The Apology Absurd: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 9

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8Full text

Charles Sumner did not have a high opinion of the defenses that Stephen Douglas and others had for all the injustice and mayhem that had taken place in Kansas. The seizure of the territorial government by force, threats, and massive voter fraud by Missourians entirely disqualified it as a legitimate organization to his mind. But Douglas, Andrew Butler, and other senators defended them all the same. It thus fell to Sumner to pick their defenses apart. First he dismissed the Apology Tyrannical, which held that once governor Andrew Reeder recognized the election results they had to stand. Then he cast aside the Apology Imbecile, where the proslavery senators averred that -whatever happened in Kansas- the Congress and Presidency had no power to intervene.

That brought Sumner to what he called the Apology Absurd

which is indeed, in the nature of a pretext. It is alleged that a small printed pamphlet, containing the “Constitution and Ritual of the Grand Encampment and Regiments of the Kansas Legion,” was taken from the person of one George F. Warren, who attempted to avoid detection by chewing it.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Gentle Readers, I wish I could tell you more of this story. A spot check revealed other references, but only to the bare fact of Warren chowing down. You may remember the Constitution and Ritual from past posts. The Kansas Legion, aka the Kansas Regulators, organized as a paramilitary force to defend antislavery Kansans and occasionally burn down proslavery homesteads. Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood served in it. The Free State leadership denied knowledge or approval, officially. Maybe that passed scrutiny in Washington and among people sympathetic to the cause, but their connection appears more like an open secret in Kansas.

Sumner’s foes argued that the Legion justified harsh measures on the part of proslavery men. They had something like a terrorist organization about and it required dealing with. That position makes perfect sense for a proslavery Missourian or Kansas who equates opposing slavery with incitement to race war. They had to do what they did to save the community from ruin, essentially in self-defense.

To answer that, Sumner first dismissed the Legion as a “poor mummery of a secret society, which existed only on paper.” If it did exist, though, it proposed only to enlist antislavery men to defend the Constitution of the United States. How could any patriotic American object to such a goal?

Secret societies, with their extravagant oaths, are justly offensive; but who can find, in this mistaken machinery, any excuse for the denial of all rights to the people of Kansas? This whole “cock and bull story” never really happened to begin with, but if it did then so what? Sumner dismissed the Apology Absurd with “the derision which triviality and absurdity justly receive.”


“I was not yet ready to be arrested for treason” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2

We left Andrew Reeder, Charles Robinson, and probably the antislavery members of the Howard Committee. They had news of indictments handed down against Reeder, Robinson, and most everyone else who held office in the illegal free state government of Kansas territory. They agreed that Reeder should submit to arrest, as his national reputation would make him an ideal rallying point for the free state party’s friends abroad. Robinson should get out of Kansas and set to work raising money, men, and guns. It might come to armed rebellion at last. If it did, the free state men resolved to fight it out and hope for the destruction of the proslavery territorial government. They had to act soon, or Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury would have the entire leadership imprisoned before the fall elections.

Reeder’s diary puts this all as happening on May 7, 1856, a Wednesday. Next, “toward evening” a Georgian named Fain called on Reeder and “very politely” told the delegate that he had a subpoena for him.

I requested him to let me see it, and he handed me a copy. On looking at it I discovered that it was very irregular in form, and, as I was not yet ready to be arrested for treason, I determined not to obey it. I accordingly so informed the officer, giving, as the reasons, my privilege as Delegate in Congress, and the informality of the subpena.

The Congress itself hadn’t decided on whether or not Reeder had any privilege as delegate, but he persuaded Fain not to make an issue of it. Instead the Georgian took his leave and came on Reeder’s grand jury informant, James Legate. Fain asked Legate where he might find Charles Robinson. Legate told him that Robinson had gone off to Topeka. Fain felt sure enough in Tecumseh, but Topeka worried him. He asked if he could go and conduct his business there in safety.

Legate mischievously told him he did not know, that he must run his own risks, which so alarmed the Georgian that he at once turned back to Lecompton. The same evening we went back to Topeka; stayed till after breakfast the next day.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reeder doesn’t say it in so many words, and Robinson declines to note his movements in detail, but it sounds like Legate told Fain that Robinson had gone while the governor remained nearby. Reeder’s “we” might or might not include the governor, but he says that Fain “was told” Robinson had gone rather than that the governor actually had.

Possible Delegate Reeder found himself back in Lawrence later on May 8. There he continued his work representing the free state side before the Howard Committee, starting at two in the afternoon. He didn’t shake Fain for long, though. He reports that he

saw my Georgia friend of yesterday come in and go up stairs for a consultation with Major Oliver, and some friends; had a small posse with him, all armed.

“We will wipe out the damned Territorial Government” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

James F. Legate served on Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury. After they voted to arrest the free state leadership and destroy the Free State Hotel and suppress Kansas’ antislavery papers, he went to warn Kansas’ former governor and present free state delegate to congress, Andrew Reeder. Reeder and the leadership put their heads together at Lawrence and decided that they might soon need to fight with guns as well as words. They made emergency plans to call together the state legislature to bulk up their institutions and endow them with a stronger legal basis. Governor Charles Robinson would go East “to raise men and arms”. Except for the travel plans, Robinson already did that job as the Emigrant Aid Company’s agent in Kansas. Reeder would stay behind and submit to arrest, his high profile making him the ideal choice for public relations.

They talked about organizing the militia and how armed resistance might soon come, but what came next seems less clear:

We did not determine what we would do as a last resort in case the General Government took the field against us, and gave us the alternative of backing our or levying war against them. This would not be the silly sham treason for which indictments are found now, but actual treason at least in the latter, although as holy and glorious in spirit as the dawn of the Revolution of ’76. Robinson declares that at least we will wipe out the d—-d Territorial Government absolutely and effectually, and to this we all assented.

In one respect, this demonstrates a shift in free state thought. They might actually go to war with the United States, a course they had refused to consider in public or private. To hear it from Robinson, the most peaceable of the group, speaks volumes. His own version, which includes Sherman and Howard in the discussion, differs slightly:

there was a possibility of a general conflict of arms; that should it be impossible to avoid such conflict without a surrender of the Free-State cause, it must be met, and if met the Free-State men should take issue rather in defense of the State organization than offensively against the territorial.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Robinson stresses the contingency of the choice for arms more than Reeder does, but he agrees in substance. The free state governor might prefer peace, out of conviction, disposition, or circumstance, but he had asked the legislature to vote up an army and stood high in the ranks of the Kansas Legion. Battle with the United States would put them on new and much more dangerous ground, but free state militias had already mustered to fight border ruffians. In contemplating the Union itself, at least in Kansas, as an instrument of the slave power deserving forcible resistance they put themselves in line with the rescuers of fugitive slaves and diehard abolitionists in just the way they had vigorously denied only months before.



Burying Thomas Barber, Part One

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

While John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley stewed over their loss on the Wakarusa, but people of Lawrence had the matching triumph to enjoy. They not only survived, emerged from the crisis with official sanction for their military companies. Given now close it came to destruction, one can hardly begrudge them a party. A man did, however, lose his life to their enemies. Thomas Barber died during the siege. With hostile forces dispersed, they took the time to remember him.

The Herald of Freedom eulogized Barber as

a person of very exemplary character, formerly from Ohio. He was forty-two years of age, a gentleman of large property, and leaves a devoted wife to mourn his loss.

A viewing took place before the close of hostilities, from which Lawrence took an edifying example:

Those who looked upon his cold and ghastly form pledged themselves anew before heaven that they would drive the demon, who could commit such barbarities in the name of law, from the Territory, or they would die in the attempt.

Making allowances for the desire to put on a manly display, and for George Washington Brown’s understandable desire to talk up the resolution of the defenders, the fact remains that what happened to Barber could have happened to anyone. If people didn’t quite fall to their knees and rededicate themselves like something out of a revival meeting, then they could look on Thomas Barber and see proof that the situation required the last full measure of devotion.

Thereafter, Lawrence gave Barber a temporary burial. The arrival of peace occasioned a more proper interment, recounted in the December 22 Herald of Freedom. Some time had gone by since the funeral, but George Brown explained that he could not print on account of his paper freezing and the exposed state of his office. I think we can forgive him.

At the funeral, James Lane

read an interesting address in which he detailed the origin of our difficulties with Missouri, and traced them to their termination. He showed that Mr. Dow and Mr. Barber were the first martyrs of freedom in Kansas, and as such, monuments should be erected to their memory.

The audience would probably have expected Dow and Barber to come together, but Barber’s death came under rather different circumstances that Dow’s or the two other free state deaths to date. Those took place in the context of personal disputes. One could understand them as private arguments exacerbated by politics. Even when Patrick Laughlin killed Samuel Collins, the affair played out on the level of individuals and in the context of Laughlin accusing Collins of involvement in the Kansas Legion. Barber met his end at the hands of a hostile proslavery army, while himself enrolled in an antislavery force. While not a huge escalation, Barber’s death pushed things some measure further than they had gone before. The dreaded direct clash between militants had come, if not yet on the grand scale feared.

Peace on the Wakarusa, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Peace Conference, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The Wakarusa peace treaty commenced with some face-saving and proceeded into apparent concessions from the people of Lawrence, but concessions drafted in a decidedly ambiguous way. Proslavery and antislavery partisans could easily read promises not to impede legal process or as a victory for their side, depending on what they considered legal process. Lawrence’s leading men promised to use their influence to aid Wilson Shannon if called upon for legitimate purposes, but they sat in judgment of those purposes. If these concessions removed the stated reason for the proslavery army to come and invest the town, then they did not necessarily remove the substance of the complaint. Charles Robinson and James Lane left open the door for them to continue essentially as they had, whilst giving Shannon just enough of a fig leaf to try disbanding the besiegers, and extracted from him the promise that anybody the army had captured would see release into their hands.

Shannon might not have loved these dubious concessions, but he wanted the army gone and bloodshed averted above all else. If he had dreams of settling Kansas politics along proslavery lines once and for all, as others had, then they died with news that Missouri had once again come to Kansas. Prosecuting that case now would only prolong the crisis. Shannon also had to grant some concessions of his own.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Armies of all forms in all eras make poor guests. In investing Lawrence, the proslavery men had put themselves in close proximity to anybody who lived just a short ways outside of the town. My sources don’t go into this at length, but it seems that they did as most armies do in the presence of a hated foe and engaged in some destruction of property and souvenir hunting. Consequently, peace depended on Shannon’s pledge

to use his influence to secure to the citizens of Kansas Territory remuneration for any damages suffered, or unlawful depredations, if any have been committed by the Sheriff’s posse in Douglas County.

I doubt that anybody received a dime of that remuneration, but it made for a reasonable enough demand. It might also have saved some face for the free state leadership, who could say that they came away from the table with something aside bare peace itself. Thus they might look less like they had pleaded for the governor’s mercy and accepted his rescue, as Shannon would later paint them, and more like an honest belligerent party. The agreement that the free state men could keep their arms would go further to that end, however probably the typical free state militant understood his gun as his personal property. As such, it wouldn’t have constituted an acceptable concession at all but rather an egregious affront. What had they done, in bearing arms for their defense and harming none, to warrant confiscation?

Furthermore, Wilson Shannon had to give his word

that he has not called upon persons resident in any State to aid in the execution of the laws, and that such as are here in the Territory are here of their own choice, and that he does not consider that he has any authority or legal power to do so, nor will he exercise any such power.

Daniel Woodson

Daniel Woodson

Though they probably didn’t believe him, Wilson Shannon appears to have told the truth far better than the free state men had. They swore up and down that they had no paramilitary about with the design of resisting Kansas’ laws, whilst the men who signed the treaty both held high offices in the Kansas Legion that proposed to do just that. Neither the free state writers then or after, nor subsequent historians, have uncovered any evidence that Shannon himself sent a summons to Missouri. The territorial Secretary, Daniel Woodson, had done that but Shannon himself seems innocent. Thus Shannon took what everyone recognized as a lie in trade for his true word, though the free state men undoubtedly saw it otherwise at the time.

The treaty concluded with lines that highlighted, and significantly undermined, the ambiguity with which it had opened:

we wish it understood that we do not express any opinion as to the enactments of the Territorial Legislature.

Missourians needed to go home. In exchange for that, Lawrence promised that the dispute which brought them across the border and so fired their passions, would continue unabated.



Peace on the Wakarusa, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Peace Conference, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The Wakarusa peace treaty declared the entire Coleman-DowBransonJones affair a huge misunderstanding. Wilson Shannon, away at Shawnee Mission, might very well have misunderstood events. Samuel Jones, in seeking Lawrence’s ruin, and Samuel Newitt Wood, in rescuing Branson from Jones, certainly did not. But the matter did descend on Lawrence through the action of Wood and his men on their own rather than by some official sanction of the town. In the interests of peace, the people of Lawrence declared that they knew nothing about the rescue until Wood had done the deed. They also rather implausibly declared that they had and intended to have no organization dedicated to resisting the laws of Kansas. The signatories to the treaty, James Lane and Charles Robinson, served as officers in no such organization. Robinson certainly had no fancy sash to mark his status as one.

Those matters disposed of, the people of Lawrence and environs

pledge ourselves to aid in the execution of the laws, when called upon by the proper authority in the town or vicinity of Lawrence. And that we will use our influence in preserving order therein; and we declare that we are now, as we always have been, ready at any time to aid the Governor in securing a posse for the execution of said process.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The free state party sometimes declared it knew no state officers appointed in Kansas. Yet its leaders found it in themselves to recognize Wilson Shannon when he came before them with an offer to save their lives if they would kindly save his career. This sounds like a capitulation, and rightly so, but they promise to use only their influence to serve process, and only in and around Lawrence. They make no promise about supporting Shannon elsewhere, and by placing themselves in charge of process the free state men positioned themselves to exert a de facto veto over said service. We will form posses for you around Lawrence and we, not Shannon or Jones, will implicitly decide when the situation calls for one.

To emphasize the point, immediately after the concession comes a qualification:

Provided that any person thus arrested in Lawrence or vicinity, while a foreign force shall remain in the Territory, shall be duly examined before a United States District Judge of said Territory, in said town, and admitted to bail.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

No carrying our people off to the Missourians. The whole matter must begin and end in Lawrence. Furthermore:

that all citizens arrested without legal process, by said Sheriff’s posse, shall be set at liberty.

If Jones has anyone, he must release them. If Jones wants to arrest anyone, he will only do so with the cooperation of Lawrence. If they do cooperate, he must surrender his prisoner to federal custody and that prisoner must receive bail. This all comes extremely close to declaring status quo ante bellum, as if nothing had happened at all, but with just enough of a fig leaf for Shannon to say he did his part and have an excuse to send the besiegers home.


“That fellow shot me.” The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2


The Barber party’s would-be captors had intercepted, questioned, and then finally shot at them in hopes of securing an arrest, a body, or some mix of the two. In return, Robert Barber fired back at them. Barber brother-in-law Thomas Pierson wanted to return fire as well, but had trouble drawing his pistol. The two who rode to intercept the party drew back, conferred, and then started for the larger party they’d detached from. Maybe they intended to give up on the Barbers, but the proslavery party outnumbered and outgunned them. More likely they wanted reinforcements.

The Barbers remained in place for a moment. Robert doesn’t say quite why, considering the armed pair that just accosted them. He can’t have thought that the proslavery men would take firing thrice on them as an endearing eccentricity. Ballistic intercourse, however exciting in fiction, reliably proves enticing to rather fewer of us when it comes at hazard of our own lives. If the Barbers aimed to stand their ground, or expected to watch the proslavery men flee, they soon changed plans. Robert told George Brewerton:

Thomas W. Barber then turned to us and said, “Boys, let us be off;” we started accordingly, at a gallop, on our road. At this time, the two men were still galloping towards their party. My brother and myself rode side by side; my brother-in-law, Pierson, who had a slower horse, following in our rear. After riding in this manner for about a hundred yards, my brother said to me, “That fellow shot me;” he smiled as he said so.

Robert understandably paints his brother as a model of manly restraint and innocence. This bit of odd humor seems out of place, but the more telling for it. Sudden pain and injury, especially when under other stress, can bring out the surreal in a person.

Thomas’ brother asked where the bullet struck. Thomas indicated his right side.

I then remarked, “It is not possible, Thomas?” To this he replied, “It is,” at the same time smiling again. I do not think that he realized how badly he was hurt. After uttering these-his last words-he dropped his rein, and reeled in his saddle; seeing that he was about to fall, I caught hold of him by the left shoulder, grasping the loose overcoat which he wore. I held him thus for nearly a hundred yards; I could then hold him no longer, and he fell to the ground; as he did so, I slipped from my horse, at the same time calling out “Whoa;” both horses stopped immediately; I bent over my brother, and found that he was dead, and felt that we could do nothing for him.

As Robert Barber examined the body of his brother and spoke with Pierson, the proslavery men rode toward them.

The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part Two

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Part One

Thomas Barber, his brother Robert, and his brother-in-law Thomas Pierson, rode out of Lawrence about midday on December 6, 1855. All served in the force defending Lawrence against its besiegers, but they had leave and aimed to spend at least some of it at their claims. They rode into a weak spot in the cordon about the town, where only mounted patrols kept people in or out, and seem to have expected an easy trip. Robert and Pierson had revolvers with them, but Thomas rode unarmed. A few miles outside Lawrence, they came on a proslavery patrol. When the Barber party turned off on a shortcut, it aroused the patrol’s interest and two men broke off to intercept them:

this they did by approaching us on our right, and placing themselves in front of us, or nearly so. They came up at a trot, while we were walking our horses. The remainder of the approaching party had in the meanwhile halted in full sight of us, but at a distance of from two to four hundred yards.

However innocently this all began, by now the Barbers had to know they’d come into trouble. One of the riders put his horse across the road, only yards away. The other addressed them, demanding they halt. The Barbers obliged.

After halting us, the rider on the grey horse asked, “Where are you going?” My brother Thomas W. Barber-who answered for our party-replied, “We are going home.” He then asked us, “Where are you from?” my brother answered, “We are from Lawrence.” “What is going on in Lawrence?” was the next question. “Nothing in particular,” said my brother.

Nothing but the construction of earthworks and other preparations for battle, but both sides knew that very well. Barber’s questioner probably hoped to shake loose some useful intelligence about Lawrence’s defenses or find some pretext for detaining the party further. Failing that, the proslavery men still had the useful weapon of legitimacy:

“We have orders from the Governor to see the laws executed in Kansas.” Thomas W. Barber then asked, “What laws have we disobeyed?”

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Wilson Shannon had summoned the militia. Sheriff Jones happily took Missourians into his posse. The patrollers had the law, or a reasonable simulacrum, on their side. But what laws indeed? They hardly had Jacob Branson or Samuel Wood before them. Nor had the patrol caught them in the act of antislavery politics. Nor did the law of Kansas forbid armed men moving about or earthen construction projects. The patrol’s spokesman felt no obligation to answer, instead demanding the Barbers come along with him. “My brother then said” Robert told George Douglas Brewerton:

“We don’t do it.” You won’t, hey?” said their spokesman, at the same time starting off with his horse so as to bring him on the right side of my brother-who moved his horse’s head slightly towards him, as he did so. The man drew his pistol as he started, but halted on reaching his new position to the right of my brother

Robert lost track of the other rider, on a sorrel, at this point. The spokesman’s new position obscured him from where Robert sat and, incidentally

my attention was at that moment taken up with drawing my own pistol, which was belted on behind my back, in such a manner that I was obliged to seize it with my left hand; this I did under the belief that we were about to be attacked.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The spokesman already had his gun out. Robert didn’t need much of a crystal ball to see how things would soon go.

As I was changing it [the gun] into my right hand to fire, I saw their spokesman-the man on the grey horse-discharge his pistol at my brother. I did not think at the time that my brother was hit. This man, after firing at my brother, rode right around into the road, and halted some ten paces in our rear. I wheeled my horse and shot at him, but missed; I cannot say that he returned my fire, but on changing my position I saw the smoke of the pistol of the man on the sorrel, who was still in his old position. I then fired a second barrel at him, but missed, as I had done before.

After Robert fired, the two riders drew back and conferred not quite within his hearing. Robert makes this all sound very formal and restrained, but it must have felt differently at the time. One has the sense that the intercepting riders did not expect any kind of resistance and drew back to decide what they ought to do in response. They must have decided in favor of reinforcements, as they then made for the rest of the patrol at a gallop. Robert fired after them, missing again.

The Perils of Insurrection, Then and Now

The free state movement knew that they played with fire in repudiating the territorial government and its laws. Going further and creating their own government raised reasonable questions about just how far they intended to take things. Establishing their own militia, even if for self-defense, understandably gave further cause for concern. That apparently some, like Charles Dow, went in for burning proslavery Kansans out of their claims took at least some fringes of the movement beyond rhetorical protests and into serious crimes. A group that could burn homes down at will generally deserves a serious response from law enforcement, whatever its politics. To further underline the point, a Kansas Legion man seized a lawful prisoner from a sheriff engaged in the normal course of his duties. Authoritarians often invoke the frailty of civil institutions in the name of their repressions, but sometimes reasonable people of far more democratic mores make the same invocations. Now and then, they even have facts on their side.

The entire tangled prelude to the Wakarusa War makes much more sense when one keeps this in mind. The politics of the day, and our own, make it very easy for us to throw in with the free state party all the way. We have the luxury of time and distance to insulate us from any consequences of that decision. Nobody will burn our homes down or shoot us dead for our opinions about politics in territorial Kansas. Even if we disagree with the proslavery radicals, Kansas still offered the spectacle of armed men apparently ready to pursue their agenda by force. If we admit that fact as a motivation for driving antislavery Kansans to arms, then we must admit it the other way around as well.

The free state leadership knew the risk of that very well. They, like Wilson Shannon, sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis at Lawrence. Samuel Newitt Wood, a Kansas Legion man, had gone and rescued Jacob Branson from Sheriff Samuel Jones’ custody. But he did not go with the blessing of Charles Robinson, James Lane, or other Kansas luminaries. Nor did Lawrence rush to endorse his action after the fact. Rather he and the other rescuers found themselves asked to leave town. All the warlike preparation that the Kansas Legion did could have had offensive applications, but nobody until Wood had actually used force against the legal government of Kansas. While violent threats flew back and forth, it appears that most political violence in Kansas up through the winter of 1855 happened relatively spontaneously and on a person-to-person level rather than with official imprimatur. Had such an undertaking gone off, the free state movement risked dramatic retaliation from both proslavery radicals and likely the United States military. One simply doesn’t, for example, seize public property at gunpoint and expect nothing to happen in response.

Nor should one expect such impunity. If private individuals do so, then we soon find ourselves on the express train to anarchy. Instead of civil society, one finds oneself forced to align with a gang of violent thugs for protection and hope that it extends not just to protection from them but also other such gangs. While the occasional enthusiast might cast himself as the white-hat-wearing, gun-toting hero of such occasions, in the real world the most ruthless and brutal tend to rise to the top. We have the police and, if necessary, the military to prevent that sort of thing. Had antislavery Kansans found the 1st Cavalry arrayed against them and gone to war against it, they would have found their support almost everywhere go silent. Many probably would have gone all the way over to cheering for their suppression.

Why wouldn’t they? The Constitution calls levying war against the United States treason. Antislavery Kansans could hardly better discredit themselves with the nation than to cross that line. The traditional remedy for doing so involved gunpowder and ropes, a precedent most famously remembered in the case of Lee v. Grant. Even without the benefit of that precedent, it would take a very dull free state man to miss the fact that seeking out armed confrontations risked the federal hammer coming down. Thus, by and large, the free state movement up through the Wakarusa War exercised the better part of its martial valor.

This same principle holds on a smaller scale. If we see someone wandering around with a gun outside our home, most of us will probably call the police. This doesn’t take a strange phobia about firearms, but only a basic knowledge of what a bullet can do to a human body. If you see an armed person wandering about, you expect that person intends to shoot something. The police come and discourage that, one hopes successfully and without further violence.

Except when they don’t. Not everyone learned circumspection from studying Kansas, anything else. Not that long ago, a man who stole millions of dollars from you and me had an armed standoff with law enforcement that ended to his satisfaction. That Cliven Bundy has made off with far more than a typical bank robber’s haul should, perhaps, surprise us. This kind of plot twist one expects from a supervillain rather than a real world rancher.

Now that they’ve had their Negro Seamen Act, it seems some have decided that their strange revival of nineteenth century radicalism requires its Nullification Crisis. Some of Bundy’s family members have taken up the cause of a pair of arsonists, who apparently didn’t want the help, and occupied federal property. I mean that literally, they seized United States property and hold it still at the time of this writing:

a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters

If this happened in another country, we’d have a talk about armed militants about now. A story that begins with the line “armed gunmen seized property” generally ends with the lines “shot by police”. Yet with these armed militants, the authorities don’t seem all that concerned. One can understand hesitancy, especially given the federal government’s record a few decades back in handling standoffs, but so far it doesn’t seem that law enforcement has besieged the gunmen. Instead they’ve just asked people to stay away and monitor the situation while working for a peaceful resolution.

I could say that I can’t fault the circumspection, whether here or in 1855 Kansas. Even if people have clearly broken the law, one naturally wishes to keep violence to a minimum. One must consider bystanders, though in this case the miscreants have taken over a building that seems quite remote. It probably doesn’t hurt to take one’s time out in Oregon. As an isolated event, the affair raises concern but not necessarily outrage. Yes, we have a group of men with guns breaking the law and encouraging others to join them. This cannot stand, but it doesn’t mean we need to call in the tanks or a drone strike.

Isolated events, however, often turn out rather more connected than not. American law enforcement doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The police grow up in the same world as the rest of us, and that world has very firm convictions about who does and does not deserve consideration and leniency. Cliven Bundy does, even if he made out like a bank robber. His relatives and others probably do as well. Otherwise someone could get hurt:

A group of white adults with real weapons came up and took possession of a building they don’t own, inviting others to come and join them. They warrant great consideration. We don’t want people hurt:

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Thus Americans, ensconced as always in our city on a hill, demonstrate our most ancient and dear values to the watching world.

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.