An excited mob and impotent orders

Wilson Shannon

Gentle Readers, I’ve been hard on I.B. Donaldson. I strongly suspect he saw his official duties as an excuse to get up a large proslavery force and bring it near Lawrence. His reasons for not taking a purely military force instead don’t add up in light of his behavior over the course of May. If he wanted surprise, then a proclamation announcing his intentions and weeks of warning can’t have looked like the way to secure it. If he expected the shock of that proclamation to paralyze the free state leadership, then why take weeks to follow up? Simple incompetence may play a part here -free state sources describe Donaldson as a bit dim- but his correspondence with Lawrence shows a keen enough mind. Maybe Governor Shannon lied about telling the Marshal he could have the 1st Cavalry, as Shannon’s careful wording may suggest, but that requires us to read a great deal into ambiguous phrasing.

Either way, Donaldson got his army of proslavery men and took them to Lawrence. While under his control, they remained relatively well-behaved. They occupied, and probably looted, Charles Robinson’s home and arrested people trying to flee Lawrence, but Donaldson got those of his quarry still present in the town with a small party of guards and left without incident. The things went bad, which Shannon doesn’t try to hide when he gave his version of the story (PDF) to Franklin Pierce:

Everything so far has proceeded with the utmost order. As soon as the Marshal had dismissed his posse, Sheriff Jones, who was on the ground with a number of writs in his hands against persons supposed to be in Lawrence, summoned the same body of men, as I am informed, to aid him

Shannon admitted that Lawrence put up no fight, though he made sure to note that most of the arsenal that might have opposed him left Lawrence “some days before.” However, the mob had “excitement” over Jones’ shooting, threats against others, and Lawrence’s refusal to submit to the laws, which “could not be restrained.”

A deep and settled conviction seemed to rest on the public mind that there was no security or safety, while those who refused obedience to the laws held their Sharps rifles, artillery, and munitions of war, and while the Aid Society Hotel was permitted to stand, this building having, it is said, been used as a fort, arsenal, and barracks for troops.

Jones’ posse then commenced its general rampage. Shannon doesn’t pin that on Jones, though. It turned out that people just got so damned excited that they had to go a little crazy. But not too crazy:

I understand that orders were given to respect private property, except that which I have named above, but, in so much confusion and disturbance, it is probable that these orders were not in all cases obeyed.

The Governor wrote this ten days after the sack of Lawrence. If he still had doubts about the extent of the destruction, he could have gone down and seen for himself. Instead he downplayed it as only something that happened occasionally. The mob hadn’t leveled Lawrence, fair enough, but even allowing for generous free state exaggerations the town paid a substantial price in stolen and destroyed possessions, to say nothing of the profound traumas suffered by the women who caught the eyes of some proslavery men.

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