Two Triumphs on the Wakarusa

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Gentle Readers, I began delving into the strange course of the Wakarusa War back in September.  Everything started when Franklin Coleman killing Charles Dow and rapidly spiraled out of everyone’s control. It came to head with an army of proslavery men, largely Missourians, and the territorial militia mustered around Lawrence. With considerable difficulty, Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, David Rice Atchison, James Lane, and Charles Robinson managed to arrive at a settlement. During the crisis, both sides had difficulty keeping control of the men under their command. That settlement conceded little, but wars come with at least losers. Now and then they have winners as well.

Strictly looking at the terms of the settlement reveals no clear winner. The parties agreed to return to the status quo ante bellum. Did that make the whole business a frightening draw, which accomplished nothing for all the turmoil. A certain strain of history plays heavily into the futility of war, declaring it solves nothing for all the blood and treasure spent. Some wars live up to that reputation, either at the time or with the benefit of hindsight. Others have clearer verdicts, even if they rarely deliver anything worth the price in lives.

The Wakarusa War makes for a terrible war and an excellent one. Less than a half-dozen people died. No great battle took place. I don’t think that it quite lives up to the name in hindsight, and so have largely refrained from using it. When you call something a war, you expect rather more fireworks. But on the other hand, few people died. Little destruction took place. I’d quite like to have more so-called wars like it than those which cost us far more dearly. I suspect that many called upon to hazard their lives in the things would agree.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

A broader examination of the Wakarusa War shows it as not quite the indecisive affair one might suspect. The treaty settled little, true enough, but an army marched against Lawrence. That army came fired by dreams of killing abolitionists, destroying printing presses, and decapitating the free state movement. It left in its wake an intact down full of living abolitionists, functioning presses, and the free state leadership emerged undamaged.

Surviving, a friend told me a few days back, literally means “over-living” in Italian and German. If you know your Latin, you can see the sense in English too. It feels that way often enough and can make for a paltry triumph, but the free state movement emerged from its most serious threat to date unscathed. Had Lane, Robinson, and company folded then, they would probably have lost Kansas to slavery. At the very least, they would have gravely damaged their own authority and so given further legitimacy to those on the antislavery side more enthusiastic about violence. The firm of John Brown & Sons would likely have seen its stock rise.

In the end, however, the free state movement did more than survive. They took the piece of paper that Charles Robinson urged on Wilson Shannon on the night of December 9, which he signed without reading, and put it to immediate use. The Herald of Freedom reports that in short order

Eleven full companies of fifty-four each were duly registered on the part of the citizens, besides the cavalry and artillery companies, and numberless persons who were not enrolled, but held themselves in readiness to fight where they could be most effective, when occasion should demand. It is probable there were not less than eight hundred efficient men ready for service at any moment.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon’s commission made Lane’s and Robinson’s command something like a legal militia, with the free state leadership not just influential but formally in charge. As such, on the afternoon of the 10th

the companies were mustered and passed under a review.

The free state movement had come into the crisis looking for a way to come out the other end alive. At the end of the day, they did far better than that. They came out with a legal respectability their paramilitaries had hitherto lacked. That might not make a great deal of difference within Kansas, but abroad antislavery partisans could point to Shannon’s commission as proof that their comrades in the territory constituted no paltry band of rebels and fanatics. They had not set themselves against the law but rather become part of it even, and especially, in the eyes of a proslavery conniver like Wilson Shannon.

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