Governor Shannon Goes to Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon


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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson told Brewerton a somewhat different story. Therein Shannon

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

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

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


“You have the power to secure peace.”

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon


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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

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

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

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

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

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



More Bad News for Governor Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mature Reflection Inconveniences Governor Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All our throats would be cut together” The Free State Embassy, Part Three

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2

We left G.P. Lowery and C.W. Babcock, envoys from Lawrence to Wilson Shannon, arguing with the territorial governor about their town’s plight and the free state movement’s culpability in it. Shannon, like the free state men, knew full well that more had gone on than the murder of Charles Dow or the rescue of Jacob Branson. The wider tensions over stolen elections, burned houses, and dead partisans all drove events. The town of Lawrence might have had little to do with the rescue that brought a hostile army to their doorstep, as Lowery and Babcock argued, but it had long served as a center for free state radicalism of other sorts. Shannon could quote their party’s own resolutions back to them to show that.

None of that pleading would move the army, which clearly meant to make an end of antislavery politics in Kansas. Some in the territorial government saw the same opportunity and worked toward that end, notably Samuel Jones, militia general William P. Richardson, and Secretary Daniel Woodson. Though antislavery Kansans disagreed on this count, it seems Wilson Shannon didn’t have the same goal in mind. He could arraign the free state movement well enough, but likely agreed with Lowery

that if we [Lawrence] were to submit to the force which he had called in, all our throats would be cut together-the innocent and guilty, if there were any guilty

Shannon’s orders to Jones and to the militia, as well as his attempt to secure the aid of federal troops, speak to his sensitivity on the point. He might want the warrants Jones had served, and those warrants would in their own way decapitate the free state movement, but he hadn’t signed on for any sacking of towns. Still, Lowery’s testimony describes a man very much on the defensive. Shannon

then denied that these Missourians were here by his authority; that he had anything to do with them, or was responsible for them. He said that he had communication with Colonel Sumner, of Fort Leavenworth, and had sent an express for him to meet him that night at Delaware ferry, and go with him to the camp on the Wakarusa.

This passage dates the meeting between Shannon and the Lawrence envoys to December 5. I previously missed it in juggling the various sources.

Shannon could point to his innocence on the Missourians’ involvement and his plan to intervene with federal troops as evidence of his good faith in the affair, but that good faith had its limits. In the very next sentence, Lowery has Shannon declare that he means to

go to Lawrence and insist upon the people agreeing to obey the laws, and delivering up their Sharpe’s rifles.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The governor apparently wanted to rescue Lawrence from free state militancy as much as he wanted to rescue it from the wrath of Missouri. Lowery and Babcock argued, reasonably enough, that Shannon had no right to ask any such thing of people who had done no wrong. Their resistance of the laws, for the great majority, included no more than rhetoric and voting in free state elections. Nor did Shannon have a right to confiscate their arms for crimes he expected they might hitherto commit.

[Shannon] gave up that point after some argument. I asked him, then, why he insisted upon the giving up of Sharpe’s rifles, and if he meant to demand, too, western rifles, shot-guns, and other arms. He said he did not intend to demand other than Sharpe’s rifles, but should demand them because they were unlawful weapons. After some time, he then said they were dangerous weapons; to which I agreed. I then told him, if he had any such idea in his head as that, he had better stay away and let the fight go on, as I thought the thing was not feasible, as he would do no good by coming here, if those were his terms.

Lowery pleaded, quite reasonably given that proslavery men even then took potshots at people working on Lawrence’s defensive works, that the people of the town needed their guns for safety. Such men might not live up to the hype and murder every man, woman, child, and selected livestock in Lawrence but they would likewise probably not find kind words or reasoned argument entirely dissuasive. Wilson Shannon preferred to avoid mass carnage, but he remained the man who declared for the proslavery party before even setting foot in Kansas.

The Free State Embassy, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Sorry for the delay, Gentle Readers. An inattentive blogger who will remain nameless neglected to properly schedule the post.

Part One

G.P. Lowery and C.W. Babcock exchanged words with the official printer for the Kansas legislature, John H. Brady. He told them bluntly that Andrew Reeder authored all Kansas’ sorrows “and they must have his head, if they had to go to Pennsylvania for it.” If the free state embassy let their danger in the presence of bands of men armed, hostile, and likely lubricated, slip their minds for a moment, this surely recalled the peril. Lowery told the Howard Committee that things began to get more heated, so he and Babcock resumed their trip to see Wilson Shannon and deliver Lawrence’s letter. Along the way they saw more and more armed Missourians, including a fellow so far in his cups that he had a cornbread breakfast in one hand and a wagon wheel in the other. Duty drove them on and thus whatever story got this man to that point passed unrecorded.

The free staters arrived at Shawnee Mission shortly after sunrise. They, unlike Franklin Coleman’s party, found Wilson Shannon present. He took their letter and read it through:

I do not know whether that letter is anywhere in existence now. I wrote the letter, and it was signed by Governor Robinson, Colonel Lane, Mr. Deitzler, myself, and four or five others. The contents were, that he might not be aware that there was a large mob collected on the Wakarusa, who were stopping travellers and goods, and plundering the country; and that we took that means of informing him that was the fact, and that they claimed to be there by his requisition; that we wished to know if that was the fact, that they were there by his authority; and, if so, whether he would remove them, and prevent these depredations, or compel us to do it ourselves, by resorting to other means or higher authority.

If the letter survived, I haven’t found it. It doesn’t appear in the Executive Minutes where it ought to, nor does Robinson give a copy despite referring to Lowery and Babcock’s mission. Whatever happened to the original thereafter, Shannon read it and promised a response. After a while, he called the envoys back and they discussed matters:

He said there had been sixteen houses burned here by free-State men, and women and children driven out of doors. We told him we were sorry that he had not taken pains to inquire into the truth of the matter before he had brought this large force into the country, which, perhaps, he could not get out again; and that his information was wholly and entirely false, as nothing of the kind had happened.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

At the time, one imagines that Lowery and Babcock found a more diplomatic way to put that. The free state party often blamed the arsons on persons unknown, or on proslavery men trying to frame them, but they can’t have fooled many. Rumors do fly, but clearly Charles Dow knew who fired the cabin on the claim he jumped. The accusation appears in proslavery sources often enough, and with consistent enough numbers, to argue that antislavery Kansans had taken up the habit. Those displaced households, Coleman’s included, came from somewhere. If Lowery and Babcock, who hardly lived at the far end of Kansas from Hickory Point, didn’t know the fact then they must have worked hard to stay ignorant.

Shannon then, per Lowery, denied knowing anything about Missourians coming into Kansas to work their vengeance on Lawrence. He might not have at this point, but that seems like a stretch given about the time he met with the Lawrence envoys the governor also asked for federal troops to manage the situation. Either way, he held the free state proclamations about the laws of Kansas against them. From the context, it seems Shannon justified his summons of the militia on those grounds.

We explained to him that the Territorial laws had nothing to do with this case; that we were getting ready at Lawrence to fight for our lives, and the only question was, whether he would be perticeps criminis to our murder, or the murder of somebody else, should we all be slaughtered. We explained to him, that the rescue upon which he based his proclamation took place a number of miles from Lawrence; that there were but three persons living in Lawrence who were alleged to have had anything to do with it, and that they had left the town, and were not there at all from what we could judge of the intentions of the force at Wakarusa, at Lecompton, and in the county about, from their own declarations, they intended to destroy the town for a thing in which they had no part or parcel.

Lowery might have lied to Shannon’s face, but not about that. The proslavery army, to judge from the words and conduct of its leaders, aimed to rid itself of Lawrence once and for all.

The Territorial Government vs. Lawrence

Daniel Woodson

Daniel Woodson

We left G.P. Lowery and C.W. Babcock on their way to see Wilson Shannon about the ersatz army converging around Lawrence. They passed many sets of guards and Lowery flirted with spiking an unattended cannon. When passing proslavery men on the road, they first cracked jokes about how the Yankees aimed to attack soon and the Missourians had best hurry. This grew less funny as they passed more and larger bands of armed men. What they came to next warrants a digression:

Just before daylight we passed one encampment, in which everybody seemed to be astir, and they came out into the road a short distance to meet us, and we stopped to talk with them. I recognized John H. Brady, who was the public printer of the Shawnee Mission legislature. He recognised me, and when he heard me say that I did not consider it safe for him to come up here, he called me by name, and said they could not let me pass. He then recognized Babcock, and was more certain we could not pass.

It looks like Lowery mixed up his pronouns here, as Brady clearly did the stopping. Either way, Brady’s presence with the proslavery men deserves notice. Public printing involved receiving many lucrative contracts from the government. For Brady to have the job indicates he had the full confidence of the Kansas legislature. Furthermore, public printers frequently also published newspapers and other partisan material for their patrons. In Brady’s case, Douglas C. McMurtrie says he farmed most of his printing out to presses in Kickapoo and St. Louis. Regardless of his personal involvement in setting type and running presses, Lowery and Babcock would have understood themselves in the presence of a proslavery man with close ties to the territorial government.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

They already had reason to suspect, and free state men would insist for years after, a large degree of official connivance in organizing the investment of Lawrence with an eye to the free state movement’s decapitation. They didn’t know or wouldn’t believe Shannon wanted anything less, as position he did much to aid by calling in first the militia and then the 1st Cavalry. They had Sheriff Jones and the militia generals clearly set on their ruin, which constituted proof enough on its own. With the legislature out of session, that body could not offer additional evidence against itself. Its members and associates could do so independently, of course. I haven’t seen reference to their presence in the camps yet, but remain on guard for it.

The free state men had, or would soon have, other evidence against the territorial government. In The Kansas Conflict, Charles Robinson reproduced a letter from Daniel Woodson, territorial secretary. Woodson, a federal appointee, served as acting governor when the proper territorial Governor left Kansas and between the dismissal of one and arrival of the next. On November 27, Woodson wrote to an E.A. McClarey, of Jefferson City. After a three sentence description of events concluding with “Jones is in danger,” Woodson continued:

(Private.) DEAR GENERAL: The Governor has called out the militia, and you will hereby organize your division, and proceed forthwith to Lecompton. As the Governor has no power, you may call out the Platte Rifle Company. They are always ready to help us. Whatever you do, do not implicate the Governor.

Richardson and Strickler served as commanders of the Kansas militia, so Woodson can’t mean to raise it in sending this. In as many words, the Secretary tells a Missourian to gather up his militia and come over for the job. Wilson Shannon might not have actively conspired to destroy the free state movement, using the rescue of Jacob Branson as a pretext, but his second in command clearly did.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Robinson also reprints selections of a letter John Calhoun, a relation of the Marx of the Master Class and Surveyor-General of Kansas, in the Missouri Republican. I haven’t found a copy of the full letter, but his excerpts contain the expected parade of horrors: arsons, driving women and children from their homes, and a recapitulation of the DowColemanBranson affair.

It is estimated that some sixteen dwelling houses have been burnt, all of them in the night time, with their contents, and their occupants, men, women, and children driven to the prairies without shelter or protect. The leading spirit of these lawless movements is C. Robinson, the leading spirit also of the Topeka Convention. […] It is said that he has at least five hundred men, armed with Sharp’s rifles and revolvers, determined to offer a forcible resistance to the execution of the laws. He has threatened to hang Sheriff Jones, Coleman, and others, as soon as he can get hold of them.

Calhoun thus not only states the threat to good order in Kansas, but points to its wellspring. He clearly understood that his letter would prompt Missourian intervention aimed not at Jacob Branson, Samuel Wood, or anyone else directly involved in Branson’s rescue. Rather they would come with their sights set on the free state leadership. They probably didn’t need the help, but the Surveyor-General could confirm for any wavering that they must not settle for so paltry a prize as the recapture of Branson and seizure of his rescuers. They had a larger task at hand.

The Free State Embassy, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

I’ve mentioned a few times that the people of Lawrence sent emissaries to Wilson Shannon hoping for relief. Information about their mission remains scant, save for the testimony of one to the Howard Committee. William Phillips went out and tried to meet the Governor himself, though he couldn’t find Shannon, and shows no knowledge of the other mission. Shannon himself doesn’t seem to have found it worth mentioning except when confronted directly with the emissaries’ testimony on the matter.

G.P. Lowery and C.W. Babcock, Kansas Legion men both, received their commission on Wednesday, November 28, and set out the next day. Lowery describes their charge:

I was sent […] to Governor Shannon, with a letter. We were told to state to Governor Shannon what was going on here, what was our position, and what had occurred upon the other side, presuming that he might be ignorant of it.

That all sounds reasonable enough. Lowery and Babcock set out the next day, passing the free state pickets. Half a mile thereafter, they came on the opposition lines. Six men on horseback demanded a password that they lacked.

We got the cork out of the only countersign we had as soon as possible, and that passed us that guard.

That sounds like something rude, or a colorful way to say they rode like madmen and raced by, but the guards only questioned the men about their provenance and advised them to turn back. When they refused, nothing more came of it. Other guards recognized them, but accepted the lie that the men had decided to quit Kansas for Illinois. It took yet another encounter before the proslavery men arrested them. Their captors then sought out men who Lowery and Babcock claimed would vouch for them.

With the free state men temporarily unattended, Lowery felt confident enough to poke about

and found one piece of artillery, with a guard sitting on it asleep. I went up to him, as I thought I would spike his gun, having the tools in my pocket; but thinking it was rather risky, as the guard was just coming back, I returned to where we had been taken

Spiking a cannon meant driving an obstruction, usually a literal spike, into the touch hole. That would prevent the weapon’s discharge until one could dig it out. Given the general paucity of artillery in Kansas, he might have significantly damaged the proslavery arsenal. But he lost his chance when the guard returned to carry the embassy to a Missourian. This Missourian, a Dr. Henry, had come and gone from Lawrence twice and in the course of it decided that the Missourians came on false rumors. Lowery had taken him through the Lawrence lines twice, so he returned the favor.

On the way out, Lowery and Babcock’s escort commiserated about the situation they’d gotten themselves into and quizzed them about Lawrence:

They were very particular as to the number of guns and men we had here at Lawrence, and he asked what flag we had here, and I told him the stars and stripes all the time. he said he was glad to hear that, and should report it to his friends, but that the people of Lawrence had behaved very badly; that he had heard we had a red flag here, and had built a hotel with port-holes, and western people did not like that. That seemed to be all the grounds he had for going to war with us.

Once clear of the guard, again, the two passed many parties of Missourians in the night. They took to joking with them, saying that they’d best get hurry as “the Yankees were going to attack the camp, and would wipe them out.” As their numbers grew, the joke wore thin and they “then went along very politely.” Large groups of hostile, armed men tend to promote circumspection.

Sheriff Jones goes to Lawrence

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

December of 1855 found Lawrence, Kansas Territory, partly cut off from the outside world by a hostile army of perhaps 1,500 Missourians. They came, ostensibly, to help Sheriff Samuel Jones serve some warrants and really for the righteous joy of inflicting grievous harm upon Kansas’ free state movement. That harm would, they imagined, help secure slavery in Missouri as well as its neighbor and generally reinforce the proper order of life: whites enslaved blacks and whites who didn’t like it had best carry themselves beyond the reach of a mob. This constituted the first principle of their de facto constitutional theory, whatever folderol about states’ rights or the consent of white men they might care to trot out.

In these dire straits we might imagine that those besieged, however incompletely, adopted a similarly hostile tone. One could hardly blame them, given they literally had proslavery men taking shots at their town for fun. They armed themselves, including with a smuggled cannon, and built earthworks for their defense. But the free state men also sent emissaries to Wilson Shannon asking that he call off the whole business. They threatened to go over his head and seek relief from Franklin Pierce and the Congress as well. In pursuit of the latter aim, they drew up a memorial and got it through the lines.

The memorial gave a relatively fair account of events. Governor Wilson Shannon had “without any justifiable cause whatever” summoned “the militia of Kansas and Missouri” against them. Shannon did have cause, if not one quite proportionate to the response. Free state men had obstructed the operation of the law and Shannon had every reason to think it the opening of an organized campaign. Furthermore, the people of Lawrence rightly understood themselves as having little as a group to do with the Branson affair that got Jones his warrant and sent him against the town. Some of their residents participated in the rescue of Branson, and they did so in line with the antislavery tactics that much of the town endorsed, but no civil authority in Lawrence blessed them before or after. If the militia of Missouri did not formally come, then organized or semi-organized groups from that state did all the same.

One could argue that Lawrence harbored Branson’s rescuers, except that most of them lived in the Hickory Point area. The rest had moved on, save for Samuel Wood. Lawrence harbored the ringleader in the sense that he remained at home in town and they didn’t rush to hand him over to Sheriff Jones. Nor, of course, they did feel obligated to do the same for anybody on Jones’ growing list of warrants.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Did Jones need an army to overcome Lawrence’s indifference? Maybe. Jones, his proslavery bona fides well-established, could cloak himself in those warrants and say he did nothing more than his duty. If one of the militia officers under his command had ambitions to more, that didn’t mean Jones did. That he took a polling place by gunpoint months ago didn’t mean he had gone off the deep end again, even if it didn’t augur well. But the sheriff himself proved that he didn’t care much about the warrants. At the same time as he sent worried missives to Missouri and, incidentally, Governor Shannon about how all Lawrence rose in revolt against him and he could not do his duty safely without an army at his back, Jones paid a peaceful visit to Lawrence. William Phillips tells the story:

That it was no part of Jones’ object to make peaceable arrests is clear from the fact that he came into Lawrence on the first of December, and went about the streets without any one paying the slightest attention to him,-that is, to molest him. Mr. S.N. Wood, who, at first refused to leave town, and said they could arrest him, accosted Jones, and invited him to dinner. Jones never said a word about having writs against him. He was evidently in town merely on a military reconnaissance.

The bit about Wood inviting Jones to dinner sounds a little too good to take seriously. It would fit very well with the kind of humor that seems especially popular among nineteenth century Americans. One can picture Wood smiling as he made an offer and Jones fuming at his impotence against the mockery. That Jones could visit Lawrence seems entirely reasonable, given the townspeople would have hardly wanted to provoke a confrontation by molesting him. Their general interest in treating the Branson affair as a private matter between Jones and his quarry reinforces the point. That Jones would come into town and go out without doing the duty he supposedly felt so keenly also seems entirely in keeping with his demonstrated character. Jones wanted revenge and a proslavery victory, with his official duties serving only as the pretext for both. He might have come into town entirely on hopes of earning another indignity which would justify immediate retaliation. The perfidious townspeople of Lawrence added another sin to their record in refusing to oblige.

Meanwhile, back in Lawrence

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

As forces assembled against them and Governor Wilson Shannon came to appreciate how his field commanders might not hew to his moderating intentions, the people of Lawrence didn’t content themselves with a simple protest. They agreed with the governor in trying to avoid an armed clash, but did depend on him for relief. Lawrence had good reason to seek a more robust means of resolving the crisis, as Charles Robinson told Brewerton:

the Pro-Slavery forces continued to augment, and committed depredations upon travellers and the country generally, by robbing wagons, taking prisoners, and interfering with peaceable travellers upon the public highway, and even stopping the United States Mail. And in addition to these unprovoked outrages, they showed an evident disposition to excite our people to acts of hostility, in firing nightly upon our picket guards, by which, however, as it fortunately happened, no one was hurt.

This could hardly look like anything but the prelude to storming the town. Even if one doesn’t place much stock in complaints about one side provoking the other to violence, one can’t help but give it some credence when the provocateurs have chosen actually shooting at people. Shooting back in such a circumstance hardly makes one an aggressor or irresponsible escalator. Nor could the nightly serenade of gunfire have calmed many nerves even among those indoors and somewhat safer.

Harassing communications and stopping the mail didn’t amount to a complete siege. People still got in and out of the town, armed bands included. The Herald of Freedom reported on the arrival of some from abroad and hopes for more:

A small party arrived this morning from Topeka. They give us the assurance that we shall be largely reinforced from that quarter by night.

The Bloomington rifles are here; also those from Wakarusa and Palmyra. Expresses have been sent through the Territory for aid, and it is said a messenger has gone to Iowa to send a correct version of the affair to the States.

Robinson gave Brewerton an account of the forces available in Lawrence, counting them around eight hundred

all armed with Sharpe’s rifles, or shot guns, and were well supplied with ammunition-many had pistols-those not enrolled were for the most part armed with some kind of weapon. We had, moreover, a cannon.

Another of Brewerton’s informants, Kansas Legion man G.P. Lowrey, agreed with Robinson’s numbers and added seventy mounted men

armed with revolvers and sabres, or in lieu of these, pikes with a scythe or sabre-blades attached, which were carefully sharpened.

If the Missourians wanted war to the knife, then some of the Lawrence defenders had rather large knives to hand. That cavalry force might sound medieval to us, but keep in mind that nineteenth century firearms had neither the accuracy nor rate of fire that we would expect. A swift force might very well ride into the enemy, discharging a few rounds as it did, and then slice away whilst the opposition reloaded. A sword or bayonet did more than serve as decoration on such occasions. The men would surely know their way around a scythe, a traditional farm implement used both in harvesting grain and mowing lawns.

Phillips described every home as a barracks housing those new arrivals. Furthermore

Three large circular earth-works, a hundred feet in diameter, were thrown up so as to defend the place from an attack made on the north-west, south, and south-east. […] It was a stirring sight to see the men working in the trenches, and even at night they could be found plying the spade and mattock, officers guiding the progress of the work, and holding lanterns.

Should Jones, Richardson, or Shannon offer battle, then Lawrence would put up a good fight. Anyone who came near enough could look at the earthworks and see how firmly they resolved to defend themselves. If the sight disinclined them to attack the town, then so much the better. For all the warlike preparations, the free state leadership continued searching for a peaceful solution. They sent emissaries to Shannon, asking that he either control his men or remove them. If he refused, they threatened to go over his head and seek relief from Franklin Pierce.