“I thought it best”

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon at last had cause to use the power that Franklin Pierce had delegated to him and call out the 1st Cavalry to preserve order in Kansas. That meant, to both men, suppressing the antislavery movement in the territory. Armed bands of proslavery men didn’t warrant anything like similar concern. That didn’t mean Shannon was entirely blind to the optics of the situation, though. He ordered Captain Wood’s command out of Lawrence, where he put them only after the proslavery men did as they would with the town and moved on. News of John Brown’s killing spree had Shannon move those men out, so he called on Colonel Sumner to replace them at Lawrence.

Here, Shannon felt a need to explain himself to the president:

I do not know that my instructions, at least in express terms, give me the power to call on Col. Sumner for troops to be located at different points in the Territory for the purposes I have already stated; but the plan met the entire approbation of Col. Sumner, and I was so well satisfied of the policy of it, that I thought it best, under the emergency to carry it out at once.

If he went too far in ordering something like martial law for significant portions of Kansas, then Shannon promised he could easily fix it. At any rate, he hadn’t done any harm given the situation. The Governor got the harm out of his system, at least for the time, when he ignored Lawrence’s pleas for protection and promises to cooperate with Israel Donaldson if only he would draw his posse from their number instead of Missourians bent on killing abolitionists.

That action had born fruit, as we know, in the capture of Brown’s elder two sons. Neither had anything to do with the murders along the Pottawatomie, naturally. They picked the wrong relatives, as so many of us do. With his report to President Pierce, Shannon also enclosed a dispatch from John R. Church, a second lieutenant of the Cavalry. Church saw the Pottawatomie Rifles and reported the matter up the chain. This all happened on May 26, before the Browns reunited after the murders:

I came upon a body of men from Osawatomie and the surrounding country, who, as well as I could judge, numbered some seventy or eighty, although they pretended to have about one hundred and thirty. This body was commanded by a Captain Brown, and was evidently a Free-State party. They had been at Palmyra about two days, and had frightened off a number of Pro-Slavery settlers, and forced off, as far as I could learn, two families.

Church says “forced off” and “frightened,” not “dragged out of their beds and hacked to death.” He doesn’t mean the murders, or he would have said something more. The Free State men don’t say anything about scaring someone off in their accounts of the situation, but there mere presence might have done the job and they all told their stories with the more sensational news that followed in mind.

Church rode up to John Junior, the captain here, and informed him that bands of armed men of any politics broke the law. They needed to go home. “After considerable talk,” Brown agreed. Church stuck around long enough to make sure the Rifles broke camp, then moved on to chase a rumor that a hundred fifty Missourians had crossed over for a new invasion. Arriving, he found rumors and exaggerations. Bull Creek, the mooted concentration point, held only a few displaced proslavery people from Palmyra and a party aimed at going further west but stopped by the chaos ahead of them on the road. Others under the same officer as Church, Captain Wood, would arrest Brown all of two days later.

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