Franklin Pierce, Out of the Loop

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The sack of Lawrence took place on a hot Wednesday, May 21, 1856. The destruction, pillage, and worse continued into the night but had abated by dawn. In the most restrictive sense, it played out over as little as four or five hours from the time Samuel Jones led his posse into town until they left again. But it took time and good cause, or at least a solid pretense, to get so many men to come over and consummate their long-held desire to do something about the infamous abolition town. The story could begin all the way back when Stephen Douglas cutting deals with the F Street Mess and Archibald Dixon. One could make a case for either, but to keep things manageable let’s focus on the immediate campaign against Lawrence that culminated on that Wednesday afternoon and evening. That also takes us back to Samuel Jones, sans posse, coming into Lawrence to arrest Samuel Wood on April 19. Failing then, he came back with a detachment of United States Cavalry and found Wood gone. He collected a few men as consolation prizes, then received a bullet in the back from someone in Lawrence gratis. On May 5, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury made a federal case of things by ordering the arrest of various free state leaders and the suppression of the free state newspapers. The two causes came together in I.B. Donaldson’s overgrown “posse” of Missourians and Jefferson Buford’s adventurers.

That yields a bit more than a month between inciting event and the attack. During all that time, plenty of news could have passed back and forth between Kansas and Washington. One has to wonder just what the Pierce administration thought of events as they developed. The Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume IV (PDF), have an account of that. The documents begin with the news that Franklin Pierce felt left out of the loop. On May 23, he telegraphed

Has the United States Marshal Proceeded to Lawrence to execute civil process? Has military force been found necessary to maintain civil government in Kansas? If so, have you relied solely upon the troops under the command of Colonels Sumner and Cooke? If otherwise, state the reasons. The laws must be executed; but military force should be employed until after the Marshal has met with actual resistance in the fulfillment of his duty.

Shannon, absent airline travel, couldn’t have called upon the president; he might at least have written.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Later that day, the President telegraphed again. In the interim, he received word from Edwin Sumner via Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War. Pierce had a copy of Sumner’s letter to Shannon “of the 12th instant.” I think that Pierce means the letter Sumner sent on the 13th, based on his endorsement of Sumner’s policy there. The Colonel wanted a purely military posse to keep the peace and offered to furnish Shannon with however many men he required. Pierce wrote

My knowledge of facts is imperfect; but with the force of Colonel Sumner at hand, I perceive no occasion for the posse, armed or unarmed, which the Marshal is said to have assembled at Lecompton.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Nobody looks on Franklin Pierce as a sterling example of presidential leadership or far-sighted judgment, but even he could see things had gone sour indeed and required containment. He knew that Donaldson had a posse at Lecompton but had yet to move on Lawrence, thanks to his information as of the 13th. But while he sat in Washington and wondered why Shannon hadn’t written back to him, Donaldson had gone and Lawrence unresisting people of Lawrence paid the price.

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