Battle of Osawatomie

Encyclopedia entry by ,
Combat Studies Institute, Army University

The Osawatomie Battlefield. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Event Summary:

  • Date: August 30, 1856
  • Location: Osawatomie, Kansas
  • Adversaries: John W. Reid and Reverend Marvin White (led the border ruffians) vs. John Brown (Free-State abolitionist)
  • Size of Forces: More than 250 border ruffians vs. approximately 30 Free-Staters
  • Casualties: Undetermined, one of John Brown’s sons, Frederick, killed
  • Result: Proslavery victory and burning of the town of Osawatomie

By the summer of 1856, the debate over whether or not the territory of Kansas would become a free or slave state erupted into widespread violence, including John Brown’s killing of proslavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Massacre and the sacking of the Free-State stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Pro- and antislavery factions gathered men into paramilitary units and sought out their opponents across the territory and in neighboring Missouri. Against this backdrop, proslavery forces targeted known abolitionist strongholds in hopes of driving their residents from the territory.

Osawatomie, Kansas, (which was founded the year before and named for the two prevalent Native American tribes in the area, the Osage and Pottawatomie) hosted a number of ardent abolitionists, including John Brown and Samuel Adair. From this base just west of town, Brown perpetrated the Pottawatomie Massacre in May and opposed proslavery forces in the resulting “Wakarusa War,” including an attack on a settlement of Georgians near Osawatomie.

In response to a perceived threat from both Brown and Jim Lane’s force of 250-500 men, who were heavily armed and supported by a cannon, Missourians also organized large forces equipped with artillery. On August 30, more than 250 border ruffians led by Rev. Martin White and “General” John W. Reid crossed the state line into Kansas with intentions of eliminating Brown’s base of operations at Osawatomie, less than 20 miles inside Kansas Territory. Alerted to the approaching threat, Brown organized between 30 and 50 Free-Soilers to meet the superior force. Brown expected the attack to come from the east, but the Missourians looped around the town and approached from the west, surprising Brown’s scouts and murdering one of them, Brown’s son Frederick.

...Reid’s men entered the town, where they plundered the homes and set fire to all that could not be carried off.

The battle itself was a brief affair along the south bank of the Marais des Cygnes River just north of Adair’s cabin. Brown’s men faced the superior force, hoping to buy time for the town’s residents to escape. The invaders quickly overwhelmed the defenders in a sharp engagement that killed several on both sides. Brown’s contingent withdrew north across the river, suffering several casualties in the process, and fortified a log house on the far bank, hoping to lure the Missourians away from the town and inflict a number of casualties as their opponents crossed the river. But the invaders would not take the bait.

After forcing the “Free-Soilers” to retreat, Reid’s men entered the town, where they plundered the homes and set fire to all that could not be carried off. Rather than continue on to other antislavery strongholds, they took a number of prisoners and retreated back across the border.

The territorial government continued the struggle to maintain peace in the territory until the cycle of violence finally died down with the arrival of winter. The site of the battle itself is today administered by the state of Kansas as John Brown Memorial Park.

Suggested Reading: 

Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).

David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (New York: Vintage, 2006).

Cite this page: 
Rein, Christopher. "Battle of Osawatomie" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 20, 2019 at


Please remove "border ruffian

Please remove "border ruffian" after my third great-grandfather's name. He was a Lykins County, KS Justice of the Peace on a sting operation after a raid upon his home two weeks previously in August 1856. He and his family lived just north of Stanton, KS. After his sons ran for shelter to Martin's home, the raiders took everything they could steal, including horses, except for one cow and one old horse, which Martin rode to Westport to Thomas Goforth's office, another Justice of the Peace, to make a report. I have research my third great-grandparents for several years and my grandmother 28 years before that. You ought to read James Claude Malin's book "John Brown and the Legend of '56" and the Secret Six. Both will give you a clearer picture of those times.

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