John Brown was a guerilla fighter, and one of the main tactics that guerilla fighters use to combat their enemies is to utilize psychological means to instill fear into their enemies that is out of proportion to their real ability to inflict violence upon their enemies.

Guerilla groups are by nature small and lightly armed, and guerilla fighters tend to avoid battles with equal forces. Fighting standing battles promises defeat for the guerrilla fighters due to their small number and light arms.

The main strategy and tactics used by guerilla fighters is ambush and run tactics, and therefore guerilla groups must be small, lightly armed and extremely mobile to be able to survive in a combat situation.

However, the most important battleground of a guerilla fighter is in the minds of their enemies. For a guerilla fighter to be truly effective, they must ensure that their enemies and their friends view them as a threat not to be taken lightly.

A small group of lightly armed guerilla fighters does not sound like a great threat, so it is up to the guerilla fighters to ensure that they cultivate a reputation that proceeds them to make their small group seem more dangerous than they actually are.

How do guerilla fighters accomplish this goal? By spending most of their time constantly moving, and staying in hiding, and suddenly attacking their enemies in fast, furious ambush attacks, then quickly disappearing back into hiding.

This works to create anxiety in their enemies, who never know when an attack is going to occur, which helps to create stress and anxiety, which magnifies the danger posed by the guerilla fighters in the minds of their enemies.

This creates a situation where a guerrilla fighter can control a great deal of territory by engaging in a few hit-and-run attacks in an area, and then going into hiding and effectively hold their enemies hostage to the fear and anxiety that their enemies create in their own minds.

John Brown was a master of this guerilla tactic. William Cutler’s History of Kansas, published in 1883, states that most of the citizens of Brooklin, Kansas, a settlement in Linn County, literally abandoned the town at the mere threat of a raid by John Brown and his abolitionist guerillas.

The book states: “In the spring of 1856, David Sibbett, being a frail young man, opened a school, but it was soon broken up and scattered, as were most of the people of Brooklin, by the report that John Brown, who had just committed the Pottawatomie Massacre, were coming in that direction and killing all the proslavery men before them.”

The mere report that John Brown was in Linn County was enough to motivate most of the citizens of Brooklin to flee their homes, an example of John Brown’s mastery of psychological warfare.

John Brown was so effective at psychological warfare that the mere mention of his name often creates an emotional response in people even today.

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

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