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John Brown to Mary Ann and Family

OSAWATOMIE, K. T., Dec. 16, 1855.
Sabbath Evening.

DEAR WIFE AND CHILDREN, EVERY ONE, - I improve the first mail since my return from the camp of volunteers, who lately turned out for the defence of the town of Lawrence in-this Territory; and notwithstanding I suppose you have learned the result before this (possibly), will give a brief account of the invasion in my own way.

About three or four weeks ago news came that a Free-State man by the name of Dow had been murdered by a proslavery man by the name of Coleman, who had gone and given himself up for trial to the proslavery Governor Shannon. This was soon followed by further news that a Free-State man who was the only reliable witness against the murderer had been seized by a Missourian (appointed sheriff by the bogus Legislature of Kansas) upon false pretexts, examined, and held to bail under such heavy bonds, to answer to those false charges, as he could not give; that while on his way to trial, in charge of the bogus sheriff, he was rescued by some men belonging to a company near Lawrence; and that in consequence of the rescue Governor Shannon had ordered out all the proslavery force he could muster in the Territory, and called on Missouri for further help; that about two thousand had collected, demanding a surrender of the rescued witness and of the rescuers, the destruction of several buildings and printing-presses, and a giving up of the Sharpens rifles by the Free-State men, - threatening to destroy the town with cannon, with which they were provided, etc.; that about an equal number of Free-State men had turned out to resist them, and that a battle was hourly expected or supposed to have been already fought.

These reports appeared to be well authenticated, but we could get no further account of matters; and I left this for the place where the boys are settled, at evening, intending to go to Lawrence to learn the facts the next day. John was, however, started on horseback; but before he had gone many rods, word came that our help was immediately wanted. On getting this last news, it was at once agreed to break up at John's camp, and take Wealthy and Johnny to Jason's camp (some two miles off), and that all the men but Henry, Jason, and Oliver should at once set off for Lawrence under arms; those three being wholly unfit for duty. We then set about providing a little corn-bread and meat, blankets, and cooking utensils, running bullets and loading all our guns, pistols, etc. The five set off in the afternoon, and after a short rest in the night (which was quite dark), continued our march until after daylight next morning, when we got our breakfast, started again, and reached Lawrence in the forenoon, all of us more or less lamed by our tramp. On reaching the place we found that negotiations had commenced between Governor Shannon (having a force of some fifteen or sixteen hundred men) and the principal leaders of the Free-State men, they having a force of some five hundred men at that time. These were busy, night and day, fortifying the town with embankments and circular earthworks, up to the time of the treaty with the Governor, as an attack was constantly looked for, notwithstanding the negotiations then pending. This state of things continued from Friday until Sunday evening.[1] On the evening we left Osawatomie a company of the invaders, of from fifteen to twenty-five, attacked some three or four Free-State men, mostly unarmed, killing a Mr. Barber from Ohio, wholly unarmed. His body was afterward brought in and lay for some days in the room afterward occupied by a part of the company to which we belong (it being organized after we reached Lawrence). The building was a large unfinished stone hotel, in which a great part of the volunteers were quartered, who witnessed the scene of bringing in the wife and other friends of the murdered man. I will only say of this scene that it was heart-rending, and calculated to exasperate the men exceedingly, and one of the sure results of civil war.

[Sanborn footnote 1] December 7-9.

After frequently calling on the leaders of the Free-State men to come and have an interview with him, by Governor Shannon, and after as often getting for an answer that if he had any business to transact with any one in Lawrence, to come and attend to it, he signified his wish to come into the town,[1] and an escort was sent to the invaders' camp to conduct him in. When there, the leading Free-State men, finding out his weakness, frailty, and consciousness of the awkward circumstances into which he had really got himself, took advantage of his cowardice and folly, and by means of that and the free use of whiskey and some trickery succeeded in getting a written arrangement with him much to their own liking. He stipulated with them to order the proslavery men of Kansas home, and to proclaim to the Missouri invaders that they must quit the Territory without delay, and also to give up General Pomeroy (a prisoner in their camp), - which was all done; he also recognizing the volunteers as the militia of Kansas, and empowering their officers to call them out whenever in their discretion the safety of Lawrence or other portions of the Territory might require it to be done. He (Governor Shannon) gave up all pretension of further attempt to enforce the enactments of the bogus Legislature, and retired, subject to the derision and scoffs of the Free-State men (into whose hands he had committed the welfare and protection of Kansas), and to the pity of some and the curses of others of the invading force.

[Sanborn footnote 1] December 7, 8.

So ended this last Kansas invasion, - the Missourians returning with flying colors, after incurring heavy expenses, suffering great exposure, hardships, and privations, not having fought any battles, burned or destroyed any infant towns or Abolition presses; leaving the Free-State men organized and armed, and in full possession of the Territory; not having fulfilled any of all their dreadful threatenings, except to murder one unarmed man, and to commit some robberies and waste of property upon defenceless families, unfortunately within their power. We learn by their papers that they boast of a great victory over the Abolitionists; and well they may.[2] Free-State men have only hereafter to retain the footing they have gained, and Kansas is free. Yesterday the people passed upon the Free-State constitution. The result, though not yet known, no one doubts.

[Sanborn footnote 2] Brown seems to have been divided in mind concerning this treaty with Shannon, at first denouncing it strongly, as well as the manner of making [page 220] it, and afterward seeing the respite it gave the Kansas farmers to make good their position. Mr. E. A. Coleman writes me: "When Lawrence was besieged, we sent runners to all parts of the Territory, calling on every settler. We met at Lawrence. Robinson was commander-in-chief; I was on his staff, appointed of course by order of the commander. We had gathered to the number of about two hundred and fifty, all told. The ruffians were gathered at Franklin, four miles east, with four or five hundred men. We were not well armed, all of us, - at the same time being somewhat afraid of getting into trouble with the General Government. Robinson sent to Shannon, at Lecompton, to come down and see if something could not lie done to prevent bloodshed. He came; we all knew his weakness. We had plenty of brandy, parleyed with him until he was drunk, and then he agreed to get the ruffians to go home, - which he did by telling them we had agreed to obey all the laws, which was a lie. As soon as Brown heard what had been done, lie came with his sons into our council-room, the maddest man I ever saw. He told Robinson that what he had done was all a farce; that in less than six months the Missourians would find out the deception, and things would be worse than they were that day (and so it was); that he came up to help them fight, but if that was the way Robinson meant to do, not to send for him again." Mr. Foster, of Osawatomie, meeting Brown on his return from Lawrence, asked him about Robinson and Lane. "They are both men without principle," said Brown; "but when worst comes to worst. Lane will fight, - and there is no fight in Robinson."

One little circumstance, connected with our own number, showing a little of the true character of those invaders: On our way, about three miles from Lawrence, we had to pass a bridge (with our arms and ammunition) of which the invaders held possession; but as the five of us had each a gun, with two large revolvers in a belt exposed to view, with a third in his pocket, and as we moved directly on to the bridge without making any halt, they for some reason suffered us to pass without interruption, notwithstanding there were some fifteen to twenty-five (as variously reported) stationed in a log-house at one end of the bridge. We could not count them. A boy on our approach ran and gave them notice. Five others of our company, well armed, who followed us some miles behind, met with equally civil treatment the same day. After we left to go to Lawrence, until we returned when disbanded, I did not see the least sign of cowardice or want of self-possession exhibited by any volunteer of the eleven companies who constituted the Free-State force; and I never expect again to see an equal number of such well-behaved, cool, determined men, - fully, as I believe, sustaining the high character of the Revolutionary fathers. But enough of this, as we intend to send you a paper giving a more full account of the affair. We have cause for gratitude in that we all returned safe and well, with the exception of hard colds, and found those left behind rather improving.

We have received fifty dollars from father, and learn from him that he has sent you the same amount, - for which we ought to he grateful, as we are much relieved, both as respects ourselves and you. The mails have been kept back daring the invasion, but we hope to hear from you again soon. Mr. Adair's folks are well, or nearly so. Weather mostly pleasant, but sometimes quite severe. No snow of account as yet. Can think of but little more to-night.

Monday Morning, December 17.

The ground for the first time is barely whitened with snow, and it is quite cold; but we have before had a good deal of cold weather, with heavy rains. Henry and Oliver and, I may [say], Jason were disappointed in not being able to go to war. The disposition at both our camps to turn out was uniform. I believe I have before acknowledged the receipt of a letter from you and Watson. Have just taken one from the office for Henry that I think to be from Ruth. Do write often, and let me know all about how you get along through the winter. May God abundantly bless you all, and make you faithful.

Your affectionate husband and father,
JOHN BROWN.

Source: F. B. Sanborn, ed., The Life and Letters of John Brown. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891., pp. 217-21


Chapter Four: To “defeat Satan and his legions” in Kansas

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History