In 1854, the U.S. Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which stipulated that the residents of these territories would decide whether they wished to enter the Union as a slave or free state. This doctrine became known as popular sovereignty. As expected, Nebraska became a free territory with the assumption that Kansas, with its large slaveholding population, would become a slave state. Organized groups from the North, however, sent thousands of abolitionist supporters to Kansas in an attempt to tip the balance in favor of free state advocates. As a result, pro- and anti-slavery groups had frequent clashes culminating in the Battle of Black Jack.
In May 1856, Henry C. Pate led a group of pro-slavery on a raid of anti-slavery newspaper offices in Lawrence, Kansas, an abolitionist stronghold, destroying the offices and two printing presses. Subsequently, a band of men, led by John Brown and comrade Captain Shore, retaliated by using broadswords to hack five proslavery men to death at Pottawatomie Creek — an action which came to be known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Following the massacre, three anti-slavery men were taken prisoner, including two of John Brown’s sons.
On June 2, the two bands met and battled for three hours, ending with Brown’s antislavery forces securing the surrender of Pate and his men. In exchange for his freedom, Pate agreed to return Brown’s sons, but their release was delayed until September of that year.
Some historians consider the Battle of Black Jack to be the first true battle of the American Civil War. The “official” event that is cited as the beginning of the war is the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, by Confederate troops on April 12, 1861.
The site of the battle is located near U.S. Highway 56, about three miles (5 km) east of Baldwin City, and is near the designated area of the Robert Hall Pearson Memorial Park by the state of Kansas in honor of one of Brown and Shore's fighters who gave a handwritten account of the battle.
In 1970, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Baldwin City, Baker University professor and playwright Don Mueller wrote a play called The Ballad Of Black Jack to tell the story of the events that led up to the battle. The Ballad Of Black Jack played as part of the city's Maple Leaf Festival from 1970-83 and again from 2001-05. It also played in nearby Lawrence in 1986 and in August 2006 as a part of Lawrence's Civil War On The Western Frontier program.
A More Contemporary Account of the Battle of Black Jack
By Frank W. Blackmar (1912)
Late in May, 1856, Capt. H. C. Pate, in command of a company of Shannon's Sharp-shooters, started for Osawatomie for the purpose of capturing John Brown. Near that place he found two of Brown's sons—John and Jason, the former a member of the legislature—working on their farms, arrested them and put them in irons, but the elder Brown was in hiding. A few other free-state men were arrested and some cabins burned. Soon after this Capt. Wood arrived with a company of dragoons and the prisoners were turned over to him, and on May 31 both companies moved together toward the Santa Fe road, Wood going on to Lecompton with his prisoners. On the march the two Browns were treated with great severity, and this, with the stories of murder told on his father, caused John's mind to give way, and at times he was violently insane.
Pate's company continued to the Santa Fe road near Hickory Point, and made camp on the head of a small branch called Black Jack, 5 miles southeast of Palmyra, at the head of a ravine on the edge of the prairie a little north of the Santa Fe road. Phillips in his Conquest of Kansas says, "The bottom of the ravine at Black Jack, besides the growing timber, had some deep water-drains or ruts, round which was a thicket; there were several bogs on the spot where the camp was." That night Pate's company occupied the town of Palmyra and took several prisoners. In the morning they plundered the place, and in the afternoon six of his men attempted the same thing at Prairie City. Being Sunday, most of the people were at church, but as they attended services armed the men rushed out when a watchman gave the alarm and two of the men were captured.
As soon as he heard of the capture of his sons John Brown determined to rescue them and watched for the enemy's camp with the design of attacking it and releasing the prisoners. He hunted through the woods of the Marias des Cygnes and Ottawa creeks. On Saturday night, Capt. Shore, a free-state man who commanded the Prairie City company, had been out assisting Brown in reconnoitering for the enemy. On Sunday night Shore and his men accompanied by Capt. Brown continued the search for the camp, but were unsuccessful. They had returned to Prairie City when two scouts brought the news of Pate's camp on the Black Jack, some miles away.
Brown had been accompanied from Oswatomie by about 12 men, including three of his sons. Immediately upon learning of the whereabouts of Pate, Brown and Shore, with about 20 men, moved toward the Black Jack. On arriving within a mile of the camp, they dismounted, left the horses in charge of two men and despatched two messengers for help—one to Palmyra and another to Capt. Abbott's company some 8 miles distant on the Wakarusa. The remainder of the party divided, each captain commanding his own men and marched toward the enemy. There were about 50 men under Pate's command. They had formed a kind of breastwork by placing four wagons in a line several rods out on the prairie from the edge of the ravine, and had pitched a tent behind the wagons.
This was the condition of the camp at about 6 o'clock, when the alarm was given that the free-state men were coming. Pate drew up his men behind the temporary breastworks. His position was a strong one, as it afforded shelter for his men, and except by coming up the ravine from the direction of Hickory Point, had to be approached over an open prairie. When they ascertained the enemy's position, Brown directed Shore to go the left and get into the ravine below them, while Brown was to go into the upper part of the ravine, the bottom of which was covered with long grass. Owing to a bend in the ravine, this division of the forces would bring the enemy in range of both forces and under a cross-fire.
Shore, however, approached the enemy over the open prairie and poured a volley on the pro-slavery men from the front, while Brown, who had placed his men in the tall grass within the outer banks of the ravine, opened fire upon their left flank. After the firing had lasted about five minutes Pate retreated from the wagon to the ravine, where he found shelter. This left Shore exposed to the fire of the concealed enemy and he was forced to retreat up the slope until out of range. Shore and a few of his men joined Brown in the ravine, where they continued firing from the long grass. The firing had little effect as the free-state party had only four guns of long range and there were only three or four Sharpe's rifles in both companies.
The prisoners held by Pate had been stationed in the tent with a guard and when the firing began they lay flat on the ground so that the bullets whistled over their heads. After the battle had waged some time one of the enemy rushed into the tent with the intention of shooting them but Dr. Graham, at whom he aimed, sprang up, received only a slight flesh wound and rushed off to the men on the hill. The firing lasted for about three hours, during which time 2 free-state and 3 pro-slavery men were wounded.
The latter knew that Shore and Brown would soon receive reinforcements and one by one they gradually slipped down the ravine until out of range, secured horses and rode away. Pate's ammunition running low, he finally sent a young man and a prisoner to Brown's camp under a flag of truce, but as Brown would not talk with anyone but the commander of the force, Pate came out. After some parleying, in which Pate claimed he was acting as an officer under the United States marshal, Brown declared he would consider nothing but unconditional surrender.
As most of Pate's men had deserted him, he yielded and thus 21 men, besides the prisoners, provisions, horses, mules and other camp equipage, as well as a quantity of the plunder taken from Palmyra, were turned over to Brown. Soon after the surrender, the free-state forces were augmented by Capt. Abbott and about 50 men from the Wakarusa and later in the day by others. The wounded were taken to Prairie City and cared for and Capt. Brown moved with his prisoners to the thick woods of Middle Ottawa creek back of Prairie City where he intrenched himself.