Until I read the War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861 by Thomas Goodrich I only knew the sanitized version of the John Brown story. Brown — a God-fearing abolitionist is credited with starting the Civil War. The story I knew went basically like this. John Brown was an abolitionist from the East who moved to present-day Kansas to make sure the territory was slave-free. After his stint in Kansas, Brown headed East, overtook a fort in Virginia as part of plot to incite slaves to revolt against their owners.
In a very basic sense, all of that is true, but it in no way describes the utter depravity of John Brown.
Congress Shirks Duty And Bypasses Slavery Issue
In 1854 the United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act giving the Kansas Territory residents the power to decide whether the region would be slave or free. With the advantage of history, it’s easy to see the error in judgment with this decision, but in 1854 it seemed like the correct approach. After all, it is standard operating procedure in the United States to let decisions be made as local as possible. But this single Act propelled the country into the Civil War.
A lot was at stake when the Act was enacted with the balance of power in Congress being a significant one. When the Act was approved 13 states held slaves and 13 did not.
Adding to the difficulty was Missouri, home to an estimated $100,000,000 worth of slaves. Missourians had a vested interest in Kansas becoming a slave state to protect their ‘property;’ while in the East, abolitionists were determined to halt the spread of slavery.
It unleashed a violent storm in the Kansas area.
Emigrant Aid Society
Shortly after the Nebraska-Kansas Act passed Massachusetts resident (and future Congressman) Eli Thayer established the New England Emigrant Aid Company for the sole purpose of transporting abolitionists into the Kansas Territory. These Easterners, with no frontier experience, headed west and quickly established abolitionist cities in the region. The most well-known city was Lawrence (the location for the worst civilian massacre during the Civil War).
Locals, Not Really Local
With abolitionists arriving from the East and Northeast and proslavery men coming from the South and Missouri, the region was quickly divided into three distinct groups: Proslavery, Abolitionist and settlers. Although, the Act was designed to let the settlers make the decision, it was the settlers that had the least interest in the political battle. Most were just ‘regular folks’ wanting to raise a family on their homestead.
When the first election was held inside the Territory, Missourians poured over the border on election day to vote — often by force. Their tactic worked as the Territory was declared a slave-holding region based on the election results (despite the fact that the number of voters exceeded the number of Territory residents).
Abolitionists refused to honor the new government — naming it the Bogus Government. Violence eventually broke out between the Abolitionists and Proslavery men and caught in the crossfire were the settlers.
It was during this upheaval, in 1855, when John Brown moved in.
Acts of Terror
In 1856, after the town of antislavery town of Lawrence was attacked by armed proslavery guerillas, John Brown decided the pacifist approach of the Abolitionists is hindering their cause. So he decides to meet force with force with a retaliatory attack. It is at this point the delusional side of Brown becomes more apparent. Even several of his children are shocked by the action he is proposing and John Brown Jr. refuses to participate.
But John Brown — often referred to as Old Man Brown — is convinced God has chosen him to rid the country of slavery. Before heading out to attack and kill several settlers, Brown said,
“I have no choice. It has been ordained by the Almighty God, ordained from eternity, that I should make an example of these men.”
Brown’s small group of men, armed with pistols and swords, then ventured out into the night to commit their first gruesome act. Their victim was a transplanted Tennessean, James Doyle, a proslavery man who was simply a settler in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to those who knew him, Doyle never agitated for slavery. In fact, when neighbors attempted to get Doyle to be a Legislator for the Territory, he said,
“I came to this territory to secure a home for my family, not for political purposes.”
Around 11 p.m. on May 24, 1856 Brown and his gang knocked on Doyle’s cabin door. According to one of the assailants that night, James Townsley, Brown order Doyle and his two oldest sons to surrender to his gang. The youngest son was spared because Doyle’s wife cried and pleaded for his life.
Brown and his followers then led the three Doyle men a short distance and order them to halt. Brown shot James Doyle while Brown’s two youngest sons attacked the Doyle boys with swords and killed them. The gang committed the same crime the following night killing two more men and those victims were “chopped into inches.”
The gruesomeness of the acts caused two of Brown’s sons to suffer mental breakdowns.
Brown wasn’t through though. He would remain inside the Territory until 1858, recruiting additional men for his cause. As his followers grew to 100 or so men, Brown led them in guerilla warfare and the body count and terror continued to rise. After two years of doing ‘God’s work’ Brown and his sons finally left the Territory.
Brown’s Capture And Execution
Brown’s most famous act came in 1859 when Brown and his followers overtook an armory in Harper’s Ferry. They had kidnapped several prominent men — including a relative of George Washington, Lewis Washington — and held them hostage inside the armory. The confrontation ended when Federal troops led by Robert E. Lee overthrew Brown and the surviving members of his ragtag army. During the battle, two of Brown’s sons were killed. As one of Brown’s sons groaned in the throes of death, Brown allegedly told him to ‘shut up and die like a man.’
Brown was convicted of treason, murder and slave insurrection and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed on Dec. 2, 1859 in Virginia (present day West Virginia).
He was 59.
Early in life, John Brown went to college to become a Congregational Minister, but he dropped out due to eye problems and a shortage of funds.