“The black flag will be hoisted” Shannon’s Martial Woes, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon found out that men at the Wakarusa camp intended to intercept his message Colonel Sumner and the 1st Cavalry after he visited Lawrence, but it confirmed the danger he already suspected from both touring the camp and speaking with the proslavery militia’s leaders. He also had other, possibly worse news about the town’s besiegers. George Douglas Brewerton prints a letter from J. C. Anderson, which Shannon’s office neglected in the rush of events to note the date or time. Anderson, who Brewerton introduces as a member of the Kansas Assembly, wrote to militia general William P. Richardson, who passed word on. The legislator had

reason to believe from rumors in camp that before tomorrow morning the black flag will be hoisted, when nine out of ten will rally round it, and march without orders upon Lawrence. The forces at the Lecompton camp fully understand the plot, and will fight under the same banner.

Brewerton’s footnote describes the black flag as a generic signal, but raising the black flag had another meaning in the nineteenth century. A black flag meant no quarter. One raised it not just to declare the hour at hand, but also to promise merciless slaughter. If the people of Lawrence feared their home becoming a second Greytown, then their besiegers hoped and planned for it.

Shannon’s letter of the sixth to Sumner, the one nearly intercepted, suggests that he had Anderson’s missive on hand at the time of writing:

It is hard to restrain the men here (they are beyond my power, or at least soon will be)from making an attack upon Lawrence

The Governor could have written this regardless of Anderson, possibly relying on Samuel Jones’ report of the unruly camp as well as his own impressions, but Shannon must have thought himself in at least limited control of the army to fret after losing that control in the near future. Anderson’s rumors would necessarily entail that loss. He also introduces a further wrinkle into the story:

If Governor Shannon will pledge himself not to allow any United States officer to interfere with the arms belonging to the United States now in their possession, and, in case there is not battle, order the United States forces off at once, and retain the militia, provided any force is retained, all will be well

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Brewerton explains in another footnote that some of the Missourians had taken muskets from a federal arsenal in their vicinity before coming to Kansas. If they had done so, which seems likely considering at least some Missourians came over in militia formations, then the besiegers had more to worry about than just missing some mayhem. The 1st Cavalry might decide, reasonably enough, that they had stolen the guns and must surrender them at once. The mere presence of United States forces interposed between the proslavery men and Lawrence would likely prevent bloodshed, but if they came into the camps demanding the arms that might bring on a clash of arms with the military.

That in itself might deter some proslavery men, but they had to know that the 1st Cavalry remained at Fort Leavenworth. If they could sack Lawrence expeditiously, they might finish the job and surrender any arms asked of them without trouble thereafter. Anderson, understandably, closed by urging “speedy measures” and fearing that things might already have gone past the point of no return.



Governor Shannon Goes to Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon


After his unproductive meeting with the proslavery leadership on the night of December 6, 1855, Governor Wilson Shannon made arrangements with General Strickler of the Kansas militia. Through Strickler, he secured an express rider to take his further plea that the 1st Cavalry ride from Fort Leavenworth to come to Lawrence’s rescue. Shannon told George Douglas Brewerton that the arrangements specified for the rider to depart at dawn on the seventh. The Governor dated his letter to the sixth, suggesting strongly that he wrote it and handed it over that night. Most probably he did so after learning just how thoroughly the border ruffians had committed themselves to Lawrence’s ruin.

Shannon planned for more than his letter to leave camp on the morning of December 7, 1855. He had an invitation to come to Lawrence and doing so would help establish him as a mediator between the two parties. Demanding that representatives of the town only meet with him at or near to the proslavery camps would send a rather more high-handed message than would have suited his purposes. They already knew he tilted proslavery, but Lawrence must learn that Wilson Shannon did not tilt so far proslavery as their would-be destroyers.

The Governor and Albert Boone went to Franklin, the same place where Sheriff Jones sent off the messages that turned his small matter of serving a warrant into a crisis. A delegation of ten men met Shannon on the way. They took him into town, where Shannon received what he considered a courteous reception. In a room on the second story of the Emigrant Aid Society Hotel, the Governor met with Charles Robinson and James Lane. Shannon informed Brewerton that

They seemed to feel no hesitation in assuring me that the territorial laws should be executed, and that there should be no obstacle presented to the serving of any legal process; they, however, as representatives of the citizens of Lawrence, reserved to themselves the right of testing the validity of these laws in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Shannon did not “consider it necessary at the time” to bring up their past repudiation of the aforementioned laws. Instead, the governor construed

their present declaration as an apology for the past, and an assurance (hollow though it might be) of improvement for the future.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson told Brewerton a somewhat different story. Therein Shannon

admitted that there had been a misunderstanding, and appeared anxious to get out of the difficulty. He acknowledged, moreover, that he saw nothing out of the way, thus far, in the course pursued by the citizens of Lawrence in arming themselves for their defence. In fact, perfectly satisfied was Governor Shannon of the justice of our position, that there was at this time no obstacle in the way of an immediate cessation of hostilities, save this: that he feared he would be unable to control his men, and therefore desired to await the arrival of the United States troops, then momentarily expected from Fort Leavenworth. His Excellency furthermore declared, that if he were to inform his command, that he (the Governor) had concluded peace with the citizens of Lawrence, without demanding an unconditional surrender of their arms, they would at once raise ‘the Black Flag,’ and march upon the town.

Neither of these accounts sounds entirely candid. While neither the leadership in Lawrence nor Shannon really wanted the fight, I doubt Robinson and Lane fell over themselves to publicly repudiate their past politics. If they did, Robinson didn’t feel compelled to acknowledge the fact even in 1856 when everyone would have had it fresh in mind. Shannon had good reason to believe that he might not have control of the army about Lawrence, a subject due future posts, and might have conceded suffering from misinformation. He would make that claim when he gave a full report of events to Franklin Pierce. But both parties construe the other as so conciliatory and agreeable, always willing to yield on points that they don’t in their own versions, that it reads as less than genuine.

Both parties also left out just what greeted Wilson Shannon when he set foot inside the hotel: the fresh body of Thomas Barber.

“You have the power to secure peace.”

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon


Wilson Shannon, governor of Kansas, and Albert Boone, grandson of Daniel, found that the Missourians and others encamped around Lawrence really did want to ravage the community and put an end to the free state movement. To stop them he had only the similarly-sized free state militias committed to Lawrence’s defense. Using that force would bring about the very confrontation that Shannon wanted desperately to avoid. For him, doing so would probably bring it in the worst possible manner as he would have aligned himself with a group he considered dangerously radical and which had openly repudiated the same laws and territorial government which Shannon had sworn himself to upholding. The 1st Cavalry, which he hoped would ride from Fort Leavenworth to aid him, appeared unlikely to come in time. It might not come at all.

Armed with those glad tidings, Shannon had few options. He understood that

On the part of the Pro-Slavery men there seemed to be so fixed a purpose to assault the town that I almost despaired of preventing it, unless i could obtain the services of the United States troops at Fort Leavenworth.

Shannon had an army of Samuel Jones’ and Samuel Jonses on his hands. If sweet reason would not move them, then it might at least shake loose Colonel E.V. Sumner. Shannon made arrangements for an express rider on the morning of December 7, to carry a fresh plea to Sumner. Shannon repeated his request that Sumner come, stressing that his

object is to secure the citizens of that place [Lawrence], as well as others, from a warfare which, if once commenced, there is no telling where it will end. I doubt not that you have received orders from Washington, but if you have not, the absolute pressure of this crisis is such as to justify you with the President, and the world, in moving with your force to the scene of the difficulties.

Shannon’s rhetoric shifts here. In previous writing he speaks in much more general terms about avoiding bloodshed. He previously makes pointed remarks about restraining proslavery men to the very men he expected otherwise to embark on martial adventures, but rarely otherwise. Even after the fact, he betrays a clear displeasure with the antislavery party and considered them, only somewhat fairly, major instigators of the crisis. (Shannon did not burden himself so heavily with consideration of own role in matters.) Now he casts the people of Lawrence as the clear victims to a neutral party, surely expecting to appeal to a soldier’s sense of duty in protecting his countrymen. If Sumner lacked the orders he wanted, then Shannon could assure him that Franklin Pierce wanted swift action and history would vindicate the course.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The Governor also distanced himself from the army that gathered at least in part on his summons:

It is hard to restrain the men here (they are beyond my power, or at least soon will be)from making an attack upon Lawrence, which, if once made, there is no telling where it may terminate.

Shannon had very reasonable fears and a very reasonable expectation that both parties would hesitate to attack the United States military should it get in the way. He told Sumner that the job would not require a shots fired, but would cool heads and buy time to work out a negotiated settlement. He aimed not to use the 1st Cavalry as a weapon against Lawrence, or even the proslavery militants. Rather

It is peace, not war, that we want, and you have the power to secure peace. Time is precious-fear not but that you will be sustained.

Sumner could save Lawrence, save Kansas, and not incidentally save Shannon. But, all due respect to the Colonel’s qualms, he’d best get the lead out.



More Bad News for Governor Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon must have had better days. He blundered his way into escalating a crisis, but he realized that things had gone wrong and hoped to use the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth to plug the volcano before it erupted. Then Colonel E.V. Sumner, who had promised to come to his aid, realized that he too would ride into a mess and perhaps he ought to proceed more cautiously. That left Shannon with no more than Daniel Boone’s grandson and his own authority to prevent bloodshed.

Nevertheless, Shannon decided his course. He and Boone went off to the Wakarusa camp, six miles from Lawrence, arriving around three in the morning on December 6, 1855. There he learned that neither Lawrence nor the sky had yet fallen. The Missourian mob, Sheriff Jones’ overgrown “posse”, and the Kansas militia had yet to make the attack that they wanted so badly. Shannon sent word that he wanted a meeting with militia general and Blue Lodge man William P. Richardson in command at the Lecompton camp and other leading figures there, then spent much of the day making the rounds on the Wakarusa

with a view of ascertaining their feelings and intentions, and if possibly prevailing upon them to co-operate with me in carrying out my views. For myself, I had two leading objects, which I had determined to use every exertion to accomplish:-One, to prevent the effusion of blood; the other, to vindicate the supremacy of the laws. I found in the Wakarusa camp a strong disposition which appeared to be almost universal, to attack Lawrence.

Samuel Jones threw a war. They waited all this time, partly for Shannon’s sake, and now he wanted them to refrain from carnage? That must have seemed profoundly ungenerous of the governor. The might very well ignore him, but Albert Boone might sway some. If Shannon could talk over some of their acknowledged leaders, then he might still rescue Lawrence. That achievement in itself might damage the free state cause, as it could do much to neutralize Shannon’s well-earned reputation as a committed proslavery man.

Richardson and company arrived at Shannon’s headquarters, a quarter mile off from the Wakarusa camp, around three in the afternoon. It seems they found the governor still abroad in the camp, as he doesn’t mention meeting with them until that evening:

I invited between thirty and forty of their leading men from the two camps to meet me on the night of the 6th, at my quarters, with the intention of explaining to them my desires and purposes and inviting a similar confidence on their part in return.

The meeting got going at eight o’clock, when Shannon “addressed them at length” on his own intentions and asked them to explain their’s. What he heard gave him little reason to hope for a peaceful end to the Lawrence crisis:

I soon discovered that there was but one person present who fully approved of the course which I desired to pursue. The others wished to go further; some would hear of nothing less than the destruction of Lawrence and its fortifications, the demolition of its printing presses, and the unconditional surrender of the arms of the citizens; others, more moderate, expressed a willingness to be satisfied, if the Free State party would give up their Sharpe’s rifles and revolvers.

This might seem like no news at all, and probably didn’t shock Shannon, but he could have hoped for cooler heads among the leadership than the besiegers’ rank and file. With them on his side, he might have muddled through. To become a leader of such a group, one had to have the confidence of its members. With them on Shannon’s side, he might convince the ordinary militants that even if they wanted to raze Lawrence they had picked the wrong time or would do more injury to their cause by the act. Even if the governor went in without much hope of success, coming out of the meeting entirely empty-handed must have come as another blow. He and Albert Boone themselves would hardly prove able to stop a hundred men, let alone the fifteen times as many now investing Lawrence.

Mature Reflection Inconveniences Governor Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Fresh off their disappointing visit with Wilson Shannon, G.P. Lowery and C.W. Babcock passed by where the governor promised he would meet up with the 1st Cavalry to come to Lawrence’s rescue. Shannon might want the free state party to renounce their politics and surrender their arms, but they could retain a sliver of hope from the fact that he didn’t want Lawrence massacred. So when the two reached the Delaware ferry, they asked after Shannon and the Army. No one there had seen either, despite Shannon’s promise that he would meet Colonel Sumner and his men at that spot that very night.

What happened? A cynical reader might expect that Shannon fed Lowery and Babcock a line to get rid of them, but his correspondence reveals otherwise. Wilson Shannon had not blundered his way into another escalation, nor decided to throw in entirely with the violent arm of Kansas’ proslavery party. Shannon had assurances, dated December 2, that Colonel Sumner would move as soon as he had orders from Washington. Shannon passed those orders on to him on December 4. The next day, Sumner wrote that he would come at once and meet Shannon at the Delaware crossing. Everything seemed in order, but then plans changed.

According to Shannon, he decided the he could not afford to wait on the cavalry. The governor sent his apologies to Sumner and made for Lawrence, hoping that Sumner would soon follow.

At half past three o’clock, P.M., on  the 5th of December, I left Shawnee Mission, went to Westport, Mo. (distant some two and a half mile from the Mission), and requested Col. Boone-a grandson of Col. Boone of frontier memory, and the Postmaster at Westport–to accompany me to Lawrence , and, as his acquaintance with the leading Pro-Slavery men who were then in the camp near Lawrence was extensive, give me the benefit of his influence in keeping down an excitement and preventing any rash act upon the part of the troops then threatening that town.

If Shannon couldn’t have the 1st Cavalry, he could have Daniel Boone’s grandson to help restrain the border ruffians. Boone came and gave the governor “valuable assistance in restraining the volunteers.” The two turned back for Kansas and met a rider dispatched by Colonel Sumner. The Colonel wrote:

On more mature reflection I think it will not be proper to move before I receive the orders of the Government.

Hadn’t Shannon passed those orders on to Sumner already? The Executive Minutes state that Shannon sent on a dispatch from Franklin Pierce, but it seems that Pierce hadn’t given Sumner firm orders to proceed against Lawrence or place himself under Shannon’s command. I don’t have the document on hand to say for sure, but if he had, then Sumner would have had nothing to wait on.

That said, Sumner wrote all of a day before that he would come at once. Reading between the lines, it seems Sumner realized between dispatches that he and his command would step into a very fraught situation where their involvement might not turn out for the best. Engaging in operations against American citizens would in itself raise grave concerns, particularly in a time when Americans routinely cast a far more wary eye on their military than we do today. If Sumner proceeded and things went baldy, then some of the blame would surely fall upon him. To hazard that, Sumner would probably want as much confidence as possible that he acted in strict accord with orders.

Mature reflection or not, Sumner also wrote Shannon some reassurance:

This decision will not delay our reaching the scene of the difficulties, for I can move from this place to Lawrence as quickly, (or nearly so,) as I could from the Delaware crossing, and we could not, of course, go beyond that place without definite orders.

The cavalry would not come just yet, but when it did Shannon would hardly notice the delay. Doubtless the delay did not overly concern the Colonel, but the Governor must have felt differently. He had just accelerated his own timetable in light of the growing crisis, only to find out that his hoped-for peacekeeping force waited at Fort Leavenworth for the proper paperwork.