Shannon’s Martial Woes, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon standing in the Free State Hotel, looking at the body of Thomas Barber. In it he saw his nightmare come true: the proslavery men had spilled free state blood. Where could it end? The news of Barber’s death outraged Lawrence sufficiently that Charles Robinson and James Lane had to act quickly to keep hotheaded free state men from launching an attack on their besiegers. A single death might already have driven things past the breaking point, but a general attack surely would.

If the free state men in Lawrence had trouble controlling their men, then so did the notional commander of their enemies. Wilson Shannon, as Governor of the Territory of Kansas, had called the militia to Lawrence. Furthermore, he exercised control over the force through both written instructions and then by arriving in person to oversee matters. If the Kansas militia had quite a few Missourians in it, then they still at least nominally placed themselves under Shannon’s authority. But if push came to shove, would they obey him? The Missourians, and probably a fair number of proslavery Kansans, came in response to Samuel Jones’ summons. They might answer to him, but Jones and Shannon had very different goals in mind. Shannon wanted Jones’ warrants served and free soil arms confiscated. Jones wanted at bare minimum some personal revenge and decapitation of the free state movement. If his army razed Lawrence to the ground, the sheriff would shed no tears. The officers of the militia might not go quite that far, but seem largely in agreement with Jones’ ambitions.

Wilson Shannon knew all of that when he went into Lawrence on December 7, 1855, but he soon had further and more specific information as well. He still had hopes that Colonel Sumner would come with the 1st Cavalry and rescue the situation. That Sumner had delayed hardly came as welcome news, but the Colonel never said that he would not come. He only wanted more firm instructions from Washington. Thus Shannon arranged for a rider to carry his latest request for aid out on the morning of the seventh. He candidly told Sumner that the force around Lawrence “are beyond my power, or at least soon will be” and might attack at any moment. If that wouldn’t impress upon the Colonel the urgency of the situation, what would?

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Shannon’s message ought to have gone out first thing on the morning of the seventh. He arranged as much with General Strickler of the militia. But

At 2, P.M., 7th December, Gen. Strickler came to my quarters, and informed me that he had been advised that a plan had been laid in the Wakarausa camp to intercept my dispatches to Col. Sumner at Caw River crossing. To avoid this, I requested the general to start the messenger immediately. He did so; and the express rider finally left at 2 o’clock, A.M., and was directed to a ford upon the Caw River (not the usual crossing), by an Indian guide from the Caw bottom, who had been procured for the purpose by Col. Boone.

Maybe Strickler just reported a rumor, but it seems unlikely that he would have passed on one that he didn’t take seriously. Given Shannon’s tour of the camp made his peaceful intentions well-known, it makes perfect sense that militants within would arrange some kind of delay that might preserve their chance at Lawrence. As a practical matter, Jones summoned them and only legal trifles made Shannon their commander. That the nation at large, and the executive in particular, might hold Shannon responsible for their actions did not make them responsible to Shannon.

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