The Eager Sheriff and Reluctant Governor

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Wilson Shannon blundered and escalated his way through the growing crisis at Lawrence. He put himself into an impossible situation and hoped that a show of overwhelming force would settle things without violence. He might not have had a better option, but this still amounted to a real gamble. With a force sufficient to overawe the rightly-frightened Lawrence radicals in hand, his little army might just decide to exceed instructions and wipe Lawrence off the map. Shannon knew well that much of his host did not care for his moderate tone and desperately wanted it all to come to blows. That neither Shannon nor the free state leadership seemed inclined to compromise could only have pleased them. But Shannon did take precautions. He issued specific orders that the militia came together to preserve order, not to enact a pogrom. He wrote form instructions to Samuel Jones, the aggrieved sheriff who brought matters to his attention and now had command of the militia divisions, to wait on the arrival of the 1st Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth before taking any action.

Samuel Jones had no such inclination. He answered Shannon with complaints that his men wanted to get things moving. He couldn’t wait, lest he lose them. But Jones had good news too:

I think I shall have a sufficient force to protect me by to-morrow morning. The force at Lawrence is not half so strong as reported; I have this from a reliable source. If I am to wait for the Government troops, more than two-thirds of the men now here will go away, very much dissatisfied. they are leaving hourly as it is. I do not, by any means, wish to violate your orders, but I really believe that if I have a sufficient force, it would be better to make the demand.

The sheriff of Douglas County wanted it both ways. His men bled away at a steady rate and he must act soon or he would lack the numbers to carry out his duty, or he did not quite have that force but would soon have it and so didn’t need the cavalry. Maybe he meant that his current increase just barely beat out his losses from inaction and he expected the trend to reverse and then fall off dramatically in the next day or so, but he can’t have known it would. This reads rather, especially with reference to free state numbers, as the argument of a man set on acting in the near future and trying to find excuses for it. In particular, acting in the near future would free Jones from the risk of the Army interfering with his force. It would likewise free him from the personal oversight of Wilson Shannon, who planned to accompany the 1st Cavalry and would have every right to take command from Jones.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

Jones certainly intended more than the recovery of Jacob Branson, his erstwhile prisoner. Indeed, he didn’t expect to find Branson at all:

It is reported that the people of Lawrence have run off those offenders from that town, and, indeed, it is said that they are now all out of the way.

But Jones had

writs for sixteen persons, who were with the party that rescued my prisoner. S.N. Wood, P.R. Brooks, and Saml. Tappan are of Lawrence, the balance from the country round. Warrants will be placed in my hands to-day for the arrest of G.W. Brown, and probably others in Lecompton.

Jones must mean he would get the warrants from Lecompton, presumably from Hugh Cameron. The sheriff makes no claim that Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, had anything to do with Branson’s rescue. Rather he seems to have taken the opportunity to arrest Brown for the unrelated crime of antislavery politics. He had the men with him to decapitate the free state movement, after all. Why not go for the gold? If this would escalate things further, then so much the better for Jones and worse for both the free state movement and Wilson Shannon’s confused quest for a peaceful solution.

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