's Black Timbuctoo Community Remembered in Global Timbuktu Conference at Rutgers

On March 24-25, a symposium at Rutgers University symposium examined the legacies of three communities, considering their connections to the freedom struggles of African Americans. Global Timbuktu: Meanings and Narratives of Resistance in Africa and the Americas involved an gathering of international scholars, including archaeologists, historians, and curators from Timbuktu, Mali.
The symposium was organized by Rutgers University's Center for African Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.  The archetype for this conference was Timbuktu, the city in the West African nation of Mali, a cultural, commercial, and intellectual center in the 14-16th centuries, particularly remembered  for its ancient library on art, medicine, philosophy, and science.  The symposium included a tour of an excavation site in Westampton Township, New Jersey, where an African American settlement existed with the name of Timbuctoo.

More familiar to John Brown students is the Timbuctoo settlement in Essex County, N.Y.  This Adirondack settlement was established in the 1840s as a response to a state law requiring blacks to own $250 in property to vote, and was heartily and advanced and supported by John Brown, who was then emerging as a familiar face to many black abolitionists.  Brown was operating a wool commission business in Springfield, Mass., and formed a friendship with Willis Hodges, who headed the black settlements in the Adirondacks (there was another settlement in Franklin County).

John Brown helped to promote the project, which was the brainchild of abolitionist tycoon Gerrit Smith, who donated huge tracts of land to black residents of New York State.  Contrary to popular opinion, Timbuctoo in Essex County, N.Y., was no haven for fugitive slaves, but predominately an effort to promote an agrarian economic program, which Hodges believed offered a better future to the free black community.  Brown naturally supported this effort, not only as a friend of black self-determinism but also as an expert in most agrarian matters.  To no surprise, he went so far as to relocate to North Elba, nearby Timbuctoo, where he could mentor and coach the urban settlers.  Unfortunately, Timbuctoo was no great success, and from the onset black settlers either found themselves being taken advantage of by local white hustlers, or discovered that settling on the cold Adirondack tracts was simply too difficult and frankly undesirable.  Ultimately, only a small number of black families persevered, although Brown was happy to build himself a home there, which is also the site of his grave.

The Adirondack Timbuctoo was featured at the symposium,  especially featuring the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” Exhibition, which was introduced by John Brown Lives! founder and director, Martha Swan.  In conjunction with the symposium, Swan hosted Madame Hawoye Fassoukoye of Timbuktu, Mali,  a visiting teacher.  Here, Timbuktu met Timbuctoo, as the African teacher did a whirlwind day tour across the Tri-Lakes area, and Fassoukoye spoke to students in both a local college and high school.  As the Lake Placid News reported (30 Mar.), Fassoukoye also toured the John Brown farm.  "Through what I have seen right now, I've learned a lot of things, like the history of the Browns," Fassoukoye said afterward "Now I know where this name Timbuctoo comes from, where the settlers were. This is kind of an eyewitness (experience). I've seen it with my own eyes and will report it (back home)."