Sterling Cato sent along a report of John Brown’s murders for Governor Wilson Shannon, who duly forwarded it to President Franklin Pierce. Cato dated his missive from Paola May 27. Shannon seems to have received it at the same time as a separate letter, dated the previous morning, from William Barbee of the Second Brigade, Southern Division, of the Kansas Militia. At any rate, he offered up Cato’s letter before Barbee’s in the attachments to his letter for the President. Barbee wrote
We were all surprised this morning by the sad intelligence that W. Wilkinson, (late member of the Legislature,) was, together with a Mr. Sherman and three Messrs. Doyle, on Saturday night taken from their beds by the abolitionists, and, in the hearing of their families, ruthlessly murdered and hacked to pieces; also, a man found dead at the Pottawatomie. There were some twenty in the gang. All is excitement here; court cannot go on.
Barbee had Brown’s numbers inflated, but in the dark, dispersed, and in rumor eight men can easily turn into more than twice as many. Barbee didn’t see any of the bodies himself, but he did speak to Wilkinson’s widow and reported as much to Shannon. He also gave the Governor news that would have pleased John Brown:
Families are leaving for Missouri. Yankees concentrating at Osawatomie and upon the Pottawatomie, also at Hickory Point, where they have driven off the inhabitants without even provisions or clothing, save what they had on.
Brown hoped to provoke general strife and drive the proslavery side from Kansas. If Barbee had the right of it, killing those men got him off to a great start. For Barbee and Shannon, this meant they had to do something to restore order. Obviously that would involve armed force, so Barbee listed what he had to hand:
We can, perhaps, muster to-day, including the Alabamians, who are now encamped on Bull creek, about 150 men, but will need a force here. I have dispatched to Fort Scott for 100 men. The men will come from Fort Scott under Major Hill. There will be more men in readiness, if needed, at Fort Scott. We are destitute of arms; send by wagons for both my brigade and General Heiskell; we are together; we have scarcely any arms.
Barbee tells Shannon, and we who get to read over his shoulder, a great deal in a short paragraph. He has the Alabamans, Jefferson Buford’s men, all lined up and ready to kill abolitionists. He sought support from the US Cavalry out of Fort Scott and received word already at time of writing that they would come, so either the commander there acted on his own authority or Shannon had given him some prior order to come to the militia’s aid in such a situation. But contrary to our stereotypes of the American West, the militia and Buford’s Alabamans didn’t come with a small arsenal in every backpack. They would need more hot lead than a hundred or so cavalrymen could provide in order to join them as a credible peacekeeping force, or to embark on the long-feared purge of antislavery Kansans. Either would probably suit most involved, save for the soldiers.
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