“There was no peace”

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Proslavery movements against Lawrence began again in earnest on May 11, 1856. On that day, US Marshal Donaldson issued a proclamation calling for a large posse to help him serve his process in the town. He wanted one as big as Kansas and Missouri could manage. Proslavery men, including some from Jefferson Buford’s expedition, happily obliged him. As they gathered, harassing people moving about Lawrence and killing two antislavery men, Donaldson remained at Lecompton. There the majority of the force assembled, as he had asked it to, and he and Governor Shannon heard desperate pleas from Lawrence for aid. Much of the free state leadership had fled, leaving the town with a committee of safety caught between internal divisions and a marked lack of realistic options. On the twentieth, his deputy entered Lawrence and had a few conversations. He left unmolested, thus demonstrating how much Donaldson required overwhelming force to carry out his duties.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Not that it mattered. Donaldson had between five and eight hundred men bent on doing something to Lawrence, whatever excuse they could get. They included David Rice Atchison, who had done so much to inaugurate Kansas’ troubles. Atchison’s Senate term had expired the year before, but he still hoped he might get another out of Missouri’s legislature. Divided, they instead left the seat open until 1857. The former Senator came into Kansas in the company of the Platte County Self-Defensives and two field pieces. The Kickapoo Rangers, who had killed Reese Brown, joined in as well. To them, William Phillips added

all the loafers and wild pro-slavery men from Leavenworth and Weston […] General Stringfellow had crossed from Missouri to Atchison, and reinforced by his brother , the doctor (who is the more eminent of the two), and the infamous Bob Kelly, Stringfellow’s law partner Abell, and several other pro-slavery men there, had gone to Lecompton. Colonel Boone, from Westport, with several other pro-slavery leaders from that place, and also from Liberty and Independence, at the head of bodies of armed men, or to take command of companies that had preceded them

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

A separate force had established itself at Franklin, under Buford. Phillips puts United States arms in their hands, given out by “federal appointees of Kansas.” That probably meant Donaldson, though Phillips doesn’t name him. Buford’s men had two cannons of their own.

The Lecompton force broke camp in the predawn hours of May 21, on the move at last. They arrived “shortly after sunrise” and occupied the heights of Mount Oread overlooking Lawrence, near Charles Robinson’s house.

The town was perfectly quiet. Its inhabitants were shaking off their slumbers; those already astir were going quietly about their avocations. No guns were planted upon the embankments. No lines of riflemen were drawn up. The cry was, “Peace! peace! when there was no peace.

Shannon’s Martial Woes, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon standing in the Free State Hotel, looking at the body of Thomas Barber. In it he saw his nightmare come true: the proslavery men had spilled free state blood. Where could it end? The news of Barber’s death outraged Lawrence sufficiently that Charles Robinson and James Lane had to act quickly to keep hotheaded free state men from launching an attack on their besiegers. A single death might already have driven things past the breaking point, but a general attack surely would.

If the free state men in Lawrence had trouble controlling their men, then so did the notional commander of their enemies. Wilson Shannon, as Governor of the Territory of Kansas, had called the militia to Lawrence. Furthermore, he exercised control over the force through both written instructions and then by arriving in person to oversee matters. If the Kansas militia had quite a few Missourians in it, then they still at least nominally placed themselves under Shannon’s authority. But if push came to shove, would they obey him? The Missourians, and probably a fair number of proslavery Kansans, came in response to Samuel Jones’ summons. They might answer to him, but Jones and Shannon had very different goals in mind. Shannon wanted Jones’ warrants served and free soil arms confiscated. Jones wanted at bare minimum some personal revenge and decapitation of the free state movement. If his army razed Lawrence to the ground, the sheriff would shed no tears. The officers of the militia might not go quite that far, but seem largely in agreement with Jones’ ambitions.

Wilson Shannon knew all of that when he went into Lawrence on December 7, 1855, but he soon had further and more specific information as well. He still had hopes that Colonel Sumner would come with the 1st Cavalry and rescue the situation. That Sumner had delayed hardly came as welcome news, but the Colonel never said that he would not come. He only wanted more firm instructions from Washington. Thus Shannon arranged for a rider to carry his latest request for aid out on the morning of the seventh. He candidly told Sumner that the force around Lawrence “are beyond my power, or at least soon will be” and might attack at any moment. If that wouldn’t impress upon the Colonel the urgency of the situation, what would?

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Shannon’s message ought to have gone out first thing on the morning of the seventh. He arranged as much with General Strickler of the militia. But

At 2, P.M., 7th December, Gen. Strickler came to my quarters, and informed me that he had been advised that a plan had been laid in the Wakarausa camp to intercept my dispatches to Col. Sumner at Caw River crossing. To avoid this, I requested the general to start the messenger immediately. He did so; and the express rider finally left at 2 o’clock, A.M., and was directed to a ford upon the Caw River (not the usual crossing), by an Indian guide from the Caw bottom, who had been procured for the purpose by Col. Boone.

Maybe Strickler just reported a rumor, but it seems unlikely that he would have passed on one that he didn’t take seriously. Given Shannon’s tour of the camp made his peaceful intentions well-known, it makes perfect sense that militants within would arrange some kind of delay that might preserve their chance at Lawrence. As a practical matter, Jones summoned them and only legal trifles made Shannon their commander. That the nation at large, and the executive in particular, might hold Shannon responsible for their actions did not make them responsible to Shannon.

Wilson Shannon Meets Thomas Barber

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

On the morning of December 7, 1855, Wilson Shannon and Albert Boone rode into Lawrence amid an escort of free state men. They went to the Free State Hotel to meet with the leaders of the besieged, James Lane and Charles Robinson. They doubtless received plenty of hard looks for the obvious reasons, but likely also due to the surprise that awaited them at the hotel: the body of Thomas Barber in what Sara Robinson, Charles’ wife, called “perfect repose.” She also relates a far more romantic version of Thomas’ last words, where he declares “O God! I am a murdered man!” While both Peirson and Robert Barber may have wanted to demonstrate Thomas’ manly restraint and control in depicting his last moments, they have the benefit of witnessing them as well.

Robinson also reported that Barber’s death ought not have come as a surprise to anyone:

General George W. Clarke, the Indian Agent, went on his way to meet Governor Shannon at the Wakarusa headquarters, and there declared with horrid oaths, I have sent another of these d—-d abolitionists to his winter-quarters.”

It makes for a good story, but Robinson also has Albert Boone declare that he expected nothing like that on seeing the body. Wilson Shannon “gave a perceptible shrug of his shoulders.”

William Phillips

William Phillips

William Phillips, who saw the encounter personally, tells a different version. On seeing Barber laid out at the hotel:

There was a start. I could see the weak, vacillating, guilty governor tremble as his first glance fell on that silent figure. He had heard of the occurrence, but he proceeded to inquire of General Robinson the particulars of the case, which the general calmly told him. […] Colonel Boone expressed surprise and regret, and begged that no one should mention the name of any gentleman as having been of the party that fired, until it could be proved.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Phillips alludes to Clarke’s cheerful report, but doesn’t spell it out. He must have heard of it, unless Sara Robinson invented it herself, but the absence of specifics suggests he had doubts about its veracity. Both Phillips and Robinson have decidedly hostile attitudes toward Shannon, which one can’t fault them for considering his poor choices brought an army to their doorsteps, but the obvious shock of Phillips’ version fits better when the Shannon present in his own writing. A surprise body might unsettle just about anyone, but in Barber’s perfect repose Shannon could see the effusion of blood he dreaded come much closer to fruition. One body, in such times, could soon turn into two, two to twenty, and so on. Once pitched battle began, who could say where it would end?

The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Gentle Readers, I left you with a body and it doesn’t do to leaved them sit too long. Contemporaries called the crisis at Lawrence arising out of the tangled Coleman-DowBranson-Jones dispute the Wakarusa War, but most of it involved rather more warlike rhetoric and warlike preparations than actual war. It must have felt very much like one at the time and easily could have gone that way, but the actual carnage proved largely limited to one man. Thomas Barber drew the proverbial short straw and in so doing proved that the proslavery cordon about Lawrence capable of more than imposing inconvenience and occasional terror.

William Phillips laid out the state of the siege on December 6:

At this time, while the Missourians had invested Lawrence, they found it difficult to keep it closely guarded to the south and west. There was a distance of twenty miles between the camp at Lecompton and Wakarusa. General Atchison had a force on the north side of the Kaw river, opposite Lawrence; but, while it was guarded thus on three sides, the only means of preventing people from leaving Lawrence for the south of the territory was by horse patrols, which scoured the country.

The senator from Missouri appears once more. He clearly means to imply that David Rice Atchison has command of a camp, and Bourbon Dave had certainly come to Kansas to raise Hell before at the head of an army, but neither Alice Nichols nor Nichole Etcheson puts Atchison in even unofficial command this time around. Nor have I seen indications of that in the primary sources, aside from Phillips. Rather it seems that Atchison came into Kansas in early December, 1855, at the request of Wilson Shannon. The Governor hoped that Atchison, like Albert Boone, could help restrain the proslavery men. He might have had the right of it, as he mentions Atchison’s help alongside Boone’s in his Howard Report testimony.

About one o’clock, Thomas Barber, his brother Robert, and brother-in-law Thomas Pierson rode out of Lawrence. According to Robert’s statement to Brewerton, he and Pierson had revolvers but Thomas rode unarmed. They went through the gap in the lines that Phillips describes. Brewerton notes

Pierson and the two Barbers were, at the time of this affray, regularly enrolled as privates of the Bloomington Company (D), of the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteers, then serving in Lawrence, to defend that place against the so-called “Army of Invasion,” under Governor Shannon; they were absent on leave at the time.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

While shooting men on leave doesn’t make for the most equal of contests, the Barbers and their antagonists from the proslavery force appear equally belligerent parties. As such, we have upon us the seed of the very conflagration that Wilson Shannon and Charles Robinson feared, but Samuel Jones and William P. Richardson fairly lusted after: armed (bar Thomas) militants in both parties’ paramilitary would clash violently, with fatal result.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The Barbers and Pierson went out of Lawrence for their homes, seven miles away. “Three and a half miles” out, in the words of Robert,

we observed a party of from twelve to fifteen mounted men to the right of the California road, in which we were travelling. This party was apparently making directly for it. They were over half a mile from us when we first saw them. We then left the California trail, to take a cross road, to the left, which was the shorter one to our residences; this was immediately after we discovered the horsemen. We had at this time no idea that they intended to interrupt us, nor did we quit the highway for the purpose of avoiding them. We had left the main road by some half a mile, when we saw two of these mounted men advancing before the rest, as if to cut us off; this they did by approaching us on our right, and placing themselves in front of us, or nearly so.

If Robert sounds a bit too innocent, then we should keep in mind that neither side wore issued the rank and file distinctive uniforms one could recognize at a great distance. Most likely everyone came in whatever they wore every other day. A militant could look exactly like an ordinary person going about his business. Even the presence of large firearms wouldn’t strike an ordinary observer as all that remarkable. The Barbers could quite reasonably have suspected nothing until the two men peeled off to intercept them.

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.