The Peace Conference, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon had a lot on his mind when he rode into Lawrence on the morning of December 7, 1855. If he had any control of the proslavery army besieging the town at all, then it might soon pass. Rumors flew that the black flag would go up and the Missourians and their Kansas auxiliaries would descend upon the free state headquarters without mercy. When he came back from meeting with the free state leaders, he would learn that some of the proslavery militants plotted to intercept his messages to keep the United States Army from stopping the fun and possibly seizing arms that the Missourians had taken from a federal arsenal before they embarked on their Kansas adventure.

Troubles or no, Shannon came into Lawrence. There he saw the body of Thomas Barber before conferring with the free state leadership. The full Committee of Safety received Shannon and Albert Boone, then the two went off with Charles Robinson and James Lane for a private meeting. Then one party or the other, depending on whether one believes Shannon or Robinson, essentially gave up the substantive parts of their politics in the name of peace. Most likely neither did, but both made some effort at conciliation. Sheriff Jones and his militants wanted the wreck of Lawrence, but Shannon, Boone, Robinson, and Lane alike preferred otherwise.

Shannon soon found in Lawrence perhaps the first good news he had had since Franklin Coleman appeared on his doorstep:

I satisfied myself, however, that there was then no person in the town against whom writs had been caused to issue, as the parties had left the place several days before. I then, moved by the consideration of the fearful danger in which their people stood, stated to them that so far as I was concerned, as the chief executive of the Territory, the arrangements which they appeared willing to enter into in good faith would be satisfactory to me; that my sole purpose was to secure a faithful execution of the laws; that I asked nothing more, and that object obtained, I should at once disband the posse.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Shannon couldn’t argue with the facts. He ordered the militia out to see warrants served. With no one in Lawrence to serve those warrants to, the militia had no job to do. Everyone could just go home, if they cared to obey Shannon’s order to that effect. That, naturally proved the rub:

I explained to them the difficulty of prevailing upon the highly-incensed forces then surrounding Lawrence to retire without attacking the place or demanding the surrender of the Sharpe’s rifles and revolvers, with which they were well known to be armed. I added, moreover, that the idea was universally prevalent, both in the Lecompton and Wakarusa camps, that these weapons had been furnished from the East for the purpose of resisting the execution of the Territorial laws of Kansas and making her a free State.

Robinson’s version of the meeting matches Shannon’s except for the omission of this point. According to Robinson, the Governor held that people of Lawrence did nothing wrong in arming themselves for their own defense. When confronted on the matter, Shannon has Robinson and company make unconvincing denials:

The committee declared that these weapons had neither been procured nor distributed for any such end, but simply to defend the ballot-box from invasion. Yet it cannot be denied that they admitted to me that these arms were forwarded in boxes from the East, having been written for by General Robinson for the purpose aforesaid.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Everyone knew that Shannon had the right of it, but the fiction might serve to keep the free state men armed in the presence of an equally armed enemy. Robinson further argued that, while the arms came from the East, they passed into the hands of individuals who owned them fair and square. Shannon didn’t buy it:

each man who received a Sharpe’s rifle paid something as an equivalent; but, from what has transpired, it is my believe that the amount so paid bore no proportion to the real cost or value of the arms; in fact, it is currently reported that the sum paid for these Sharpe’s rifles by their receivers did not average over three dollars per man.

Shannon did the math. Citing an estimate that 1,200 Sharpe’s rifles now called Kansas home and the price at $30 each, the arsenal ought to cost $36,000. If the free state militants really paid about $3 each, as the rumor said, then who bore the other 90% of the cost? Anybody could sell at a loss if they wanted to, but clearly someone heavily subsidized those arms. In that case, could one really consider them private property? Perhaps one could legally, but as a practical matter these guns came to Kansas and remained there as instruments of the free state cause.

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