War to the Knife

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

If room for compromise ever existed in Kansas, and with it a way to move past the intermittent bloodshed, Wilson Shannon didn’t know where to find it. Probably, it didn’t exist to begin withIn calling out the militia against Lawrence, he could not have more perfectly fanned the fears of antislavery Kansans. Whether they behaved properly or not in the tangled Coleman-Dow-Branson affair, his bringing in the big guns could only escalate the situation further. That he did so, promising wide-ranging arrests and placing the militia under the command of Samuel Jones, showed no interest in genuine free state fears. Understanding Shannon’s own fears and the real threat that the free state movement could pose to law and order in the territory doesn’t excuse him from taking literally the most extreme course available to him.

Shannon surely blundered, and would soon do so again, but he did not escalate matters alone. Jones got into Franklin the morning after he lost Jacob Branson and sent his first dispatch not to the governor, but rather over the line into Missouri. In giving his version of events to George Douglas Brewerton, Shannon appreciated that fact. He comprehended Missouri’s interest all the way back to his entry into Kansas, and can’t have missed it in the months since. He explained

Missouri has fifty thousand slaves in that portion of her territory which borders upon the frontiers of Kansas. By estimating the average value of each of those slaves at $600 (a low rate), we have a total of $30,000,000. Now, should Kansas become a Free State, it would be ruinous to the slaveholding interests of Missouri. Her negroes have in several instances already been tempered with and run off by Abolitionists; and such acts, with the stern retaliation they are calculated to call forth, must sooner or later result in a deadly feud between the Free State and Pro-Slavery factions

Like many antebellum Americans, Shannon put the onus of sectional strife on antislavery Americans. Enslavers simply cannot do anything short of “stern retaliation,” somehow utterly prostrate even with their hands on the whip. None feel more keenly their persecution than those asked to persecute others just a little bit less. But more than “mere pecuniary consideration” went into Missouri’s interest in Kansas.

their feelings had been worked upon; they had listened to the stories of men, women, and children, who had fled from homes in Kansas, made desolate by the threatened and actual violence of the Free State party. Even granting that these stories were exaggerated by the fancy or indignation of their narrators, there was still enough of truth in their representations to excite a smouldering fire of wrath, which only required some new act of outrage to fan it into an unextinguishable flame

Shannon has it exactly right here, though he’s yet to demonstrate such a keen understanding of similar fears by free state Kansans. He doesn’t say as much, but what he recounts fits very well with the always-looming Armageddon of a slave revolt. If slavery could not have Kansas, then it might soon lose Missouri. Understanding the peril not as an isolated incident, fairly enough considering the repeated declarations of the free state movement, they could imagine a hostile army just over the border, ready to act out its “cold-blooded, long-foreseen, and carefully prepared-for” design. Thus “the most natural result.”

Missouri sent, not only her young men, but her gray-headed citizens were there; the man of seventy winters stood shoulder to shoulder with the youth of sixteen. there were volunteers in that camp who brought with them not only their sons, but their grandsons, to join, if need be, in the expected fray. Every hour added to the excitement, and brought new fuel to the flame. What wonder, then, that my position was an embarrassing one! Those men came to the Wakarusa camp to fight; they did not come to ask peace: it was war-war to the knife.

Whatever Shannon hoped to accomplish, he would have to accomplish it not only with his own escalation to manage but also with hordes of Missourians eager spoiling for a fight.

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