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The Insurrectionist

The Insurrectionist, February 2017
by Herb Karl

Chicago Review Press
Featuring: John Brown
336 pages
ISBN: 1613736339
EAN: 9781613736333
Kindle: B01LXL1OG2
Trade Size / e-Book
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"Was John Brown a hero or fanatic?"

Fresh Fiction Review

The Insurrectionist
Herb Karl

Reviewed by Debbie Wiley
Posted June 5, 2017


What events led to the armed insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859? Abolitionist John Brown led a slave revolt in an effort to change the course of the nation and show others the evils of slavery. Herb Karl offers readers a fictionalized historical account that may offer readers some insight.

THE INSURRECTIONIST opens with an incident in Washington, DC, involving South Carolina Congressman Preston Smith Brooks. Angered by a fellow congressman's speech against slavery, Brooks attacks Senator Charles Sumner with his cane. Herb Karl provides a historical perspective, showing us how Brooks felt that the honor of his relative was at stake when Sumner used an insult comparing slavery to a mistress and then stating that the relative had acquired this mistress.

Having grown up in South Carolina and listened to more than a few history lessons on the state, I found this aspect of the story fascinating. Herb Karl shows us how this incident sparked John Brown's anger and led to the eventual attack at Harpers Ferry. We see John Brown's growing anger and impatience with the abolitionist movement as he wants to see actions rather than words.

Herb Karl doesn't shirk away from showing us the violence that was inflicted by John Brown and his family. Some of the scenes were almost painful to read. I struggled with John Brown as both a character and fellow human, as his goals were admirable but his personality seemed a bit harsh. As a side note, I also found it annoying that he was constantly referenced as "the old man" throughout the book.

One of the interesting things that THE INSURRECTIONIST highlights is how the lines can be blurred when pursuing an ideal. Was John Brown a religious man doing God's work or was he a fanatic who took things too far? Were the ideals that John Brown pursued worth the bloodshed he and his family caused? Only the reader can answer these questions but Herb Karl presents the information in a readable format that makes history both alive and relevant in today's world. THE INSURRECTIONIST is well worth reading!

Learn more about The Insurrectionist


The Insurrectionist is a captivating historical novel that follows the militant abolitionist John Brown from his involvement in Bleeding Kansas to the invasion of Harpers Ferry and the dramatic conclusion of his subsequent trial. Herb Karl carefully blends historical detail with dramatic personal descriptions to reveal critical episodes in Brown’s life, illuminating his character and the motives that led up to the Harpers Ferry invasion, giving readers a complete picture of the man who has too often been dismissed as hopelessly fanatical.

Brown’s friendship with Frederick Douglass and their ongoing debate on how to end slavery, his devoted family, who stand by him despite the danger, and his struggles to secure funding and political favor for his cause against deeply entrenched politicians all make for a surprisingly contemporary story of family, passion, race, and politics.


Sixteen Hours Later May 23, 1856 Kansas Territory

Now, nearly eight months later, the old man had plenty to stew about as he plodded across the Kansas prairie, grumbling about the sacking of Lawrence.

With the sky darkening, the company, fatigued and hungry, had pitched camp at Ottawa Creek on land belonging to John Tecumseh Jones, better known as Ottawa Jones, a man Brown’s age whose mother was a Chippewa from Indiana. Jones had come to the territory as a Christian missionary and ended up a prosperous farmer who served as spiritual advisor to the Ottawa tribe on its ten-square-mile reservation. In Jones and his wife, Brown found kindred spirits. They were intelligent, feared God, and prized action over inertia. They shared Brown’s commitment to the abolition of slavery, and he shared their respect and affection for the native people. He was always welcomed at their spacious log home. This time, however, he chose to stay with his men. Within sight of Jones’s house and barn, beside clear-running Ottawa Creek, Brown bedded down for the evening.

At dawn he was up and about, cooking breakfast for the handful of men he regarded as a little company of his own. The group included his unmarried sons—Owen, Frederick, Salmon, and Oliver—and son-in-law Henry Thompson. Though they marched with the rest of the men, their loyalty was clearly to Brown. They sat around a cooking fire as he served a meal of bacon and johnnycakes. Ottawa Jones had donated a pail of fresh milk.

Toward the end of the meal, Brown unburdened himself.

“Something must be done,” he said. “Something will be done.”

The men put aside their plates and looked to the old man.

His eyes glistened. “We cannot allow these acts of murder and destruction to go unpunished. I would rather be ground into the earth than passively submit to the barbarians.”

Owen, the eldest of his unmarried sons at thirty-one, spoke up. “What do you suggest we do, Father?”

“Blood,” he said, the metallic timbre of his voice infusing the word with such malevolence that men standing nearby abandoned their chores and moved closer. After a pause, he added, “I have said slavery is a sin before God. And there can be no remission of that sin without the shedding of blood.” He turned, faced the fire, his hands clasped behind his back.

Most of the company, including Brown’s married sons—John Jr. and Jason—were now gathered at the fire.

Brown surveyed the men crowding around him, many of whom he hardly knew. Except for his own boys, he doubted any of them could appreciate who he was and why he came to Kansas. He was an abolitionist—dyed in the wool, he liked to say. Blacks—free or slave—were his brothers, his equals. He took the words of the Declaration of Independence literally. And while he’d traveled to the South only once, he’d become a student of slavery. Like his father, he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and escorted runaway slaves to freedom in Canada. He’d befriended former slaves, some of them leaders in the abolitionist movement. He had little formal education but was an avid reader of history and had a keen interest in slave revolts. He expressed admiration for the Haitian liberator Toussaint-Louverture and the rebel slave Nat Turner, whose 1831 rampage in Virginia resulted in the deaths of fifty-seven whites— men, women, and children.

The old man had come to view the South’s slaveholding planters as members of a prideful aristocracy who persuaded themselves over the course of two hundred years that slavery was both natural and good. He believed the slaveholders ensured the preservation of slavery by creating a social order that placed the slave at the bottom of the heap, thus securing the supremacy and loyalty of all whites, regardless of wealth or position. And because slavery ultimately relied for its survival on violence and brutality—the lash, the irons, mutilation, the splitting apart of families—it had turned the South into a place where violence and brutality penetrated the very core of Southern life. “The South,” Brown said, “allowed slavery to seep into its bones, and no amount of moral persuasion by antislavery Northerners would change that.” He once told his friend and confidant Frederick Douglass—the former slave turned abolitionist—that slaveholders would never be induced to give up their slaves until they felt a big stick about their heads.

Brown had to remind himself that although the men waiting to hear him speak favored a free Kansas, they weren’t necessarily committed—as he was—to making war on the very existence of slavery. Many of the Northern immigrants saw nothing wrong with slavery—as long as it was kept out of the territory. They came to Kansas because of incentives provided by the immigrant aid organizations and because they wanted to make a new life for themselves; they wanted to plow the cheap, abundant, fertile soil of Kansas as free men, and to most of them that meant free white men. They called themselves Free State men, but often they were as racist as the proslavery marauders who were trying to drive them out of the territory. If they hated slavery it wasn’t because they felt it was a sin against God or a crime against humanity. They hated slavery because it threatened their livelihoods. How were they expected to compete and prosper in a country that permitted slave labor?

Such was Brown’s audience at Ottawa Creek. A gathering of men who couldn’t be expected to grasp the motives behind the slaughter he would soon direct just a few miles from where they stood. Rumors about Brown’s intentions had been circulating in camp since the previous evening. Some of the men hoped he would dispel their anxiety. Others were just curious. A few were prepared to join him, whatever his plan.

He began speaking in little more than a whisper. “You men know the enemy has no fear. He commits his acts of violence without a thought to the consequences. He thinks we are cowards and this emboldens him to commit even greater outrages.”

A murmur of assenting voices.

“Remember these men,” he said. “Charles Dow, shot in the back by Frank Coleman. No punishment. Thomas Barber, unarmed, shot by George Clarke. No punishment. Reese Brown, mutilated by a pack of hatchet-wielding scoundrels, flung onto his doorstep to bleed to death in the arms of his wife. No punishment—”

One of the men interrupted. “We all expect to be butchered, every damn Free State settler in the region.”

“And you will,” Brown responded, his voice growing louder, “unless the enemy learns there are two sides to this thing—that he cannot commit these crimes without fear of retaliation.”

The sound of hooves hammering the dry ground shattered the moment. A lone rider came into view.

Brown stooped to pick up his revolver—then recognized the man as Gardner, one of Ottawa Jones’s hired hands. Gardner reined in his horse at Brown’s feet and slid from the saddle. He reached into his boot and withdrew a folded slip of paper moist with perspiration.

“They’ve murdered Senator Sumner,” he said, thrusting the paper into Brown’s hand.

The old man unfolded the message. Gardner apparently had misunderstood what it said. As Brown read the news of the caning, the image of a bloody, prostrate Charles Sumner flashed before his eyes.

He’d first met the senator in 1851 while dealing with the aftermath of an unsuccessful wool business in Massachusetts. It was a time of both disappointment and anticipation. The business had failed, but Brown had befriended leading abolitionists. He was pleased a senator from his adopted state was a champion of the antislavery movement.

The men were waiting for the old man to speak. Choked with rage, he said nothing, crumpled the paper, flung it into the fire.

Gardner continued his story. He’d been dispatched to Kansas City by Ottawa Jones to send a message to a Saint Louis grain merchant. The telegraph office was crowded with young men and women—refugees from the Lawrence invasion. They were fed up with the border ruffians and said they were returning to their homes in the Northeast. When Gardner turned to leave, the telegraph operator handed him a note, asking that it be delivered to Dr. Charles Robinson in Lawrence. Gardner tucked the message into his boot. He spurred his horse toward the postal road—a rugged but shorter route that ran close to the Kansas River. He ran into more refugees. They warned him to avoid Lawrence. It was late when he neared the town. He saw the flames of burning buildings and decided it would be too dangerous to enter the town. He turned off the trail and headed for Jones’s house. He’d ridden across the prairie most of the night, stopping only long enough to rest and water his horse.

Brown waited until Gardner finished. Then—in a voice cool and detached—he looked to his eldest son and said, “Jones keeps a grinding wheel in his barn. I have need of it.”

Though Brown and his son had quarreled earlier over the decision to turn back from Lawrence, John Jr. didn’t argue this time. He turned and headed for Jones’s barn.

The men returned to their chores.

Brown walked to a large canvas rucksack that sat next to his blanket. He removed its contents: the short, double- edged broadswords sheathed in scabbards and attached to leather belts. He carefully laid them on the blanket.

For the remainder of the morning the men huddled in groups, spoke guardedly of their fears, questioned their willingness to do anything that might escalate the danger to themselves and their families.

Meanwhile, the grinding wheel turned, sending brilliant yellow sparks cascading from a broadsword’s blade, reminding the men of Brown’s intentions—the precise details still a mystery to most of them.

Later, as the old man moved about the camp, someone came forward to urge caution. He snapped back, “Caution? You want caution? I am eternally tired of the word caution. It is nothing but a word for cowardice.”

As the noon hour approached, it was evident those willing to follow Brown were few in number. The five in his own little company could be counted on. The only other man to step forward was pugnacious Theodore Weiner, a powerfully built Austrian who backed down from no one. He came to Kansas by way of Texas and operated a dry goods store near the Browns’ homesteads. Because he willingly catered to Free State settlers, he was the victim of constant threats from proslavery neighbors. Brown knew he could use Weiner when the Austrian declared, “I will cut the throat of anyone who wants to drive the Free State men from Kansas. It is the way we treat such pigs in Texas.”

Brown still needed a wagon. Two days of marching had left the men fatigued. Another half day lay ahead. The men needed rest. The choices were limited. Only one wagon had been part of the expedition, a lumber wagon drawn by a pair of draft horses, and it belonged to James Townsley, who, reluctantly, was to become the eighth and final member of what Brown would later call his Northern Army.

At two o’clock the men loaded Townsley’s wagon, the mess gear and rations first, then the bedrolls, then the rifles and pistols. Brown hoisted the rucksack containing the broadswords. He executed the task so deliberately it caused one of the spectators to comment, “Looks like he means business.”

Brown’s four unmarried sons and his son-in-law climbed aboard the wagon and seated themselves among the clutter, backs resting against the sideboards. Townsley took his place on the driver’s bench. Weiner had come on horseback; he swung his imposing frame onto his mount.

The old man paused, looking north toward Lawrence. His eyes were fixed on a hazy column of smoke that curled upward, fading into the pale sky.

John Jr. stepped from the group of men assembled near the wagon. He approached Brown from behind, put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Father,” he said, “you must not do anything rash.”

Brown stiffened. He moved to the wagon and pulled himself aboard, taking the seat next to Townsley.

As the wagon rolled past Ottawa Jones’s farm, a cheer went up from those who stayed behind.

At the end of the lane was the Lawrence Road, the well- traveled thoroughfare connecting Lawrence with settlements to the south. Townsley halted his team at the intersection, then turned onto the road leading south. Weiner rode alongside.

The Jones farm had barely disappeared from view when Townsley began to voice his concerns. Earlier in the day, when Brown requested the use of the wagon, he’d been evasive. Now Townsley wanted specifics. What exactly did Brown intend to do?

The old man seemed not to hear. Perhaps it was the clattering of unsecured gear, the creaking of axles as they gave way to uneven terrain. The men in the wagon bed dozed.

At length Brown emerged from his cocoon of silence. What he said caused Townsley to shift his weight, slacken his hold on the reins. He turned to face the old man. “You cannot do this thing.” Townsley was agitated by what he’d heard. “It will bring war to Kansas.”

Brown nodded. “As God is my witness, it most surely will.”

The road was deeply rutted. Shallow outcroppings of limestone caused the wagon to pitch and yaw like a New England fishing dory on a roiling sea. From time to time the men in the wagon bed were jarred into consciousness. Brown, though, was hardly aware of the disturbances. He still agonized over the assault on Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. The congressman from South Carolina had become a symbol of everything Brown deemed evil among the South’s slaveholding elite. The slaveholders respected neither the laws of God nor the laws of man. And they hated abolitionists. In Brown’s mind Brooks had raised the stakes in the battle for Kansas. Retaliation would take on new meaning.

It was dusk when Townsley guided his team onto the site Brown chose as a base of operations: a stand of cottonwoods on a bluff between two ravines, about a mile from Pottawatomie Creek. The land along the creek was home to proslavery settlers active in the territorial legislature.

Because he didn’t want to draw attention to his encampment, Brown announced there would be no cooking fire that evening. The men washed down strips of dried beef with water from a nearby spring, then spread their blankets under the overhanging branches of the cottonwoods. Physically and emotionally spent, they were soon asleep.

Not the old man, though. He continued to wrestle with thoughts of the bloody work that lay ahead.

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