The Cat-Like Tread of I.B. Donaldson

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce wanted to know what had happened or would soon happen in Kansas. His second governor of the territory, Wilson Shannon, had failed to write him with updates. Instead he got word through army dispatches and rumors, which the president found less than helpful. All the same, he endorsed Colonel Sumner’s plan to use the 1st Cavalry to serve process on people in Lawrence in lieu of a civilian posse. Governor Shannon heartily agreed when he finally wrote back on May 31, 1856. By then the moment had come and gone. He informed the President of the warrants issued against free state leaders, which I.B. Donaldson dispatched his deputy to serve. Said Deputy Marshal tried to secure Andrew Reeder and came away empty-handed. He also came away with a fear for his life if he gave it another try. In light of that and the surprise gift of a bullet to Sheriff Jones shortly before, convinced Donaldson he needed the security only a large posse could bring.

You can’t argue with that, but it all pointed to just the solution Pierce, Shannon, and Sumner all preferred. Donaldson got no such posse from Shannon, which raises troubling questions. The Shannon who appears in the free state correspondence has a tin ear for Lawrence’s concerns. Unless they completely disarm and submit to him, they can take their chances. I don’t know what went on between Shannon and Donaldson at Lecompton, where both men remained for some time and heard pleas from Lawrence together, but the governor gave Pierce a curious account:

Had the Marshal called on me for a posse, I should have felt myself bound to furnish him with one composed entirely of United States troops. Knowing this to be the case, and feeling satisfied that wish a posse composed of such troops, the parties to be arrested would evade the service of process, he determined […] to summon his own posse

Wilson Shannon

Shannon doesn’t quite say that he told Donaldson he could have the 1st Cavalry. He might have; Donaldson somehow knew that he could have the Army at his back, but Shannon only implies that he said so in as many words. I may have read this too closely, but it sounds like the Governor might be hard at work polishing his record. He omits any reference to his trying to extract confessions from Lawrence in exchange for ordering Sumner’s men into action.

The objection that Shannon gives from Donaldson doesn’t make much sense. John Speer and Marc Parrott both tell us that the military sided with the free state party in general. Donaldson reasonably might feared someone tipping his quarry off. But if he feared that then why did he announce to the world that he wanted a massive posse to deploy against Lawrence? Such cat-like tread makes for poor surprises. Even if he counted on shock, Donaldson waited ten days between his proclamation on the 11th of May and marching Lawrence on the 21st. If he really cared about people getting away, he had a funny way of showing it.

A generous reader might think Donaldson honestly wanted his quarry to escape and so gave them every chance, but he could have done so as easily and with far less danger of things getting out of his control had he taken Shannon’s possible offer for military help. If Shannon never made that offer, then he could have just sent his deputy in again or gone himself with a token force. As it stands, none of this adds up.

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