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


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Osawatomie Notebook: John Brown, Cool-Headed in Crisis

The Battle of New Georgia was a raid led reluctantly by John Brown on New Georgia, a nascent community that was constructed three miles west of Osawatomie. The raid took place on Aug. 7, 1856, and it was one of the triggering events for the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856.

Pro-slavery advocates under the leadership of Jefferson Buford had established a pro-slavery community three miles west of Osawatomie in 1856. They used their nascent community as a base for pro-slavery guerilla operations against free state advocates in the area exactly like free state advocates were using Osawatomie as a base for abolitionist guerilla operations against pro-slavery advocates in the area.

John Brown was aware of the presence of New Georgia, but he had advised against attacking the pro-slavery settlement due to his belief that if abolitionist guerilla fighters attacked the pro-slavery community, it would be the excuse that pro-slavery forces were looking for to attack Osawatomie.

However, many of the young, hotheaded abolitionist guerillas that had made Osawatomie their base of operations rejected John Brown’s cautionary warnings of the military and political inadvisability of attacking New Georgia. John Brown agreed to lead the attack on New Georgia to keep the more violent and impetuous young abolitionist guerilla fighters from committing excesses during the attack.

The abolitionist guerilla fighters surprised the pro-slavery guerillas and settlers of New Georgia completely, and they scattered to pro-slavery camps and communities in Kansas Territory and western Missouri with tales of being feloniously attacked by John Brown and a group of fiendish abolitionist guerilla fighters, which was the final straw for the pro-slavery leaders in western Missouri and Kansas Territory.

John Brown and Osawatomie had to be neutralized, and pro-slavery forces began to gather and arm themselves to attack Osawatomie and other free state communities. John Brown was indeed correct in his unheeded warnings, and the Battle of New Georgia was the final spark that caused the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856.

John Brown is often portrayed as a violent fanatic who had no self-discipline about him, but the reality is that he was often the moderate abolitionist voice amongst a chorus of extremist abolitionist guerillas.

John Brown is often portrayed as a violent fanatic who had no self-discipline about him, but the reality is that he was often the moderate abolitionist voice amongst a chorus of extremist abolitionist guerillas. Brown often had to restrain the out-of-control martial spirit of abolitionist guerillas who wanted to shoot first and ask questions later when encountering pro-slavery advocates and guerillas. It’s a facet of his personality largely overlooked in history books.

John Brown was certainly a militant abolitionist guerilla, but he did not participate in gratuitous impulsive violence. He only attacked militant pro-slavery advocates or those who were supplying militant pro-slavery advocates with supplies or legally protected them. When Brown did engage in violence, it was planned in advance, and calculated for the greatest psychological effect on pro-slavery advocates, not only in Kansas, but nationwide.

John Brown was considered a leader in the militant abolitionist movement because he was cool-headed in a crisis, unlike many of the young militant abolitionists who were prone to shoot first and ask questions later.--Grady Atwater

Source: "John Brown Reluctantly Led the Battle of New Georgia," The Miami County Republic [Paola, Kan.], 22 August 2018

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site, Osawatomie, Kansas.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

When Frederick Douglass Met John Brown in Springfield

John Brown enthusiasts are all acquainted with the important autobiographical reflections of the Old Man provided by Frederick Douglass in his last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881 (revised in 1892) when Douglass was advanced in years. 

Among the interesting points explored by historians is the matter of Douglass’ much-quoted visit to John Brown’s home in Springfield, Massachusetts.  In his autobiography, Douglass wrote that visit to the Brown household took place in 1847.  It does seem to be the case that Brown met Douglass in Springfield in 1847.  In fact, Brown wrote to John Junior on May 15, 1847, saying he was “in hourly expectation of a visit from Fred Douglas [sic].”1 Assuming this meeting took place in Springfield, it is the first record of their eventful alliance.  However, if Douglass dined with Brown that day, it was not with Mary Brown and the children as Douglass recalled in his autobiography. In May 1847, Mary and the children were still residing in Akron, Ohio, at their residence on the Perkins estate.  Apparently, she did not come to Springfield until mid-July that year.2   It may be that Brown fixed a meal for Douglass in his residence, but it seems more likely that Douglass was conflating his memories of meetings with Brown in Springfield in 1847 and 1848.

Since there is no evidence that Douglass was back in Springfield for the rest of 1847, and since the Browns moved to a number of places in Springfield before settling on Hastings Street, named by Douglass, the actual dinner with the Brown family he describes in his autobiography could not have been any earlier than his visit in February 1848.  The late historian Benjamin Quarles first noted that Douglass visited Springfield twice in 1848, the dates of which he found in Douglass’s paper, The North Star.  Those visits took place on October 29 and November 18, 1848.3   The dinner with Mary and the children must certainly have taken place on one of these two 1848 dates. 

The conflation of his visits to Brown in Springfield most likely was an issue of memory, although elsewhere in his third autobiography, Douglass used conflation probably with intentionality.   As I have written elsewhere, Douglass tends to conflate a number of meetings with Brown in 1859 in the Chambersburg quarry episode, which he says took place a few weeks before the Harper’s Ferry raid, although in actuality it took place in August 1859.   Douglass does not reveal meetings that took place in Detroit in March 1859, with Brown and black abolitionists from Detroit and Chatham, Ontario, nor his meeting with Brown in Philadelphia in October 1859.  His opposition to the invasion of Harper’s Ferry proper was an issue that overshadowed the two friends for most of 1859, although Douglass found it expedient to present the issue as a single disagreement in the fall of 1859.  I have taken this up in both John Brown—The Cost of Freedom and in Freedom’s DawnThe Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.--LD


            1 John Brown to John Brown Jr., May 15, 1847, Kohns Collection, New York Public Library, New York, N.Y.
            2 John Brown to Ruth Brown Thompson, September 1, 1847, in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 144-45, which give a sense of the details of the move and setting up house in Springfield.
            3 See Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (New York: DeCapo Press, 1997), 170, n. 2.