“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Five


Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 123, 4

Stringfellow, his Platte County Self-Defense Association compatriots, and American whites in general had a wide panoply of legal means to control American blacks. Their edicts ran through slave codes in the South and various state laws in the North that enforced forms of segregation, reserved voting to white men alone, even barred all blacks from some states, and otherwise comfortably situated white supremacy at the heart of the body politic. Stringfellow’s northern neighbors could have told him a thing or two about how to manage blacks in the absence of slavery.

But the stability and security of slavery did not rest on the control of blacks alone. That same control had to extend, if in sometimes more sophisticated and subtle ways, to poor whites who might otherwise use their vote to remove slavery and blacks alike from their presence. Stringfellow appreciated that risk and declared that the self-defense to which his association pledged itself included defense against giving those whites any such ideas. The association thus promised that it would not suffer the sun to set on any whites within its reach who took to antislavery agitation.

What did that mean for the rights of white men, enshrined in the Constitution? In one sense, it meant very little. In the nineteenth century, states had no obligation to extend any federal right whatsoever to their citizens. They could if they so wished, but could extend some or none and remove them just as freely. The familiar rights of modern Americans did not come slowly out from their paper tomb until the twentieth century.

All that said, Americans of the time still believed they had rights and took the exercise of them seriously even if they lacked the full legal superstructure that we would expect. That extended, in some ways, even to the oligarchs riding high on brutally oppressive slave societies. Some things, Americans just ought not to do.

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

We believe in your rights as Americans. We believe in the rule of law. But as no law yet forbids expressing abolitionist ideas, we must take the law into our own hands. Your right to speak does not trump our right to hold slaves.

This speaks to the essential trade-off between slavery and freedom, as understood by many nineteenth century Americans. Black slavery required not just the subjugation of blacks, but also the compromise of white freedom. The slaveholders would take that trade, accepting less freedom for a class of whites in order to secure no freedom for blacks and the freedom to hold slaves for themselves.

Antislavery whites perceived the exchange just the same way: preserving slavery meant sacrificing white freedom. Nor did the trade appear to happen once, but rather it looked more and more as years went on that additional sacrifices would always come. Slavery, once tolerated under the Missouri Compromise, suddenly demanded all of the Mexican Cession. Then it demanded all the nation’s unorganized territory. What would it demand next? If they too must knuckle under to the despot in his plantation house to keep him in his slaves, then they wanted no part of his freedom to have them and would work if not to end it then at least to curtail its reach and power over their lives.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Four


Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3

A free Kansas would lead to a free Missouri. A free Missouri would turn into an abolitionist headquarters from which to strike deeper into the South. Financial ruin and a strong chance at racial annihilation would ensue, as to men like Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and the Platte County Self-Defense Association one simply could not live with black people without holding them as slaves. Maybe the North could get away with its tiny number of free blacks, though Stringfellow doubted it, but the South had vastly more. The abolitionists promised ruin for everyone. Thus

The plan of our Association is not aggressive, but as our name imparts, truly self-defensive. We are pledged diligently to investigate and promptly bring to punishment every violation of the laws which have been enacted for the protection of our slave-property.

One can’t doubt Stringfellow’s sincerity. He does write propaganda informed by a particular time and place not entirely typical of the antebellum South, but he writes with a set of fears very much the same as those expressed by whites living in areas far safer for slavery. The fear that the color line would break and poor whites would turn against slavery informed thinkers in the Lower South just as much as it did those in Stringfellow’s chilly environs. In no state did slaveholders form a majority, though in Mississippi slaveholding households came very close to a majority of white households. They needed the poor whites to see themselves as whites first and so have a common cause with the planter aristocrats, rather than the slaves. The facts of their skin must trump the fact that a black slave and a white freeman doing the same hard farm labor had far more personally in common than the legal walls separating them suggested.

But how could Stringfellow, his Platte County Self-Defense Association comrades, and the slaveholding class in general keep out the threat of class consciousness parting ways with racial consciousness? The Association pledged itself to

We have determined to adopt all proper means to rid ourselves of the free negroes, who are unfit and have no right by law to remain among us: and to prevent all such as are not members of some white family, and subject to their control, from residing in our county.

This form of racial control became quite common outside the South in the several decades after Reconstruction in the form of sundown towns. James Loewen wrote a great book on it.

But sundown towns take us far afield from the Missouri hinterland in 1854. Chasing off free, independently living blacks from Missouri would not keep control of poor whites. For that, the Association had other plans

We have also pledged ourselves to expel from our county all who shall be found proclaiming principles which tend to induce our slaves to escape, to lead them to insurrection and rebellion.

The expulsion, by violence if necessary, of any who spoke out against slavery, in Kansas especially but also at home, gained the Missouri filibusters their place in the history books.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Three


Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 1, 2

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, writing for the Platte County Self-Defense Association, explained its intentions to his readers. The members feared that Emigrant Aid Societies unfairly competed for land in newly opened Kansas. They would plant mercenary paupers on that land to both keep Kansas free soil and undermine slavery in adjacent Missouri. They would do that by bringing into Missouri’s slave belt men of open abolitionist sentiment. They would gather and announce themselves, emboldening Missourians who already had doubts about slavery. They would also encourage free blacks, the worst sort of black to men of Stringfellow’s thinking, and use their homes as outposts on the underground railroad. The tide of free soil footsoldiers rushing through the Missouri slave country would also, with the lure of profit, induce even decent slaveholding men to turn traitor by selling them supplies and otherwise giving them aid.

We should not discount the fear of white subversion, breaking the almighty color line that kept poor white nonslaveholders and rich whites slaveholders together. The planter class really did need the assent of a great many whites to keep their slaves because whites did have and had used in living memory the power to end slavery within the bounds of a slave state. If that power  lay dormant after New Jersey’s 1804 emancipation law, that did not mean it had vanished. White solidarity kept slaves in their places.

The impetus for that white solidarity came in part from fears of a racial holocaust. Slaves had revolted violently in the past. Very large and frightening revolts had taken place in the Caribbean, the greatest and most notorious in Haiti. Servile insurrection lurked seemingly around every corner to some Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century. The United States never had a massive revolt on the scale of Haiti, slaveholders thought they had in the past caught conspiracies to accomplish just such a thing. If they had to torture or terrorize confessions out of the alleged conspirators, that only meant that they knew what awaited if they told willingly. Paranoia played a role, but sometimes slaves really did set out to get their owners.

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.

A good example could break white solidarity, convince the slaves to revolt, or both at once. Personal safety and racial paranoia ran smoothly together. Black brutes would kill innocent whites if let free. Inspiring whites to debate the merits of slavery openly would lead to poor whites turning against it. One would enable the other and soon everything would fly out of the slaveholders’ control. That might mean their personal ruin, but it would surely mean their financial ruin:

Already the effect of the coming of such a band of abolitionists to our border, has been not only to reduce the value of our slaves, but of our land. Slaveholders fear to come among us; good men who are opposed to slavery, will not come; and should Kansas be made a harbour for negro-thieves, ours, now the most prosperous portion of our State, will in a short lime become a desert waste. We must at once sell our slaves, abandon the culture of hemp, our great staple; suffer our fields to lie idle, until slaveholders driven from our State, Missouri shall fall into the hands of freesoilers, and a new people be brought to take our places.

The reference to good men opposed to slavery has to make one wonder what such person Stringfellow would have recognized. The Emigrant Aid Societies brought men opposed to slavery who he called bad on this grounds.

The fall of Missouri to freedom would, of course, have broader implications:

Not less is the interest which other slaveholding States have in the end, though seemingly it be less in the beginning of this struggle. The abolitionists are fully awake to the true nature, the future consequences of this struggle. They proclaim the purpose of their efforts to be, to surround Missouri with non-slaveholding States; force her to abolish slavery; then wheel her into their ranks for an attack upon the States south of her.

Missouri vanquished, Arkansas and Texas are looked upon as easy victims. Slavery then restricted to a small space, they rejoice in the contemplation of an early exhibition of another Haytian liberation.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Two

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Part 1.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, on behalf of the Platte County Self-Defense Association, opened his statement of the group’s goals and beliefs with a striking admission. They genuinely did fear for themselves in Missouri if Kansas turned free soil. By putting abolitionists and their pauper Hessians, virtually white slaves, so near to Missouri’s not very black black belts, the Emigrant Aid Societies would embolden not free soilers in Kansas, not even necessarily Missouri’s slaves, but Missouri’s poor whites. They could get the idea that they would do better with no slavery about, break the racial solidarity on which the slave system depended, and bring about its overthrow. That would inevitably lead to diverse calamities, not the least of which involved slaveholders losing valuable human property.

The subversion of the free white nonslaveholder, whom the slaveholders needed on their side to keep the whole business running, came in part from the fear of a good example. If poor whites could free Kansas, why not adjacent Missouri? But that other roads led to abolition as well. Stringfellow claims that one fellow ran around the streets declaring that he’d like to burn the whole slaveholding town down.

Worse still, some whites might turn against them in the name of the almighty dollar. The practical route into Kansas involved a trip up the Missouri river, right through the black belt. The flood of white settlers coming up the river would pass through the towns there. They would need lodging, supplies, livestock, anything they couldn’t carry with them.

It seemed as if Weston were about to become the head-quarters of their operations. It was feared, and subsequent events have vindicated, that our fear was not without foundation, that among our traders and merchants there where those who at heart were against us; others who loved money so much more than their country, they would, for the gain from the abolition trade, encourage them to come among us.

Americans love their moral crusades, but we also love our money. If one could get rich selling goods to the emigrants, did one really care if the Emigrant Aid Society brought them so far or not? The cash spent the same either way.

Once these abolitionists arrived, they would find not just sympathetic whites in western Missouri:

There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of, them, as usual, of bad character; their houses, the natural places of resort for abolitionists, at which to meet, and tamper with slaves, corrupt them, entice them to run away, and furnish them facilities for escape.

Stringfellow has an odd, or extreme, notion as to how many free blacks would constitute a large number. Platte County housed only 51, according to the 1850 census. That amounted to 1.79% of its black population. If fifty-one out of nearly three thousand worries him, then he must not think highly of the security of slavery at all. But he claimed all the same that the abolitionists had already gone to work:

About this time, a large number of slaves made their escape: three, from the neighborhood of Weston, were taken in Iowa, and free papers, with full instructions as to their route, were found upon them.

That hardly amounted to a crisis, but one can see how Stringfellow and others came to view the tide of history going against them. The abolitionist rhetoric about a war for Kansas, the natural insecurity of slavery, Missouri’s own distant and small antislavery movement, the tide of settlers, the profit waiting for a merchant willing to sell to an abolitionist, and free blacks as the thin end of the wedge must have come across like a perfect storm to smash slavery. A few runaways in that environment look very much like not an isolated incident, but the start of an avalanche.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part One

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The Platte County Self-Defense Association, founded in part by David Rice Atchison and his lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, established itself to warn off and battle people coming to settle Kansas under the auspices of the various Emigrant Aid Societies that sprung up to plant free soil settlers on the newly opened land. I did not have much luck finding the words of the Emigrant Aid Society supporters online, but the internet smiled upon me for their opponents. In 1854, Stringfellow himself wrote a pamphlet titled Negro-Slavery, No Evil. As it concerns the Platte County group directly, Stringfellow declares his work a kind of manifesto:

In obedience to a resolution adopted by the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, we proceed to lay before the public the immediate causes which led to the formation of the Association; to explain its purposes, and to suggest the means, which seem to us proper to be adopted by the citizens of the slaveholding States, to defeat the designs of the abolitionists.

One cannot get much more official than written on the order of the association by one of its principals. In doing so, Stringfellow wrote not just a specific defense of their actions and statement of motives, but also a general defense of slavery itself. That involved exposing

fully the dangers to which slave-property in Missouri, and especially on the borders of Kansas, is subjected; to arouse the attention of all good citizens, not of slaveholding States alone, but of the whole Union, to the results which must follow, if the abolitionists succeed in their purposes; and, if possible, to suggest means by which those results may be prevented.

It all goes back to the group’s name. They understood themselves not as imperialists, or even necessarily favoring expansion of slavery for its own sake, but rather as a besieged minority at the mercy of millionaire New England abolitionists. They thus had to band together to prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold so near to their homes and human property. The ultimate end of the Emigrant Aid Societies involved not a free Kansas, but rather using a free Kansas a means to overthrow their exposed slavery regime in Missouri. Offensive acts in Kansas constituted defense of Missouri. The Emigrants they opposed hardly deserved the name:

Were these miscalled “emigrants” poor and honest farmers, seeking a home and the advantages of a new country for themselves and families, we might applaud the charity of those who originated the scheme: were these associations fair means of deciding the contest between the friends and opponents of negro-slavery, we might admire the energy of the abolitionists: but when we find these miscalled emigrants really negro-thieves, their purpose not to procure a home in Kansas, but to drive slaveholders therefrom; that they are not freemen, but paupers, who have sold themselves to Ely Thayer & Co., to do their masters’ bidding; who hesitate not to proclaim that they are expert in stealing slaves; that they intend to follow their calling, self-defence requires that means equally active, equally efficient, should be adopted by those who are threatened.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The defenders of slavery leap to call whites slaves, understanding it as a sort of ultimate pejorative. Those paupers sold their wills and bodies to Thayer and his millionaires. They had masters who owned them. The same situation, when imposed by force upon blacks mysteriously endowed them only with blessings. Stringfellow does not miss the contradiction entirely. It concerned many of slavery’s defenders. He will explain why blacks uniquely benefit from slavery later on.

Situated on the border of Kansas, we were the first to receive the attack. Those among us, who had hitherto been restrained by fear, emboldened by the prospect of such efficient aid begun openly to avow their sentiments; the timid, became freesoilers; the bold, abolitionists. The emissaries of the “Emigration Aid Societies” were arriving; they were boasting that “they would shortly be the strongest, and then they would drive slaveholders from Kansas!” They declared that “they had run off slaves, would run off more, and would, finally, drive slaveholders from Missouri!”

The Emigrant Aid Societies would send white slaves to Kansas to overthrow Missouri slavery. But take note of who Stringfellow thinks those interloping thralls of Yankee millionaires would embolden. He refers not to black slaves, but free whites. He fears the destruction of white racial solidarity. If free whites get the idea that they have the freedom to oppose slavery, they’ve had a bad example just as the slave inspired to revolt would have. How would white slaveholders in a free white man’s republic battle against a grassroots effort by free whites to end slavery? Just that kind of movement had banished slavery from the North.

Together for Land and Slavery

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

While the Emigrant Aid Societies fit comfortably into the history of American settlement, that did not stop the people of western Missouri from seeing them as interlopers. Didn’t those New Englanders have their own territory just up north in Nebraska? Good Missouri men and women had waited for years at the frontier, some more observant of the law against moving across the line into Kansas than others, and now insulting outsiders would flood in and take it all from them. If the people coming under the auspices of the Massachusetts, later New England, Emigrant Aid Society and others had every right to the territory, a proposition many in Missouri would contest, then so did they.

This all must sound a bit remote from slavery. Whatever promises to the contrary, few slaveholders would risk their valuable human property on land that they would share with avowed abolitionists. The slaves might get ideas about freedom and find whites to help them escape. Worse still, they might find themselves inspired to violent revolution. Most of the Missourians who came to Kansas to stay probably cared far more about getting their land than the fate of slavery.

Interest in the fate of Kansas, however, extended well beyond the small Missouri farmer. The slaveholders of the Missouri valley lived too close and had too much invested to leave the matter to chance. They, like their smallholding neighbors, lived quite near to Kansas. With the governor not arriving until the fall, they also had and ample opportunity to arrange things across the border to their liking.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

They did not waste the chance. In Westport, a group formed calling itself the Platte County Self-Defense Association. Its founders included David Rice Atchison and his trusted lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow. They swore themselves to taking Kansas for slavery. To that end, they would take slaves into Kansas, keep them, and run out any abolitionist or free black they came upon. In Independence, proslavery men set up a vigilance (read: vigilante) committee and committees of correspondence throughout Kansas and the South to monitor events and promote settlement by reliable, proslavery men. Unlike those moving to Kansas permanently, these groups cared more about the slavery than the land. More precisely, they cared about their slavery on their land in Missouri and saw a free Kansas as threatening it.

On June 10, people inside Kansas got into the act with a meeting at Fort Leavenworth promising no protection to any abolitionist. Why would these people, presumably in Kansas on their own behalf and thus more interested in the land than slavery, make such a declaration?

Abolitionists settling in Kansas might encourage free blacks to do the same. This might further lead to communities of runaways who would settle down next door and become still more competition. In all that, they probably thought much better of most of the antislavery men coming to Kansas than the latter deserved. With few exceptions, most of the white antislavery movement shared with proslavery whites the vision of a future lily-white America. Such visions animated laws in Indiana and Illinois to exclude all blacks from those states only a few years before. No less an antislavery man than David Wilmot infamously declared that

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

In addition to that, to live in Missouri, especially the western part, at least implied a level of comfort with slavery and facilitated a kind of shared racial solidarity with slaveholders. They might not precisely share the same class, but a poor farmer who had little could take some pride in being treated well by a rich man on the grounds of their shared color. They could have had business dealings with their slaveholding neighbors. They could very well share the slaveholders’ nightmares about servile insurrections. Would enraged, rebelling slaves really confine themselves only to the whites who personally owned them? If all those slaves turned free, could poorer whites really compete with the suddenly free labor? Would not social equality soon follow?

And if none of that convinced the Missouri smallholder moving into Kansas, then slaveholding neighbors remained neighbors. One could not say the same for Yankee interlopers. If their neighbors cared more about slavery than land, but would help secure the land in the name of securing slavery, then why would a Missourian emigrant object to joining forces?

Frontier Folklore and Colonial Continuity

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The proslavery and antislavery movements to take Kansas naturally invite comparison. They contended for the future of the same land. Their struggles look to us like foreshadowing of the war that broke out less than a decade later. They too considered themselves engaged in a critical struggle for the nation’s future. It conjured powerful emotions and occasioned extreme rhetoric. But if we can set aside for the moment our natural desire to cast ourselves as latter-day antislavery partisans and try to view the issue from a more thoroughgoing popular sovereignty position, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society and its clones and successors look a bit like cheating.

Settling the frontier, one would imagine, should go along a fairly orderly process where thousands of small farmers get in their wagons, hitch up their team, and take all their worldly possessions out on the gamble of their lives. We imagine them as disinterested in great political causes. They move for their own advancement, which comes at great peril and through arduous labor. They somehow wrestle from the land their new fortunes. Who would begrudge them? We call them settlers and pioneers, not businessmen taking on risky ventures. We certainly don’t call them agents of a political movement, except in the broadest patriotic American sense.

The Emigrant Aid Societies going around raising money to send people with the explicit goal of making Kansas free, who will come in groups together for that end don’t have a comfortable place in that story. The expectation of the investors to make a profit off this for themselves fits still worse. This frontier looks nothing like the frontier we remember. Nor might it look much like the one that nineteenth century Americans imagined.

However much we dislike their cause, maybe those Missouri filibusters and border ruffians had a point. The New Englanders did come from afar. They did it not with the sweat of their own brows, but with the subsidy of a wealthy corporation. They came bent on tipping the scales in Kansas to exclude from the territory and future state men like them: decent, hardworking sorts who had every reasonable expectation that when they could legally come to Kansas, they would have it to themselves. The men from Missouri, after all, needed no corporation to fund their trip.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

But our folk memory lets us down here. The Emigrant Aid Societies imagined a colonization scheme and we’ve fallen out of talking about colonization too much as in recent decades it draws uncomfortable attention to the people who got to the hemisphere before our national ancestors and deprived them of it by force. It makes us uncomfortable like slavery does. Corporations made Jamestown, Plymouth, and most of the other colonies we recognize. They began with royal land grants, which the companies used as license to go out and claim the land to develop and sell at a profit. Often that profit did not come but from the very first generation of Englishmen on the East Coast, colonization had taken place under corporate auspices and with an eye toward profit for the company as much and sometimes more than profit for the stockholders.

The Virginia Company and the Emigrant Aid Societies had centuries of time between them, but not much daylight. Nor had company-subsidized colonization fallen off with independence. The utopian communities that flourished briefly and then generally collapsed in the early part of the nineteenth century had a bit of the same vision about them, if usually on a smaller scale. James Gadsden tried to organize a slaveholding colony in southern California as late as 1851. William Walker and other filibusters used colonization schemes as cover for their activities. However much Americans of the time told themselves the story of the individual pioneer, they still lived in a world where said individuals often came to their new lands with plenty of outside help on top of the aid that the United States provided in clearing the land of Indian inhabitants.

If all of this made the antislavery men coming to Kansas into Hessians reborn, then they had plenty of company. Political and religious dissenters founded corporate colonies with an eye to making a buck. Dissenters from the Kansas-Nebraska Act carried on just the latest act of that tradition. They had as much right to the land as anybody from Missouri.

Creating a Kansas

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

If one hopes to seize Kansas for slavery or for freedom, or just one’s personal profit, one must first create a Kansas. The land already existed, of course, and some whites had settled there illegally back in 1853, shamelessly electing a delegate to go off and lobby Congress for statehood from land that the Non-Intercourse Act explicitly forbade them to dwell upon. In this, they scrupulously observed white America’s traditional means of respecting the rights of Indians to land reserved to them. Still more had come across from Missouri in more recent months, whether the KansasNebraska Act bore Franklin Pierce’s signature to authorize them or not. But making a state meant making a government and for that, they really did have to wait on the infamous law.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act may have driven a truck through thirty years of tradition in tearing down the Missouri Compromise, but otherwise it ran in fairly conventional ways. As no government yet existed, it had to frame a means to set one up piece by piece. That all began with the governor and a few other officers appointed by the national government and sent out to get the ball rolling. Knowing the potentially explosive situation, one which he had tried to avoid and been forced into, one would expect Franklin Pierce to appoint some kind of experienced hand. Perhaps he could dig out a superannuated elder statesman or someone helpfully out of the country for the past few years who could appear an honest broker to both sides.

Pierce naturally treated the governorship as a patronage position and gave it to Andrew Horatio Reeder of Easton, Pennsylvania. Reeder had never held office before, but the Postmaster-General thought that appointing a favorite son would help the Democracy in that quarter of the Keystone State. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed into law at the end of May, 1854. Pierce announced his decision for Reeder on June 29. Reeder took his oath on July 7, but did not arrive in Kansas until October 7. That left a great deal of time for things to go wrong in Kansas, but Reeder traveled by the same means as everyone else.

Once Reeder arrived, the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave him broad powers to use in building Kansas’ government. In his inexperienced hands lay the power to conduct a census, establish a capital, set up electoral districts, and call for the initial elections to the territorial legislature. These powers would expire once that legislature first sat, but with them Reeder had the power to decide the time and manner in which that would happen. He could delay elections long enough for free soil settlers funded by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society and other such groups to arrive. He could hurry them up and hand the territory over to the Missouri slaveholders and their allies who had the geographic advantage. To establish his impartiality to concerned Southerners, Reeder told the Washington Union that he would buy a slave as easily as a horse. It transpired, however, that he lacked the cash to buy that slave and take it with him to Kansas.

That might have reassured some of the David Rice Atchisons of the world, but did little to calm the nerves of the Horace Greeleys, William Sewards, and Eli Thayers.

About Fort Pillow

I think that I’ve said here before that, with a few exceptions, I’m not very good about observing anniversaries. Perhaps I should improve on that. I knew that Fort Pillow’s sesquicentennial came and went last weekend and said nothing about it. My reasons at the time involved a considerable investment in 1854, not wanting to break the day to day flow of the narrative, and the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject itself. But others don’t have those shortcomings and I’ve read some really excellent content that I ought to have shared earlier.

Over at the New York TimesDisunion, you can read a basic overview of events. Confederate troops under the command of former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee. The Union forces holding the fort included a unit of Unionist Tennesseans and freedmen of the United States Colored Troops. They won the fight and

Chaos ensued. With few officers left alive to direct them, some defenders dropped their weapons in surrender, while others scrambled down the steep hillside. But discipline also broke down among the rebels. Forrest’s men had never faced black troops in battle before. In the Confederate mind, opposition from armed black men — in this case, black men who had recently taunted them — was tantamount to a slave insurrection, and few things were likelier to enrage a white Southerner.

“The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” Nor was that all: These black men were fighting alongside local white Unionists, whom the rebels despised as “homemade Yankees” and “Tennessee Tories.”

Those Tennessee Tories and latter-day Nat Turners represented an existential threat. Left unchecked, they would flow over the South in a genocidal race war. Fort Pillow rapidly became the most notorious one, but many such massacres involving black soldiers took place during the war and, it must be said, continued after on a smaller scale. Through such violence, and the threat of more, Southern whites successfully instituted Jim Crow laws that would take another century to uproot.

Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall has context for the Confederate actions. On the latter count, the massacre of black troops and their white officers actually amounted to Confederate policy. You can read the entire proclamation over there, but two selections:

Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.


Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.

The then-present laws of such states, of course, would mean death for blacks as well as whites.

In a separate post, Andy also has firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the massacre:

All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.


We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.

We should not take this as a one-off act. The Confederate soldiers doing the killing understood themselves as engaged in the maintenance of racial control, a tradition that went back as far as slavery in the New World. If a black man could rise up and kill a white, then others might learn that they too could and, being united in rejecting their status as slaves, go off and kill all the whites. How could a white person sleep at night unless he or she knew that the resentful black people all around had the threat of violence to keep them in line?

Incidents like Fort Pillow naturally generate a certain degree of controversy, some legitimate and some from the usual quarters that see Forrest as a folk hero and, though many shrink from saying it, think he gave to the garrison precisely what it deserved. The latter have been with us for a long time. They’re not all gone off into the sunset just yet, despite all the progress we’ve made in the hundred and fifty years since.

The View from the Missouri Frontier

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

People in western Missouri wanted Kansas for themselves. To some of them, that meant also wanting it for slavery. To others, having it meant that slavery would come and they could live with that. To a third set, it meant keeping out interloping Yankees. But to all of these it meant taking what rightly belonged to them.

The Missouri river separates only a small part of Kansas from Missouri. The rest comes down, then and now, to a surveyor’s line. By 1854, the edge of the world might run down that surveyor’s line. But that line formed no flaming chasm or iron curtain to stop those living on the frontier from stepping across. If the law prohibited you from doing much across that surveyor’s line in the Indian Country, its officers rarely made the restriction stick. You could get rich with a plantation. You could get rich selling supplies to the emigrant trains moving on to California or Oregon. Both of those options kept you inside the law, more or less. But you could also get rich by laying down markers across the line so you would have fist claim to any new land opened for settlement.

An obscure, if well-connected, military man who missed out on the fighting in Mexico, William Tecumseh Sherman, passed through the area

in the spring of 1852 I had occasion to visit Fort Leavenworth on duty, partly to inspect a lot of cattle which a Mr. Gordon, of Cass County, had contracted to deliver in New Mexico, to enable Colonel Sumner to attempt his scheme of making the soldiers in New Mexico self-supporting


I found Fort Leavenworth then, as now, a most beautiful spot, but in the midst of a wild Indian country. There were no whites settled in what is now the State of Kansas. Weston, in Missouri, was the great town, and speculation in town-lots there and thereabout burnt the fingers of some of the army-officers, who wanted to plant their scanty dollars in fruitful soil.

I don’t know what edition of Sherman’s memoirs Allen Nevins worked from, but mine had this on page 117 to his 89. As a result I read a bit more than I planned, including Sherman’s similar account of land speculation in California. He even surveyed some land for a claimed “New York on the Pacific” that never panned out. Americans on the frontier just did that. Get in early, stake a claim, buy it cheap and wild, then resell it to the next wave of white settlers. Sherman himself did some of it and reported his profits in his memoirs.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While Missourians could not legally settle in Kansas before the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, they’d been there, by the hundreds before the bill became a law, and wasted no time scouting out and then staking out claims, law or no law. Less speculative, but no less land-hungry, many would have had an eye on expanding their existing holdings rather than reselling. Some would even have fit the standard image of a family leaving one state entirely to move to a new one for good. Likely which category each settled into depended as much on market forces as initial intentions.

Kansas might not have money just coming out of the ground like California did, but its ground was money. A bunch of rich Yankees with their Emigrant Aid Society planned to come buy it all up before an honest Missourian could get a chance at it? To give to a bunch of dirty Irish thugs and slave-stealing abolitionists? One did not need to have a large, personal investment in slaves or slavery to see a threat in that. The big chance had arrived, only for a big company to try taking it all out of their hands. Worse still, everybody knew that only so much of Kansas had any real value. The rest, part of the great American desert, could never support a farm and would never amount to much. Only the eastern third had any potential.

With so much at stake and so little of Kansas to go around, small wonder Atchison could find plenty of men prepared to sign on and do violence for his cause if it meant helping along their own. They had their American dreams at stake.