A New Committee and More Pleas from Lawrence

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

With J.B. Donaldson’s proslavery posse bearing down on them, the people of Lawrence held a public meeting and sent off a resolution promising they would cooperate with all federal authority, but would fight to the last to defend themselves from invasion. Wilson Shannon and Donaldson himself received copies, for what good it might do. Shannon had already told the town that he would do nothing. Beyond that, the leaders of the committee of safety couldn’t agree on any course of action. Some hoped for compromise solutions. Others pointed out that even if they wanted to defend the town, they lacked the men and supplies. As a result, several who did favor armed resistance quit the committee. The townspeople sacked their old committee and made a new one, including some of the old but also fresh blood that might more likely make a fight of things. A few days later, Samuel Pomeroy returned from Emigrant Aid Society business in the east and joined.

The brief for vigorous action produced little. The new committee, though chosen to lead a resistance, feared collision with federal authority. William Phillips called the fear of national power “a dead weight on them.” They had plenty of reason to fear that clash, which may well brand them traitors to the nation as a whole and would likely imperil their lives as much as capitulation. Americans hanged traitors just as surely as proslavery men would abolitionists. While they tarried

Marshal Donaldson’s posse grew with frightful rapidity. The whole country was soon in a state of warlike confusion; that is, as warlike as a country can be when the demonstrations are all on one side. As the molestation of travellers was frequent, another meeting was held

This time George Dietzler, a member of the committee, chaired the affair. They put forward more resolutions in line with the previous meeting’s and forwarded them to Donaldson at Lecompton. They asked Donaldson

respectfully, that we be reliably informed what are the demands against us. We desire to state, most truthfully and earnestly, that no opposition whatever will now, or at any future time, be offered to the execution of any legal process by yourself, or any person acting for you. We also pledge ourselves to assist you, if called upon, in the execution of any legal process.

The authors might have played dumb here. The meeting had to know, from Donaldson’s own proclamation, that he had warrants to serve. But Lawrence also had a record of not molesting federal officers in their duties, so just what more could Donaldson want from them? They could at least get him more clearly on the record.

The letter proceeded to what they feared he did want:

We are informed, also, that those men collecting about Lawrence openly declare that it is their intention to destroy the town and drive off the citizens. […] in view of the excited state of the public mind, we ask protection of the constituted authorities of the government

The authors assured Donaldson that they didn’t believe he wanted any such thing, as one does, but they had his overgrown posse to fear. They knew Donaldson could come to Lawrence untroubled, which meant he must either have chosen to join in its destruction or to serve as the vehicle by which a posse gone wild did the work.

Indecision in Lawrence

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

J.B. Donaldson, US Marshal for the territory of Kansas, had warrants to serve on various free state leaders who lived in and about Lawrence. Serving the process of a federal court, in this case Samuel Lecompte’s district court for the territory, formed an ordinary part of his duties. He couldn’t not do it but, if he had any interest in doing it peacefully and limiting the action to his official obligations, he might have done better to summon a small posse and go in with a dozen or so armed friends. He chose instead to make use of the proslavery forces already gathering for a move against Lawrence, calling on them by a proclamation. They would converge in Lecompton and then march on the antislavery town.

They got wind of that in Lawrence and pleaded with Wilson Shannon, governor of Kansas, to come to their rescue. Shannon would happily give them all the help they required, if only they would disarm themselves and disband their defenses in the face of a force bent on their destruction. This, William Phillips thought, constituted a declaration of war. Donaldson’s force, summoned on the eleventh of May, 1856, would take at least a short while to arrive. That gave the committee of safety time to try something else, but they had no consensus on that next step. Ever since they learned of the proclamation, via Phillips, they differed on whether to even mount a defense of the town. Cyrus Holiday though the effort a waste because the farmers who had come in the winter could not come at planting time. The businessmen who had given Lawrence help then had not yet received full payment and so would not send still more. Still others thought they ought to get together their own posse, a few hundred strong, and offer it to Donaldson in lieu of his own. While at Lecompton, they could even requisition some weaponry from the stores at the territorial capital.

But Lawrence could hardly pass up a chance for a public meeting, which John Wakefield presided over. It resolved

that the allegations and charges against us, contained in the aforesaid proclamation, are wholly untrue in fact, and the conclusion which is drawn from them. The aforesaid deputy marshal was resisted in no manner whatever, nor by any person whatever, in the execution of said writs, except by him whose arrest the said deputy marshal was seeking to make. And that we now, as we have done heretofore, declare our willingness and determination, without resistance, to acquiesce in the service upon us of any judicial writes against us by the United States Marshal for Kansas Territory, and will furnish him with a posse for that purpose, if so requested; but that we are ready to resist, if need be, unto death, the ravages and desolation of an invading mob.

John A Wakefield

John A. Wakefield

Lawrence did have the facts on its side. When Fain came to arrest Andrew Reeder, no one abused him. Reeder declined to go, but Fain then parted still untroubled. He came back to Lawrence the next day, a fresh warrant in hand, and once again left unharmed. Everyone in town knew that and probably few people in Kansas could have missed the difference between Fain’s work and Samuel Jones’, the latter of whom did see armed resistance until he brought in the Army and subsequently caught a bullet in the back.

J.B. Donaldson’s Army

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

 

The latest invasion of Kansas by proslavery forces aimed at the free state headquarters of Lawrence could claim federal imprimatur. Governor Shannon declared he would not stand in its way, as Lawrence faced only a posse gathered under the authority of the federal district court to serve out its warrants. The hundreds of armed men converging on the town didn’t look much like a posse to anybody else, but this time Shannon hadn’t done anything to make himself responsible for its formation. Instead, that distinction went to J.B. Donaldson (or Donelson), the United States Marshal.

Donaldson could have reasonable apprehensions about serving process in Lawrence; the last person who came in unasked to do that job got shot. Nobody can fault a person for wanting some safety while carrying out a dangerous task. If Donaldson wanted extra protection, he could deputize people formally or informally to watch his back. The Marshal did just that, issuing a proclamation to the people of Kansas on May 11, 1856. He reminded them that he had warrants from the district court, which he had to execute. When he sent a deputy, Fain, to get that done, his deputy

was evidently resisted by a large number of the citizens of Lawrence, and there is every reason to believe that any attempt to execute these writs will be resisted by a large body of armed men

Donaldson didn’t mention Jones and his shooting, but no large group of men with guns had confronted Fain. At best, he entered a room with thirty people inside and tried to arrest Andrew Reeder. Reeder told him to get lost, which Fain then did. The Howard Committee might have provided a hostile audience to Fain, but they decided that they had no power to intervene in his business. I’ve found no reference to the deputy otherwise facing serious threats. A group of men did turn out to frustrate Jones until he got a detachment of the 1st Cavalry as bodyguards, but Donaldson specifies that the deputy Marshal, not the Sheriff, had trouble.

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

To whomever and however the threats, real or imagined, came about, Donaldson answered them thus:

the law-abiding citizens of the territory are commanded to be and appear at Lecompton, as soon as practicable, and in numbers sufficient for the execution of the law.

One doesn’t issue a call like this when one only wants five or ten trusty men. Donaldson could have gone around town and scared up as many in a few hours, most likely. He wanted an army and had to know he had one waiting for such a call, in the person of the many bands that Marc Parrott and Andrew Reeder reported moving into Kansas before the eleventh. Donaldson declined to circulate his proclamation in Lawrence, but they got wind of it all the same and sent their appeal to Shannon with it in mind.

According to William Phillips, the governor consulted with the proslavery leadership and Jefferson Buford before telling Lawrence that he would do nothing to help them.

 

Two Roads to Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

When Wilson Shannon, Governor of Kansas, told the people of Lawrence that they could disarm themselves in the face of an armed foe bent on their destruction if they wanted him to lift a finger to save them, he claimed the only danger they might face came from a legally-constituted posse. Under ordinary circumstances, and if the governor had burdened himself with facts, one might not find much to quarrel with in that. For a governor to interfere with the work of the courts must raise suspicions of executive usurpation. But Lawrence faced rather more than a posse, and when confronted with a posse of United States dragoons, the town had offered no direct resistance.

Lawrence came to all of this by two roads simultaneously. Samuel Jones, the proslavery sheriff, came into the town to apprehend Samuel Wood. Wood, a free state militia officer, had rescued fellow officer Jacob Branson from Jones’ custody back in December. This even precipitated the first campaign against Lawrence. Wood declined to go with Jones and a scuffle ensued, which deprived Jones of a pistol. Wood and the men who helped him get free from Jones promptly made themselves scarce. Jones applied to the 1st Cavalry for help, securing about a dozen soldiers who went back into Lawrence with him, searched the town and surrounds, and found none of his original quarry. He arrested about ten others and camped in town. Someone shot him in the back. Jones survived, but the proslavery press reported his death.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Jones’ travail by itself may have caused the invasion, just as his previous had, but the federal government became more directly involved when Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury summoned the entire free state leadership for questioning, with execution to follow. Serving Lecompte’s warrants did not fall to Jones or his office, as he served only the territorial government. Lecompte had his appointment direct from Franklin Pierce. He presided over the First District Court of the United States for Kansas Territory and so could call on the US Marshals to handle his process. Lecompte did in the person of J.B. Donelson (also rendered as Donaldson in some sources), an Illinoisian whom William Phillips called

a comparatively illiterate and informed man,. and, judging from his manner of acting in his official capacity, totally devoid of the legal knowledge necessary to dignify his office. […] He is a man past middle age, of coarse, unintellectual face, and, from his looks, ought never to have held a station above that of town constable; he would not have been too well qualified for that.

Ugly and unqualified or not, Donelson passed the matter of Lecompte’s warrants over to a Georgian named Fain. Fain tried to serve one against Andrew Reeder, then working with the Howard Committee. Reeder dismissed Fain’s summons on technical grounds, so he returned the next day with a warrant for contempt of court. Reeder declined to go with him because he had privilege from arrest, that the summons would impede his work with the committee -Lecompte probably agreed-, and that he would find his murder while in the custody of proslavery men inconvenient just then. Meanwhile, the rest of those with warrants against them began to depart Lawrence for safer pastures. Reeder soon followed.

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

According to Phillips, Fain did not let matters sit there. Instead of going back to Lecompton to report his failure,

he went down to Franklin, where at that time a band of Southerners, under Capt. Moon, were stationed. There the alarm was given, and soon scouts were sent to Missouri to gather in the Southerners still stationed there.

Last time around, Jones had gone from losing Branson straight to Franklin to write Missouri for help. Now Fain had done the same. Where Jones could claim the mantle of the territorial government and militia for his first campaign, the second could proceed with the imprimatur of the federal courts.

Shannon to Lawrence: Drop Dead

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Captain Walker left Lecompton with a letter from Governor Shannon for the good people of Lawrence. He dodged some bullets and escaped proslavery pursuit whilst carrying it back to the town, which stared down the barrels and blades of a gathering proslavery army. The governor could come to their rescue far more effectively than he had during the Wakarusa War, considering he now had authority to draw on the 1st Cavalry to preserve order. Lawrence knew that and appealed to E.V. Sumner, in command, directly. He only had to give the town a nod and all the stress of the past few days would quickly pass.

Shannon, we should remember, hailed from the northern wing of the proslavery party. He lost his seat in the House of Representatives for voting for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He came to Kansas determined to let slavery’s friends consolidate their ill-gotten gains in the nation’s newest territory. But he had drawn the line at armies on the march before, doing all he could to restrain the proslavery men who moved on Lawrence in December. He preferred antislavery Kansans disarmed and wouldn’t shed any tears if their wildcat government collapsed, but he didn’t want them dead. Hate him as they may, even the free state party could appreciate that. He had to do something.

Informed by the committee of safety that a force marshaled against Lawrence, the governor wrote back

there is no force around or approaching Lawrence except the legally constituted posse of the United States Marshal and Sheriff of Douglas County, each of whom, I am informed, have a number of writs in their hands for execution against persons now in Lawrence. I shall in no way interfere with either of these officers in the discharge of their official duties.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

You could believe Wilson Shannon or you could believe your lying eyes. Shannon admitted that a force existed, but called it only a posse. The posse trick hadn’t fooled him back in the winter, but now something had changed. The federal warrants might have done it; with a US Marshal involved, the convalescing Jones and his band of hooligans might exercise greater restraint. Or the governor may have decided that since he didn’t bear personal responsibility here, as he had when he summoned the Kansas militia against Lawrence previously, they could all go hang.

Responsibility certainly factored into Shannon’s thinking. Mulling the issue over thoughtfully, he undertook the great moral and intellectual labor of placing it elsewhere:

If the citizens of Lawrence submit themselves to the Territorial laws, and aid and assist the Marshal and Sheriff in the execution of processes in their hands, as all good citizens are bound to do when called on, they, or all such, will entitle themselves to the protection of the law. But so long as they keep up a military or armed organization to resist the Territorial laws and the officers charged with their execution, I shall not interfere to save them from the legitimate consequences of their illegal acts.

Someone in Lawrence had shot Samuel Jones when he tried to execute a warrant, fair enough. But no one answered the warrants from Lecompte’s grand jury with hot lead. Even in Jones’ case, when he appeared with a posse drawn from the 1st Cavalry the people of Lawrence acquiesced. They may have played dumb or hid the people sought, but it seems violent resistance of any kind ceased with the appearance of the military. If they wanted help, they must disarm themselves in the presence of an army enemy bent on their destruction. Shannon asked more than political suicide here; he wished antislavery Kansans to commit actual suicide.

Sworn “to drive us to Hell”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

We left Captain Walker, a free state man, in possession of Wilson Shannon’s answer to the town of Lawrence. They had a proslavery army bearing down on them, again, and he had both the authority to call out the United States Army to defend them and a responsibility for their safety as governor of Kansas. They also asked Colonel Edwin Sumner, 1st Cavalry, first and he told them he couldn’t act without Shannon’s go ahead. The committee of safety dispatched Walker their plea for help, the same document but with Shannon’s name in the place of Sumner’s. This put them in the awkward position of acknowledging Shannon as the governor of Kansas when they had elected Charles Robinson to that office, but with lives at stake one must make sacrifices. The New York Times’ correspondent reported that Walker could not get near Lecompton to deliver the message, but secured a proslavery go between. He no sooner had Shannon’s answer than six men commenced chasing after him, firing all the way. Walker lost them in a ravine.

Samuel Lecompte ran his court and grand jury out of Lecompton, which he lent his name. He helped start this latest trouble by summoning the entire free state leadership on suspicion of treason. The Times remarked that he kept issuing summons to that town, which free state men feared to answer. Lecompte himself might happily let them stew through some months of custody before a trial that ended with antislavery Kansans dangling from a rope, but someone else could arrange a fatal accident far sooner. News of that had gotten Andrew Reeder to abandon the plan to serve as the party’s political martyr and test case. Now it must have seemed that anyone foolish enough to go would risk his life attempting just to get to the court.

Thus most of those summoned

consequently stay away; the result of which is they are being subject to a new process for contempt of Court […] the highest crime recognized by law in Kansas while Judge Lecompte is arbiter. We are becoming more suspicious that these demons meditate a night attack upon us, therefore we are keeping out strong guards, and lights are kept burning at night in our principal buildings.

The dangers attached to more than locally famous antislavery men and their agents. The Times told that the proslavery men seized a Mr. Wise, four miles south of Lawrence, and kept him until ten at night. They brandished knives at him and “pricked his vest,” but wise convinced them that he stood with them and they let him go. Before parting, he learned some of their plan. They would arrest Andrew Reeder (now fled), Charles Robinson (likewise), and James Lane (now rumored back in Kansas). Two senators-elect and a governor would make for quite the prize, which they aspired to display hanging from rope by the neck. Should they fail to secure those men,

they are sworn to commence a crusade against Lawrence and “drive us to hell.”

Lights out or not, nobody could have slept soundly on that news.

2017 by way of 1965

Gentle Readers, I’ve thought quite a bit about whether or not to continue with Modern Mondays. In the past I’ve sometimes had trouble finding an adequately modern event with historical resonance to write about and struggled to write about those I do find in new ways, failing often. The horror that stars in our news for at least the next four years suggests no shortage of incidents to come, which forms part of the problem. I come here to write history, if history I consider relevant to our present circumstances. For all that I wear my politics on my sleeve, I did not set out to write a political blog. I don’t know how often I will keep this up, but here we are.

A white supremacist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will soon lead the Cabinet department responsible for, and founded for the express purpose of, defending the civil rights of African-Americans. People don’t have to take an example from the names their parents chose; this Jefferson could have done better. The brief era when people took the Justice Department’s mission seriously will come to a close just as it has before. We may all be long dead before such a time comes again, if it ever does.

History has no arc and it will not bend toward justice. People bend history. We made this world as we made all the others, with the choices that fill our days. We could unmake it too, if enough of us move in the right direction. That happens, sometimes. When the world tilts our way we call it justice. When it doesn’t, we have to explain it. We can tell ourselves that we just lost that one on a fluke, that something outside the system intervened, or the ill-starred moment just came and no one could do anything.

Everyone has stories. Jeff Sessions will tell you he stood up for civil rights. He will not tell you that he did so by prosecuting people who tried to register black voters. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in racism, in segregation, that he opposes white supremacy in all its forms. He will not remind you that the Republican Senate found him too racist to give a job on the federal bench to back in in the Eighties. The Republican Senate of the two thousand tens will confirm him and congratulate themselves for all the work he will do ensuring black Americans find it harder and harder to vote. The other side bends history too; they win at least half the time.

Sessions will become Attorney General. We can’t stop it, but we don’t have to go quietly along. Sessions presently represents Alabama in the United States Senate, and by Alabama I must say that I mean the white Alabama of 2016, by way of 1965. White Alabamans knew what they wanted back then: black Americans should not vote, should not protest, should not do anything that made them look like citizens of the United States. They should instead remain, if not chattel, then as close to it as one could feasibly manage. Some whites disagreed with the racial order, even if it did put them on top, but they had a century to alter it and had not found the will or numbers to bend that arc of history.

When American citizens, allegedly as equal and good as your or I, marched to protest Alabama denying their right to vote, the Sheriff of Dallas County called out every white man in his jurisdiction and deputized them. One does this to answer an invading army or a revolution, which came that day in the form of nonviolent protesters walking down a public road. The police told them to stop and go home. They paused, prayed, and the police descended on them with teargas. Some, mounted, rode into the crowd with billy clubs.

We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

I don’t know how Jefferson Sessions, nineteen that year, spent that day; I suspect he spent it at university. John Lewis, twenty-five, stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading the protesters. Those are his words above. They fractured his skull. He remained with the protest and delivered a speech before seeking treatment. Since 1997, when Sessions claimed his Senate seat, both men have served in the United States Congress. No one needed to tell John Lewis where his old enemy had risen up again. This past week he testified against Sessions’ nomination:

I advise against reading the Youtube comments, Gentle Readers.

I hold to the school that we ought not make people into heroes, as we must revise and edit them past any hope of honesty to turn a person into perfection. For the same reasons, we should not name anyone the conscience of a nation. Everyone has faults, blind spots, contains contradictions. But if we conceive of the United States as a nation of justice and freedom, I don’t know many people living today who have done better at holding the country to those ideals and living them out, broken bones, bruised flesh, and all. If being a good American means the things we so often say it means, we must count Lewis one of the best.

Our questionably-coiffed president-elect, the man who got millions less votes in the election of 2016, must have had his TV on just then. He informed the world via Twitter

You understand the thought process, Gentle Readers. He saw a black man on his television. That must mean poverty and crime, because he has worked hard all his life to ensure just that. For Lewis to represent a large section of Atlanta, which seems to do well enough, would mean that Trump and all the others that update their wardrobe in the bedclothes aisle had failed. It would confront them with black Americans as capable, not merely of good leadership but of anything at all. They could not endure such a tragedy and so will go to heroic lengths to prevent it, like losing an election by more than two million votes and calling it a landslide. Or naming Jefferson Sessions Attorney General.

I have not studied Lewis’ career in Congress, but I don’t doubt he’s had his share of frustrations and disappointments. The latest probably began late on election night. But he’s gotten results too. The broken bones of he and his fellow protesters, coming to them through the television in fuzzy black and white, drove a profoundly white supremacist nation to briefly decide it could be something better. The Voting Rights Act, now teetering on the edge of oblivion, came out of it. That could not stand. Millions of white Americans would not tolerate any such thing and embarked on a decades-long campaign to restore Jim Crow and take it fully national. White supremacy won the White House, despite losing the vote, back in November just as it has previous Novembers when Richard Nixon promised “law and order” (break skulls) and Ronald Reagan declared for state’s rights (the right to murder civil rights activists without federal interference). We have come this way before. We shall again. Departures stand out because we see them so seldom.

Every time a storm hits Washington, you don’t have to go far to find photographs of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. They come with injunctions to respect the steadfast commitment of these men and women to their duty. That, we believe, says something about us and the kind of nation we have. Maybe it does; I am no connoisseur of martial virtues. Fifty-seven years on, it seems we still stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge too. Now, just as then, both sides have a large cheering section as the teargas flies and bones break. That says more.

Lawrence Asks Governor Shannon for Help

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Seeing a new proslavery onslaught bearing down on them, the people of Lawrence took what action they could. They begged E.V. Sumner, who came to check on them, to bring his 1st Cavalry down from Fort Leavenworth to protect the town. Sumner wanted to oblige them, but his instructions bound him to act only when called upon by Wilson Shannon, territorial governor. Jefferson Davis’ War Department had made it clear to Sumner that he did not have authority to act on his own and he absolutely did not have it to defend Kansas from external attack.

None of this made for steady nerves and easy sleeping. The New York Times‘ correspondent wrote (PDF) about how things looked on the ground on May 12:

We are approaching near and near an awful something, that is nameless. There is such a profound secresy pervading the acts and intentions of our enemy, that we are somewhat at a loss to know the character of our doom.

I think we can all relate about now. The correspondent put Lecompton, the territorial capital, as their rallying point. More men arrived daily and on the tenth,

they commenced sending out in this direction companies of from twenty-five to fifty who encamped at various places, taking care to not get within three or four miles of Lawrence.

In response, Lawrence had convened a new public safety committee. They needed a new one because half the previous number had fled. That group approached Sumner for help when he called at Lawrence. Sumner evinced a determination “to set us right, and set Missouri right.” But he still needed Wilson Shannon to set him loose. Once that happened, Sumner believed he would have discretionary authority necessary to protect Lawrence. It would help everyone out, except the Missourians, if Lawrence would petition for Shannon to get the ball rolling.

The committee sent a copy of their petition to Sumner, with Shannon’s name in the place of his, and dispatched it via special messenger to Lecompton. That messenger, a Captain Walker,

came near to losing his life in the undertaking. He was overtaken by two men on horseback before he reached the town, one of whom rode ahead in advance of him, and made preparations to prevent him from entering their “holy city”.

No free state man could profane Lecompton, apparently. This reads a bit like they wanted to be sure he didn’t come out with useful military intelligence. But someone took his message on to Shannon all the same and came back with an answer. When Walker turned back with that answer, a party of six followed him

but he having a fleet horse, kept ahead, and by sheering off into a ravine, escaped after being fired upon several times without effect.

Instructions for the Army, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I forgot to set it to go live at the usual time.

E.V. Sumner wanted to help keep order in Kansas. He had instructions (PDF) from Washington to that effect and a new crisis seemed at hand with yet another proslavery posse and invasion from Missouri in motion. He reached out to Wilson Shannon, who had leave to call on him straight from the President, but Shannon appeared unwilling to take responsibility for calling the 1st Cavalry to the field. Sumner understood Shannon’s shyness as contributing to the danger, because his refusal to intervene and reign in these posses ensured that “they are made up of partisans.” Only the genuine fear both parties had for each other might avert a disaster.

Sumner had gone to Lecompton to see Shannon and then Lawrence to assess the situation there. When he placed himself at Shannon’s disposal on May 12, 1856, he carried with him a copy of a petition that a public meeting in the free state town had drawn up at seven o’clock on the eleventh.

we have the most reliable information from every section of the Territory that armed bands of men are forming, and that several hundreds are now encamped within a few miles of this town, who make the most violent threats of the destruction of the town and its inhabitants

Several hundred would about fit with the descriptions I’ve read elsewhere. Somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 showed up for the Wakarusa War and Jefferson Buford’s men could account for a few hundred just by themselves. Movement of that size would also fit with Marcus Parrott seeing two companies go by in a single day, though he didn’t say how many men in each. A company could mean the military formation, with a paper strength of around a hundred but often rather less than that. Or it could just mean he saw a group of armed men who appeared to share a purpose. Threats of Lawrence’s destruction, people included, came during the Wakarusa War as well. Nothing here looks particularly exaggerated.

Thus the meeting declares that C.W. Topliff, W.G. Roberts, and John Hutchinson go and

wait on Colonel Sumner, Commander of the First Regiment of United States Cavalry, and inform him of our imminent danger, and respectfully ask of him such protection as he may be able to extent to us

Roberts looks like the free state Lieutenant Governor, but his name comes as W.Y. Roberts elsewhere. Given the commonality of Williams and Robertses, I suspect a different person rather than a clerical error. I don’t recognize Topliff or Hutchinson.

If Wilson Shannon wouldn’t call out the army, maybe Lawrence could. Should Sumner come, then the proslavery side would face the same dilemma that the free state party had in December. To press on would mean levying war against the power of the United States. Even Franklin Pierce might have trouble excusing that, though no era suffers a dearth of shameless politicians willing to try just such a maneuver.

Instructions for the Army, Part One

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

On May 8, 1856, Marcus Parrott went up to Fort Leavenworth and had a talk with Colonel Edwin Sumner, in command, about the brewing invasion from Missouri. Since the Wakarusa War’s muddled end, Franklin Pierce had granted Wilson Shannon the authority to call out Sumner’s men to preserve law and order in Kansas. Pierce’s proclamation made only fig leaf gestures to neutrality, casting antislavery agitation as the more serious threat. But Pierce’s orders to Sumner (PDF), by way of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, charged the Colonel with aiding the territorial government against both “insurrection” and “invasive aggression.” Davis’ orders focused entirely on the things that antislavery Kansans had done, reducing the threat of Missourian invasion to a single reference in passing. In that he followed the lead of the President, or the President followed his. We don’t know exactly how things worked out between them, but at least some of the time Davis seems to have had practical control of the executive branch.

Sumner noticed the omission and wrote back to the War Department. Did they mean for him to intervene also if Shannon called on him to stop invaders from Missouri? The Governor had tried just that back in December, but Sumner had demurred for lack of authority to comply on his own. He also seems to have asked about an invasion from parts more distant, whether Jefferson Buford’s men or some sort of armed Emigrant Aid formation. Jefferson Davis wrote back via the Adjutant General’s office on March 26:

in reply to the question as to where the men may come from, or whether armed or unarmed, is not one for the inquiry or consideration of the commanding officer. It is only when an armed resistance is offered to the laws and against the peace and quiet of the Territory, and when, under such circumstances, a requisition for military force is made upon the commanding officer by the authority specified in his instructions, that he is empowered to act.

Colonel Sumner had no authority to act against border ruffians. Should Shannon call on him, he must act in concert with them. Thus Sumner visited Lecompton on May 12, a few days after promising Marcus Parrott that he would look into things. He had bad news, which he shared with the Adjutant General:

Great excitement is prevailing in the country at this moment in consequence of the Marshal and Sheriff summoning large posses, without reference to the Governor, as they say to maintain the law.

Sumner informed Shannon that he would follow his instructions when called upon, to

arrest and hold subject to the orders of the civil authorities any men in the territory against whom writs were issued; and further, that in order to preserve the peace of the country, I would place my entire regiment immediately at any point he might designate.

Shannon, Sumner thought, wanted that badly to keep the peace. He had said as much back in December and now faced a situation much the same, down to the cast of characters. But Shannon didn’t think it proper to “assume the responsibility of controlling them under civil officers”. All of this sounds like Shannon wanted Sumner to go out on a limb face the consequences of intervention against the proslavery party.