The Peace Conference, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2

I think that we’ve finished with Thomas Fleming for now, Gentle Readers. I confess a very slight temptation to find a cheap copy of his book on the coming of the Civil War for a more thorough consideration, but the Fleming hasn’t given me much cause to view the endeavor as time well spent. I don’t read history as quickly as I would like (A typical history takes me a week or more to get through.) and I have many books competing for my time and research budget.

That takes us back to Kansas, Lawrence specifically, where Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, and a few others came into town to negotiate an end to the crisis known to posterity as the Wakarusa War. They met with the free state leaders, principally Charles Robinson and James Lane, after seeing the body of Thomas Barber. That meeting, on December 7, 1855, did not go well. Governor Shannon still held out hope that he could convince the free state men to disarm, even in the presence of a hostile army besieging them. On discovering that Robinson and Lane would no more agree to that than they would agree to fly out of Lawrence in a magical tea cup, he tried to offer a voluntary disarmament. Maybe everybody didn’t have to give up their guns, but would at least some people?

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

They would not. Nor did they trust Shannon. Whatever he might have told Robinson and Lane whilst closeted together in the Free State Hotel can’t have done much to persuade him. It seems likely that he didn’t share a copy of his message to Franklin Pierce, the most convincing testimony to his aim for a peaceful solution, as he didn’t mention doing so. He may have said something about it at the time, but without a copy on hand I can’t imagine the free state men believing him. Shannon had gone out of his way, before even entering Kansas, to dig himself into a proslavery hole. Maybe even the paper wouldn’t have helped, but it might have gone further than his word. To be fair, Shannon didn’t think at all highly of them either. He spends some time in his interview with George Douglas Brewerton impugning their honesty much as the free state men impugned his.

An unsatisfying day of talks behind them, Shannon and company dined with the Robinsons and then returned to the besiegers’ camp on the Wakarusa. There he conferred with the proslavery leaders:

I immediately sought an interview with the most influential men of that camp, stated to them the result of my visit to Lawrence, and reported what the citizens of that town would, and would not, do in the matters under consideration. To a large majority of the Wakarausa camp the concessions made by the Lawrence people were wholly unsatisfactory, but a number of the leading men, although dissatisfied with the terms offered, agreed to use their influence with their companions to induce their immediate and peaceable withdrawal.

Shannon talks around the concessions agreed to more than he talks about them. According to his version, Robinson and Lane gave ground on nigh every point save the guns. According to Robinson, they did not. Alice Nichols describes the negotiations as at a deadlock, but Nichole Etcheson thinks that they reached some kind of agreement, committing it to paper in Lawrence while the Governor informed the leading proslavery men. Etcheson cites a New York Times article to which I lack access. Robinson puts the actual drafting off to the next day. Either way, I think that Etcheson’s version makes more sense, as Shannon says that he had something more to tell the proslavery leadership than that he came back empty-handed.

The Governor himself told Brewerton that, while they wold not surrender their arms, they would commit

on the part of the citizens of Lawrence, that if at any time I would make a requisition in writing, stating that those arms were required for the purpose of preserving peace and good order, they would use their influence to comply with that requisition.

In other words, the free state men would not use their militia against Shannon personally. If he, in his official capacity, asked for their armed help, the leaders would try to deliver it. This doesn’t sound much like a concession from the free state men. Rather, it sounds like one from Shannon. William Addison Phillips, privy to some of the discussions at the time and a close friend of the Robinsons’, said as much outright:

The free-state men merely desired to use the governor in the way he had been used by others. They wished him to authorize them to defend themselves, and to strip the ruffians below of their cloak of legal authority. Such were the motives of General Robinson and the free-state leaders.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Phillips also adds that Shannon tried to drag things out in hopes that the 1st Cavalry would ride to his rescue. The Governor, Phillips tells, lost track of that particular stratagem when plied with sufficient alcohol. Maybe, but free state men tended teetotal and seem to have understood proslavery politics and inebriation as nearly the same state.

Regardless of how it happened, Shannon went back to the Wakarausa camp and informed the proslavery men of the shape of the settlement. They, David Rice Atchison included, agreed to do what they could to douse the flames. It seems that word soon got out. As I’ve discovered since last mentioning it, Shannon received J.C. Anderson’s letter

At 1 A.M., Dec. 7, I learned from a reliable source that a plan was on foot to raise the “black flag,” with the view of throwing off the authority of the Territorial executive and its officers and attacking Lawrence upon their own responsibility. I renewed my endeavors for peace, and with the leading men did all in my power to dissuade these hot-headed people from so unauthorized a movement.

Brewerton prints orders, dated December 8, instructing the militia generals to “immediately use [their] whole force to check” any wildcat attack. These orders refer to negotiations in progress, so it makes more sense if they went out on the seventh unless Shannon counted the night of December 7-8 as part of the former day when he got the news, but the latter when he issued the orders. He might have done just that. Nineteenth century Americans didn’t live by the clock like we do. They would probably find trying to pin it down precisely fussy to the point of absurdity. They will have to forgive this obscure corner of posterity for likewise having the peccadilloes of his time.

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