Battle of Black Jack

Encyclopedia entry by ,
U. S. Air Force Command and Staff College

Event Summary:

Black Jack Battleground in Douglas County, Kansas. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

  • Date: June 2, 1856
  • Location: Baldwin City, Kansas (modern-day) 
  • Adversaries: John Brown and Samuel T. Shore (Free-State abolitionist) vs. U.S. Deputy Marshal Henry C. Pate (border ruffians)
  • Size of Forces: More than 30 Free-Staters vs. approximately 50 border ruffians
  • Casualties: 4 of Brown's force wounded; Pate and 22 of his force surrendered
  • Result: Free-State victory

The Battle of Black Jack, fought on June 2, 1856, just outside of modern-day Baldwin City, Kansas, proved to be a watershed moment in United States history as the pro- and antislavery forces fought what some historians consider the first unofficial battle of the Civil War during “Bleeding Kansas.” Kansas Free-State forces, led by abolitionists John Brown and Samuel T. Shore, fought and forced the surrender of proslavery forces led by border ruffian, editor, and U. S. Deputy Marshal Henry C. Pate. The Battle of Black Jack highlighted the escalating violence in Kansas as Free-State and proslavery forces became more organized and the levels of violence increased.

In the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s passing on May 30, 1854, the fates of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were supposed to be determined by the legislatures representing the people who lived there – “Popular Sovereignty” in the words of the bill’s author, Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois. What seemed like a moderate solution in a national political climate polarized over slavery was instead a disaster. Both proslavery and antislavery factions came to look upon Kansas, which could support slavery in its far eastern region, as crucial in the increasingly nasty political fights over whether slavery could expand into the Western territories. Furthermore, proslavery factions in Missouri worried that a free Kansas would prove too enticing for slaves to run away, as Missouri would be bordered on three sides by Free-States. Proslavery Missourians were determined to make Kansas a slave state at any cost.

Proslavery factions in Missouri worried that a free Kansas would prove too enticing for slaves to run away...

Meanwhile, many of the settlers who came to Kansas were ambivalent to slavery. These were people who merely wanted to start their lives in Kansas and who generally hoped to be left alone. The polarized political climate forced many in Kansas to choose sides, whether they wanted to or not. When elections to determine the territorial government of Kansas were held on March 20, 1855, they were accompanied by widespread violence, fraud, and voter intimidation by proslavery Missourians, the “border ruffians.” These border ruffians ensured that Kansas had a proslavery government. Their tactics antagonized the majority of the Kansas settlers. It turned many politically neutral people into Free-Staters, and it was only a matter of time until enough provocations were committed against the citizenry that the Free-Staters fought back.

The Sack of Lawrence, Kansas, on May 21, 1856, pushed some of the more radical Free-Staters over the edge. Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones led a large group of between 800 and 1,000 border ruffians into Lawrence and looted the town, mangled two printing presses, and threw their type into the Kansas River before destroying the Free-State Hotel. The sack of Lawrence, along with the brutal caning of the Republican and abolitionist U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, by South Carolina Democrat and proslavery Congressman Preston Brooks on the Senate floor the next day, pushed Free-Stater abolitionist John Brown over the edge. Brown decided to take matters into his own hands and repay violence with violence.

Brown and a band of like-minded people, including some of his sons, murdered five proslavery settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas, on the night of May 24 in the Pottawatomie Massacre. Although there is some contention as to whether Brown was present for the killings, eyewitness testimony by James Townsley claimed that Brown led the raiding party.  The brutality involved—the five men were hacked to death with broadswords—stunned the nation. It also galvanized the border ruffians and Kansas’ proslavery elements into action.

Pate’s men systematically harassed and ransacked Free-State settlers’ homes in the search for Brown...

U.S. Deputy Marshal Robert L. Pate rounded up a group of approximately 50 border ruffians to catch Brown’s band. Pate’s men systematically harassed and ransacked Free-State settlers’ homes in the search for Brown, and captured several Free-State settlers, among them two of Brown’s sons. The border ruffians’ behavior alienated many Free-Staters who did not support Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie, but who refused to help Pate find Brown. Thus, John Brown escaped and raised a force to chastise Pate and the border ruffians.

Brown’s Free-Staters found Pate’s border ruffians shortly before dawn on June 2, approximately a quarter mile west of the village of Black Jack, Kansas, outside of present-day Baldwin City. Brown split his 30-plus man force into two groups, one under his command, while the other group was led by Samuel T. Shore. Brown made his dispositions and then ordered the two wings to attack downhill against the border ruffians. The Santa Fe Trail ran through this area, and as the Missourians groggily responded to the Free-Staters’ attack, Brown’s men took shelter in the gullies created by the Santa Fe Trail. The border ruffians also used the shelter created by the Santa Fe Trail, as well as a nearby creek bed, and defended themselves vigorously. The two sides were stalemated. Brown was outnumbered, although Pate did not know this, and could not overwhelm the Missourians. Conversely, Pate seemed paralyzed by the Free-Staters and was unable to rouse his men to maneuver to rout Brown. The battle continued for a few hours until Pate put up a white flag and communicated a desire to negotiate with the Free-Staters. Pate was taken to Brown, and Brown insisted upon unconditional surrender. Pate refused those terms, and after returning to the border ruffians’ position, the battle resumed.

Brown noticed some of the Missourians fleeing the battlefield, and he wanted to capture the entire border ruffian force, so he ordered a group of his men to get in the Missourians’ rear to cut off any escape. Upon reaching their rear, Brown’s son Frederick and William Addison Phillips called out to the elder Brown that the border ruffians were surrounded. Pate mistook this for Free-State reinforcements from Lawrence and again put up the white flag. This time during the parley Brown threatened to blow off Pate’s head unless the latter ordered the rest of his force to surrender, which Pate did, ending the Battle of Black Jack. Brown’s force suffered four wounded; Pate’s force surrendered 23.

Ironically, the federal government was on the side of the proslavery forces during Bleeding Kansas and the Battle of Black Jack.

Brown and Pate drew up an “Article of Agreement” between the two parties that provided for an exchange of prisoners until neither side had any more prisoners. This returned Brown’s sons, John, Jr. and Jason, in exchange for Pate and his second-in-command, W. B. Brocket. The prisoners’ weapons and effects were returned to them prior to being released. While the agreement ended the fighting at Black Jack, it did not stop the violence in the long term, nor did it resolve the fundamental issues that caused the violence in Bleeding Kansas in the first place.

It has been argued that the Battle of Black Jack was the first battle of the American Civil War. The conflict between pro- and antislavery forces marked the beginning of organized violence between the two sides. The first official battle of the Civil War occurred on April 12-14, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, when Confederate forces fired upon the federal installation in Charleston Harbor. Ironically, the federal government was on the side of the proslavery forces during Bleeding Kansas and the Battle of Black Jack, as Pate was a deputized federal Marshal and the proslavery government in Lecompton was recognized by the Franklin Pierce administration as the legitimate government of Kansas.

Cite this page: 
Beckenbaugh, Terry. "Battle of Black Jack" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Aug, 22, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/battle-black-jack

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