Author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) returns to one of his favorite subjects, the Civil War, in his forthcoming book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. It’s a history that doubles as a character study of a radical whose act of terror carries overtones of 9/11. “Harpers Ferry seems an al-Qaeda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches 19 men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power,” Horwitz writes. “A shocked nation plunges into war.”
The excerpt below traces Brown’s first campaigns of war and terror, three years before Harpers Ferry, when he and his family formed a Northern army to fight proslavery forces in Kansas.
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At about 11 o’clock on the brightly moonlit night of May 24, 1856, James Doyle, his wife, Mahala, and their five children were in bed when they heard a noise in the yard. Then came a rap at the door of their cabin on Mosquito Creek, a tributary of Pottawatomie Creek. A voice outside asked the way to a neighbor’s home. When Doyle opened the door, several men burst in, armed with pistols and large knives. They said they were from the “Northern army” and had come to take Doyle and three of his sons prisoner.
The Doyles, a poor family from Tennessee, owned no slaves. But since moving to Kansas the preceding autumn, James and his two oldest sons had joined a proslavery party and strongly supported the Southern cause. Two of the Doyles had served on the court convened the month before at Dutch Henry’s Crossing on the Pottawatomie to charge the Browns with violating proslavery laws.
Mahala Doyle pleaded tearfully with the intruders to release their youngest captive, her 16-year-old son, John. They let him go and then led the others out of the cabin and into the night. “My husband and two boys, my sons, did not come back,” Mahala later testified. She and John didn’t know the identity of the men who came to their door, but they’d glimpsed their faces in the candlelight. “An old man commanded the party,” John Doyle testified. “His face was slim.” He added: “These men talked exactly like Eastern men and Northern men talk.”
Before leaving, the strangers asked the Doyles about a neighbor, Allen Wilkinson, who lived about half a mile away with his wife, Louisa Jane, and two children. Like Doyle, Wilkinson had come from Tennessee and owned no slaves. Unlike Doyle, Wilkinson could read and write. He was a member of Kansas’s proslavery legislature, and his cabin served as the local post office.
After midnight, Louisa Jane, who was sick with measles, heard a dog barking and woke her husband. He said it was nothing and went back to sleep. Then the dog began barking furiously and Louisa Jane heard footsteps and a knock. She woke her husband again; he called out, asking who was there.
“I want you to tell me the way to Dutch Henry’s,” a voice replied. When Wilkinson began to give directions, the man said, “Come out and show us.” His wife wouldn’t let him. The stranger then asked if Wilkinson was an opponent of the Free State cause. “I am,” he said.
“You are our prisoner,” came the reply. Four armed men poured into the cabin, took Wilkinson’s gun, and told him to get dressed. Louisa Jane begged the men to let her husband stay: She was sick and helpless, with two small children.
“You have neighbors?” asked an older man who appeared to be in command. He wore soiled clothes and a straw hat pulled down over his narrow face. Louisa Jane told him she had neighbors, but couldn’t go for them. “It matters not,” he said. Unshod, her husband was led outside. Louisa Jane thought she heard her husband’s voice a moment later “in complaint,” but then all was still.
Dutch Henry’s Crossing was named for Henry Sherman, a German immigrant who had settled the ford. He traded cattle to westward pioneers and ran a tavern and store that served as a gathering place for proslavery men. He and his brother, William, were feared by Free State families for their drunkenness and threatening behavior.
On the night of the Northern army’s visit to the Pottawatomie, Dutch Henry was out on the prairie looking for stray cattle. But one of his employees who lived at the Crossing, James Harris, was asleep with his wife and child when men burst in carrying swords and revolvers. They demanded the surrender of Harris and three other men who were spending the night in his one-room cabin. Two were travelers who had come to buy a cow; the third was Dutch Henry’s brother, William.
Harris and the two travelers were questioned individually outside the cabin, and then returned inside, having been found innocent of aiding the proslavery cause. Then William Sherman was escorted from the cabin. About 15 minutes later, Harris heard a pistol shot; the men who had been guarding him left, having taken a horse, a saddle, and weapons. It was now Sunday morning, about 2 or 3 a.m. The terrified settlers along the Pottawatomie waited until dawn to venture outside. At the Doyles’, the first house visited in the night, 16-year-old John found his father, James, and his oldest brother, 22-year-old William, lying dead in the road about 200 yards from their cabin.
Both men had multiple wounds; William’s head was cut open and his jaw and side slashed. John found his other brother, 20-year-old Drury, lying dead nearby.
“His fingers were cut off, and his arms were cut off,” John said in an affidavit. “His head was cut open; there was a hole in his breast.” Mahala Doyle, having glanced at the bodies of her husband and older son, could not look at Drury. “I was so much overcome that I went to the house,” she said.
Down the creek, locals who went to the Wilkinsons’ cabin to collect their mail found Louisa Jane Wilkinson in tears. She had heard about the Doyles and could not bring herself to go outside, for fear of what she might find. Neighbors discovered Allen Wilkinson lying dead in brush about 150 yards from the cabin, his head and side gashed, his throat cut.
At Dutch Henry’s Crossing, James Harris had also gone looking for his overnight guest, William Sherman. He found him lying in the creek.
“Sherman’s skull was split open in two places and some of his brains was washed out by the water,” Harris testified. “A large hole was cut in his breast, and his left hand was cut off except a little piece of skin on one side.”
News of the murders along the Pottawatomie spread quickly through the district. A day after the killings, John Brown was confronted by his son Jason. A gentle man known as the “tenderfoot” of the Brown clan, Jason had stayed behind with his brother John Junior while the others headed to Dutch Henry’s.
“Did you have anything to do with the killing of those men on the Pottawatomie?” Jason demanded of his father.
“I did not do it, but I approved of it,” Brown answered.
“I think it was an uncalled for, wicked act,” Jason said.
“God is my judge,” his father replied. “We were justified under the circumstances.”
This was about as clear a statement as Brown would ever make about what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. He spoke of it rarely, and then only in vague terms that suggested he was culpable without having personally shed any blood. His family hewed to this line. “Father never had any thing to do with the killing but he run the whole business,” said Salmon, the most talkative of the four sons at the massacre. “The work was so hot, and so absorbing, that I did not at the time know where each actor was, exactly, or exactly what each man was doing.”
The Browns and their allies cast the killings as an act of self-defense: a preemptive strike against proslavery zealots who had threatened their Free State neighbors and intended to harm them. The Browns’ defenders also denied any intent on their part to mutilate the Kansans. Broadswords had been used to avoid making noise and raising an alarm; the gruesome wounds resulted from the victims’ attempts to ward off sword blows.
But this version of events didn’t accord with evidence gathered after the killings. Mahala Doyle and James Harris both testified that they heard shots in the night. And “old man Doyle” was found with a bullet hole in his forehead, to go with a stab wound to his chest.
The most plausible account of Brown’s actions came from a family member who wasn’t there: John Junior. Though initially opposed to his father’s mission, he later wrote a lengthy defense of it. Until late May 1856, proslavery forces in Kansas had committed almost all the violence, killing six Free State men without reprisal. As the Browns and their Free State allies stewed, John Junior said, they realized the enemy needed shock treatment—“death for death.”
But the Pottawatomie attack wasn’t simply a matter of evening the score in Kansas. Those sentenced to die must be slain “in such manner as should be likely to cause a restraining fear,” John Junior wrote. In other words, the killing should so terrorize the proslavery camp as to deter future violence.
In this light, the massacre made grisly sense. Like Nat Turner, the most haunting figure in Southern imagination, Brown came in the night and, with his Northern army, dragged whites from their beds, hacking open heads and lopping off limbs. The killers wore no masks, plainly stated their allegiance, and left maimed victims lying in the road or creek. Pottawatomie was, in essence, a public execution, and the message it sent was chilling.
“I left for fear of my life,” Louisa Jane Wilkinson testified in Missouri, where she took refuge after her husband’s killing. The Doyles also fled a day after the slaughter.
So did many of their neighbors. And news that five proslavery men had been, as one settler said, “taken from their beds and almost litterly heived to peices with broad swords,” spread like prairie fire across Kansas. “I never lie down without taking the precaution to fasten my door,” a settler from South Carolina wrote his sister soon after the killings. “I have my rifle, revolver, and old home-stocked pistol where I can lay my hand on them in an instant, besides a hatchet & axe. I take this precaution to guard against the midnight attacks of the Abolitionists, who never make an attack in open daylight.”
Pottawatomie had clearly succeeded in sowing terror. But it failed to produce the “restraining fear” that John Junior believed to be its intent. Instead of deterring violence, the massacre incited it.
LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR! read the headline in a Missouri border paper, reporting on the deaths. Up to that point, the Kansas conflict had generated a great deal of heat but relatively little bloodshed. Now, in a single stroke, Brown had almost doubled the body count and whipped up his already rabid foes, who needed little spur to violence.
Not for the last time, Brown acted as an accelerant, igniting a much broader and bloodier conflict than had flared before. “He wanted to hurry up the fight, always,” Salmon Brown observed of his father. “We struck merely to begin the fight that we saw was being forced upon us.”
The number of killings escalated dramatically in the months that followed, earning the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” In early June, 10 days after Pottawatomie, Brown struck again, joining his band with other Free State fighters in a bold dawn attack on a much larger force of proslavery men. This marked the first open-field combat in Kansas, and the first instance of organized units of white men fighting over slavery, five years before the Civil War. The Battle of Black Jack, as it became known, was a confused half-day clash involving about a hundred combatants. It ended with the surrender of the proslavery men, who were fooled into believing they were outnumbered. “I went to take Old Brown, and Old Brown took me,” the proslavery commander later conceded. He surrendered not only his men but also a valuable store of guns, horses, and provisions.
Black Jack also brought greater attention to Brown, who kept the Northern press abreast of his campaign, sometimes taking antislavery journalists with him in the field. One of these was William Phillips, a New York Tribune correspondent who rode with Brown after the battle. “He is not a man to be trifled with,” Phillips wrote, “and there is no one for whom the border ruffians entertain a more wholesome dread than Captain Brown.”
“He is a strange, resolute, repulsive, iron-willed inexorable old man,” Phillips added, possessing “a fiery nature and a cold temper, and a cool head—a volcano beneath a covering of snow.”
Brown’s growing renown came at great cost to his family. His son-in-law, Henry Thompson, was shot in the side at Black Jack, and 19-year-old Salmon Brown sustained a gunshot to the shoulder soon after the battle. Life on the run, subsisting on gooseberries, bran flour, and creek water flavored with a little molasses and ginger, wore down the outlaw band. “We have, like David of old, had our dwelling with the serpents of the rocks and wild beasts of the wilderness,” Brown wrote his wife in June. Three of his sons became so debilitated by illness that in August he escorted them to Nebraska to recover in safety.
By then, conflict raged across eastern Kansas. Partisans on both sides spent the summer raiding, robbing, burning, and murdering, while federal troops struggled to contain the anarchy. The violence climaxed in late August, when several hundred proslavery fighters, armed with cannons, descended on the Free State settlement at Osawatomie, where Brown’s sister and other family members lived. With just 40 men, Brown led a spirited defense of Osawatomie. Though he was ultimately forced to retreat, Brown scored another propaganda victory by fearlessly battling a much larger and better-armed foe.
“This has proven most unmistakably that ‘Yankees’ will fight,” John Junior wrote of the reaction to Osawatomie. His father, slightly wounded in the combat, was initially reported dead, a mistake that only enhanced his aura. The battle also gave the Captain a new title. As a noted guerrilla and wanted man, he would adopt a number of aliases over the next three years. But the nom de guerre that stuck in public imagination was “Osawatomie Brown,” a tribute to his Kansas stand.
The name also evoked his family’s continued sacrifice in the cause of freedom. Early in the morning before the battle at Osawatomie, proslavery scouts riding into the settlement encountered Frederick Brown on his way to feed horses. Believing himself on friendly ground, Frederick evidently identified himself to the riders. One of them was a proslavery preacher who blamed the Browns for attacks on his property, and he replied by shooting Frederick in the chest. The 25-year-old died in the road.
His father learned of the slaying while rallying his small force to repel Osawatomie’s invaders. Frederick’s older brother Jason took part in the battle, and at its end, he stood with his father on the bank of the Osage River, watching smoke and flames rise in the distance as their foes torched the Free State settlement they’d fought so hard to defend.
“God sees it,” Brown told Jason. “I will die fighting for this cause.” He had made similar pledges before. But this time Brown was in tears, and he mentioned a new field of battle to his son.
“I will carry the war into Africa,” he said. This cryptic phrase spoke clearly to Jason, who knew “Africa” was his father’s code for the slaveholding South.
Excerpted from Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz. Copyright © 2011 by Tony Horwitz. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.