Another Letter for Marshal Donaldson

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

The people of Lawrence had few options. At this time of year, many of the men who might have come to their defense would have work on the farm that they would find hard to delay. Even if they came, the town appeared short on guns and still owed the merchants who had forwarded them provisions for the Wakarusa War. Furthermore, J.B. Donaldson’s proslavery army styled itself a militia clothed in the authority of his post as US Marshal. Wilson Shannon would not intercede on their behalf. E.V. Sumner, of the 1st Cavalry, could not act without the governor’s permission. Direct appeals to Donaldson had failed. Proslavery men detained people coming and going about the unofficial free state headquarters. The committee on safety could not settle on a course of action.

On May 17, 1856, per William Phillips, the committee chose to try Donaldson again and dispatched a fresh letter:

a large force of armed men have collected in the vicinity of Lawrence, and are engaged in committing depredations upon our citizens; stopping wagons, arresting, threatening, and robbing unoffending travellers upon the highway, breaking open boxes of merchandise, and appropriating their contents; have slaughtered cattle, and terrified many of the women and children.

Probably they had no shortage of terrified men on hand too, but nineteenth century masculinity demanded they forebear in silence and make their pleas on behalf of others.

We have also learned from Governor Shannon ‘that there are no armed forces in the vicinity of this place but the regularly constituted militia of the territory; -this is to ask if you recognize them as your posse, and feel responsible for their acts. If you do not, we hope and trust you will prevent a repetition of such acts, and give peace to the settlers.

Here Lawrence might turn Shannon’s inaction to their advantage. He insisted no one but the posse operated near Lawrence. Donaldson admitting that he had a posse meant for the town. If he took claimed those proslavery men harassing travelers and stealing whatever they liked as that posse, then he owned their various misdeeds. If he did not, then he might have a duty that he had recognized himself in previous correspondence to preserve law and order. Thus the Marshal may have to disown the army, and so oblige himself to work against it, or claim the posse and work to control it.

All of that sounds good on paper, but it does require Donaldson to have scruples not otherwise in evidence; he failed to even write them another hostile answer in the vein of the one he had given before. The committee of safety had to expect little to nothing when they wrote the letter. One can’t read it and not feel the desperation of the authors. If the Marshal himself didn’t, or couldn’t, save them then it may all soon come to ruin. Their argument had logical and moral force, but those might prove of aid only to their eulogists.

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