Governor Shannon Goes to Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon


After his unproductive meeting with the proslavery leadership on the night of December 6, 1855, Governor Wilson Shannon made arrangements with General Strickler of the Kansas militia. Through Strickler, he secured an express rider to take his further plea that the 1st Cavalry ride from Fort Leavenworth to come to Lawrence’s rescue. Shannon told George Douglas Brewerton that the arrangements specified for the rider to depart at dawn on the seventh. The Governor dated his letter to the sixth, suggesting strongly that he wrote it and handed it over that night. Most probably he did so after learning just how thoroughly the border ruffians had committed themselves to Lawrence’s ruin.

Shannon planned for more than his letter to leave camp on the morning of December 7, 1855. He had an invitation to come to Lawrence and doing so would help establish him as a mediator between the two parties. Demanding that representatives of the town only meet with him at or near to the proslavery camps would send a rather more high-handed message than would have suited his purposes. They already knew he tilted proslavery, but Lawrence must learn that Wilson Shannon did not tilt so far proslavery as their would-be destroyers.

The Governor and Albert Boone went to Franklin, the same place where Sheriff Jones sent off the messages that turned his small matter of serving a warrant into a crisis. A delegation of ten men met Shannon on the way. They took him into town, where Shannon received what he considered a courteous reception. In a room on the second story of the Emigrant Aid Society Hotel, the Governor met with Charles Robinson and James Lane. Shannon informed Brewerton that

They seemed to feel no hesitation in assuring me that the territorial laws should be executed, and that there should be no obstacle presented to the serving of any legal process; they, however, as representatives of the citizens of Lawrence, reserved to themselves the right of testing the validity of these laws in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Shannon did not “consider it necessary at the time” to bring up their past repudiation of the aforementioned laws. Instead, the governor construed

their present declaration as an apology for the past, and an assurance (hollow though it might be) of improvement for the future.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson told Brewerton a somewhat different story. Therein Shannon

admitted that there had been a misunderstanding, and appeared anxious to get out of the difficulty. He acknowledged, moreover, that he saw nothing out of the way, thus far, in the course pursued by the citizens of Lawrence in arming themselves for their defence. In fact, perfectly satisfied was Governor Shannon of the justice of our position, that there was at this time no obstacle in the way of an immediate cessation of hostilities, save this: that he feared he would be unable to control his men, and therefore desired to await the arrival of the United States troops, then momentarily expected from Fort Leavenworth. His Excellency furthermore declared, that if he were to inform his command, that he (the Governor) had concluded peace with the citizens of Lawrence, without demanding an unconditional surrender of their arms, they would at once raise ‘the Black Flag,’ and march upon the town.

Neither of these accounts sounds entirely candid. While neither the leadership in Lawrence nor Shannon really wanted the fight, I doubt Robinson and Lane fell over themselves to publicly repudiate their past politics. If they did, Robinson didn’t feel compelled to acknowledge the fact even in 1856 when everyone would have had it fresh in mind. Shannon had good reason to believe that he might not have control of the army about Lawrence, a subject due future posts, and might have conceded suffering from misinformation. He would make that claim when he gave a full report of events to Franklin Pierce. But both parties construe the other as so conciliatory and agreeable, always willing to yield on points that they don’t in their own versions, that it reads as less than genuine.

Both parties also left out just what greeted Wilson Shannon when he set foot inside the hotel: the fresh body of Thomas Barber.

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