Black Jack battle lit a fuse to Civil War

Historians recount critical events of skirmish

As battles go, it wasn’t much of one. No one was killed, and only three people were severely wounded.

But what separates the Battle of Black Jack from others is it was the first armed skirmish between pro- and anti-slavery forces and lit the fuse on what would become the Civil War.

Much has been written over the years about the battle, which occurred June 2, 1856, about three miles east of what is now Baldwin. While accounts vary, there are certainties. The infamous John Brown led an anti-slavery force of around 40 men. A pro-slavery group of 75 was led by Henry Clay Pate.

Pate had come to Kansas from Missouri, looking for Brown. But, it was Pate who ended up surrendering to Brown after a daylong fight when a gamble by Brown’s son, Frederick, worked.

“The Battle of Black Jack was the first battle of the American Civil War,” said Brenda Day, archivist at Baker University’s Old Castle Museum and board member of the Friends of the Battle of Black Jack. “It was part of an epic story known as Bleeding Kansas.

“Amusing, insightful sayings, such as ‘I went to take Old Brown, but Old Brown took me,’ or my personal favorite by Henry Clay Pate, ‘He who runs away, lives to fight another day,’ make the participants human,” Day said. “Courageous acts such as Frederick riding out on the battlefield with bullets flying paint an image for the mind.”

The battle

The image of that battle starts on June 1, 1856, when Capt. Samuel T. Shore was camped near Prairie City with his men. They attended church services that Sunday and had sentries posted. Six of Pate’s men rode into town, including one who was riding a horse that belonged to Dr. William Graham, who had been captured by Pate the day before. The men were fired upon and surrendered.

It forced a showdown that would become known as the Battle of Black Jack. Pate had been in Kansas for a while, looking for Brown and raiding homes. Among those raids, he had captured two of Brown’s sons, John Brown Jr. and Jason.

Civil War re-enactors are shown at the Battle of Black Jack site. June marks the 150th anniversary of the famous skirmish between abolitionists and pro-slavery factions.

“They were cruel to the sons,” Day said of Pate’s men. “They were chained to trees. John Brown Jr. went insane because of it. John Brown heard (of his sons’ capture). That’s when he met up with Shore.”

Once the abolitionists had the six men from Pate’s camp, it all started falling in place.

“They knew where Pate was. They’ve got squealers,” Days said of the six. “They camped until dawn and then went after Pate, who was camped in a grove of Black Jack Oak trees east of Prairie City.

“Tenderhearted and, some say, mentally challenged, Frederick Brown was left in charge of the horses,” Day said. “A Missouri sentinel first fired at them when they were a half-mile or so from Pate’s camp. Capt. Shore and his Prairie City Rifles formed to the left, and John Brown’s men formed the right. Shore made the mistake of stopping in an open area. Brown and his men took cover behind a bank and began to fire. Pate’s men then took cover in a ravine.

“Early in the battle, a wounded man and some of Shore’s men deserted after their ammunition was exhausted. According to Brown, eight of Shore’s men joined him while Shore left to get help and others just left.”

It wasn’t looking good for Brown, but that would change. He tried a ploy that worked.

“To stall, Old Brown had one of the men shoot Pate’s horses and mules,” Day said. “It was a good move. For one, it showed there was fight and range in their rifles. For another, it ensured the trip back to Missouri would be a long, hard walk home. The firing continued for several hours.

“The battle ended when Fredrick Brown, on horseback, road out on the battlefield, waved a sword over his head and yelled, ‘Father we have them surrounded and have cut off their communications.’ Needless to say, everyone was stunned. It was a big, fat lie, but Pate believed him,” Day said.

Pate sent someone out with a flag of truce. Brown sent him back, demanding that Pate himself surrender. He appeared.

“Brown took him prisoner and told Pate to order his men to lay down their arms,” she said. “They did. For several days, Brown fed and sheltered Pate and his men until they were liberated by Col. Edwin Sumner.”

But, it was the start of something big. Kerry Altenbernd, another member of the Black Jack Board who has studied the battle and the times, points to the significance of the battle.

“The Battle of Black Jack is, to my knowledge, the first time in the history of the world that a group of men – Brown and the Free Staters – from the dominant slaveholding society (the United States) fought against another group (Pate and his men) from the dominant slaveholding society in order to free slaves and abolish slavery,” Altenbernd said. “As such, the battle is internationally important and should be recognized as such.”

Events brought battle

There were three key events that led to the Battle of Black Jack. The times were wild, violent and far-ranging. Rumors were rampant. Newspapers on both sides of the slavery issue had different accounts of what was going on.

But, when the moons aligned, it was time for the first battle of the soon-to-be Civil War.

“There are three important events that are inexorably linked to the Battle of Black Jack,” Day said. “The first was the dumping of the Free State presses in the Kaw River in Lawrence. John Brown heard about that.

“Sen. Preston Brooks beating Sen. Charles Sumner halfway to death with his cane was another,” she said. “John Brown heard about that. A lot of things were churning the blood, stirring the pot right and left.”

Brown and his men headed to Lawrence from Osawatomie after hearing about the presses being dumped. They got as far as Palmyra, which predated Baldwin, when they received word their services weren’t needed.

Brown wasn’t pleased. He thought the Lawrence men were afraid of a fight. He wasn’t. As the men camped around Prairie City, there was much talk of war. There were more rumors, such as one about a pro-slavery man who had spoken “rudely” to a young woman along Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County near what is today the city of Lane.

That’s when Brown decided to take matters into his own hands. They headed on horseback to Franklin County and launched what would become known as the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre. The area wasn’t far from Brown’s home in Osawatomie. His thought was the pro-slavery men along the creek would be gunning for him.

“He knew if he didn’t kill them, they would kill him,” Day said.

“It was a brutal massacre of five political people,” she said. “They had defensive wounds. Their hands got whacked off. Only one shot was fired. It was done with swords in a very biblical way.”

The massacre started late in the evening of May 24, 1856, and didn’t end until early the next morning. The area was home to about 50 people who awoke on May 25 to find five of them dead. And, the dead men weren’t the first casualties.

“The Doyles’ dogs were killed first, then old man Doyle, then William and Drury, young men, too young to die,” Day said. “Next to fall was Allen Wilkinson and, finally, William Sherman. In between, others were questioned and turned loose.”

But, the bloodshed had started in earnest.

More to come

The trio of events that spawned the Battle of Black Jack were just a few along the path to Civil War. Several months later, there was the Battle of Osawatomie. Of course, there were many others before the war finally started in 1861.

“That’s the amazing thing to me about it all,” Day said. “That it took five years after the Battle of Black Jack before the Civil War started.”

But, it took many events to propel the War Between the States. For eastern Kansas, there were many. They all fit together.

Day has been studying the area’s history for decades. She recalls it starting the first time she saw the statue of John Brown in Osawatomie.

“It is a big part of why I will study the area’s history until the day I die,” she said. “I will never know it all to my satisfaction. It tastes good every time I chew on it. The lessons learned enrich my life. I mean, who would believe Henry Clay Pate’s, ‘I went to take Old Brown, but Old Brown took me.’ In other words, look out for the old guy.”

But, in the end, it was Brown who went first. He was hanged in 1859 at Harper’s Ferry. Pate died in 1864 in the Battle of Yellow Tavern. The two key players in the Battle of Black Jack eventually were casualties in a war they had been catalyst of when they fired those first shots just east of Baldwin.