Calling in the United States Cavalry

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Kansas’ governor, Wilson Shannon, had put himself in an exquisite bind. In summoning the Kansas militia to restore order, he found himself with a generous helping of proslavery Missourians happy to turn Lawrence into the Greytown that its residents feared it becoming. He needed them to meet the antislavery militias, but their very presence threatened to make an already dire situation far worse. Shannon gives inconsistent numbers for his force, as few as a hundred and as many as fifteen times that, with the free state men always matching or exceeding his host. But whatever his strength at the time, Shannon decided that if he proceeded then “in all probability a deadly condition must take place”. The governor thus resolved that he could not go forward, even and probably especially with Missourians filling his ranks. He needed more.

Fortunately for Shannon, he knew where to get more. One of the higher officers in the Kansas militia, Brigadier-General Eastin, had advice on the subject back in November 30, as quoted in Brewerton:

I suggest the propriety of calling upon the military at Fort Leavenworth. If you have the power to call out the Government troops, I think it would be best to do so at once. It might overawe these outlaws and prevent bloodshed.

Shannon escalated at almost every opportunity. Literally calling out the cavalry against Lawrence looks much like another blunder, but in this case the national big stick might have done the job just as Eastin thought. The Lawrence radicals always emphasized their respect for and loyalty to the national government. Few would want to raise arms against it and make themselves, in their own lights, traitors. They rebelled against Kansas, yes, but not the United States. Even if some hotheads wanted to hazard the confrontation, doing so would likely prove disastrous for their already tenuous reputation elsewhere.

The governor opted for the Army. He sent a rider up to Fort Leavenworth with a missive for Colonel Sumner of the 1st Cavalry, which I regrettably can’t find. Brewerton says Shannon retained no copy. Nor does it appear in the Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society with the rest of Shannon’s correspondence with Sumner. However, it seems that Sumner wrote back on the same day, which Brewerton gives as December 1.

Sumner wrote that he

did not feel that it would be right in me to act in this important matter until orders are received from the government. I shall be ready to move instantly whenever I receive them.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Sumner and Shannon both knew that the governor lacked any authority over United States forces. Shannon had gone over to Westport and telegraphed for authority to call on them from the president. Sumner further suggested that Shannon announce he had called on Franklin Pierce to loan him some cavalry. That might in itself go some ways toward restraining free state radicals. Shannon did so. He also sent out another batch of instructions to Jones and the militia: Major General Richardson should protect Jones, but also keep tight control of his men and not go looking for other adventures. Jones himself would hold off on trying to serve any process until the cavalry came. Lest Jones get any ideas about ignoring that letter, Shannon told him to show it to Richardson. His instructions to Richardson told the general of Jones’ letter, just in case.

This would, Shannon expected

save any effusion of blood, and may have a moral influence hereafter, which would prevent any further resistance to the law; for when these lawless men find that the forces of the United States can be used to preserve order, they will not be so ready to adopt an opposing course.

Wilson Shannon clearly meant for that to happen. He had bungled the initial response and failed to foresee Missourian intervention. He did understand the free state movement as fundamentally a lawless rebellion. But he didn’t want to crush it by force. He might have lied about his peaceable intentions to Franklin Pierce if he had such bloody ambitions, but if he did then he would surely not have downplayed the situation. He would have ratified, rather than criticized, Jones’ request for three thousand men.

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