The Free State Militias, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Armed companies have often stood on the sidelines of my reading in Kansas matters. One appeared at the Fourth of July festivities in Lawrence, receiving a flag from the ladies of the town. George Washington Brown made an oblique reference to their absence at the time of his despairing letter. But it seems that many militia activities happened in secret, or at least secret enough that they don’t come yet to prominent coverage in my sources.

I had in mind these words of Brown’s

there was then no understanding with free State men for mutual protection

By October 2, 1855, such an understanding existed. That could have simply meant that they agreed to watch one another’s backs, of course, but we know from the Fourth of July celebration that a militia company operated in Lawrence at least as of July. Did it go back further? Nichole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era dates free state activity back to February of 1855, after the first stolen election but before the more famous fraudulent Assembly elections of March. That hardly made for a tranquil Kansas overall, as Andrew Reeder reported that proslavery men had offered him death threats for waiting until early spring for those elections, but does put antislavery militia organization in advance of the attacks on the Parkville Luminary, William Phillips, and Pardee Butler. She cites a report that Jefferson Davis, Secretary of war, submitted to the Senate. The Kansas State Historical Society has it online. Etcheson’s endnote points to pages 27-30.

Davis’ correspondence dates to 1856 and concerns the use of militia companies in Kansas as adjuncts to the Army in suppressing insurrection. I don’t find there confirmation of the February date. It seems like the sort of information that might appear in the report, but if it does I don’t see it where Etcheson does. Does anyone else? I might email her directly, should I prove capable of conquering my pathological shyness and slight awe of professional historians for the moment.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Another source I got from Etcheson’s notes: John Gihon’s Geary and Kansas, a history of Kansas and the Geary administration up to 1857, the year of its writing. It gives no help on the date of founding, but does describe the work the Kansas Legion:

It is not to be presumed that all the outrages and crimes committed in Kansas Territory were the work of the pro-slavery party. That party will have a terrible catalogue [sic] for which to account; but in the great day of retribution their political opponents will not entirely escape condemnation. The pro-slavery men were doubtless the original aggressors; but their unworthy example was too eagerly followed by many claiming to be the advocates of freedom. The one party burned houses, and robbed and murdered unoffending people; and the other, in retaliation, committed the same atrocities. Buford collected a regiment of men in Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia; and Jones, Whitfield and others, bands of desperadoes in Missouri, which they brought into Kansas to pillage and destroy; whilst Lane marched in his famous “Army of the North,” whose path was also marked with desolation and ruin. The slavery faction established its “Blue Lodges,” and their opposers organized their “Kansas Legion,” both of which were secret associations, bound together by their solemn oaths, and having signs and pass-words of recognition. The only difference was, that the largest and most respectable portion of the free-state party condemned the “Kansas Legion,.” and took no part in its operations; whilst the “Blue Lodges” originated with, and received their chief encouragement and support from the most prominent, wealthy, and leading pro-slavery men, not only in the territory, but in various states of the Union.

The Buford mentioned tried to organize a Southern answer to the Emigrant Aid Companies. He sought support of state governments in vain and then managed the impressive feats of promising men land in Kansas which he did not own and conveying them there to lodgings that he expected them to pay for out of their own pockets. Thus those who believed his promises for a bright future, with perhaps a side of Yankee beating, found themselves disappointed and most soon left for home. The most leading proslavery men of the nation must, of course, include David Rice Atchison.

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