Military history



The Terrorist Who Helped Start the
Civil War, 1856–1859

ELEVEN P.M., SATURDAY, May 24, 1856. The prairie was hauntingly dark, and a damp wind was blowing through the small farming settlement of Pottawatomie in the Kansas Territory. Suddenly the still of the night was broken by a knock on the door. Inside the cabin were James and Mahala Doyle and their five children—poor, illiterate farmers who had recently moved from Tennessee. They were, like most white Southerners, in favor of slavery even though they did not own any slaves themselves. A voice asked for directions to a neighbor’s house. Roused from sleep, James opened the door and was shoved back by armed men bristling with revolvers and knives who told him they were members of an army even though they were not wearing uniforms. At their head, recalled the Doyles’ youngest son, was an “old man” with a dark complexion and a “slim face.” He told James Doyle that he and his sons—all members of the proslavery Law and Order Party—must surrender. They were now his prisoners.

Mahala Doyle pleaded tearfully to spare sixteen-year-old John, who had not been involved in any political activities. The old man relented. Then he marched into the darkness with James and twenty-two-year-old Drury and twenty-year-old William. Soon Mahala heard pistol shots, moans “as if a person was dying,” and a “wild whoop.” “My husband and two boys, my sons, did not come back anymore,” she later said.

The next morning John wandered out in search of his father and brothers and found them a few hundred yards from the house. Drury’s “fingers were cut off,” he recalled, “and his arms were cut off; his head was cut open, there was a hole in his breast. William’s head was cut open, and a hole was in his jaw, as though it was made by a knife, and a hole was also in his side. My father was shot in the forehead and stabbed in the breast.”

Later that night two more proslavery men were pulled out of their homes and suffered a similar fate—cut apart with two-edged swords and shot for good measure. News of the murders soon spread panic among proslavery forces in Kansas. “WAR! WAR!” screamed the headline of the proslavery Border Times, which proceeded to exaggerate the number of victims: “Eight Pro-Slavery Men Murdered by the Abolitionists in Franklin County, K.T. LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR!

As he rode back to camp, John Brown—the old man with the slim face—must have breathed a sigh of righteous satisfaction. He had smitten five of the devil’s party and put the fear of a vindictive God into the rest. He had struck a blow for “the cause of Freedom.” “Confidence seemed to be greatly restored amongst Free State men in consequence,” he wrote a few weeks later. He would have been even more satisfied had he known that his reign of terror would help bring about a war that would destroy the hated slave power forever.6

MENTION THE SUBJECT of irregular warfare in the American Civil War, and the first names that come to mind are John Singleton Mosby and William Clarke Quantrill, Confederate guerrillas of very different stripe. The model of a Southern cavalier, Mosby was a commissioned officer who led a relatively disciplined partisan unit, Mosby’s Rangers, that harassed Union forces in Virginia. The disreputable Quantrill, by contrast, had scant legal authority as he led a gang of psychopathic “bushwhackers” in Missouri and its environs. They preyed not only on Union soldiers but also on Union sympathizers, their most infamous attack being the 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas, which demolished this abolitionist stronghold and killed at least 150 people. Quantrill is better remembered today, if only because his gang included desperados such as Jesse James who went on to become celebrated outlaws after the war. Yet for all the notoriety of these bushwhackers, their strategic impact was negligible. At most they diverted some Union troops from other tasks and delayed the South’s surrender slightly. The Confederacy might have fared better if it had put more emphasis on such guerrilla operations, but it never did so, because this ran counter to the planter class’s chivalrous notions of warfare and its desire to maintain the social order. Far more significant from the standpoint of irregular operations were the prelude and aftermath of the Civil War, which featured notably effective instances of terrorism carried out by abolitionists (before the war) and by segregationists (after).

The war was prefigured by violence in Kansas Territory, which in the 1850s became a battleground between antislavery Jayhawkers and proslavery Border Ruffians. The former were determined to take Kansas into the Union as a free state, the latter as a slave state. Both sides knew that the outcome could swing the delicate balance of power in Congress. Thus was born “Bloody Kansas”—a name now firmly entrenched in the historical lexicon but one that conveys an exaggerated image. One scholar estimates that just 157 violent deaths occurred in Kansas between 1854 and 1861 and only 56 of them were definitely political in nature.7 That hardly seems like a huge toll compared with other irregular conflicts (in post-2003 Iraq more people were often killed in a single attack), but it loomed large at the time because the fighting inflamed passions on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, convincing Southerners and Northerners alike that their differences could be settled only at gunpoint. By the time Kansas was finally admitted into the Union as a free state, at the end of January 1861, full-blown war was merely months away. John Brown did as much as anyone to trigger the conflict.

He arrived in Kansas in 1855 along with one of his sons and a son-in-law, their wagon full of provisions and concealed weapons. Three of his sons were already there—a small part of the twenty children he had fathered with two different wives. Gaunt, grizzled, and stooped but still vigorous, he had behind him a lifetime of failure. He had tried his hand at surveying, farming, tanning, horse breeding, cattle trading, lumber dealing, and wool distributing, and he had wound up broke and bankrupt. He simply had no head for business. What he did have were deeply held Congregationalist beliefs and a fierce devotion to African-American rights. He had first become aware of the slaves’ plight when he was just twelve years old and along with his father stayed at a home where a young slave of the same age lived. Brown recalled that the master of the house had made a “great pet” of him, “while the negro boy (who was fully if not more than his equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed; & lodged in cold weather: & beaten before his eyes with iron shovels or any other thing that came first to hand.”8 He would call slavery “the sum of all villainies”9 and dedicate his life to its eradication.

Initially his work was peaceful. He helped slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad and ran an experimental community in upstate New York where whites and blacks could live as “brothers and equals.”10 But gradually he came to believe that force would have to be used to lead blacks out of bondage. Brown became “wild and frenzied” after proslavery militants rampaged through the antislavery town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856. The next day a proslavery congressman, Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, viciously beat an antislavery senator, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, with a metal-tipped cane on the very floor of the U.S. Senate. Brown “said it became necessary to make an example, and so strike terror, and put an end to that sort of thing”—“to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights.”11 On May 24 he and seven followers, including four of his sons and a son-in-law, set out for the proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, where they committed the five murders that quickly became a nationwide sensation.

A week later Brown rounded up twenty-six impoverished, bedraggled volunteers (“we had come to wearing ideas, suspicion, and memories of what had once been coats, pants, and hats,” one of his men wrote) and led them against a camp of proslavery militiamen. Four of the militiamen were killed, and the other twenty-four surrendered in the grandly named Battle of Black Jack.12 The Border Ruffians got their revenge in August 1856 when they razed the Free State settlement at Osawatomie, killing one of John Brown’s sons and four other defenders. Brown and the rest of his small band were badly outnumbered and forced to retreat. Nevertheless “Old Brown of Osawatomie” became even more celebrated for his willingness to fight in accordance with the instructions he gave his men: “Take more care to end life well than to live long.”13

Most abolitionists were pacifists. They did not condone murder and considered the Pottawatomie killings “terribly damaging” to their cause. Even a member of John Brown’s gang thought “the transaction was terrible.” But he changed his mind when he saw the disproportionate impact of the murders: “The pro-slavery men were dreadfully terrified and large numbers of them soon left the territory.”14 This and subsequent killings did not decide the outcome in Kansas, but they did make the balance of terror less one-sided than before. The repercussions of these acts spread far beyond Kansas’s borders by giving rise to the erroneous impression in the South that John Brown, “the notorious assassin,”15 was representative of Northern sentiment and that extreme methods were necessary to safeguard their “peculiar institution.” Brown was in fact highly atypical, but he managed to find growing numbers of supporters in the North who were impressed by his actions and his forceful defense of them. (As Brown himself noted, he had an “unusual ‘gift of utterance.’ ”)16

His preeminent backers, a wealthy and influential group known as the Secret Six, included Samuel Gridley Howe, an idealistic Boston physician who had earlier served with the Greek rebels.17 They provided him with the financial wherewithal to carry out an audacious plot he had been hatching for two decades. Brown had been reading “all the books upon insurrectionary warfare he could lay his hands upon.” He was deeply impressed by the “Spanish chieftains” who had resisted Roman rule as well as by “Schamyl, the Circassian chief” and by Toussaint Louverture in “Hayti.” Inspired by their example, he came to believe that if he invaded the South with twenty-five to fifty men he could rouse a slave insurrection. The rebels could then establish a stronghold in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia (“admirably adapted to carrying on a guerilla warfare”) and from there strike plantations on the plains. An English soldier of fortune who was a veteran of Garibaldi’s campaigns tried to dissuade him, telling him that no “preparatory notice” had been given to slaves to make them respond positively to an invitation to rebel. But Brown, with his “iron will and unbending purpose,” had too much confidence in African-Americans—and his self-assigned role as their Moses—to give up.18

Brown decided to launch his insurgency by seizing the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia to provide arms for soon-to-be-freed slaves. Pretending to be a gold prospector, he rented a nearby house, where his men gathered with weapons and supplies. The arsenal fell to his twenty-two raiders, including five blacks, on Sunday night, October 16, 1859. Brown and his men seized thirty-five hostages from among the armory workers and nearby farmers, including a distant descendant of George Washington. But, as warned, no slaves rallied to their cause. Instead the armory was surrounded, in the words of a contemporary journalist, by “a bristling cordon of men with every variety of arms, costume, accouterment, and of all ages and conditions.” On a “drizzly” Monday night the ragtag militiamen gave way to ninety U.S. Marines rushed from Washington in crisp, bright-blue uniforms under the command of an army colonel named Robert E. Lee.

Brown made no attempt to break out. He craved a heroic if hopeless last stand. He and his men barricaded themselves with their hostages in a stone fire-engine house and prepared for the inevitable end. On Tuesday morning, October 18, Lee’s aide, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, appeared to demand that Brown surrender. He refused. A dozen marines then splintered the front door with a ladder that they used as a battering ram. They stormed inside “like tigers.” “A storming assault is not a play-day sport,” wrote Marine First Lieutenant Israel Green, who led the attack. “They bayoneted one man skulking under the [fire] engine, and pinned another up against the rear wall, both being instantly killed.” Green himself used his saber to strike Brown twice “with all my strength.” In just three minutes the hostage crisis was over.

Ten of the raiders had been killed, including two of John Brown’s sons. Brown himself had been badly wounded; he escaped death only because Green struck him with a flimsy ceremonial sword rather than his usual sturdy blade. He was “a gory spectacle,” with “a severe bayonet wound in his side, and his face and hair were clotted with blood.” Even in that condition, however, he calmly and fluently answered questions for three hours from an assembled crowd of reporters and politicians.

Brown survived long enough to be proudly hanged on December 2, 1859 (he professed to be “quite cheerful” about the outcome), but not before he had turned his “mockery of a trial” into a national forum for his views—a strategy employed since then by countless political prisoners who have taken advantage of the mass media to communicate their message far beyond the courtroom. His stirring courtroom oration, delivered by a man with a long beard that made him look like a biblical prophet, won him countless admirers in the North. He concluded with a flourish: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”19Let it be done. Even those who were not yet abolitionists began to think that only a good cause could have inspired such stoical self-sacrifice.

John Brown was not much of a guerrilla. He never had enough men to pose the slightest military threat to the South. But he was a first-rate terrorist whose exploits and utterances received front-page publicity—as intended. His legend only grew after his death. The philosopher Henry David Thoreau compared him to Jesus,20 and Union soldiers on the march sang “John Brown’s Body,” a ditty that inspired Julia Ward Howe, Samuel Gridley Howe’s wife, to compose “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The African-American leader Frederick Douglass summed up his impact: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”21 If so, that would make this zealous Puritan one of the more consequential terrorists in history—almost as important as the Bosnian students who ignited World War I.

Unfortunately for the African-American cause, segregationists would soon show they were even more adept at terrorism than their opponents.

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