“How long shall these things continue?”

Wilson Shannon

William Barbee wrote Governor Shannon that proslavery families fled the Osawatomie area for fear of John Brown’s murdering band. He and the rest of the Kansas militia needed arms and reinforcements to keep what fragile peace remained. They could get the latter from the United States Cavalry out of Fort Scott, but the militia still needed more guns than it had. So if the Governor could shake some loose, everyone would appreciate it.

Barbee wrote from a camp he shared with William Heiskell, who also commanded a militia brigade. Heiskell wrote himself, probably on the grounds that the two of them writing would more likely get a good response. He informed Shannon:

All here is excitement and confusion. We have just heard of the murder on Saturday night of Allen Wilkinson, Doyle and his two brothers, and William Sherman; all living in Franklin county, near Pottawatomie creek. The body of another man has been found at the ford of the Pottawatomie. These murders, it is supposed, were committed by the abolitionists of Osawatomie, and Pottawatomie creeks, on their return from Lawrence.

Like Barbee and Cato, Heiskell wrote with imperfect information. He thought that three Doyle brothers died, rather than two and their father. He seems to have heard that someone died in the creek, but not that Dutch Bill Sherman did.

Basic facts conveyed, as he understood them, Heiskell moved on to the point:

How long shall these things continue? How long shall our citizens, unarmed and defenseless, be exposed to this worse than savage cruelty? Wilkinson, it is said, was taken from his bed, leaving a sick wife and children, and butchered in their sight. The two young Doyles were unarmed, and shot down on the prairie like dogs.

The Free State leaders at Lawrence made similar pleas to Shannon, which he brushed off. They too could claim a trail of bodies left by their foes, if one rather more spread over time and space. Shannon favored slavery for Kansas and disliked armed strife, at least when he would have some accountability for it, but also blamed the antislavery side for causing all the problems. That some free state militants escalated things to a massacre would suit his preconceptions and convictions exactly, even if the horrifying events of the weekend didn’t justify a strong response all on their own. Shannon had to do something, from his own convictions, out of his official responsibility for Kansas, and likely also if he expected to remain its governor.

 

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