John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 3): Tony Horwitz

In the fall of 1855, John Brown arrived in “Bleeding Kansas,” a state torn between slavery’s adherents and its opponents, with a wagonload of guns and swords. After helping his sons harvest crops and build homes, he quickly joined the fight over slavery.

In May 1856, he led a group of men in a night attack on a proslavery hamlet, killing five settlers. That summer, as battles raged across Kansas, Brown won fame for his courage and daring, but the fighting left one of his sons dead, another wounded and a third captured. In the third excerpt from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” Tony Horwitz follows Brown back east, as he seeks financial support for his crusade:

In October 1856, Brown left Kansas in the back of a wagon, desperately ill with dysentery and fever. He had entered the territory exactly a year before, a weary pioneer with a broken-down horse and 60 cents in his pocket. His financial and physical health was no better upon his departure. But he was leaving Kansas as “Captain Brown,” a hero to abolitionists and slavery’s great scourge.

“You need not be anxious about me if I am some time on the road,” he wrote his wife, “as I have to stop at several places; & go some out of my way; having left partly on business expecting to return if the troubles continue in Kansas.”

Guerrilla Warfare

By “business,” Brown no longer meant wool-selling or the many other trades he’d pursued. His new vocation was guerrilla warfare, and to wage it he needed money and weapons. To get them, he headed east in freedom-fighter persona, carrying props from his frontier combat, including a bowie knife taken from a proslavery leader he had defeated. He also carried a letter of introduction to a young man who would prove critical to his mission.

At 25, Franklin Sanborn was already one of the best-connected abolitionists in New England, and a recent Harvard graduate as smooth as Brown was rough. Darkly handsome, fluent in Greek and Latin, Sanborn made an art of attaching himself to famous men, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who invited him to run a school in Concord, Massachusetts, the citadel of transcendentalism. He also served as secretary of a leading “Kansas Committee” formed to aid the free-state cause.

Upon meeting Brown, Sanborn immediately grasped the rough-hewn warrior’s potential. He became Brown’s speaking agent and social liaison, providing entree to the upper reaches of the New England society. Under his management, Brown spent the first half of 1857 speaking and fundraising at the lecture halls and salons of the antislavery establishment, including the Astor House in New York, the State House in Boston and the town hall of Concord, where he also dined at the homes of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

“He did not overstate anything, but spoke within bounds,” Thoreau wrote of Brown, “paring away his speech, like an experienced soldier, keeping a reserve of force and meaning.” Brown’s austere manner, and his unbending faith in himself and his mission, evoked frequent comparisons to Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan warrior. His rigidly erect bearing and weather-beaten face added to the impression, as did his deacon-fighter attire: high-collared white shirt, brown broadcloth suit and gray military-style cape.

‘Moral Magnetism’

Brown was deft at stirring consciences, possessing what one Boston hostess called “moral magnetism.” Upon hearing of his devotion to the cause and his sacrifices in Kansas (including the death and wounding of his sons), Mary Stearns wrote that “it suddenly seemed mean and unworthy --not to say wicked -- to be living in luxury while such a man was struggling for a few thousands to carry out his cherished plan.”

Brown said he wanted to equip and train 100 “Minute Men” to defend antislavery settlers in Kansas. Beyond that, he revealed little. “I do not expose my plans,” he said. “I have no other purpose but to serve the cause of liberty.”

Brown’s pitch brought mostly modest contributions or pledges of cash, clothing and other supplies. The Kansas Committee of which Sanborn was secretary gave Brown custody of 200 rifles it had stored in Iowa. The committee chair, George Luther Stearns -- husband of the admiring Mary --paid for 200 revolvers, and also pledged thousands of dollars to the fight.

Brown also tapped his wealthy backers for aid to his impoverished family. “I have no other income for their support,” he wrote, assuring a donor that the money would be carefully spent, “my Wife being a good economist, & a real old-fashioned business woman.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s own business habits hadn’t changed. As soon as he had funds, he succumbed to the same grandiosity and poor judgment that had doomed his earlier gambles as a land speculator and wool merchant. While fundraising in Connecticut, Brown showed off his fearsome bowie knife and wondered if the long, two-edged blade could be affixed to a 6-foot shaft. Such a pike, he figured, would be the perfect defensive weapon “for the settlers of Kansas to keep in their log cabins.”

Never one for halfway measures, Brown promptly contracted with a forge-master, Charles Blair, to make 1,000 of the spears. But after paying an initial $550, Brown failed to come up with the balance. Blair kept the money he’d received and stopped work.

Drillmaster Folly

Then Brown undertook a much costlier folly. In New York City, he met Hugh Forbes, a British fencing teacher and soldier of fortune who had served with Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. The flamboyant “colonel,” as Forbes styled himself, struck Brown as the perfect drillmaster for the volunteer force he planned to train. So he hired Forbes and advanced him six months’ pay, partly as compensation for a manual on guerrilla tactics that the colonel promised to deliver.

Months later, Brown was still waiting for the manual, and for Forbes to come train his Minute Men at the base camp he had established in an Iowa town near the Kansas line. “I furnished that money in the full expectation of having your personal assistance this present time,” Brown wrote, in a vain effort to recover his payment.

Belatedly, Forbes did finish the manual and appear in Iowa -- by which time Brown was too broke to pay any of the salary he’d promised. The disgruntled mercenary soon decamped, taking with him a great deal of information about Brown’s secret plans that would later prove damaging.

By the late summer of 1857, Brown could no longer afford his board in Iowa. He had ample guns, but still lacked knapsacks, saddlebags and other gear his private army needed. Inaction and delay had also sapped Brown’s customary drive. “How to act now,” he wrote. “I do not know.”

This paralysis didn’t last long. Throughout his life, Brown searched for clues to his destiny. Everything had meaning, a hidden divine purpose -- even his funk in the summer of 1857. He decided it was a sign that he should abandon his Kansas plans and put in motion the much-more-ambitious scheme he had been mulling for decades.

“In immediate want of from Five Hundred to One Thousand Dollars for secret service & no questions asked,” he wrote one of his Eastern patrons late that summer. In the fall, he went to Kansas and convened a small group of veteran fighters around a campfire on the prairie, seeking to enlist them for a strike against slavery. “If you want hard fighting, you’ll get plenty of it,” he said, offering few details.

Nine men agreed to follow him back to his training base in Iowa. Only then did he reveal the mission that would cost most of them their lives. As one of the recruits later stated in a jailhouse confession, “Here we found that Capt. Brown’s ultimate destination was the State of Virginia.”

(Tony Horwitz is the author of “A Voyage Long and Strange,” “Blue Latitudes,” “Confederates in the Attic” and “Baghdad Without a Map.” This is the third in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” to be published Oct. 25 by Henry Holt and Co. The opinions expressed are his own. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 4 and Part 5.)

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