"Was John Brown a hero or fanatic?"
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
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
The Insurrectionist is a captivating historical
that follows the militant abolitionist John Brown from
involvement in Bleeding Kansas to the invasion of Harpers
Ferry and the dramatic conclusion of his subsequent
Herb Karl carefully blends historical detail with
personal descriptions to reveal critical episodes in
life, illuminating his character and the motives that led
to the Harpers Ferry invasion, giving readers a complete
picture of the man who has too often been dismissed as
Brown’s friendship with Frederick Douglass and their
debate on how to end slavery, his devoted family, who
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
ExcerptSixteen Hours Later
May 23, 1856
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
Toward the end of the meal, Brown unburdened himself.
“Something must be done,” he said. “Something will be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Not the old man, though. He continued to wrestle with
thoughts of the bloody work that lay ahead.
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