A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Four

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left David Rice Atchison’s senate seat empty, as it would remain until 1857, and the man himself fully engaged with Kansas affairs. He won the apparently permanent emnity of Thomas Hart Benton’s wing of the Missouri democracy by orchestrating the senior senator’s involuntary retirement in coalition with the Whigs. Atchison probably considered Kansas the more important matter, and likely a road to finding himself in Washington again someday. He had refused to actively seek reelection. But Bourbon Dave still found time to resent the situation. On December 14, 1855, he wrote that the Missouri legislature lacked

the moral courage to elect me, a majority of them would prefer my election to that of any other person yet they have not the moral courage to do it

Atchison had the votes but failed, somehow, to have the votes. He went on to tell his correspondent that the press would implicate him in the late Wakarusa War. He doesn’t seem to have minded that so much, as a man who led two hundred armed men into Kansas on that occasion might well have. Atchison couldn’t help himself,

but when I do move in earnest here will be a noise louder than thunder or I am mistaken.

And furthermore:

Before the moon shall fill her hours twelve times you shall hear more from me.

More from Atchison, thunderous or not, included a public statement declaring he would not accept any elected office. Bourbon Dave’s papers explained that he withdrew from the Senate race in order to help the Missouri Democracy reunite. But if Atchison wouldn’t answer Missouri’s call, which he probably would not have received anyway, then at least a few in the South would answer his. In the fall of the year, the emissaries that his people had chosen to fan out across the South looking for proslavery settlers. They had some success, if never as much as they dreamed.

Georgia’s governor recommended a Southern convention if Congress failed to accept Kansas as a slave state, a proposal Atchison endorsed. A Southern convention naturally invoked memories of Nashville. Get enough angry southerners together and they might decide to do something drastic, so the nation had best concede the territory. Everyone, except the slaves, would win:

This course on the part of the South will save Kansas to the South-save bloodshed, civil war, and perhaps a dissolution of the Union itself.

In January, Missouri’s former senator followed that letter up with another, repeating the call for immigration:

Let your young men come forth to Missouri and Kansas. Let them come well armed, with money enough to support them for twelve months, and determined to see this thing out. One hundred true men would be an acquisition; the more the better. I do not see how we are to avoid civil war; come it will. Twelve months will not elapse before war-civil war of the fiercest kind-will be upon us. We are arming and preparing for it. Indeed, we of the border counties are prepared. We must have the support of the South. We are fighting the battles of the South. Our institutions are st stake. You far Southern men are now out of the nave of war; but if we fail it will reach your own doors, perhaps your hearths. We want men-armed men. We want money-not for ourselves, but to support our friends when the come from a distance.

Atchison may have intended to follow his own advice. He mentions that he might soon move to Kansas and the Squatter Sovereign reported the news the same month. According to them, he would arrive with two hundred of his closest friends. There his slaves would farm and he would collect the profits. The paper even claimed that Atchison had moved to the territory.

Robert S. Kelley

Parrish looked into the matter, noting that Stringfellow and Kelley kept up that story through 1856. For a Kansan, Atchison did a great deal of living in Missouri. With no family of his own, he kept rooms at a Platte City hotel. He probably also rented rooms in Atchison and may have used them, but Parrish looked deep into the land records and never found evidence that Atchison bought a parcel. In my own research, Atchison always comes over from Missouri rather than down from his namesake town. The Sovereign could claim that the senator had the same basis for residence in both jurisdictions, but it doesn’t look like he lived that way.

Whether Atchison ever had serious plans to make himself a Kansan or not, others did. Late April brought the largest group of southern colonists, Jefferson Buford’s organization, arrived to do their part in saving Kansas for slavery. When Southerners came through, Atchison took an interest in them. South Carolinians particularly drew his eye and he personally housed the children of friends and others who came in their company. Corespondents asked him to advise the young men they sent on “where to settle, how to vote, and if necessary, when to fight.” Atchison the man did as asked, showing new arrivals around Atchison the town. When they came with money for him to use, he let them keep it but stood ready with advice on how to best spend their funds. In turn, the new arrivals admired Atchison well enough to honor him at banquets.

 

“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

 

We left David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, invisible in the records. Between February second and twentieth of 1855, he drops off the map. During that time, Lewis Cass believed that Atchison toured the South soliciting support for his crusade in Kansas. Large rallies would have generated news reports, but if Atchison came to a state capital quietly and talked to fellow politicians behind closed doors, we might never know. Outside of Missouri and Washington, few people likely knew him on sight. He appears again back in Missouri, possibly in St. Louis on the twentieth and definitely in Jefferson City by the twenty-second.

Bourbon Dave arrived to disappointing news. The Missouri legislature had just voted to postpone choosing a new senator. Until that point, Atchison may have expected easy reelection. It turned out that his battle with Thomas Hart Benton had cost him the support of many Democrats, enough together with Missouri’s Whigs to deny him a clear majority. With nothing much to do in the state capital, he made for the border the next day. He had Kansas to save for slavery, after all. Elections for the legislature would take place on March 30 and he could hardly miss that. On the twenty-fifth, Atchison went into Kansas in the company of “eighty men and twenty-four wagons.” He came packing two Bowie knives and four pistols, just for himself. The proceeds of his movement, in fraud and intimidation, amounted to control of the legislature of Kansas.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Atchison wrote his F Street messmate, Robert M.T. Hunter, celebrating the victory and asking for ten thousand southerners to come and consolidate their victory. If they could “take possession of and hold every acre of timber” then Kansas could never go against slavery. Missouri could swing half of the ten thousand, he believed, but the rest of the section had to do its part. If the section failed Atchison, then it would lose Missouri and, soon after, Texas and Arkansas. With them gone, the South would have to concede the territories entire to freedom.

But none of this made Atchison “a Bandit, a ruffian, an Aaron Burr.” Atchison did not, he would have his friend know, preside over a regime of violent hooliganism. Instead he saved the lives and homes of antislavery Kansans by restraining his men. Where he went, nothing violent transpired. He couldn’t claim any responsibility for other places, but he assured Hunter that only the most impudent got “the hickory.”

One must suspect Atchison of polishing up his reputation here, but the Howard Report found only violent threats where he personally went. He may, as he did when proslavery forces moved against Lawrence, have acted to restrain his followers just as he claimed. He still got the mob in position where it could do harm and we ought to understand the border ruffians as part of a movement he started, organized, and led. The two do not cancel out, but only together form a complete picture of Missouri’s senator.

Andrew Butler of South Carolina, another of Atchison’s late messamates fabulously declared

the advent of Kansas shall be to the living Atchison a Star in his varied galaxy of life.

A young friend or relation of Butler’s had just gone off to Kansas and Butler asked Atchison to look after him.

James Mason

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, proved less effusive. He heard rumors that people in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder deposed in favor of a more pliable governor. The proslavery side should not use their victory as an excuse to color outside the legal lines. Instead, if Reeder proved intransigent against the proslavery legislature, then they could charge him with various offenses and ask his removal. Atchison had anticipated Mason’s advice, bending Franklin Pierce’s ear on the issue through his old friend, classmate, and present Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis had his back, to the point where the papers referred to a coalition of the two men against Reeder. In the summer, Pierce fired him at the request of Kansas’ legislature.

In the mean time, Atchison’s Platte County men destroyed the Parkville Industrial Luminary for objecting to how Missouri had outright stolen Kansas’ legislature. Parrish, Atchison’s biographer, stresses that he has no evidence the man himself took part in the destruction, but also notes that the Squatter Sovereign praised the act. Given the close personal and political relationship between the brothers Stringfellow and Atchison, it seems unlikely they would have done so if Atchison objected. Instead they advised continuing the campaign against antislavery papers elsewhere in Missouri and, as they later would, in Lawrence.

Atchison’s reelection campaign also got off to an odd start. A proslavery convention met at St. Louis between the twelfth and fourteenth of July. It heard a motion that Atchison and his old law partner Alexander Doniphan, leading contenders for the Senate seat, give speeches. Atchison tried to give them a pass, aiming to keep the convention a proslavery affair rather than introduce partisanship into things. Doniphan, a Whig, followed his lead. The convention wouldn’t hear of it and appointed a committee, which Atchison again refused. The usual order of such things seems to have involved such refusals, but then one reconsidered when a committee affirmed that the convention really wanted you to speak. Maybe Atchison proved himself in earnest in the hopes that it would win him popularity enough to keep his post in the Senate, but Parrish rightly points out that he didn’t give up on Kansas after realizing that he would not again serve as senator. Rebuffed, the convention turned to the favorite pastime of nineteenth century mass meetings: drawing up a set of resolutions. Over in Kansas., the free state men did the same.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison looms large in the story of Bleeding Kansas. A man of his beliefs and inclinations, living just across the line in Missouri, would have probably taken part regardless of his national prominence. Though all but forgotten today, except for the false trivia about his serving as president for a day, in his time Atchison enjoyed a national following. After Calhoun’s death, he served as one of the most high-profile spokesmen for extreme proslavery politics. He had the high esteem of his peers in the Senate, who elected him president pro tempore, unanimously, during what many consider that body’s golden age. He appears in antislavery sources as a crude drunkard, probably with some justice, but Atchison also received a fine education and served ably as a lawyer and judge before his political career. In the former capacity, he worked to defend the Mormons from their hostile Missourian neighbors. We may know far more about him, except that most of his papers went up in smoke in a house fire. Thus when William Earl Parrish took Atchison as his subject, he produced a spare monograph that remains the Senator’s lone biography. Parrish leans heavily on Atchison’s ease in making political friends to underline his abilities, while not neglecting that Bourbon Dave put them to work in the service of slavery.

Parrish traces Atchison’s involvement with filibustering Kansas from its start. He joined with the Stringfellows, close friends of his, in calling for a meeting to discuss Kansas matters and plan a response to the Emigrant Aid Company in the summer of 1854, with the ink barely dry on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That meeting formed the Platte County Self-Defense Association, which accepted B.F. Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. as its manifesto. As soon as Atchison got home from Washington, he took up control of the Self-Defensives. They used their group as a model in establishing the blue lodges that spread across Missouri and joined with a separate group Parrish calls the Kansas League, which operated inside the territory. Then the Senator came into Kansas to speak at his namesake town, just before they began selling off lots.

Atchison’s organization did not elude national notice. Amos Lawrence wrote him in March of 1855, asking the Senator to rein in his followers. Lawrence made no bones about their conflicting purposes: Atchison wanted slavery in Kansas and Lawrence wanted it out. But he asked that the two sides have a fair fight of it and assured Atchison that his organiztion did not actually have a vast legion of militant Yankees bent on conquest. If his side failed, Lawrence promised that antislavery Kansans would accept a loss in good grace “but they will never yield to injustice.”

Amos Adams Lawrence

Atchison answered in April, two weeks after the legislative elections where he and his conducted one of the largest and most flagrant frauds in American electoral history. He had no regrets:

You are right in your conjecture that I and my friends wish to make Kansas in all respects like Missouri. Our interests require it. Our peace through all time demands it, and we intend to leave nothing undone that will conduce to that end and can with honor be performed. If we fail, ten we will surrender to your care and control the State of Missouri. We have all to lose in the contest; you and your friends have nothing at stake. You propose to vote or to drive us away from Kansas. We do not propose to drive you and your friends from that Territory; but we do not intend either to be voted or driven our of Kansas, if we can help it; for we are foolish enough to believe we have as much right to inhabit that country as men from New England. Neither do we intend to be driven from Missouri, or suffer ourselves to be harassed in our property or our peace, if we can help it. At least we will try and make you and your friends share some of our anxieties.

At the time of the first delegate election, Atchison stumped across western Missouri. He told the people of Weston in to do their duty, anticipating what he would write to Lawrence in the spring:

When you reside within one day’s journey of the territory, and when your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can, without an exertion, send 500 of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions.

That day or shortly thereafter, Atchison ran a convention of the various blue lodges in Weston which nominated John Wilkins Whitfield as delegate.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Bourbon Dave didn’t leave things sit with that, of course. He skipped the first few weeks of the new term of Congress that began in December of 1854. Instead of Washington, Atchison went to Independence where he presided over a meeting to choose blue lodge emissaries to fan out across the South and replicate his work. Some would send men, but Atchison would take money and propaganda too. B.F. Stringfellow drew Virginia (his home state) and Maryland as his assignment. Platte and Buchanan counties would pay his travel expenses. He traveled back east with the Senator.

At Atchison’s request the Senate had elected Jesse D. Bright, a friend of Atchison’s from university days and who represented Indiana whilst owning slaves and a plantation in Kentucky, as his replacement. Bright offered to resign in Atchison’s favor, but the Missourian turned him down. He did little in the Senate, and missed sessions entirely toward the end of January. Parrish couldn’t find proof of it, but suspected that Atchison went with Stringfellow to lobby Virginia and Maryland. The Senator likely last served in his official capacity in Washington on February 2, 1855. Afterwards, he drops off the radar for about twenty days again. The papers, national and Missourian, took no note of him except for the latter complaining that he had vanished.

The absence drew some attention after the fact. Gideon Welles confided to his diary (in a volume I can’t find online) that he asked Lewis Cass after Atchison in that time. A mutual friend told Cass that Atchison had gone

on a tour through the Southern States, concocting measures with the Governors and leading men at the South to make Kansas a slave state.

A Closer Look at the Free State Hotel

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left the Free State Hotel a burned ruin, after attempts to level it with cannon fire and blow it sky-high with gunpowder failed. Before Samuel Jones and his proslavery army destroyed the place, it featured occasionally in the Kansas story. To Jones and men like him, the Emigrant Aid Company had built a fortress that might withstand any assault. To their free state enemies, it appears just as a large building. A stone building of considerable size could easily serve both roles. Before leaving the building behind, we should take a closer look. For that, I rely upon Martha B. Caldwell’s The Eldridge House, published in volume nine of the Kansas Historical Quarterly (PDF page 363).

The New England Emigrant Aid Company might have had trouble with its finances, but its board knew that people they sent to Kansas would need somewhere to stay while they looked for claims and built their own houses. The plan envisioned several hotels, each capable of housing three hundred people. The board entrusted Samuel Pomeroy, the same Pomeroy who Jones spoke to on the day the hotel burned, with buying sawmills and building those hotels on August 26, 1854. The first Company party arrived in Lawrence on Septemeber 15 of that year and they built the first hotel

by setting up two rows of poles a distance apart and bringing them together at the top, then thatching the sides with prairie hay. The gable ends were built up with sod and contained the doors and windows. The floor was hard sod.

Luxury had yet to arrive in Kansas, but sod floors and walls didn’t set the hotel far apart from the general run of frontier building. Community functions, including church services, took place there until it burned. Its replacement went on the same lines, but with higher walls and cotton cloth lining the interior. Nobody intended for the sod-walled tent to remain indefinitely and the Aid Company’s trustees asked Pomeroy and Charles Robinson to get moving with a proper building. By November 2, they had managed to dig the cellar out.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Construction faced many obstacles, taking nineteen months and never quite reaching a full opening. The Company often ran out of money, with Robinson informing the board that construction stopped in part for that reason at the end of November. The mill that Pomeroy had set up couldn’t keep up with the demand of private customers, so lumber had to come up the river from St. Louis. Kansas’ turmoil can’t have sped things along either. One can forgive the difficult logistics of the Kansas frontier, but Caldwell believes the men in charge also distracted themselves with land speculation and points to the Company later refusing agents the freedom to conduct private business and revoking permission from Pomeroy.

All of that meant that the first emigrant parties to come in the spring of 1855 did not find a hotel waiting for them as planned. In January, the Herald of Freedom advised them not to expect the finest lodgings but promised that Lawrence could handle people ready to rough it. Come February, Pomeroy advertised for someone to furnish and run the hotel. Soon enough, Shalor W. Eldridge took up the lease. He already ran the company’s hotel in Kansas City, the same one where Andrew Reeder would hide the next year.

By spring, the basement had walls and waited on lumber but the shortage of that material had grown so acute that it prompted a revision of plans. The Aid Company intended a timber frame building but a perpetual lack of timber made that impossible. Instead they would build in “stone and concrete.” This argues strongly that no one envisioned the Free State Hotel as a fortification, at least until the spring of 1855, but the change of plan in the context of the deteriorating Kansas situation might well have looked like one aimed at military necessity from the outside. By this point the delays had already made the hotel infamous, with Josiah Miller of the Kansas Free State editorializing against it. People passed Lawrence by or left in disgust for lack of proper accommodations and yet the Company refused to either finish the work or sell to someone who would. Flooring, pre-fabricated in St. Louis, and doors arrived in town only on August 19.

At the beginning of October, two floors stood more or less complete, internal walls going up and windows in place. That served well enough to make the building host to social events, starting with a party thrown by the Kansas Rifles boasting elaborate invitations and a hunting contest to feed the guests. Five hundred people attended despite cold, rain, and deep much. They dined on “squirrel, rabbit, prairie chicken, wild turkey, and one roast pig, together with cakes and pastries.” Not much more than a week after, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow and the Wakarusa War began. The hotel became a barracks and headquarters, then housed Thomas Barber’s body and the peace talks. The subsequent festivities further put it to good use.

After the Wakarusa War, construction resumed. Putting up plaster and supplying furniture took place in December. By January, rumors circulated that the Free State government might quit Topeka for a more fortified spot. Surely they could get the hotel done by February 15, but that date came and went. In March, “between twenty and thirty men were constantly employed.” Their work concluded by April 12, when the papers reported the end of construction. Caldwell quotes the Herald of Freedom on the hotel’s final form:

50 feet front, 70 feet back; three stories above the basement; contains 50 separate apartments, besides a hall in each story. The basement is divided into three rooms, each 18 feet square -two to be used as pastry and meat kitchens, the other as storehouse or cellar. The first story is 11 feet from floor the ceiling, is divided into 9 rooms; the dining hall 18 feet wide and 47 feet long; hall 9 1/2 feet wide, entire length of building; Gentlemen’s parlor, 18 feet square; Ladies’ parlor, 18 x 20; Reading Room, 18 feet square; Sitting room, 16 x 18; two bed-rooms, 9 feet square; office, 6 x 14 […] stairs leading to the roof, which is flat, and affords a fine promenade and a splendid view of the surrounding scenery. There are thirty or forty port-holes in the walls, which rise above the roof, plugged up now with stones, which can be knocked out with the blow of the butt of a Sharp’s rifle.

The Howard Committee

The military use of the building must have come to mind more and more, even if the original plan involved none of it, but the main focus of the description remains on the hotel amenities. It had outhouses “of the neatest kind” and a partially-built stable which would hold fifty horses and keep your buggy out of the rain. Brown’s paper, which ought to know considering it drew funds from the Emigrant Aid Company too, estimated the cost of the building at over $20,000. The grand opening would take place on the first of May.

Samuel Jones

Eldridge set into furnishing the hotel to meet that date, ordering pieces from St. Louis and Boston. He spent over five thousand dollars, but most of the furniture had yet to arrive when the Howard Committee did. The people of Lawrence loaned him some of their own to spare him embarrassment. I.B. Donaldson and Samuel Jones then intervened. Jones convalesced briefly under the hotel’s roof after his shooting. With all trouble then in the offing, the grand opening did not take place as planned. The Eldridges held out hope all the same, with a set of rules for guests coming off the Herald of Freedom press on May 10. Instead Lecompton’s grand jury declared the Free State Hotel a military edifice and recommended someone do something about it. A recovered Jones lied to the proslavery mob about having an order for the building’s destruction and saw it done.

Unanswered Questions about the Sack of Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon explaining the sacking of Lawrence to Franklin Pierce. He said, essentially, that sometimes people get a little excited and a lot of pillaging happens. What could you do? After the fact, he kept a promise he had made to Lawrence before this all began. Now that they had disarmed, thanks to Sheriff Samuel Jones riding into town and collecting what arms he could at the head of a small army, he ordered Colonel Sumner of the 1st Cavalry to dispatch men from Fort Leavenworth to guard Lawrence. For good measure, he also ordered a company for Topeka.

This all looked bad, of course. Shannon, charged with maintenance of law and order in Kansas, had permitted armed invasion, the pillage of one of its towns, and the destruction of a considerable amount of property. What kind of governor did that? He knew his conduct would come under scrutiny, both by antislavery figures outside Kansas and by proslavery politicians looking for a fall guy. Much of Shannon’s letter suggests that he understood the president as one of the latter. He got the job in the first place because Pierce fired Andrew Reeder for mismanaging the ascent of slavery, after all. Toward the end, the governor made the subtext into text:

I have relied solely on the forces under the command of Colonel Sumner, in order to maintain peace and good order in the Territory and enforce the execution of the laws. I have furnished no posse to the Marshal, nor have I been called on by that officer to do so.

Pierce had asked if Shannon drew on the force under Colonel Cooke out at Fort Riley, which the governor had not done. The stress on exclusivity suggests both that Shannon wanted the president to know he hadn’t gone mad with his new power to summon the army and that he hadn’t repeated his blunder of the winter and given proslavery forces a pretense to invade under his authority. Nor had I.B. Donaldson come to Shannon and asked for a posse, which could have come from the ranks of the 1st Cavalry. He hadn’t approved any posses since the small force sent into Lawrence with Jones on the occasion of his shooting, weeks before. Pierce would have to understand that Shannon did everything he could and simply did not deserve the blame for what happened after. The buck did not stop there.

All through this, I have wondered just how much of the story Shannon told honestly and how much he worked to excuse himself. The governor doesn’t appear to have outright lied, though he may have mistaken some things. He wrote for an audience that had every reason, including a past bungling, to hold him accountable and so we must expect him to paint himself in the most favorable light. But the matter of Donaldson’s posse remains ambiguous. Did Shannon firmly suggest he take the military instead of summoning any proslavery man with a grudge to move on Lawrence? He might have seen Lawrence as a problem that the posse would take care of for him, as suggested by his indifference to the town’s plight while it remained under arms. That would encourage him not to press the matter. Donaldson clearly turned him either way, but Shannon could still have ordered Sumner’s men out to serve as a kind of peacekeeping force; he tried to do just that during the Wakarusa War.

And why did Donaldson refuse the aid Shannon might have offered him? Concern for his safety makes perfect sense in light of how Lawrence treated Samuel Jones. Shannon told Pierce that the Marshal feared the soldiers might tip off the men he aimed to arrest, but if Donaldson feared that then why wait weeks to move? Why issue a proclamation calling for the largest posse he could possibly assemble? Donaldson deserves the lion’s share of the blame for bringing in his posse, but what did Shannon really do to deter him? During at least days closeted together in Lecompton, they must have discussed Lawrence. What did they say? Did all of this go according to plan and get disavowed later? Or did Shannon try his best and get outpaced or outmaneuvered?

I don’t know.

Governor Shannon’s Peace

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon, second governor of Kansas Territory, explaining what had happened to Lawrence to an impatient President Franklin Pierce. The posse of proslavery men, hundreds strong, ran amok for hours. The governor explained that the antislavery party headquartered in Lawrence had driven them to distraction. They could not rest easily until reducing the Free State Hotel and the town’s two printing presses to ruins. No one died -Shannon either ignored or didn’t know of the proslavery man who died when a piece of the hotel fell on him as it burned- and the governor dismissed the property damage as the result of incidental exuberance and brief failure of the officers on the ground, not design. Trust him and note the fine raiment he chose for his posterior.

I.B. Donaldson gathered a suspiciously large posse to begin with and then made no protest over its transfer to the control of a known proslavery hooligan with a grudge against Lawrence, Douglas County sheriff Samuel Jones, but the federal marshal himself got in and out of town without any destruction. He left with prisoners in tow, taking them straight to Lecompton. There Governor Shannon waited. On having news of Donaldson’s success, the governor finally stirred himself to concern about Lawrence’s fate:

As soon as I was advised that he [Donaldson] had dismissed his posse, and without waiting for further information from Lawrence, I addressed a letter to Colonel Sumner, at Fort Leavenworth, calling on him for three companies of United States troops -one company to be stationed at Lawrence, one at this place [Lecompton], and one at Topeka.

Shannon wrote to Sumner on May 21, 1856; he probably put pen to paper as the rampage took place. Aside from knowing that Donaldson had arrested the men he came for, his letter to the colonel reveals

The Sheriff has also got through making arrests on warrants in his hands, and I presume by this time has dismissed his posse.

Franklin Pierce

That dates the composition of Shannon’s letter into the evening, but he may have presumed on both counts and written Sumner what he expected to happen rather than what he knew. If Jones arrested anybody in Lawrence on that day, I haven’t seen reference to it in any sources with local knowledge. If he wrote in anticipation, Shannon could easily have written earlier and sent his missive during the afternoon.

Either way, Shannon wanted Sumner to get the lead out. He should dispatch his three companies -a hundred men each, on paper, but probably only thirty or so effective at any moment- “with as little delay as possible.” Shannon anticipated that more warrants would come and someone would have to go back into Lawrence to serve them. The military force would secure the peace, which he expected tested again when those warrants appeared in the hands of sheriffs and marshals.

The armed organization to resist the laws would seem to be broken up for the present, so far as the town of Lawrence is concerned, but there is danger that this formidable organization may show itself at some other point, unless held in check by the presence of a force competent to put it down.

Governor Shannon wanted to preserve the peace, or at least a peace. Ever since he came to Kansas he had written and acted on those lines with clear sincerity. He feared the result of a pitched battle between proslavery and antislavery militias, both for Kansas and the nation at large. If nothing else, a chaotic Kansas reflected poorly on him personally. Wild carnage did not suit him in the slightest, but he only exerted himself energetically to prevent bloodshed during the Wakarusa War, where he bore personal responsibility, and to dispatch Sumner’s men against antislavery organizations. In doing so, he followed closely the president’s own policy.

 

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.

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.

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.