“It is useless for me to deny it” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Two

David B. Mitchell

William Bowen, David Byrdie Mitchell’s employee at the Creek Agency, had quite the close call. He smuggled the last forty-two of his hundred slaves out of Amelia Island less than a week before the United States Navy sailed in and ended its usefulness as a depot for slave smuggling. We might expect a man who claimed that he scared so easily he risked breaking American law by taking his slaves to the Agency instead of Spanish West Florida based on rumors to take that as a lesson and get himself out of slave smuggling. If nothing else, he ought to at least stop doing it around St. Mary’s River.

That same crippling anxiety surely gripped Bowen as he wrote, on Christmas of 1817, that he heard that someone moved group of a hundred sixty contraband slaves off Amelia before the Navy arrived and they remained somewhere nearby on the mainland. We must imagine him rending his garments and weeping as he informed (page 962) Mitchell

excellent bargains could be had in the purchase of those [slaves] that were run off to the main from Amelia.

and furthermore

I would make another purchase, but my other business is too much neglected to take the necessary time to accomplish the security of them.

Also Mitchell’s friend Captain Thomas really ought to have come so he could have gotten in on those profits. Of course Bowen had handed over supervision of his smuggling operation to a Creek named Tobler, who had fake papers indicating that he had bought the slaves in Georgia. That made the trade domestic and legal, or at least someone else’s problem if he got caught.

Bowen parted company with Tobler to tend to some of that neglected business, but two men came across the Creek and his charges. Lodowick Ashley and Jason Brinson later made sworn statements on the matter. They saw Tobler in charge of the slaves and in the company of a white man, John Oliphant. Tobler informed Ashley and Brinson that he owned those forty people. That took place on December 26, 1817, the day after Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing.

Ashley and Brinson went to Drummond’s Landing and found Bowen still there. They told Bowen the slaves might run afoul of army movements. The army would likely have other priorities than rounding up slave smugglers, but if they blundered into a group then they might take action. Bowen tried to hire the two to go and turn the contraband slaves to a safer route. They could have their pick of the slaves so long as they made sure the rest got to the home of a Timothy Barnard or to the Creek Agency.

The witness [Ashley] observed that he should not like to be caught there with the negroes by General Mitchell; to which Bowen replied that he believed General Mitchell was his friend; and that, if the negroes were left or set down in the back part of the agent’s field, it should entitle the witness to the negro before mentioned.

Brinson confirmed all of that. Attorney General Wirt’s report doesn’t say, but it sounds like Ashley and Brinson turned Bowen down.

It might have all ended there, but Bowen sent his letter -the same letter I have quoted from- to Mitchell with Tobler. That letter found its way into Mitchell’s desk, where the Agency blacksmith. There William Moore, found it along with a bill of sale. (Mitchell, going away for a while, asked Moore to repair the desk in his absence.) Moore gave the letter to John Clark, who become governor of Georgia in 1819. Clark in turn confronted Bowen with the document. Had he written and signed his name to he incriminating latter?

To which Bowen replied, “It is useless for me to deny it”, as my handwriting is so well known;” which I [Wirt] understand to mean, “I would deny it, if I did not know that my handwriting could be so easily proved; but, since it can, it is useless for me to deny it.”

Clark insisted on a straight yes or no and got the former. Nor did Bowen recant when questioned later, which makes things look very bad for Mitchell. Asked to explain just why he consulted so closely with the Indian agent on slave smuggling, Bowen finally clammed up.

Meanwhile, Mitchell had the illegal slaves on his agency and entertained interested parties. On December 20, 1817, before the second group of slaves arrived, Tennessean Gideon Morgan, stopped by Mitchell’s at the request of some of Bowen’s financiers. He had a letter from the partners in the firm identifying him as their agent, addressed to Mitchell by name. So the men who fronted Bowen the cash to go buy slaves and smuggle them into the country knew that their slaves either had already or would soon arrive at Mitchell’s Creek Agency. Those papers don’t mention slaves, but refer tellingly to Morgan carrying out business near the Agency and then into Alabama Territory. Morgan had a letter from a General Gains -who did not know about the slaves and made it his business to expose Mitchell when he learned of them- asking Mitchell to write him a passport through Indian country.

Georgia might prove too close to prying eyes for a safe resale of slaves, but less settled and more labor-hungry Alabama would probably  look the other way.

To further link Mitchell, Morgan, and the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company (the aforementioned financiers), his introductory letter to the agent includes this passage:

“Should he,” says the letter, “have occasion for funds or any other services in your power, you will confer a singular favor on me by rendering him any service in your power. We will accept his drafts at any sight for any sum he may think proper to draw on us for.” [Wirt’s emphasis.]

That bespeaks considerable trust in Morgan and a similar degree of confidence in Mitchell not to bleed them dry. Wirt spells it out:

The engagement in the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. that they would pay at any sight the drafts of Colonel Morgan in favor of General Mitchell, to any amount, is certainly calculated to suggest inquiries which it would not be easy to answer satisfactorily.

In other words, they wrote Mitchell a blank check. They would not do such a thing unless they both trusted him extremely well and expected extraordinary service of him.

Odd Accidents: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part One

David B. Mitchell

Gentle Readers, without meaning to I have gotten away from doing posts on events prior to the 1850s. Kansas remains my focus, but I want to write about earlier subjects more often than I have. This post goes to remedying that, though I can’t promise I will make it a regular feature. When I do these posts, I intend to put them in the new Deep Dives category. Enough about programming, let’s get into some history.

The United States outlawed the importation of Africans to the country, effective January 1, 1808. Many at the time took this as a banner antislavery achievement, pointing especially to the remarkable fact that the House of Representatives managed only five votes against the law. If one wants to find an antislavery consensus in the Early Republic, that makes for an appealing data point. In the broader context, the United States covered itself in rather less glory. The ban permitted the sale of people brought illegally into the nation. Judges and juries didn’t work that hard to convict slave smugglers. Except for the president, no one had a clear chain of command to the federal marshals, attorneys, and customs officials who might enforce the prohibition. Even had all that existed, the vast spaces involved and the presence of Spanish on just the frontier where one would most want to smuggle human cargo into the nation presented a serious logistical challenge to widely-scattered officials. Some pleaded for revenue cutters and naval vessels to patrol coastal waters. Others protested flagrant violation of the law, particularly in Louisiana after its purchase.

We have had to revise early estimates of the number of slaves smuggled into the nation downward substantially, but it would not do to overcorrect and assume that little to no smuggling took place after 1808. In the 1810s, probably a few thousand enslaved people did enter the United States in defiance of the law. Some of those came in the conventional way we imagine: a ship goes to Africa and comes back with a human cargo sold in port, but slavers had more subtle methods. Large operations existed on either side of the nation. Jean Lafitte and other pirates took the slaves they stole from Spanish slavers to Galveston Island and sold them to middlemen, including Jim Bowie, who took them overland through Spanish Texas to Louisiana for a tidy profit. Amelia Island, at the mouth of St. Mary’s river on the border between Georgia and Florida, housed a similar operation with far less overland travel involved. Both came to the attention of the United States, which eventually sent the Navy to suppress them, but before that many Americans happily wet their beaks in the trade.

David Brydie Mitchell resigned from his third term as governor of Georgia in March of 1817 to accept an appointment to the Creek Agency in western Georgia. Mitchell cited high principle as the main reason: he would earn the same salary in either post, but Indian agents served at the pleasure of the president during good behavior and so he could expect to collect that salary for rather longer than a governor’s two year term. He wanted tenure and got it, until his behavior came to official notice in a scandal that ended with his dismissal by James Monroe.

Documentation of the scandal comes mainly from a report (pages 957-75) of Attorney General William Wirt, which does not make for the most enchanting reading. Wirt himself complains of having to sort through about seventy documents full of claims and counterclaims, many of them inadmissable in a court of law and some not given under any kind of oath. They concerned men he did not know, some of whom others vouched for. As best he could determine, something like the following happened.

Mitchell took up residence at the Creek Agency, with his son and another man going ahead to plant corn for him. Shortly after Mitchell arrived, men began coming up to him and saying things, thinking aloud style, about how it would be nice to make money by importing slaves from Florida. Amelia Island was the main prospect, but really anywhere would do, so long as he could manage safely and legally. Mitchell thought that a capital idea and said that he’d considered the trade himself. It would be easy enough to bring the slaves in through Creek country to the agency. Mitchell and the other man, John Loving, then got to discussing details of the best route. Loving took notes.

Another man, Thomas Woodward, reported that another man, Joseph Howard, tried to hire him to go off and do the same thing. Woodward protested that it would break the law and anyway, he could not afford the upfront cost of buying the slaves on Amelia Island. Howard told him that Mitchell would front the cash in exchange for a share of the profits. Some Georgia financiers also got involved; one of their agents later talked.

In the main, the Mitchell affair begins with a Captain William Bowen. Bowen had worked for the man who held the Creek agency before Mitchell. Wirt says he doesn’t know much about any prior relationship Bown and Mitchell had, but Bowen claimed he got ten thousand dollars from Mitchell to use in buying things for the Creeks, probably in the spring or early summer of 1817. Apparently Mitchell apparently trusted him.

Bowen left the west for a visit to South Carolina and then called at the homes of some of those Georgia financiers. Somewhere along the way, he caught word that you could make a tidy buck trading on Amelia Island for coffee and sugar. Honestly, he only wanted coffee and sugar. Life handed him lemons when he learned that just then Amelia Island considered sugar and coffee too dear for the funding his backers had staked him. Bowen wanted to give up just then, but

By accident [Wirt’s emphasis], however, he is left by the vessel in which he had intended to embark; and, while he remains waiting for another conveyance, by another casualty (the arrival of a cargo of negroes in one of Commodore Aury’s privateers) he is induced to change the subject of his speculation

He bought the slaves, about a hundred of them. Some accident! Bowen arranged lodgings for about forty of them and took the sixty “most prime and able”with him across Florida. Bowen decided, or “decided” to settle with his new slaves in West Florida. He cites concern for the security of his property in making that decision. In other words, he realized that if he took them into the country straightaway he might get caught. Taking slaves between Spanish jurisdictions probably still broke a law, but not the famous slave import ban. All went well until Bowen suffered another coincidence. He got news at the Flint River, sixty miles downstream from the Creek Agency, of the Seminole War. Also, curiously, he had the forethought to arrange provisioning for the slaves he left behind but lacked it for the sixty or so slaves he had with him. So he just had to go to Mitchell’s agency “by chance, over the exact route with Loving states General Mitchell to have indicated to him.”

Wirt didn’t buy it and had witnesses who said otherwise. Moving that many slaves took more than one white man, so Bowen hired help and his help informed on him. The contraband slaves ended up on the south end of Mitchell’s field, “where they built houses for the negroes, and put them to work; a step certainly not deficient in boldness.”

Mitchell claimed absence when Bowen arrived, but returned in time to see him, the quarters, and the slaves. They talked things over and Bowen came away not at all alarmed by the agent’s return. He had frayed nerves right up until he didn’t. After the talk, Bowen went again to Amelia Island and came back with the remainder of his human merchandise. Those he took directly to Mitchell. The forty-two enslaved people left on Amelia got to come to the Creek agency with Bowen and his helpers, now including an Indian named Tobler. Along the way, Bowen resold four to a Captain Drummond. Accidents happen, you know? From Drummond, he wrote to Mitchell. Wirt includes the full letter:

I have got the balance of the stock that I had left on Amelia, (say forty-two,) and am just starging them under the care of Tobler. I believe I am narrowly watched, but think I have evaded discovery as yet. The risk of getting this lot through, I believe to be more -considerably more- than the first. A party was made up for the purpose of following me and Long, three days after we left St. Mary’s river. Mr. Clark, the collector, was at his mills, and some persons lodged information that they were gone up the river, and had crossed; he offered half to the inhabitants in that neighborhood to detect us.

More pressing still, the United States had seized Amelia Island on the twenty-third of December. Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing on Christmas day. In leaving the island on the twenty-first, he just barely missed them. All that said, Bowen remained a silver lining kind of guy:

The channel through which Africans could be had being obstructed, they will rise considerably.

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.

The Prayer of the Lawrence Memorialists

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

On May 22, 1856, J.M. Winchell, Lyman Allen, S.B. Prentiss, L.G. Hine, Joseph Cracklin, John A. Perry, O.E. Learnard, S.W. Eldridge, and C.W. Babcock allegedly put their names to a memorial for Franklin Pierce. William Phillips claimed afterwards that many of the men denied any part of the thing. He might have it right or he might have helped them cover for an understandable, if less than glorious, performance. Either way, someone wrote it and sent it off to the President. The memorial summarizes events in Lawrence over about a dozen pages, with rather less color than Phillips but agreeing in the essential facts.

Petitioners, then as now, don’t write and sign these documents for their health. They hoped for, even if they couldn’t have expected, constructive action from the Pierce administration. With his term almost over, maybe the president would finally give that a try. The “unparalleled chapter in the history of our country,” and attendant “gigantic … official villainy” beggared belief. Thus, while Pierce might take some convincing,

we cherish and trust that you will hear the voice, however feeble, that pours its complaint into your ear, and exert he influence of your office to prevent the possible occurrence of abuses of power on the parts of those officials who are directly responsible to you […] and institute such a scrutiny into their past conduct as will reveal its true character and inspire salutary caution in the future.

They did in all Pierce’s name with “at least a criminal disregard of good faith” that proved them unfit for their offices. He called the shots so he took the blame, though they didn’t phrase it quite that way. Instead, they prayed for Pierce to look into the events of the last few weeks. To help him, they included official correspondence for his perusal. And until the president’s heart swelled like that of a nineteenth century Grinch, Lawrence would maintain its committee of safety. They would, of course, disband as soon as the Government got its act together and made them safe.

The authors then moved to the question of damages. The posse came in on federal authority, under the leadership of either a US Marshal (Donaldson) or a territorial official (Jones) who Pierce and his allies had long construed as federal agents. They may have even had guns from a federal arsenal. Surely Lawrence deserved compensation, which the memorialists reminded Pierce he had the authority to recommend to Congress. He had best hop to it, as

It is at present impossible to estimate this damage, as new depredations are continually being made. How long these will be permitted to continue will depend to a great extent upon the pleasure of our rulers.

By delaying, Pierce would only increase the bill. Already the mob had destroyed hotel, furnishings, two printing presses, and the livelihoods of two newspaper men. For miles around Lawrence, not a soul had escaped losing some property. The president had to make this right: restoring order, damages, and sacking the guilty, immediately. If he didn’t, someone else might try.

Proslavery Scruples and the Sack of Lawrence

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

William Phillips and the Lawrence memorialists both take pains to inform their readers that not every proslavery man came to Lawrence to rape or steal. Their officers, as they had back in December, wanted an orderly mob that would only molest direct political enemies. They had court orders to suppress the free state papers. Though it appears no direct order to destroy the Free State Hotel existed, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury had condemned it and suggested removal. Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas holds that Jones’ men only acted against it because he lied and claimed they had such an order.  Etcheson’s much more recent book of the same name doesn’t comment on the question.

As the memorialists put it:

We believe that many of the captains of the invading companies exerted themselves to the utmost for the protection of life and property. Some of them protested against these enormous outrages, and endeavored to dissuade Samuel J. Jones from their perpetration. Many used personal effort to remove such property as was possible from the Eldridge House before its destruction. Among those stood prominently Colonel Zadock Jackson, of Georgia, who did not scruple either in Lawrence or his own camp to denounce the outrages in terms such as they deserved.  Colonel Buford, of Alabama, also disclaimed having come to Kansas to destroy property, and condemned the course which had been taken. The prosecuting attorney of Douglas county, the legal adviser of the sheriff, used his influence in vain to prevent the destruction of property.

They might have included David Rice Atchison among the leaders with scruples. Phillips’ version had him direct the bombardment of the Free State Hotel, and Bourbon Dave didn’t mind a good scrap, but he had helped Wilson Shannon end the Wakarusa War. He could have understood his role there as part of the legitimate purpose of the mob and still condemned the outrages that took place once the posse had finished with the building. Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas has him active on that front, but she references unpublished correspondence and a biography of the senator dating back to the Sixties, neither of which I presently have access to.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

A proslavery account Phillips shares, published first in the Lecompton Union, expands on the point:

Before entering town our commanders instructed each member of his company of the consequences befalling the violation of any private property. As far as we can learn, they attended strictly to these instructions. One act we regret to mention – the firing of Robinson’s house. Although there is but little doubt as to the real owners of this property [They believed the Emigrant Aid Company owned Robinson’s home.] yet it was a private residence, and should have remained untouched. During the excitement, the commisary, of Col. Abell, of Atchison city, learned that it was on fire, and immediately detailed a company to suppress the flames, which was done. Once afterwards, we understand, Sheriff Jones had the flames suppressed, and the boys guilty of the act were sent immediately to camp; but with regret we saw the building on fire that night about ten o’clock.

It bears noting in all of this that the proslavery force displayed these keen scruples, albeit imperfectly, in the defense of the property of fellow white Americans. A corporation dedicated to opposing them could have its rights trampled. The Free State Hotel and the Herald of Freedom both fit that description, as Emigrant Aid Company money kept them afloat. Miller’s Free State may have fallen under the rubric of “close enough”. Private looting and personal crimes, including the most horrific, could call into question just why they had come to defend slavery in the first place. An attack on property must call into question just how seriously they took the right to human property.

The Pillage of Lawrence

Gentle readers, this post discusses sexual violence in the context that my sources present it. They gave me few details and treat the matter in a way that reads now as almost completely dismissive. I don’t mean to replicate that, but I have no more information than they gave me: a few sentences admit a catalog of other offenses. I’m sorry. If reading either that presentation or the fact itself will upset you, please take a pass on today’s post. I’ve put the relevant portion at the very end, where I hope it will not come up in any reader’s summary text to be read accidentally along with this warning.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

A combination of cannon fire, two of four gunpowder kegs exploding, and finally firing the building, Samuel Jones proslavery army disposed of the Free State Hotel. Neither William Phillips nor the memorial to Franklin Pierce put a firm time on it, but the destruction must have started after quarter after three and probably before five on the evening of May 21, 1856. The end of the hated symbol of the Emigrant Aid Company prompted jubilation from the mob. Sheriff Jones might sit on his horse and exult in his glory, but his men had a whole abolition town to vent themselves upon.

“Wild and reckless pillage,” in Phillips’ words, began at once. Where a door would not open, and not everyone had a lock or bolt, a window give way easily enough.

All the money and jewelry that could be found was taken, and also clothing. In fact, they took everything they wanted, or could carry away. Much of what they could not take, they destroyed.

Phillips, to a degree (and the memorialists somewhat more so) stressed the efforts of the mob’s officers to control them. Not all the officers scrupled so. A deputy marshal, one of many, took surgical tools. One of the Stringfellows -Phillips doesn’t say which- helped himself to two boxes of cigars, right off the shelf.

Ex-Vice-President Atchison was also seen with one of these, or another box. With such bright examples it would be needless to enter into a detail of the brilliant exploits of the rank and file.

Phillips estimates the losses near to $150,000. In addition to simple looting, the proslavery men took the papers of free state leaders and destroyed letters and family pictures. They tried to burn the Herald of Freedom building, but failed for already taking out most of what would have burned. What remained, a few brave sorts went in and doused. For the grand finale, the mob returned to Charles Robinson’s house on Mount Oread and burned it.

The discussion of sexual violence follows on from here, Gentle Readers.

According to the memorialists:

The work of pillage spread through the whole town, and continued until after dark. Every house and store which cold be entered was ransacked; trunks broken open and money and property taken at will. Where women had not fled, they were in some cases insulted, and even robbed of their clothing.

The insults to women included the everyday sort of insult which simply violated nineteenth century social mores. The proslavery men failed to confine themselves to rudeness and theft, as William Phillips writes:

There were also frightful stories of outrages, and of women being ravished. Such cases there may have been, but rare. There were villains in that posse who were certainly none too good for it.

Phillips probably knew more than he let on. What he reports as likely true stories, the Lawrence memorial takes as fact. Its closing passages refer to “women ravished in their homes.” To name a woman raped would have disgraced her and Phillips, expecting his book to have a longer shelf life and wider circulation than a petition, may have demurred to avoid further compounding their suffering. The victims of sexual violence suffer an unjust, and vile stigma in our time. They would not have had it easier in his. The last thing I want to do is treat this as, one horror amid many, but Phillips only makes it clear what happened paragraphs after, immediately following an estimate of the number of horses taken. The memorial states the fact and leaves it without elaboration.