Wilson Shannon Calls out the Militia

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

At Franklin, on the morning of November 27, 1855, Sheriff Samuel Jones fired off a letter to Governor Wilson Shannon. I haven’t found a copy of it, but Shannon’s subsequent correspondence makes its contents clear. On receiving the letter, he wrote orders for Major General William P. Richardson of the Kansas militia, a Blue Lodge man from way back, and Adjutant General H. J. Strickler. He told both militia officers that he had word from Jones about the Branson affair, wherein

he was met by an armed force of some forty men, and that the prisoner was taken out of his custody, and open defiance bid to the laws. I am also duly advised that an armed band of men burnt a number of houses, destroyed personal property, and turned whole families out of doors in Douglas county; warrants will be issued against these men, and placed in the hands of the sheriff of Douglas county for execution. He has written to me demanding three thousand men to aid him in executing the process of the law, and the preservation of the peace.

Jones at least doubled the number of men he faced, but houses burned and families fled. Wood and his men did swear to ignore the laws of the territory and their officers. However much we sympathize with the free state party, we must admit that this looks like a very serious situation. Responding with overwhelming force to prevent further anarchy must have seemed entirely reasonable. Shannon ordered Richardson and his command, as well as whoever Strickler could manage in his unorganized portion of the state, to

collect together as large a force as you can in your division, and repair without delay to Lecompton, and report yourself to S.J. Jones, the sheriff of Douglas county, together with the number of your forces, and render to him all the aid and assistance in your power, if required in the execution of any legal process in his hands.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

If this all sounds strange, then consider that in times of civil disturbance we still call out the National Guard for such things. When things really go badly, or in the face of heavy local defiance, presidents have dispatched the regular Army for the same role. To order out the troops risked escalation, a danger Shannon keenly appreciated. He made it clear to Richardson and Strickler that

The forces under your command are to be used for the sole purpose of aiding the sheriff in executing the law, and for no other purpose.

That proviso suggests both an awareness that things could slip quickly out of control and a wariness of the use of military companies for police purposes. It might also speak to a wariness about Jones. Wilson Shannon aimed to put many men under his command, but took pains not to write Jones a blank check. His wariness of the sheriff appears more explicitly in the account he wrote the next day for Franklin Pierce:

The force required by the sheriff is far beyond what I believe to be necessary, and, indeed, far beyond what could be raised in this Territory. From five to eight hundred men will be amply sufficient, I have no doubt, to protect the sheriff, and enable him to execute the legal process in his hands.

That may still sound like a great multitude, but back at the beginning of October 557 men voted for Andrew Reeder in Lawrence alone. The town must have had around that many able-bodied free state men bent on some kind of resistance, if not necessarily to the point of violence.

 

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