The Pottawatomie massacre is not only important for its role in John Brown's biography. Looking at it more closely, as I've been doing in these posts, is also a way of understanding a bit of the intensity of those pre-Civil War days, and the rehearsal for that war that occurred in Kansas.
In the last post, I talked about the various objections to the action of Brown and his men in executing the five Free State settlers. In this post, I'm looking at some of the elements that those who condemn them as unjustified also have to take into account.
One is the nature of the conflict in Kansas. As we've seen, the pro-slavery crowd fully intended to impose slavery on the Territory by force. Law and the normal rules of conduct in peacetime were not going to stop them. If those who stood for democracy and opposed slavery hoped to prevent that outcome in the short term, they had to fight. We can make counter-factual speculations about what non-violent resistance might have accomplished. But in the immediate situation, the Free State settlers had to fight or surrender.
The larger justice of the cause doesn't justify any act taken in pursuit of it, of course. But in the case of the Pottawatomie killings, which were an immediate response to the sack of Lawrence, inspiring the Free State settlers to fight was Brown's immediate goal in the action. And it was successful. DuBois wrote:
The deed inflamed Kansas. The timid rushed to disavow the deed. The free state people were silent and the pro-slavery party was roused to fury. ...
To this day men differ as to the effect of John Brown's blow [the Pottawatomie killings]. Some say it freed Kansas, while other say it plunged the land back into civil war. Truth lies in both statements. The blow freed Kansas by plunging it into civil war, and compelling men to fight for freedom which they had vainly hoped to gain by political diplomacy. At first it was hard to see this, and even those sons of John Brown whom he had not taken with him, recoiled at the news. (DuBois; 157; my emphasis)
Whatever the immediately emotional context, Brown was taking a step to achieve a calculated political effect in that particular moment of the guerrilla war. And his success in that regard shows that his judgment on that aspect of the deed was sound.
Stephen Oates describes the aftermath this way:
The crisis had certainly arrived in terror-stricken southeastern Kansas, as columns of Missourians and their Southern allies ransacked the area, plundering homesteads, taking "horses & cattle, and everything else they can lay hold of" as they searched for the Pottawatomie killers. "The War seems to have commenced in real earnest, an Osawtomie minuteman wrote his cousin. ... (Oates; 146)
And describing the situation a couple of weeks later, Oates writes:
By now southeastern Kansas was in complete chaos. Dozens of settlers - proslavery as well as free-state - had fled the region out of fear for their lives. Armed bands of men - one led by John Brown himself - prowled the countryside, shooting at one another and looting enemy stores and homesteads. As Samuel Adair wrote some friends from Osawatomie, the sacking of Lawrence and the assassinations at Pottawatomie had triggered a terrible guerrilla war in southeastern Kansas, one in which "as many pro-slavery men must die as free state men are killed by them." An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth - that was the war cry of both sides in Bleeding Kansas - and nobody knew what the end would be. (Oates; 146)
There is also the fact that the victims were chosen carefully. Although they were not convicted of any crime, there was no doubt that all them were active pro-slavery partisans who could be expected to fight against the Free State settlers. This was not indiscriminate violence or an emotional killing frenzy. On the contrary, they were careful not to hurt family members of those captured at their homes and executed. They granted Mrs. Doyle's plea to not take her 16-year-old son, who was already active in the [pro-slavery] Law and Order Party there. The victims were not tortured, nor were they killed in front of their families.
The affadavit of James Harris in the Howard Committee Report describes the Brown party's arrival at his house, where they too "Dutch Bill" Sherman. Brown and his party were not so familiar with Harris as with Dutch Bill. He describes their interrogation of him:
They asked if I had ever taken any hand in aiding pro-slavery men in coming to the Territory of Kansas, or had ever taken any hand in the last troubles at Lawrence, and asked me whether I had ever done the free State party any harm or ever intended to do that party any harm; they asked me what made me live at such a place. I then answered that I could get higher wages there than anywhere else.
Satisfied with his answers, they released Harris. It could well be argued that there is no particular virtue in that, because executing Harris would have been just as wrong as killing the five. But what it does illustrate is that the action was a disciplined act of guerrilla warfare in pursuit of a conscious goal. It wasn't indiscriminate slaughter, or an impulsive act of thoughtless brutality. (If it's worth mentioning, releasing Harris is also an argument against the goofy charge of Robert Penn Warren that the whole operation was just a cover for horse theft.)
Brown's actions when he returned to Kansas Territory in 1858 also shed light on his approach to the conflict. His decision to execute the pro-slavery partisans at Pottawatomie was based on a precise judgment of a very particular moment in the Kansas conflict. In January 1858, Free State settlers won a large majority in the legislature in a genuine free election. In May, almost two years to the day after the Pottawatomie killings, a slavery partisan named Charles Hamilton led a band of 25 followers in killing five men, presumed to be Free State. This was known as the Marais des Cygnes massacre.
Brown returned to Kansas the following month. David Reynolds writes:
No one was better prepared to retaliate for the massacre than John Brown, who had proved at Pottawatomie he could answer blood with blood. He did retaliate for Hamilton's crime, but not immediately and not in Pottawatomie fashion. He saw that Kansas was moving inevitably toward freedom through normal political channels. There was no need now for arbitrary killing. Reynolds; 269; my emphasis in bold)
Since Reynolds makes clear elsewhere in the book his disapproval of the 1856 Pottawatomie murders, I assume the "arbitrary killing" is in part a reference to the Pottawatomie killings. But, whether they were justified or not, the killings by the Brown party in May 1856 were not "arbitrary".
But Reynolds account makes clear that Brown was choosing his actions based on a well-informed judgment about the political situation, not hacking up his enemies in a moment of anger.
Villard provides a long description by Eli Snyder of an moment in 1858 when Brown had the opportunity to kill the Rev. Martin White, a rabid pro-slavery partisan who had personally shot and killed John Brown's son Frederick in 1856. Snyder's account:
During the time that Brown was at my place (1858), he wished me to take a short trip into Missouri and I agreeing, Brown took an old surveyor's compass and chain and he and I followed down along the river, while Kagi and Tidd took the road to Butler. They pretended to be looking for situations to teach a school. We were all to meet at Pattenville, but not to appear to know each other. Brown and I were ostensibly surveying. On meeting at Pattenville we had an opportunity to come to an understanding to meet again at a clump of trees on a certain hill. Brown and I took the river and when we met again Martin White's house was half a mile east of us. Brown had a small field glass which I asked him to loan me, as I had seen some one near the house that I took to be Martin White, whom I knew; having heard him address a meeting at West Point a few days after the burning of Osawatomie, when Clarke was raising a force to drive and burn out Free State men between there and Fort Scott. At that time White had just returned from accompanying Reid and I heard him describe how he killed Frederick Brown, — making the motion of lowering a gun. Brown adjusted the glass and looking I could recognize Martin White reading a book as he sat in a chair in the shade of a tree. I handed the glass to Brown and asked him to look and he said he also recognized him saying: — 'I declare that is Martin White.' For a few minutes nothing was said when I remarked ' Suppose you and I go down and see the old man and have a talk with him.' 'No, no, I can't do that,' said Brown. Kagi said, 'let Snyder and me go.' Capt. Brown said: 'Go if you wish to but don't youhurt a hair of his head; but if he has any slaves take the last one of them.' Kagi said: 'Snyder and I want to go without instructions [i.e., with Brown's permission to kill White], or not at all.' Therefore as Brown was unwilling that Martin White, who had murdered his son, should receive any harm we did not go near him. It was thus shown that John Brown had no revenge to gratify. (Villard; 359)
This incident speaks to Brown's self-discipline and to his attitude toward political violence. If the goal of abolishing slavery could be achieved through peaceful means, which was then occurring in Kansas, Brown was not seeking violence. In this case, he refused to allow his supporters to kill the man who had killed Brown's own son - even though White had done more in the pro-slavery cause than any of the five men killed at Pottawatomie.
These are all factors that have to be taken into account when evaluating what Brown did with the Pottawatomie killings. These are all reasons that I would judge Brown's actions in that case to be justified in that particular situation, which were unusual in the extreme.
After the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859, Senator Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee political leader who later became President on Lincoln's death and made himself one of the worst Presidents in history (a contemparary coparison is tempting, but that would take me too far afield), denounced John Brown and recalled the Pottawatomie killings. With that action, Johnson said, "hell entered [Brown's] soul. ... Then it was that he shrank from the dimensions of a human being into those of a reptile. Then it was, if not before, that he changed his character to a demon who had lost all the virtues of man. And you talk of sympathy for John Brown!" .)(Reynolds; 403)
Andrew Johnson was to stick with the Union as an American patriot during the Civil War. But while John Brown was risking his life for democracy, Johnson was defending the interests of his home state's slaveowners in the Senate.
G.W. Brown of the proslavery Kansas paper Herald of Freedom also brought up the Pottawatomie killings after Harper's Ferry. In response, at a time when politicians of virtually all stripes were trying to distance themselves from Brown and his Harper's Ferry raid, Reynolds reports:
In response to [G.W. Brown's new recriminations against John Brown over the Pottawatomie massacre], a council of antislavery Kansas issued a declaration that "according to the ordinary rules of war" the Pottawatomie episode was "not unjustifiable, but ... was performed from the sad necessity which existed at that time to defend the lives and liberties of the settlers in that region." (Reynolds; 340)
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index toConfederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.