Major Blank and the Case of the Smuggled Cannon

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

The Missourians, and a few hundred Kansans, established a blockade around Lawrence. Samuel Jones’ force whiled away the time by taking potshots at people working at the town’s defensive works. Much drinking and cursing of abolitionists ensued while Jones and William Richardson, a general of the Kansas militia and Blue Lodge man, dreamed up new ways to use the situation to destroy the free state movement. Their cordon generated concern in Lawrence, with residents worrying that they might not have provisions to feed all the men who had come to aid in their defense, but the border ruffians/territorial militia/overgrown posse had not established a perfect barrier. If one could carry off a good lie or didn’t mind a gunpowder serenade, one might make it.

This made for good stories, true or not. Brewerton introduces a section of them with just that disclaimer, proceeding immediately thereafter to insist that he had them on the best authority. Charles Robinson and others admitted that the free state movement had an existing practice of smuggling arms through suspicious Missouri towns. It wouldn’t make for much of a stretch for that to continue through a Missourian blockade in Kansas. He likewise agreed with the rumor afoot in the proslavery camps that Lawrence had a cannon.

A Major Blank, of a family for which Brewerton confesses great fondness on the grounds that one rarely hears of a Blank of any sort suing for libel, told him the story of the cannon’s arrival. A good field piece would serve as a force multiplier, something that Lawrence could very much use. But one couldn’t just go off and buy a cannon off the rack in Weston. Word came, however,

that some sympathizing New Yorker had sent a six or twelve-pounder (we have forgotten which), with ammunition to match, to assist their troops in killing off the “Border Ruffians,” and moreover, that this “material aid” was now lying all snugly boxed and safely stowed away, in the warehouse of a Kansas City commission merchant.

That put the cannon in reach, but one could hardly hitch it to the back of a horse and trot along past the Missouri lines. Like people the world over, nineteenth century Missourians had a powerful aversion to having cannons shot at them and would work to prevent it. For that matter, so would the authorities in “Pro-Slavery up to the hub” Kansas City. The free soiler daring enough to go for the cannon might hand it over to the enemy in trying to move it. But Major Blank, frontier man of mystery, took council with some of the fabled Yankee schemers. They hatched a plan a and Blank rode out with “a stout Pennsylvania wagon, drawn by a couple of active mules.”

At Kansas City, the good major eschewed his military dignity and went by mister. He declared himself a citizen of Lawrence in Kansas City on private business. Mr. Blank expected to have a poor trip for his trouble, he told the merchant from whom he would take the cannon, but he knew that a friend of his, Mr. John Smith, had boxes stored there that he could bring along as a favor. Maybe Smith would pay him, maybe not, but one does friends favors.

John Smith’s property constituted two boxes, the cannon in one and the carriage in the other. Blank set to work getting both into his wagon, but the merchant grew suspicious. Just what would go to Lawrence in those boxes? He insisted on a look inside before leaving them go. Blank claimed that his friend just had supplies from New York, a wagon and some oddments, and would have done better to buy in St. Louis and save on freight. The merchant persisted, demanding that Blank open the boxes.

At this stage of the conversation, Mister Blank seized the axe and knocked up one side of the lid of the larger receptacle, which, as he well knew, contained the wheels, and then threw down the instrument, at the same time calling out triumphantly,

“There, Mister, I didn’t tell yeou, just look for yeourself. Guess you’ll said I’m right another time; ef that ain’t a buggy-wagon it ain’t nothin’ at all. Don’t yeou see teh wheels?”

Poor light and a limited angle for viewing showed only the wheels of the cannon’s carriage. Chastened, the pro-slavery merchant confessed his error:

“Well, I’ll jest allow I wor a spot too particular this time; so hist them inter your wagon, boys, and roll out as lively as you choose. Jim, you infernal nigga, whar air you; come hyar, and help these gentlemen pack thar plunder. Stranger,” added he, turning to the Major, “mout I ask you to step inter the office and take a drink? I’ve powerful far article of corn whisky in thar.”

Blank imbibed and soon enough made off with the cannon. He got most of the way back to Lawrence before his wagon stuck in the mud. He could hardly decamp with the cannon and hope for the best with all the border ruffians about. Nor could he extricate his wagon himself. Thus he sat by the side of the road and waited for proslavery men. A pack of border ruffians soon came by, on their way to one of the two camps outside Lawrence. Could they help a fellow out of the mud? Doing so constituted common courtesy, so the Missourians obliged, hitching up a pair of horses with the mules and putting their shoulders into it.

Blank arrived in Lawrence shortly thereafter and the story, too good to keep quiet, soon went out. The besiegers responded by letting not so much as a barrel of flour through to Lawrence until sifted thoroughly. It might have happened that way. Brewerton almost surely invented the dialog, or had it from one who had, but Lawrence didn’t have a cannon before the siege and came on one during it. Such things don’t fall out of the sky.

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