The Influence of Snow Power Upon History

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Wilson Shannon ordered the proslavery militia, mob, and posse to get gone from Lawrence. They must remove and disband, the militants going home with the town intact, its printing presses undamaged, blood, save that of Thomas Barber, left unshed. Shannon had gotten them empty assurances and somehow, with the help of David Rice Atchison and Albert Boone, twisted arms far enough to get thirteen of their leaders on board. But would they abandon their siege or abandon their leaders? Shannon didn’t feel confident enough to issue his order disbanding them until a day after settling things in Lawrence and Franklin, December 9, 1855. The threat of a wildcat attack remained hanging over Lawrence, a fact prominent in Shannon’s narrative as well as those of his antagonists.

Paper alone could not secure peace. Paper and the word of esteemed men in the proslavery camp had a better chance. But the underwhelming treaty prompted those present to look for other reasons why the army lost interest. Sara Robinson described the night of December 8-9:

The night was exceedingly tempestuous. The wind raged with unequalled fury, and was full of driving snow and sleet. All of the afternoon it had been so strong and furious, that boards, ten or twelve feet long, lying in a pile back of the house, had been blown, end over end, in every direction. But the night had added violence to the storm, and scarcely anything could make headway against, or live long out in it. Our Scotch friend, Mr. Phillips, had just come in with ears almost frozen.

Sara Robinson had a house to weather the night in. In the camps, they had tents. Some of the better off might have commandeered buildings, as Shannon did, but most of Lawrence’s enemies would have had to make do with the comfort of a layer of canvas or less. Robinson reports that some of them seized an outlying building, but men came out from Lawrence and took them prisoner. They returned with charges “almost frozen.”

The Robinsons’ Scotch friend likewise appreciated nature’s particular clemency, though he also had a good word for Lawrence’s martial fortitude:

Not to negotiation alone was the country indebted for peace. Many were really terrified at the idea of attacking Lawrence when they supposed the people there were going to fight, and had slipped on, glad to get home. Then the supply of whiskey was exhausted; and on that eventful Saturday night the elements warred with peculiar bitterness against the border ruffians in camp. Night set in; it was dark as Erebus. The wind had blown from the south all day, and threatened rain; at dusk it wheeled to the north, and came down with icy keenness, and driving a snowy sleet.

[…]

In the bitter cold the adventurers stood around their camp-fires, or tried to nestle under the wagon-covers that flapped in, or were overthrown by, the furious wind. Logs were piled high on the camp-fires, and the wild gale swept the flames and sparks up through the gnarled limbs of the old oaks and walnuts of the Wakarusa bottom.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Fun times. Phillips would hardly shrink from a chance to paint the proslavery men as cowards, trembling at the martial manliness of Lawrence. Probably some did, as coming to the festivities doesn’t require quite the same courage as doing something that might get one shot. Proslavery writers frequently paint their adversaries as similarly timid, to the point where some clearly believed it. Faced with actual antislavery men with actual guns, they may have reconsidered. But having come so far, more likely trembled from the miserable cold. If their leaders could give them a face-saving excuse to leave, why not take it? Phillips admits as much in the end, deciding that

had that been a mild and pleasant, summer’s night, there would have been an attack.

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