Battle of Osawatomie

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John Brown Museum in Osawatomie, Kansas is a place to learn more about the battle

The Battle of Osawatomie took place on Saturday, August 30, 1856 in the town of Osawatomie, Kansas. John Brown and about 40 men tried to defend the town against an attack by about 250–300 Border Ruffians.[1] The Missouri ruffians were led by John W. Reid.[a][1] The attack began early in the morning when Frederick Brown, son of John Brown, was shot and killed outside of the town. This alerted John Brown and others who tried to defend the town. But heavy casualties forced Brown and the other abolitionists back across the nearby river. The town was looted and burned but Brown was not pursued. This was one of many clashes between pro-slavery and free-staters[b] during the period known as Bleeding Kansas.[4]

Background[change | change source]

In 1854, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act began a policy known as popular sovereignty in the United States.[5] It allowed settlers in the Kansas Territory to decide by popular vote whether Kansas would be admitted to the United States as a slave or free state.[5] This led activists from both sides of the issue to flood into Kansas trying to influence the outcome.[5] It led to a period of violence that continued into the Amer Civil War.[5]

John Brown was an abolitionist who came to the Kansas Territory on October 7, 1855, to help several of his sons who were already there.[6] He was considered an extremist by some, a martyr by others.[7] As an abolitionist he found slavery in any form to be immoral.[8] On the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and a few followers attacked and murdered five men in a small settlement on the Pottawatomie Creek near Manhattan, Kansas. The killings were particularly brutal. One by one, settlers were dragged from their homes and hacked to death with broadswords and shot.[8] Up to that time there had not been much bloodshed between proslavery and free-state groups. Brown's raid brought retaliation.

The battle[change | change source]

In mid-august Missouri Border Ruffians had been looting and killing in the area near Osawatomie.[4] On August 25, about 150 Missourians were camped nearby planning to take the town by surprise. They were discovered and driven away in disorder.[4] On the night of August 29, a band of about 400 ruffians led by John William Reid approached Osawatomie. Their plan was to attack at sunrise.[4] At about the time the attack was supposed to start, the Missourians, guided by a minister named Martin White came across two men leaving town. White recognized one as Frederick Brown, son of John Brown. White immediately shot and killed Brown.[4] Settlers hearing the shot alerted John Brown and the people of the town. The men were gathered together to form a hasty defense of the town.[4] At first they were going to use the blockhouse.[4] But on learning the ruffians had cannon it was decided to position themselves in the woods across the Marais des Cygnes River.[4] The abolitionists defended the town for a time but were eventually overpowered.[9] They retreated and left the town for the Missourians to rob and burn.[9] Only four buildings remained among the ruins of what had been the village of Osawatomie.[9]

Accounts[change | change source]

The following is an account of the battle written by John W. Reid (leading the Border Ruffians):


Gentlemen - I moved with 250 men on the Abolition fort and town of Osawatomie - the head-quarters of Old Brown - on night before last; marched forty miles and attacked the town without dismounting the men, about sunrise yesterday. We had five men wounded, none dangerously - Capt. Boyce, William Gordon, and three others. We killed about thirty of them, among the number, certain, a son of old Brown, and almost certain Brown himself; destroyed all their ammunition and provisions, and the boys would burn the town. I could not help it.

We must be supported by our friends. We will want more men and ammunition - ammunition of all sorts. Powder, muskets, ball and caps is the constant cry.

I write in great haste, as I have been in the saddle, road 100 miles, and fought a battle without rest.

Your friend, REID[9]

John Brown, about a week later, in a letter to his wife wrote:

On the morning of the 30th Aug an attack was made by the ruffians on Osawatomie numbering some 400 by whose scouts our dear Fredk was shot dead without warning he supposing them to be Free State men or near as we can learn. One other man a Cousin of Mr. Adair was murdered by them about the same time. At this time I was about 3 miles off where I had some 14 or 15 men over night that I had just enlisted to serve under me as regulars. There I collected as well as I could with some 12 or 15 more & in about ¾ of an Hour attacked them from a wood with thick undergroth, with this force we threw them into confusion for about 15 or 20 minutes during which time we killed & wounded from 70 to 80 of the enemy as they say & then we escaped as well as we could with one killed while escaping; two or three wounded; & as many more missing. Four or Five Free State men were butchered during the day as well. Jason fought bravely by my side during the fight & escaped with me he unhurt. I was struck by a partly spent Grape Canister, or Rifle shot which bruised me some but did not injure me seriously. “Hitherto the Lord both helped me” notwithstanding my afflictions. Things now seem rather quiet just now; but what another Hour will bring I cannot say...[10]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. At the time, Reid was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives (1854-1856).[2] He served in the Thirty-seventh Congress from March 4, 1861, to December 2, 1861, when he was expelled for having taken up arms against the United States in the Civil War.[2]
  2. Strictly speaking, Free-Staters, also called “Free-Soilers”, were those who did not want black people, slave or free, to settle in Kansas.[3] Abolitionists were opposed to slavery on moral grounds.[3] Generally speaking, the two groups are often referred to together as Free-Staters since both were opposed to slavery in Kansas.

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Battle of Osawatomie". Civil War on the Western Border. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "REID, John William, (1821 - 1881)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Matthew E. Stanley. "Free-State Party". Civil War on the Western Border. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 "Battle of Osawatomie". Kansas Legends. Legends of America. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "Bleeding Kansas". Fort Scott National Historic Site. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  6. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Vol I, ed. Junius P. Rodriguez (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007), p. 422
  7. "John Brown Memorial Park & Museum". City of Osawatomie. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "31d. The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre". Bloody Kansas. US Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 "Battle of Osawatomie". The Kansas Collection. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  10. "The Battle of Osawatomie". The Civil War Muse. Retrieved 22 June 2016.[permanent dead link]

Other websites[change | change source]