Honor, Pride, and Free Books at the Free State

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison gave a speech outside Lawrence, interrupted by cheers as Samuel Jones came back with the town’s cannons. Then the proslavery mob, after waiting so long, finally moved in with flags waving. Rumors of mined streets delayed them only briefly. Many of the women and children exited, some of the former looking back over their shoulders and telling the proslavery mob just what they thought of affairs.

They had come to do more than visit. Early in the month, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury declared the antislavery papers and free state hotels public menaces in need of suppression. The mob got to that straightaway, starting with Josiah Miller’s Free State. Miller operated out of the second story of what William Phillips calls “a concrete building”. I think he means cemented stone, not a modern poured concrete structure. A store occupied the first floor and the border ruffians went there first.

One of the ruffian officers entered the store and demanded of the proprietor if there was a mine under the building to blow it up. The merchant assured him there was not, when the interrogator told him that they were going up into the printing office, and that if anything happened he would hold him responsible.

A keg of gunpowder wouldn’t blow up a building quite like a modern artillery shell, but expecting to survive the experience still sounds awfully hopeful. Satisfied, the proslavery men entered the Free State office.

The press and other articles were first broken, so as to be rendered perfectly useless, and then thrown into the Kansas river. As this was some distance to carry the articles, they got tired of it, and began throwing the remainder in the street. Books and papers were thrown in the street.

If the Free State had machinery anything like the Herald of Freedom did, which seems likely, then the proslavery men had to lug a lot of metal around just in the steam press. The lead type would only add to the fun. Since this meant free books, some of the mob helped themselves. Some officers intervened to stop that, claiming that the antislavery men would use the theft against them. William Phillips, just the antislavery man who did, must have related that with particular relish.

Colonel Zadoc Jackson, of Georgia, exerted himself to prevent the plunder, as did several others; they were prepared for the most desperate war against Freedom and American rights, but they had too much honor, or too much pride, to wish to occupy the position of highwaymen. Unfortunately, these officers were unable to prevent these outrages, or restrain the villains they had gathered up to do their lawless work.

Honor and pride had their pleasures, but free books offered still greater joys.

For “supremacy of the white race”

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

I.B. Donaldson’s overgrown posse, now handed over to Samuel Jones and still bent on delivering some long-awaited punishment to the antislavery town of Lawrence, cheered when Jones and twenty of their number came out of Lawrence with the town’s cannons in tow. David Rice Atchison, Missouri’s just-former Senator, resumed his speech after. The Senator wanted the mob to behave themselves. Gentlemen should treat women well, even women of the enemy, unless they fought back. Then those gentlemen should kill those women without hesitation. At “the least appearance of resistance,” they could cast all restraint aside. Good order would last as long as no one got in the way.

Then the posse marched in a line, straight to Lawrence. William Phillips made much of how some wore red; the redcoats (or red flannel shirts) had come again to

trample under foot the rights of American freemen. As motley an assortment of banners floated over them. The flag of South Carolina, with a crimson star in the centre, and the motto “Southern rights.” Another flag resembled the American flag, being striped like it; but there were no stars, and in their stead a rampant tiger, -fit emblem of the men it floated over, and the cause it vindicated. Another had white and black alternate stripes, which truly represented the cursed amalgamation of races which is ruining the slave states, and which these nullifying filibusters meant to introduce into Kansas, and to nationalize. One banner bore the inscription, “South Carolina;” another, “Supremacy of the white race,” on the one side, and “Kansas, the outpost,” on the other.

Phillips shared his fear of racial amalgamation with most white Americans, whatever their politics. By implication he repeated the standard abolitionist attack that slavery turned the whole South into a brothel, which had some truth to it, but his fear of race mixing also stands on its own. The notion that the proslavery force would have boasted their intent via a flag doesn’t bear scrutiny, though. Most likely Phillips invented the flag or gave it his own meaning.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The proslavery men came despite Donaldson’s promise not to bring his posse into town. By handing them off to Jones, he made them Jones’ posse and no one had pledged anything about that body of men. They advanced past an earthwork at the end of Massachusetts Street, which dated back to the Wakarusa War. There they stopped and brought up their own cannons, aiming them down the street. Phillips reports that they stopped there for fear that Lawrence had mined the street. Some pressed on despite orders, but Jefferson Buford called them back. The delay didn’t last long. Two “spies” came forward and told Buford the mines existed only in rumor. Soon the force “was in possession of the town.”

Phillips credits Jones with advising the women and children to get out of town before the army arrived, which speaks volumes. We can attribute some of the impetus to custom, but it also repeats the undercurrent often seen among proslavery leaders that once their boys got going they might not stop for, or at, anything. All the same, few had gone until then.

It was a trying and sorrowful scene to see the people of Lawrence leave their homes and fly from the place. Some of the women were moved to tears, and others would look back, like Lot’s wife, and freely vent their indignation. They had not time to move their effects; and, had they been seen taking them off, they would probably have been stopped.

“Blow them to h-ll with a chunk of cold lead!”

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison, one of the principle architects of Kansas’ woes, had probably had a few. He may or may not have had the multi-day “debauch” that William Phillips credited him with, but he earned his reputation as a hard drinking man fair and square. As Sheriff Jones hauled Lawrence’s cannons out of town, Missouri’s former senator probably still hoped his Kansas antics would get him his seat back. He gave a speech.

Phillips referred to false versions of Atchison’s words circulating. He probably didn’t hear the speech himself -it sounds like he remained in Lawrence through the full affair- but may have had it fresh from those who did hear Bourbon Dave sound off. Atchison commenced,

“Boys, to-day I’m a Kickapoo Ranger, by G-d! This day we have entered Lawrence, and the abolitionists have not dared to fire a gun.”

That Atchison would connect himself with the proslavery militia that killed Reese Brown seems entirely in character. He associated openly with the Platte County Self-Defense Association, so Kickapoo didn’t make much of a stretch. Through “an odd mixture of drunken enthusiasm, restraining forbearance, partisan ferocity, and profanity,” Atchison affirmed they ought to destroy the Free State Hotel and the printing presses, per Judge Lecompte’s order, but must behave as “gallant” gentlemen who “respect[ed] ladies.”

Even restraint required restraint, though:

“if you find a woman armed as a soldier, and thus putting off the garb of her sex, trample her under foot as you would a snake.”

Lawrence appeared resigned to submission, but should that change and the face “the least appearance of resistance, no quarter should be shown.” Those Southern gentlemen had come a long way to kill abolitionists. If they needed an excuse, then Davy Atchison gave it to them. Over the course of his speech he dismounted, went over to one of the proslavery army’s cannons, and mounted it. One could not miss the symbolism.

Speaking of cannons, as Atchison spoke Jones arrived with the field pieces taken from Lawrence. Jones informed the mob of his own orders against the hotel and papers, courtesy of Lecompte, and reminded them of their duty to “loud and enthusiastic cheers.” Atchison took the stump again:

“And now we will go in with our highly honorable Jones, and test the strength of that d—-d Free-State Hotel!” He said something more, urging them to bravery and good order, and finished by saying, “If any man or woman stand in your way, blow them to h-ll with a chunk of cold lead!”

“For several days he and his confreres had been engaged in a debauch”

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

William Addison Phillips did not like Samuel Pomeroy, of the Emigrant Aid Society, or Lieutenant Governor Roberts one bit. To hear him tell it, the people of Lawrence had gone to the trouble of burying their five cannons under the foundation of a house. No one would find them there. When Samuel Jones came into town at the head of a posse of twenty men, with a few hundred friends not far off, they could have let him ransack Lawrence all day and he would have left empty handed. Pomeroy, Roberts, and the rest of the committee of safety, didn’t care to risk that and gave up the artillery. They even did some of the digging themselves.

That put Jones in possession of the free state cannons and still in Lawrence, perhaps not the ideal place for a man recently ventilated by a resident to linger with his spoils. He thus ordered the cannons delivered to the camp outside town,

and free-state men were called on to do this ignominious service. Numbers of those whom Jones thus asked haughtily refused. Some of the men with Jones threatened to use their arms, and rode at some of the young men who refused, and threatened them with their bayonets, but did not intimidate them into compliance. A few, less resolute, aided the ruffians to remove the guns.

Phillips anger burns off the page here. At the moment of decision, his neighbors folded like cowards. They even did the border ruffians’ dirty work for them, though only a minority went so far. Perhaps more did at the time and Phillips counted for convenience in his appeal to outraged antislavery people back East. Either way, Lawrence lost its heavy weapons and a few of the Sharpe’s rifles.

While Jones and his posse secured the cannons, the larger body of the posse originally gathered by I.B. Donaldson advanced on Lawrence. The Lawrence memorial, written the next day, has

several hundred men, with United States muskets and fixed bayonets […] taking position in the town.

Phillips names their leaders, Atchison, Buford, Stringfellow, and Colonel Titus, and puts them at the south end of town, “dragging their cannon with them.” They arrayed themselves in formation and Atchison gave a speech.

That great border ruffian, ex-Senator, ex-Vice President of the United States, was not remarkably sober on this important occasion. For several days he and his confreres had been engaged in a debauch, in which, perhaps, they strove to drown their knowledge of better things.

Proslavery men tend toward drunkenness in the accounts of abstemious antislavery types. When you don’t drink at all, any drinking becomes more noticeable. But even friendly sources, and the man himself, have cracked jokes about Bourbon Dave’s habit. A version of this speech floats around the internet in various places, but I’m given to understand much of it was invented after the fact. Phillips himself refers to the issue:

Various reports of this wild speech have been published, but all more or less incorrect.

William Phillips, naturally had the true version.

“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.

Good News and Bad News, The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Four

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left the New England Emigrant Aid Company in dire financial straits. J.M.S. Williams wrote to Ely Thayer, demanding he pay his fair share. He had gotten them into this whole business, but spent none of his own money on it. With the company near broke, operations in Kansas grinding to a halt for lack of funds, and the directors already out of pocket, something had to give. At the board meeting of December, 1855, Thayer opened his coffers:

I told the committee that it was very pleasing to me to hear from their own lips their confession of error in substituting the charity plan for the old business charter. Had we retained the latter and made investment in Kansas City, which our own work would have built up, we could have easily become a very formidable power against slavery, not only in the territories, but in the slave states as well.

He did tell them so. Business antislavery hadn’t raised the hoped-for funds, but it did recognize that investors wanted something for their trouble. The accounts of well-off men from Massachusetts could only go so far. Thayer then proposed to go big: the company would hire him through May. If he raised more than $20,000, then he would take 10% off the top as his fee. The Board agreed and Thayer hit the road again, focused on New York and Boston. He hoped to get $100,000, just as he had in 1854, and pick up $40,000 more in Boston.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Thayer had big dreams. He brought NEEAC into the black again at $5,287.62 on hand. He took a commission of $5,158, so Andrews calculates that he raised at least $51,580. That made for a hefty sum indeed at the time, albeit not all that Thayer had hoped. The immediate crisis had passed by the end of May, but by then 1856 had delivered a fresh set of problems. While the Company’s finances rose, the free state effort it supported with mills, loans, and guns had taken a deep plunge. A second proslavery army had gathered on Oread Heights, named after Thayer’s school. David Rice Atchison and Samuel Jones led them to sack the Company’s town, throw the presses of the Company’s paper into the river, burn its hotel, arrested Charles Robinson and George Brown for treason, and closed the Missouri river. The closure of the river meant the end of communications, so with that news Kansas went dark.

 

Franklin Pierce’s Duty

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce decided for thoroughness when he embarked on his quest to blame everyone but himself and other men responsible for Kansas’ plight. Andrew Reeder, a Pierce appointee, did his part. The free state movement did theirs, tending toward insurrection with their wild program to set up an unauthorized state government. If they kept that up, then Pierce told the Congress that he would have to step in. The American system had means of settling disputes; none of them involved starting your own government. If you didn’t believe him, you could ask George III.

Pierce didn’t want to come off entirely as a proslavery partisan, though. He insisted on

the undoubted right of the peaceable and orderly people of the Territory of Kansas to elect their own legislative body, make their own laws, and regulate their own social institutions, without foreign or domestic molestation. Interference on the one hand to procure the abolition or prohibition of slave labor in the Territory has produced mischievous interference on the other for its maintenance or introduction. One wrong begets another.

Pierce had it technically right: antislavery and proslavery politics did feed one another, as any divide on issues does. He neglected, of course, just how Kansas came to have such contentions in the first place. You can point to news of the New England Emigrant Aid Society as fueling the resentment of border ruffians in their blue lodges, and Pierce did, but to stop there required a self-serving, selective memory indeed. Had Pierce, Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, Archibald Dixon, Phillip Phillips, and Stephen Douglas not come together to overthrow the Missouri Compromise, Kansas might have remained Indian country or it might, as David Rice Atchison once accepted, have come together as a free territory. The President would have none of that: antislavery Americans from outside Kansas caused all the fuss, end of story.

To whitewash his own party’s sordid recent past, Pierce appealed to the great nineteenth century orthodoxy that geography would save the Union, if only let do its job. Irresponsible agitators thwarted the silent work of climate and soil to settle the issue, taking it upon themselves and so making the future of slavery into an issue that motivated neighboring states to intervene.

All of this poses the question of just what the President intended to do. He hinted at it before, but now declared his aim openly:

it will be my imperative duty to exert the whole power of the Federal Executive to support public order in the Territory; to vindicate its laws, whether Federal or local, against all attempts of organized resistance

Pierce added further boilerplate about baleful “encroachment from without” but given his almost perfect lack of interest in border ruffians, his defense of Kansas’ laws in their unpredecented proslavery impositions, and his regular castigation of antislavery Americans, he clearly meant such encroachment from without and resistance from within as sins of the antislavery side alone.

In taking his stand, Pierce referenced the Wakarusa War. The happy news that the rivers of Kansas did not run red failed to deter him. Things worked out that time, but what about the next?

there is, I regret to say, reason to apprehend that disorders will continue to occur there, with increasing tendency to violence, until some decisive measure be taken to dispose of the question itself which constitutes the inducement or occasion of internal agitation and external interference.

Pierce stood ready to throw all his power against the free state government, but it need not come to that. Better to settle things once and for all by having Kansas speedily come into the Union through regular, lawful means. He called on Congress to pass an enabling act, which would authorize the territorial government to hold the usual convention and draw up a constitution for swift admission. Thus the slavery question would pass completely out of Washington’s hands. That it would ensure slavery remained in Kansas would, of course, delight the most powerful faction of Pierce’s Democracy and frustrate the chief aim of his political opponents.

All that would take time, so in the interim Pierce suggested that Congress vote him the necessary money

to defray any expense which may become requisite in the execution of the laws or the maintenance of public order in the Territory of Kansas.

Pierce didn’t say in as many words that he’d like for Congress to give him the funds to break up the free state movement, arrest its leaders, and decisively hand Kansas over to the South, but few could miss the obvious inference. If the proslavery government established by force and fraud couldn’t keep Kansas sound on the goose, then the United States Army could do the job.

 

 

Acutally, George Brown did Threaten Davy Atchison

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, yesterday I concluded that George Washington Brown probably did not print a threat against David Rice Atchison. John Stringfellow over at the Squatter Sovereign probably invented the line, or recast someone Brown had said of border ruffians in general as a threat on Missouri’s latest ex-Senator. Nineteenth century papers do invent dialog often enough. Go into the archives and you’ll find quite a few letters written under obvious pseudonyms, often in eye dialect, that look a mite too convenient for the paper’s editorial line. Letters from friendly correspondents generally use standard English, which makes both all the more suspicious for the contrast. A certain degree of prevarication inevitably happens in the editorials too. One must also consider that even politically aligned newspapers liked to pick fights with one another and eagerly sling the kind of mud that we would expect to find on Twitter today. Politically hostile papers had little reason to restrain themselves.

Stringfellow’s paper said that Brown promised abolitionists in Kansas would shoot Atchison dead if ever they found him in the territory with arms in hand. I ran a searches on permutations of the phrase “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” The Sovereign put it in quotation marks and attributes it to Brown. They all came up dry. I also skimmed Herald of Freedom issues for the two months prior looking for Atchison references. I found a fair number, but he rarely came up except as a villain alongside both Stringfellows and other prominent proslavery men or in conjunction with his role in the Wakarusa War.

The search and my skimming missed the piece to which Stringfellow must have referred. The January 12 Herald of Freedom has some praise of the Cleveland Plaindealer. The author, George Brown informs us,

talks like a man. We thought him always wrong, but we are glad to make a correction in his favor.

Talking like a man sounds like something you do while crushing beer cans on your forehead, bragging about your sexual prowess, or threatening violence to me. Sixteen decades’ distance have put me off on the first two points, but the Plaindealer’s Gray nailed the third. Brown quotes him, in reference to David Rice Atchison:

He, with all other residents of Missouri who have crossed the borders of that State either to vote or fight in Kansas, should be shot, if no other means can be used to prevent their intrusions.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While not quite the kill on sight statement that Stringfellow implied, this is otherwise quite close. But Stringfellow quoted Brown by name, not some fellow named Gray back in Ohio. Brown signed off in the next lines:

We may be allowed to say that we coincide in opinion with Mr. Gray, and that Atchison will be shot like a dog, traitor as he is, if he shall be found in Kansas with arms in his hands in case of a similar outbreak to the last. The people of Kansas hold him, and his colleague-B.F. Stringfellow-responsible for all the difficulties on the border; and in due time they will compel those men to pay the penalty for their violence, if continued.

Brown’s actual statement had a few more qualifiers than Stringfellow admitted, and doesn’t exactly match Stringfellow’s quote, but the differences don’t change the gist of it. If Atchison came back to Kansas with a party of armed border ruffians, then Brown thought him adequately qualified to play unwilling host to some hot lead. Morever, Brown expressed his firm belief “hundreds” would take the Plaindealer’s suggestion when the time came.

Given the number who turned out to defend Lawrence only the month before, he might have had it exactly right.

A Free State Welcome for Davy Atchison?

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Alongside the Squatter Sovereign’s endorsement of Pierce’s third annual message and John Stringfellow’s plan to sell town shares to fund arms for proslavery militiamen ran another item. Every issue I have seen of the Squatter Sovereign, until January of 1856, ran with an endorsement of David Rice Atchison for president. The Stringfellows really liked Missouri’s lately former Senator. When they took it down, they did so at the request of the great man himself. The most illustrious border ruffian, the man who declared he would wipe Kansas clean of every abolitionist, the most instrumental figure in managing the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, declared that he had no presidential ambitions just then. But, the Sovereign reported, David Rice Atchison planned to move to Kansas. He would come with friends, slaves, and friends with slaves, and settle down in his namesake town.

I don’t know that Atchison ever did move to Kansas, even temporarily, but the news got the Squatter Sovereign very excited. It seems the rumor went around a few different times, so Atchison might have had plans and reconsidered or let on that he had such plans as a way to bolster the proslavery cause. Or John Stringfellow may have imagined it entirely. When you name your town after someone who lives nearby, you might start to expect things. Either way, the Sovereign relates that not everyone in Kansas cheered at the prospect of the author of all their woes coming to stay:

Brown, of the Herald of Freedom, says that “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” We inform the valiant editor that Gen. A. intends moving to this country in a few weeks, and whenever the traitors of Douglas county, or any other portion of the Territory, refuse obedience to the laws of the Kansas Legislature, enacted at Shawnee Manual Labor School last summer, and a posse is called out to aid the sheriff, Gen. Atchison will be found on the ground “with arms in hand,” and if you want his scalp you can have an opportunity of taking it, provided your courage does not evaporate as it did before when the militia was called out.

That the Sovereign uses quotations suggests something Brown actually wrote. Given his occasional bellicose inclinations, I can believe Brown might have. I went looking for any such proclamation in the Herald of Freedom, but found none. Stringfellow and Kelley might refer to something that Brown said rather than published, or have chosen to construe remarks he made in general as a direct threat against Atchison, but the lines look suspicious. They maintain that Brown said, rather than wrote, so they could appeal to some personal communication or spur of the moment utterance unavailable to posterity, but they frame the piece just as they would a response to a printed editorial. Clearly they intend for the reader to take a direct threat to the life of one of the nation’s more prominent politicians as something Brown went on the record about.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

This all fits well with the proslavery line on the free state movement: lawless hoodlums devoted to general anarchy beset Kansas. The friends of law and order must take a firm stand against them or those fanatics would burn the whole territory, perhaps the whole Union, to the ground. Their movement, though it might seem full of lawless hoodlums, acted strictly for defense. The placement of the piece so close to Stringfellow’s filibuster fundraising plan further underlines the point: Buy his town shares so proslavery men can have their guns, or the opposition might go so wild as to kill a senator.

Two Triumphs on the Wakarusa

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Gentle Readers, I began delving into the strange course of the Wakarusa War back in September.  Everything started when Franklin Coleman killing Charles Dow and rapidly spiraled out of everyone’s control. It came to head with an army of proslavery men, largely Missourians, and the territorial militia mustered around Lawrence. With considerable difficulty, Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, David Rice Atchison, James Lane, and Charles Robinson managed to arrive at a settlement. During the crisis, both sides had difficulty keeping control of the men under their command. That settlement conceded little, but wars come with at least losers. Now and then they have winners as well.

Strictly looking at the terms of the settlement reveals no clear winner. The parties agreed to return to the status quo ante bellum. Did that make the whole business a frightening draw, which accomplished nothing for all the turmoil. A certain strain of history plays heavily into the futility of war, declaring it solves nothing for all the blood and treasure spent. Some wars live up to that reputation, either at the time or with the benefit of hindsight. Others have clearer verdicts, even if they rarely deliver anything worth the price in lives.

The Wakarusa War makes for a terrible war and an excellent one. Less than a half-dozen people died. No great battle took place. I don’t think that it quite lives up to the name in hindsight, and so have largely refrained from using it. When you call something a war, you expect rather more fireworks. But on the other hand, few people died. Little destruction took place. I’d quite like to have more so-called wars like it than those which cost us far more dearly. I suspect that many called upon to hazard their lives in the things would agree.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

A broader examination of the Wakarusa War shows it as not quite the indecisive affair one might suspect. The treaty settled little, true enough, but an army marched against Lawrence. That army came fired by dreams of killing abolitionists, destroying printing presses, and decapitating the free state movement. It left in its wake an intact down full of living abolitionists, functioning presses, and the free state leadership emerged undamaged.

Surviving, a friend told me a few days back, literally means “over-living” in Italian and German. If you know your Latin, you can see the sense in English too. It feels that way often enough and can make for a paltry triumph, but the free state movement emerged from its most serious threat to date unscathed. Had Lane, Robinson, and company folded then, they would probably have lost Kansas to slavery. At the very least, they would have gravely damaged their own authority and so given further legitimacy to those on the antislavery side more enthusiastic about violence. The firm of John Brown & Sons would likely have seen its stock rise.

In the end, however, the free state movement did more than survive. They took the piece of paper that Charles Robinson urged on Wilson Shannon on the night of December 9, which he signed without reading, and put it to immediate use. The Herald of Freedom reports that in short order

Eleven full companies of fifty-four each were duly registered on the part of the citizens, besides the cavalry and artillery companies, and numberless persons who were not enrolled, but held themselves in readiness to fight where they could be most effective, when occasion should demand. It is probable there were not less than eight hundred efficient men ready for service at any moment.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon’s commission made Lane’s and Robinson’s command something like a legal militia, with the free state leadership not just influential but formally in charge. As such, on the afternoon of the 10th

the companies were mustered and passed under a review.

The free state movement had come into the crisis looking for a way to come out the other end alive. At the end of the day, they did far better than that. They came out with a legal respectability their paramilitaries had hitherto lacked. That might not make a great deal of difference within Kansas, but abroad antislavery partisans could point to Shannon’s commission as proof that their comrades in the territory constituted no paltry band of rebels and fanatics. They had not set themselves against the law but rather become part of it even, and especially, in the eyes of a proslavery conniver like Wilson Shannon.