Thievery was rife during the guerilla war over slavery.

It was a part of the strategy and tactics used by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery guerillas to gather the supplies they needed to fight, and to intimidate and drive out their enemies’ allies from Kansas Territory.

One rule, of course, was that a partisan guerilla only stole horses and other supplies from the enemy, not their allies.

Frank Walker, an abolitionist guerilla fighter from Mound City, wrote to his brother in a May 23, 1859, letter.

He wrote: “I will answer with pleasure the Col told wrong that freestates men never steall for it is against the orders of our company. The free state men are often robbed of their horses by proslavery men never rob each other and [leave] it to pro men for it would be folly to do so.”

When John Brown and other guerilla fighters on both sides of the slavery issue in Kansas Territory stole from their ideological foes, they did not consider it “stealing,” in the criminal sense, but as part of a military action to deny their enemy the necessary supplies they needed to conduct military operations.

Indeed, both pro- and anti-slavery guerillas bristled with offense when accused of being dishonorable thieves due to their belief that they were fighting a morally justifiable war, and that they were engaged in a militarily justifiable action when they stole horses and other goods from their ideological foes.

Both pro- and anti-slavery guerilla fighters tended to engage in a common reality of warfare, the dehumanization of their enemies, which makes it morally acceptable in their minds to steal from their enemies. Pro-slavery guerillas justified stealing from abolitionists due to the perception that abolitionists were brigands due to the fact that they were working to free their slaves, either legally or illegally at the time by helping their slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad and by raids on slaveholders’ farms and businesses during the guerilla war over slavery in Kansas Territory.

Abolitionist guerilla fighters and their supporters believed that it morally acceptable to steal from pro-slavery advocates and slaveholders due to their belief that pro-slavery advocates were lazy, hedonistic, morally bankrupt slaveholders who held and entire race of human beings in bondage and lived in comfort and luxury while their slaves toiled to produce the goods and services that they owned and provided.

John Brown himself believed that when he raided slave holders’ farms and businesses and stole goods and livestock, he wasn’t stealing, he was gathering items earned by the labor of slaves to use to affect their freedom and aid them in their escape from bondage.

Guerilla war is a particular vicious type of unconventional warfare, where many of the rules of conventional warfare do not apply, and stealing from the ideological foes of a guerilla fighter is considered to be morally acceptable.

Therefore, both pro- and anti-slavery guerilla fighters preyed on their ideological foes by stealing their goods and livestock with the conviction that they were morally correct in doing so.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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