John Brown: War Stories

Kansas Territory, October 1856

My two oldest sons, John Junior and Jason, drove a mule-team wagon heavily loaded with rifles, pistols, swords, and ammunition. Following behind them, Owen, my third and now my most trusted and loyal son, handled the reins of our one-horse wagon. I lay, now malaria-ridden and nearly helpless, in sour hay in the rocking, lurching wagon bed. Friends had advised me Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. Cooke of the United States Army was eager to arrest me for my righteous action in the war to end slavery, which they gave the label murder. With my boys’ help I meant to slip over the border into Nebraska undetected.

Terror, disease, and death had extinguished my family’s dream of settling permanently in the new land in Kansas Territory. Their cabins, built so desperately a year before from scarce materials, were now mere ashes, burned to the ground by proslavery terrorists, the crops and animals ruined or lost. Winter would soon bring stinging, wind-driven snow and sub-zero temperatures. John Junior’s wife, Wealthy, and Jason’s wife, Ellen, along with my grandsons, were already aboard riverboats heading back to New York State.

I, too, was going back to tamer lands, but my retreat from the battle against slavery would be only a brief adjustment before the next assault. My trip east had a single purpose: to charm and seduce wealthy sympathizers into providing money and weapons for the decisive attack. My life had become terribly simple over this last year and a half. Common concerns for family and comfort and profitable activity no longer troubled my mind.

Chills and fevers of malaria made this trip another exercise in endurance for me. A younger, more fanciful man might have read in the arrival of such suffering at this time a “message from God.” I had lost all need for such signs. God’s will for me was clear: I must destabilize, then destroy the system of slavery.

After a few hours of jolting travel, the wagon stopped.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“No, Father. We have business here,” Jason said.

A male fugitive parted the canvas cover at the rear of the wagon and climbed in. The lithe, young black man looked me over for a few seconds, then turned his back to me and lay quietly in the hay. Our lurching travel resumed. After some time we spoke. He was Tom Waters. He didn’t know “John Brown,” but when he understood our purpose, he told me his story. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, he had seen his owner beat his two younger brothers to death. Angered by Tom’s screaming, his owner had fastened an iron gag onto Tom’s head. Tom had hit his master with a tree branch and killed him, then taken off running.

The torture device, now broken, dangled from Tom’s neck. I found him a file in our supplies to complete the removal. He showed me how the gag was fastened in with metal straps around the head. The long, flat surface of the bit was inserted into the mouth to press the tongue down and prevent swallowing.

“I would buy these pieces from you,” I said once he’d gotten free of the thing.

Tom doubted my offer but I persisted. I named a generous price. He smiled. Money in his pocket would give him some real advantage on his way north. We made an exchange that satisfied us both.

* * *

“Government troops,” Jason called out. Owen stopped the wagon. I smelled smoke and cooking poultry. I crawled forward and parted the wagon cover at the front. Below us on the prairie, I saw horses, tents, wagons, and more than a hundred uniformed soldiers.

“We can circle around and keep a distance,” Jason said.

“No, we’ll go right down there,” I said.

“Father! They’ll take us,” Jason said.

“We’ll go right down,” I said.

“Please, we should find a safer way.”

“No!” I said. “We will camp beside them.”

Big-eyed Jason’s jaw quivered. His forehead bunched. “I can’t,” he said.

“You have to,” I said.

He dropped his head forward. He now found his boot tips interesting objects of study. His reluctance to face the enemy was not new. Last May he had refused to join our attack at Pottawatomie. He had first come to Kansas Territory with his wife and children, bringing seedlings and livestock, not rifles. Though he was a big, strong, resourceful man, he had always been more husband and father than warrior.

“Go then,” I said. “If that’s the best you can do.”

Jason turned the mule wagon full of guns and swords around and drove slowly back up the hill. John Junior tripped along, eyes downcast, behind him. Torture by federal soldiers during his imprisonment last summer had taken John Junior’s mind and he only rarely spoke. As warriors, my two eldest boys were now both broken.

Owen and Tom and I camped the night in plain view of the federal soldiers. I watched a sunrise of such pink and yellow magnificence, I might have once read it as a sign of God’s promise of safe passage. But my need for such ongoing daily assurances was gone. I appreciated the beauty of the morning as I would the bloom of a flower, a simple glory.

We gave Tom the reins to drive our wagon by the government encampment. A few of the soldiers watched curiously as we rolled by. They took no further action.

My fever eased somewhat and, for a while, I walked with Owen behind our wagon, easily keeping pace with the horse. The sun beat down on us in tremendous glory. I smelled the unique smell of the warming prairie and our Kansas grasses. I was blessed. I was happy. Others must live with doubt. I, for now at least, was relieved of all inner turmoil.

Midmorning the heavily loaded mule wagon appeared, rocking in the ruts behind us. The father silently welcomed the wayward sons with a nod and a shrug toward the north.

We passed without trouble into Nebraska Territory, then, later, crossed the Missouri River by rope ferry into the southwest corner of Iowa, where we found welcome and shelter in the tiny abolitionist town of Tabor. There Owen and Jason transferred the guns and knives and ammunition we would use in the future struggle into hiding in the building of a friend and ally. Tom thanked us and swiftly disappeared into the company of people who knew well how to enable his journey north to Canada and freedom. Jason and John Junior went on ahead to Iowa City, where they could board a train. I rented a room and put myself in bed to sleep and battle the fever.





J.W.M. Morgan

J.W.M. Morgan is writing a series of linked stories about the inspiration of the abolitionist John Brown. His stories have appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Courtship of Winds, Azure, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Montreal Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, War, Literature & the Arts, and other magazines. He lives in Oakland, California, where he teaches and mentors people who are developing basic skills. J.W.M. recommends Refugee & Immigrant Transitions.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, January 11, 2024 - 21:04