Battle of Osawatomie
|Battle of Osawatomie|
|Part of Bleeding Kansas|
|Free-State Abolitionists||Border Ruffians|
|Commanders and leaders|
|John Brown||John W. Reid
Rev. Marvin White
|Casualties and losses|
|5 killed, several wounded, ~12 prisoners||~5 wounded|
The Battle of Osawatomie took place on August 30, 1856 when 250-400 Border Ruffians led by John W. Reid attacked the town of Osawatomie. Reid was intent on destroying the free state settlement and then moving on to Topeka and Lawrence to do more of the same. John Brown first learned of the raiders when they shot his son Frederick. With 40 or so men, Brown tried to defend the town against the pro-slavery partisans, causing heavy casualties before being forced to withdraw; the town of Osawatomie was then looted and burned. This was one event in series of clashes between abolitionists and pro-slavery Missourians in what has been known as Bleeding Kansas.
The passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 was the single most important event in the inception of the era of “Bleeding Kansas.” Whether the new Kansas Territory would be slave or free was left up to popular sovereignty, counter to the prohibitions of the Missouri Compromise. An immediate rush of migrants on both sides of the issue rushed in to settle and to determine the fate of the new territory. Almost immediately, violent struggles erupted into a full-blown border war between the “Free-Staters” and the “Border Ruffians.”
Following the 1855 arrival of the virulent abolitionist John Brown in Kansas, open conflict escalated with the Border Ruffians’ May 21, 1856 sacking of the Free-Stater town Lawrence. In retaliation, four days later, Brown and his followers committed what became known as the Pottawatomie massacre against five pro-slavery men. The Battle of Black Jack followed soon after in early June, ending in the anti-slavery forces’ favor and making Brown a threat in the eyes of the Border Ruffians. Violence in Kansas steadily increased thereafter, throughout the summer.
The town of Osawatomie, an abolitionist settlement on the edge of the Marais des Cygnes River, had been the subject of a pro-slavery raid early in the summer of 1856, and many of the original residents had fled east. The approximately two hundred people who still lived in the town in August were constantly afraid of another attack by the Border Ruffians, in large part because of the presence of John Brown and his use of the town as a headquarters.
The morning of August 30, 1856 saw a force of several hundred Border Ruffians led by the pro-slavery leader John W. Reid entering into Osawatomie, in which Brown and his family were staying at the cabin of the Rev. Samuel Adair, the husband of Brown’s half sister, Florella. When the pro-slavery forces came near the cabin, they spotted 26-year-old Frederick Brown, the only member of the Brown family present there at the time, and shot him instantly. He thus became the first casualty of the Battle of Osawatomie.
Having heard about his son’s slaying, John Brown rushed from his camp toward Osawatomie, gathering several dozen men to meet the Missourian invaders. The fighting began when Reid advanced his forces in long rows toward the woods in which Brown and his men were standing. Reid “charged his cannons with grapeshot, then cut loose on the woods,”  then the frightened abolitionists began to fire back, and the long-distance firing resulted in little damage to either side for about fifteen minutes. Finally, the Border Ruffians charged, and Brown’s forces were ultimately dispersed, fleeing in all directions. Five of the Free-Staters were killed, including Frederick Brown, with several others wounded.
The pro-slavery forces, instead of trying to catch Brown’s men, then felt free to turn their attention to the town itself. In the end, the men under John W. Reid went through Osawatomie and burned almost all of its buildings; the three they spared were full of women and children. Before leaving, they thoroughly looted the town and took six prisoners, but were unable to find John Brown himself. Reid’s forces continued north, attacking other towns on their way including Topeka.
Aftermath and legacy
When he reemerged from the brush following the final departure of the Missourians that day, John Brown saw the charred settlement and reportedly said to his son Jason:
“God sees it. I have only a short time to live – only one death to die, and I will die fighting for his cause. There will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done for. I will give them something else to do than extend slave territory. I will carry this war into Africa.” 
John Brown himself saw his reputation enlarged for his bravery and skill as a guerilla warrior. Along with his other adventures over the following several years, up to his raid on Harpers Ferry, Osawatomie made him into an increasingly more notorious figure. He was now a wanted abolitionist firebrand, a madman in the eyes of some, and regarded as particularly dangerous to Southerners and the pro-slavery cause. It was recognized that he had faced a much more powerful foe in the battle, and he and almost all of his men had come out of it alive. In fact, one of the names by which Brown would come to be known, in reference to his role in the Bleeding Kansas conflict, was “Osawatomie Brown.”
In Kansas generally, there was a distinct escalation of violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces following the Battle of Osawatomie. The acting governor of the Kansas Territory at the time, Daniel Woodson, declared the region to be in rebellion and called on citizens to restore law and order, to which the Free-Staters took great offense. In response, the Missourians built up their own forces, and with the presence of the U.S. Army being largely ineffective, open violence continued. Guerilla fighting on both sides, including arson, looting, and crop destruction, would go on for at least another two months. Thereafter, there would be intermittent peace and violence in Kansas until the end of its antebellum conflicts in the Marais des Cygnes massacre in 1858. The breakout of the Civil War in 1861 would bring even more violence in the territory.
Today, John Brown Memorial Park stands in Osawatomie, encompassing the site of the 1856 battle. The site of which it is a part, the John Brown Museum State Historic Site, was dedicated in 1911 and includes a life-size statue of John Brown and a monument dedicated to the five slain Free-Staters: Frederick Brown, George W. Partridge, David Garrison, Theron Parker Powers, and Charles Kaiser, all of whom except for Kaiser are buried in the park. Rev. Samuel Adair’s cabin survived, as Adair lived in it until his death in 1898. It was moved to the park in 1911 and later enclosed in a large stone building in 1928.
- Goodrich, p. 161
- Goodrich, p. 163
- Etcheson, Nicole. "We Fight to Free White Men." Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas, 2004. Print.
- Goodrich, Thomas. War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1998. Print.
- Horwitz, Tony. "John Brown's blood oath: before Harpers Ferry, the abolitionist promised a campaign of violence. It began with a gruesome midnight massacre in a small town in Kansas." MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History Winter 2012: 22+. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.
- Nichols, Alice. Bleeding Kansas. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print.
- Selbert, Pamela. "Crimson Kansas: retracing the state's turbulent days before entering the Union." Motorhome Oct. 2003: 65+. General OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.
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