Friday, September 13, 2013

The Battle of Black Jack


John Brown Jr. predicted that the brutal retaliation for the sack of Lawrence at Potawatomie Creek would "likely cause a restraining fear" among the Missouri "Border Ruffians". He could not have been more wrong. Rather than checking proslave violence the Pottawatomie Creek killings triggered immediate cries for vengeance. The proslave Missouri newspaper "The Border Times" urged readers to "Let Loose the Dogs of War!" The editoral predicted "Hundreds of the Free State men, who have committed no overt acts but who have only given countenance to those reckless murderers, assassins, and thieves, will of necessity share the same fate of their brethren. If civil war is to the result of such a conflict, there cannot be, and will not be, any neutrals recognized." (Carton, p. 203)  

     Kansas governor Shannon feared that territory was on the verge of civil war.  In a letter to President Pierce he said that the murders "had produced an extraordinary state of excitement in southeastern Kansas". (Oates, p.142)  In an attempt to quell the violence the governor dispatched a company of federal troops to Osawatomie and another to Lawrence, and he put a five hundred dollar bounty on John Brown, dead or alive.  Posses of Missouri "Border Ruffians" along with United States cavalry units scoured eastern Kansas searching for Brown.  Not wanting to endanger his family Brown along with  his sons Owen, Frederick, and Oliver fled the family enclave north of Potawatomie Creek, and vanished into the wilderness. 

     Several days after the Pottawatomie Massacre, James Redpath a journalist from St. Louis stumbled upon the Brown hideout. The previous evening a group of proslavers accosted Redpath near Palymyra. Recognizing him as a freeman they pulled him from his saddle, and stole his horse. The next day while traveling on foot along the trail that ran next to Ottawa Creek Redpath pushed through a thicket of brush and stopped short. Several yards in front him a heavily built man stood knee deep in the creek. In one large hand he gripped a pail of water. He wore a coarse blue shirt and pantaloons tucked into calf high boots. A thick brown leather belt held three pistols and a double edged Arkansas bowie knife. The man's bulky build, tangled hair and piercing eyes gave him a wild, ominious look. For a moment both men stood gaping at one another. Then the big man put down his pail and strode towards Redpath. The journalist picked up a sturdy oak branch to defend himself.  "Don't fear", said Frederick Brown, "I have seen you in Lawrence and you are true." Redpath told Frederick he was searching for John Brown. His readers, Redpath said, were anxious to learn more about the controversial abolitionist leader. Redpath was delighted when Frederick offered to take him to the Brown hideout. For an hour he led the journalist on a meandering trek through the woods and along the creek.  Just as Redpath was beginning to wonder if the big man had lost his way, or his mind, they came to a clearing.  Redpath described the scene before him.

          a dozen horses were tied, all ready saddled for a ride for life,
          or a hunt after Southern invaders.  A dozen rifles and sabres were
          stacked around the trees. In an open space, amid the shady and lofty
          woods, there was a blazing fire with a pot on it; a woman bareheaded,
          with an honest, sunburned face, was picking blackberries from the bushes;
          three or four armed men were lying on red and blue blankets on the
          grass; and two fine-looking youths were standing, leaning on guard
          nearby.  [Brown] stood near the fire, with his shirt-sleeves rolled
          up, and large piece of pork in his hand.... He was poorly clad, and his 
          toes protruded from his boots.

     Brown welcomed the opportunity to get his intentions into print. During their talk Brown expounded on the evils of slavery and the qualities of a good soldier, but he refused to discuss the murders at Potawatomie Creek. Redpath asked Brown how he could continue the freeslave fight against such overwhelming resistance from the Kansas governor, Missourians, and southeners. Brown replied, "I would rather have smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera all together in my camp, than a man without principles. It's a mistake sir, that our people make, when they think that bullies are the best fighters, or they are the men fit to oppose these Southeners. Give me men of good principles, God fearing men, men who respect themselves, and with a dozen of them, I will oppose any hundred such men as these Buford ruffians." Brown's rhetoric impressed Redford who later wrote of Brown's men, "They were not earnest, but earnestness incarnate. Redford reserved his most glowing praise for Brown.. "I left this sacred spot with a far higher respect for the Great Struggle than ever had I felt before.... I had seen the predestined leader of the second and holier American Revolution."

     Four days after his interview with Redpath, Brown was presented with an opportunity to test his military convictions. A posse of approximately sixty Border Ruffians commanded by Colonel Henry C. Pate was combing the woods and ravines around Prairie City searching for Brown.  Captain Samuel Shore commander of Prairie City's Free State militia tipped off Brown that Pate was camped next to a stream five miles east. Settlers called the area "Black Jack" after the diminutive oak trees that proliferated along the banks of a cold spring stream. The enemy was at hand and Brown was ready. Once again he drew inspiration from the Old Testament. He proclaimed that like Gideon driving Midianites from the Wall of Harod and across the Jordan, he would expel Pate and his slavers from Kansas. 

  At dawn, two days later, Captain Shore accompanied by 17 Prairie City volunteers and Brown's small band of nine men dismounted their horses on the edge of the woods above Black Jack.  Leaving his son Frederick to guard the horses Brown ordered the troop to spread out and wend their way through a thicket of trees north of Pate's camp. The freeslavers burst out of the woods and ran onto a plateau covered with tall prairie grass. Suddenly two shots reverberated across the plateau. Sentries had spotted the invaders. Alerted to an impending attack the proslavers set up a defensive line at the south edge of the plateau. Pate ordered his men to line up four wagons to protect their rear. Behind the wagons a ravine ran followed the meandering Black Jack stream. Shore's men were armed with Sharps rifles. The single shot carbine was deadly up to five hundred yards.  An experienced rifleman could get off 8-10 shots in a minute. Pate's men also had Sharps but Brown and his men had only muskets and pistols. Their weapons were useless at a range over a hundred yards, and Pate's force was dug in several hundred yards away.
    Throughout the morning the crack of rifle fire reverberated across Black Jack. Brown and Shore's men zig-zagged through the prairie grass finding cover where they could. Although they killed several proslavers Brown's force could not gain an advantage. After three hours the antislavers began to run low on ammunition. As the stalemate continued some of Shore's men began sneaking back to their horses and riding off.  Frustrated by the desertions and his inability to strike a decisive blow Brown decided to outflank Pate. Moving slowly through the thick brush he led several men into the eastern edge of the ravine.  From their new vantage on Pate's right flank they fired on the proslavers who had taken cover behind their wagons. Shore's small force joined Brown, but Pate still held the high ground. When six more Prairie City volunteers appeared ready to abandon the fight Brown confronted them.  Kill the Missourian's horses and mules, he argued and we will cut off their ability to escape. The six followed Brown's orders. Soon the terrified cries of mortally wounded animals mingled with rifle fire and the moans of wounded men.

     Meanwhile on the far side of the woods Brown' son Frederick was tending the horses. Throughout the Kansas campaign Brown had been concerned about Frederick's fragile emotional state. Despite his menacing appearance, Frederick did not have the stomach for bloodletting. On the rare instances that Frederick accompanied his father on a raid, Brown isolated him from hostilities. Frederick accepted his rear guard status, but this day was different. For three hours he had been listening to the din of battle. Inexplicably he mounted his father's horse and charged through the woods into the center of the fray.  Waving a cutlass over his head he bellowed, "Father we have them surrounded and we have cut off their communication".   

     Believing that Frederick Brown was the vanguard of reinforcements, Pate panicked.  He raised a white flag and sent a messenger to parley with Brown. Brown sent the man back and demanded that Pate come forward. The two leaders confronted each other in the center of the battlefield.  Pate commanded Brown to surrender. He reminded Brown that he was a deputized U.S. marshal. Brown cut him off and pointed a pistol at Pate's chest. "I understand exactly what you are, and I do not wish to hear any more about it", Brown replied.  He told Pate if he didn't surrender unconditionally he would shoot him where he stood. Flabbergasted Pate said, "You can't do this; I'm under a white flag; you're violating the articles of war."  Brown simply stared at Pate and said, "You are my prisoner".  Then he walked Pate back towards the Missourian's battle line with a pistol at his back. When they reached the wagons Brown raised his pistol to the back of Pate's head. No more words were necessary.  Pate's men laid down their weapons.
     Brown took twenty-five prisoners along with food, ammunition and guns back to the Ottawa Creek camp.  Several days after his release, which was brokered by federal troops, Pate said, "I went to take Old Brown, but Old Brown took me!" The Battle of Black Jack was the first of many bloody battles over slavery. While Fort Sumter is generally considered the armed engagement that launched the Civil War an argument can be made that the Civil War actually began on June 2, 1856 on an isolated Kansas plateau known as Black Jack.

To be continued