Mission Creep in Lecompton

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon, still at Shawnee Mission, had a problem on his hands over in Lecompton. Sheriff Samuel Jones, to whom he had given command of Kansas’ militia, received his instructions not to bring things to a head with the free state men in Lawrence. The 1st Cavalry would soon arrive to manage things. Jones wrote back that he really didn’t want to wait, adding that he now had warrants not just for Jacob Branson and his rescuers, but also Herald of Freedom editor George Brown. He expected to have more warrants soon. His quest to serve a single warrant had turned into a general campaign against any prominent antislavery Kansans he could reach. But Governor Shannon had also sent instructions to the militia units under Jones’ command to do no more than protect Jones. Could the officers restrain the sheriff?

Doing so would have required a desire that at least one of them did not possess. William P. Richardson, a Blue Lodge man from way back, had found an excuse to employ the force available to him. In answer to Shannon’s orders to refrain from aggressive acts, Richardson wrote back:

I believe it to be essential to the peace and tranquility of the Territory that the outlaws at Lawrence and elsewhere should be required to surrender their Sharpe’s rifles. There can be no security for the future safety of the lives and property of law-abiding citizens unless these unprincipled men are (at least) deprived of the arms, which, as we all know, have been furnished them for the purpose of resisting the law-in fact, peaceable citizens will be obliged to leave the Territory, unless those who are now threatening them are compelled to surrender their rifles, and artillery, if they have any.

If Richardson had his way, the government really would come to take their guns, possibly more. The general proved savvy enough to couch his plans in terms of Shannon’s expressed interest in preserving order, but he proposed something far more drastic than arresting some lawbreakers. Richardson intended to disarm a large portion, perhaps all, of the free state militia companies and so leave them in the tender mercies of proslavery Kansans. Between Jones’ planned arrest of free state leadership and Richardson’s seizure of arms, the proslavery party could turn this into the free state movement’s final days.

The general essentially said as much:

I am diligently using every possible precaution to prevent the effusion of blood and preserve the peace of the Territory. As the Sharpe’s rifles may be regarded as private property by some, I can give a receipt for them, stating they will be returned to their owners at the discretion of the Governor.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

You can’t call William Richardson anything less than diligent. He understood that Shannon’s orders did not permit him to seize the weapons on his own, but he’d be happy to have the governor’s authorization. Then the matter of what to do with those guns would fall in Shannon’s lap.

Richardson wrote Shannon on December 3. He yet had no word from Washington on whether or not he would have the 1st Cavalry. That didn’t come until the next day, due to downed telegraph lines in Missouri. He isn’t clear on whether he had Richardson’s or Jones’ letters in hand before then, but it seems likely. In previous correspondence to Lecompton, no more than a day passes. Richardson makes reference to the fatigue of the rider carrying his missive and how Shannon would do well to send a fresh man with an answer. Thus the anxious governor probably spent a long day before he learned that Franklin Pierce had placed the army at his disposal.

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