The Free State Militias, Part Two

William Phillips

William Phillips

The difficulty in researching secret groups comes from their habit of living up to the title. As dubiously legal organizations, the free state militias had more reason than the recreational appeal of creating secrets to keep a low profile. It seems that the Kansas Legion, sometimes called the Kansas Regulators, formed the largest such group. They have not left to posterity a wealth of sources. Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era has only two references to the group in its index. Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas sports the same number. James Rawley’s Race and Politics: “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War has none. All of this could, and to some degree must, make looking into the group an exercise in frustration. I might have left things there and moved on, for lack of anything more to say, but for this passage in Nichols:

Rains came and there was a chill spell, then bright warmth again.

That was the weather that busy fall, uneventful in its early stages, with only one killing – a free-soiler named Collins by a free-soil turncoat, Pat Laughlin.

Patrick Laughlin told us that the free state movement connived to steal its own elections should proslavery men look likely to win them. That alone made him an interesting figure to me, but Nichols relates this as well:

The free-soilers had a secret organization too, so secret that its existence was repeatedly denied by free-soil protagonists, even after a disgruntled member told all about it.

Etcheson identifies that turncoat as Laughlin in the same passage where she dates the founding of the Kansas Legion to February, 1855. Through her and Nichols’ endnotes and a bit of cross-referencing with the Howard Report, I found Laughlin’s testimony to the Howard Committee on the Legion. Laughlin also appears in John Gihon’s Geary and Kansas and William Phillips’ The Conquest of Kansas by Missouri and Her Allies, two sources only recently come to my attention.

These authorities all agree that Laughlin joined the Kansas Legion. Geary and Kansas insists that Laughlin, an Irishman late of Missouri and Kentucky, “pretended to have become a convert to the free-state principles.” Phillips has Laughlin come to Kansas a proslavery man, but then “affected to be impressed in favor of free-state principles out of sympathy with the free-state men, and condemnation of the conduct of Missouri.” He then “intruded himself under the pretense of being a convert to the cause.”

Phillips account could have fit any number of Kansans, especially those most recently from Missouri. He also gives the only description of the man that I’ve seen:

Mr. Laughlin is a young man under thirty. He has resided in Kentucky, in which state I believe he kept a grocery for a short time. His person is rather under middle height, and thick-set. His head is large, face rather flabby, red and pimpled. He exhibited some little ability, had received a good common education, would speak passably well, and was possessed of an unusual amount of cunning.

Laughlin might not agree that that assessment of himself, but I find no dispute at all over his involvement with the Legion. Thus we should take what he says about it as the testimony of a witness and participant, not simply that of a person reporting rumors and suspicion. Laughlin later quit the group and wrote a pamphlet exposing its secrets, which I could not find online, whence comes the clear distaste for him exhibited especially by Phillips and general suspicion about his motives.

This all may read as a bit inside baseball, but considering I have almost exclusively Laughlin as a source and he brings with him some interpretative complexity, I think it best to give context before plunging directly into his testimony. William Phillips carries a grudge against Laughlin. Laughlin in turns has a few against free state men. No one seems all that inclined to speak highly of him, but we must remember that he had made himself a murderer as well as a betrayer of confidences by the time they put pen to paper. Every primary source comes from somewhere, produced by a person or people of particular interests, possessed of certain information, and inclined to various biases that we should keep in mind.

With historiographical challenges in mind, tomorrow I shall dig in with the words of the man himself.

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