Never tell John Brown the odds

John Brown

John Brown went to Kansas to fight and he didn’t like it one bit that the antislavery leadership denied him his chance. No fool, he understood the double talk in the Wakarusa peace settlement. Charles Robinson and James Lane could say they conceded nothing, but the same language permitted others to argue that they had. This made them fundamentally duplicitous in Brown’s mind and he regretted thereafter that he abandoned his plan to go draw some proslavery blood on his own. Redpath, writing with a few years’ hindsight, add that the treaty and the Free State party’s official line

only served to postpone the inevitable conflict then rapidly approaching, and to demoralize the spirit of the Free State party. It occasioned, he thought, the death of many Northern men, whom, encouraged by this compromising action, the marauders, on their return, murdered in cold blood or in desultory warfare.

Brown may have seen it that way at the time. We can look ahead and agree with him that murders and strife came, though connecting them with the Free State party’s disinclination to hazard large-scale violence would take more doing. John Brown didn’t go around eating bugs and raving like the cartoon madman of popular memory, but he also lacked any formal military experience -in his earlier life he paid fines rather than take part in the militia- and seems largely uninterested in the practicalities of battle. He knew he needed weapons and where to use them. When to strike or how seem not to have troubled Brown too much.

Redpath tells that Brown didn’t care to hear the odds.

‘What are five to one?’ said he, ‘When our men would be fighting for their wives, their children, their homes, and their liberties against a party, one half of whom were mercenary vagabonds, who enlisted for a mere frolic, lured on by the whiskey and the bacon, and a large portion of the others had gone under the compulsion of opinion and proscription, because they feared being denounced as abolitionists if they refused?’

Maybe. People with something to fight for may fight harder, but that doesn’t ensure victory. It also neglects how many of those men Brown thought seduced by whiskey and bacon could claim just the same motives. If Kansas fell to freedom, then it may fatally undermine slavery in Missouri. In Southern thought, that would almost certainly lead to a genocidal race war. They, as white men, expected to win that fight in the end. They also knew that in such a war, their own homes and families might not survive to the end.

 

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Silencing John Brown

John Brown

We left John Brown just after James Lane got him to come back from his planned assault on the proslavery forces still besieging Lawrence. Brown thought very little of the Free State political leadership. He condemned Lane as a man without self-respect and Charles Robinson as a man with no principles at all. Brown had come back to Lawrence in time to see Governor Shannon give a speech on the peace settlement, followed by calls for Lane and Robinson. Lane gave a big talk, Robinson demurred, and John Brown decided that he had things to say.

Some time has passed since we discussed the Wakarusa War at length, Gentle Readers. For right now, remember that the Free State leadership negotiated a peace essentially in secret with Governor Shannon and the proslavery militants. These same leaders constantly preached restraint even as bullets flew, asking their men to endure potshots without answering them for nerve-wracking days on end. Many must have thought that their superiors’ timidity cost Thomas Barber his life. They also suspected that this peace treaty, which no one had seen, might give up too much without a fight.

Redpath relies on William Phillips here:

Captain Brown got up to address the people, but a desire was manifested to prevent his speaking. Amidst some little disturbance, he demanded to know what the terms were.

Phillips’ strategic tact here speaks volumes. “A desire was manifested” and “some little disturbance.” People manifested their desires and made a disturbance. Phillips, himself usually taking a harder line than the free state leadership, declines to name names. He wrote his The Conquest of Kansas as much as a propaganda document as a history and it seems he wanted to acknowledge dissension in the ranks without making it too clear to outside readers. In discussing the murders at Potawattomie, Phillips blames the Indians and deems the whole affair cloaked in mystery, so it doesn’t look as though he meant to make Brown into a lone bad apple.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

If anything, Phillips casts Brown as a principled voice in just Redpath’s vein. He has Brown say that

If he understood Governor Shannon’s speech, something had been conceded, and he conveyed the idea that the territorial laws were to be observed. Those laws they denounced and spit upon, and would never obey -no! Here the speaker was interrupted by the almost universal cry, “No! No! Down with the bogus laws! lead us down to fight first!” Seeing young revolution on the tapis, the influential men assured the people that there had been no concession. They had yielded nothing. They had surrendered nothing to the usurping Legislature.

Redpath does one better and names “the politicians” who wanted Brown silent as Lane and Robinson. Though not an explicit call out, he bothers to give Brown’s precise opinions of only those two men when discussing the situation. He cites their decision to keep the text of the treaty secret as further evidence and only Robinson and Lane would have had the ability or interest in doing that.

 

 

Tact, Ingenuity, and Alcohol: The Browns go to Kansas, Part 6

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left John Brown bound and determined to blow up the fragile peace ending the Wakarusa War and draw some blood from proslavery men. He got together about a dozen men and started on the way, but James Lane stepped in and got him to come back to Lawrence. Lane then tried to get Brown into “a council of war”. John Brown had better things to do than listen to Lane, Charles Robinson, and company explain the delicate situation. According to Redpath, Brown answered:

Tell the General,” he said, “that when he wants me to fight, to say so: but that is the only order I will ever obey.”

In a footnote, Redpath explains Brown’s refusal by giving an account of his estimation of the Free State leadership, in Brown’s own words:

“I am sorry for friend Lane,” he remarked, as we were speaking of his blustering style of oratory; “I am afraid he does not respect himself.”

Lane did deliver the big talk and had shamelessly gone from preaching moderation to militancy when he saw which way Kansan opinion ran. He came to Kansas to restore his political fortunes and would probably have taken any course that served that purpose. Before all of this, he lost his House seat specifically because he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson had better antislavery bona fides, but also hewed to a far more cautious style of resistance. The rank and file didn’t admire his sensibilities on that point and he seems to have lacked the oratorical power to make them compelling. Brown thought, in light of Robinson’s “subsequent conservatism”

“What a pity it is, that men when they begin life, should not get hold of some fixed principles-make up their minds that they are right, and then hold to them. he did not do that. That is his fault.”

Shameless and unprincipled or not, they met Governor Shannon when he came into Lawrence and got him to sign an authorization for free state militias. Redpath admits that what Lane and Robinson got out of Shannon, both in the authorization and sending the Missourians home, did the antislavery cause good. He praises their “diplomatic tact and Yankee ingenuity” the paragraph after he writes that they got Shannon thoroughly drunk beforehand.

Redpath paints Brown as unsympathetic to the politics of the situation, but not ignorant of them. He saw in the peace settlement a capitulation. By taking endorsement from the territorial government, the Free State party acknowledged that its militias needed Governor Shannon’s blessing. They departed from the hard line that Kansas had no governor, or had one in Charles Robinson, and so compromised the purity of their position.

“To draw a little blood” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left John Brown at the close of the Wakarusa War. He showed up for the siege of Lawrence, armed to the teeth, and a militia company quickly formed around him. Brown then tried to convince the antislavery men to launch an attack on the proslavery headquarters at Franklin. He tried that a few times and each time it seems that the free state leadership intervened to put a stop to it. When they announced their negotiated peace, Brown had about had it with them.

Brown’s first biographer, James Redpath, told his readers all that to show how the Free State party lost their nerve. They could talk a good game, complete with a resolution to contest the slave code of Kansas “to a bloody issue.” When the bloody issue came,

the politicians quibbled; sought other grounds to stand on; “planted themselves on the law;” restrained the ardor of the people which sought to drive the ruffians homeward or to the grave; saw good Thomas Barber murdered in the open day for the crime of having visited their own; and yet, with hundreds of invaders of their soil within sight, who were sacking their cabins and robbing and imprisoning their citizens, they calmly “urged them not to allow the daily outrages to drive them to commence hostilities!”

Redpath either didn’t appreciate the political complexities, including that an outnumbered force might well lose a battle, or ignored them to paint a better picture of John Brown as the righteous man of Kansas. It would not do to admit that the bloody issue phrasing came from Andrew Reeder’s pen, in resolutions he demanded the free state party adopt as a condition of his remaining in the territory and joining with them. If anything, that might make the whole business look dubious. Careful politics don’t often make for the best public relations.

Still, Brown’s hagiographer speaks to the essential frustration of the rank and file antislavery men around Lawrence that day. They came all this way and endured considerable stress. They built earthworks while proslavery men took potshots at them. They waited for days on end. The enemy robbed their homes. We should not neglect the political grievances, but the siege had strains all its own capped off by the death of one of their fellows.

James Henry Lane

Feeling the indignity of it all, Brown tried an attack anyway. Redpath reports that

he did not hesitate to express his contempt for the “Committee of Safety”-most of them ox-intellects, vainly striving to fill an office fit for lionhearts only-and to denounce the political preachers of peace as recreant to their recent and loudly-vaunted resolutions. He went out at once with a dozen men to meet the Missouri invaders-“to draw a little blood,” as he styled it-but, at the earnest entreaties of General Lane, he returned to town without doing it.

“Retired in disgust” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 4

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

Asked to come, with guns, John Brown set his mind on going to Kansas. He had no money to go and to arm himself or supply his sons who had already gone, but a quick appeal to an antislavery convention fixed that. Brown would set out on a holy mission to fight slavery, protect his children, and generally make himself and his frontier expertise available to white colonists.

His first biographer, James Redpath, stresses that Brown never meant to make his own future in Kansas. Proslavery men cast him as a fanatic for that, bent on trekking across the country to fight someone else’s battles. I doubt any said the same about Jefferson Buford. Redpath spends a page defending Brown from that onslaught. His defense amounts to the argument that Brown came to help his sons as well as to fight slavery. Furthermore, even if Brown had done just as his enemies thought and come all that way for one cause, so what?

John Brown did not dare to remain tending sheep at North Elba when the American Goliath and his hosts were in the field, defying the little armies of the living Lord, and sowing desolation and great sorrow on the soil set apart for his chosen people. Either Freedom has no rights, and the Bible is a lie, or John Brown, in thus acting, was a patriot and a consistent Christian.

At this point, Redpath has Brown finally make his trip. He catches his readers up with election fraud, the bogus legislature and its laws, which he witnessed himself. Then we go into the murder of Charles Dow and all that followed. Redpath has John Brown arrive as the proslavery army comes across from Missouri to invest Lawrence in retaliation for its citizens rescuing an antislavery militia leader who proslavery sheriff Samuel Jones arrested on dubious grounds. Redpath quotes an eyewitness to Brown’s arrival in the same town:

the old man, John Brown, and his four sons, arrived in Lawrence. The balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State hotel, they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short, heavy broadsword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire-arms and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box, with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable, and were received with great eclat.

In the parlance of a later era, we might call the Browns’ adornment tacticool. Gerritt Smith’s money went a long way, apparently. Some enthusiasts among Lawrence’s defenders happily formed a company around him. The Browns and their company didn’t sit idle, but under his command

commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the command of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin, and make an attack upon the pro-slavery forces encamped there.

The Free State leadership, desperately trying to avoid a battle, loved all that exactly as much as you’d expect. Brown’s attack plans would have destroyed their careful strategy to present themselves as law-abiding citizens who had nothing to do with any militancy and only bore arms in self-defense. When peace broke out, Brown “retired in disgust.”

 

Back to Lawrence

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left Lawrence behind on the back in May of 1856. A proslavery posse rampaged through the town, burning homes, destroying printing presses, and razing the Free State Hotel. They did all of this on a quest, officially, to apprehend free state leadership for whom Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants and then to arrest people who participated in the shooting of Samuel Jones, or who rescued Jacob Branson from his custody, or just to destroy the hated antislavery party in their headquarters. Every reason pointed worked equally well as pretense, though the indiscriminate and opportunistic nature of the attack suggests that most of the mob preferred the last. Their officers struggled to restrain them from general pillage.

After all that fell out, Governor Wilson Shannon finally stirred himself. He behaved suspiciously all through the lead up to the attack on Lawrence, indicating that he might have expected and hoped things went badly for the antislavery town. Shannon could have furnished Israel Donaldson with a posse drawn from Colonel Sumner’s command. (I know of no relation between the E.V. Sumner who led the First Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth and Charles Sumner.) Everyone on the ground seems to agree that the military would provide more disciplined, reliable service. Either Shannon didn’t offer the cavalry to Donaldson -he shies away from saying that he did- or Donaldson refused him. When explaining himself later on, Shannon would surely have mentioned such an exculpatory refusal. As it happened, he dispatched them only once he knew that Lawrence had felt proslavery wrath.

Wilson Shannon

Shannon explained his action now as aimed at preventing all-out war in Kansas, which he believed would soon lead to a general civil war. By placing companies at Lecompton, Topeka, and Lawrence he would get them between the combatants. Shannon would also greatly appreciate it if the military would disperse and disarm the free state militias, which he continued to believe constituted the real problem for his territory. The Governor need not explain that all to Franklin Pierce, who agreed with him, but the president had complained of not receiving adequate updates on the situation and Shannon needed to look good for the boss.

Across the political divide, Kansas antislavery party had appearances in mind too. Donaldson had come to Lawrence with a federal posse, under his authority as a US Marshal and serving warrants from a federal court. Attacking him would have meant rebellion against the United States, something which they had to avoid the appearance of to both keep the heavy hand of Washington from descending on them and maintain public sympathy in the North. Furthermore, with debts still owed for all their military action in the Wakarusa War and the inconvenient season -the busy spring rather than the more idle winter- they lacked the means and men on hand to make a real fight of it.

They adopted a strategy of nonresistance out of those circumstances. Many antislavery men griped at that course, deeming their leaders cowards. With lives, family, property, and futures in Kansas all at stake sitting out the fight was a tall order. Even in the best of times, nonviolence while under violent threat requires a great deal of personal conviction and discipline. We can too easily forget now that the nonviolent Civil Rights movement engaged in direct action with the expectation that activists would be attacked, beaten, and even killed. Simple dignity and decency didn’t move white Americans in their favor; horror at their suffering on the television every night did.

 

“Are you against sacrilege?” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Prologue, Full text

On May 19, 1856, at one in the afternoon, Charles Sumner took the floor in the United States Senate and began most famous speech, The Crime Against Kansas. After some oratorical throat-clearing, he launched into a discussion of Kansas’ geography “that spacious mediterranean country” so recently settled by whites that had now grown more populous than classical Athens or medieval London. Then he lost himself in Roman history for two paragraphs before returning to “an age of light” and the subject at hand.

All the famous injustices remembered from Antiquity had nothing on

the wrongs of Kansas, where the very shrines of popular institutions, more sacred than any heathen altar, have been desecrated; where the ballot-box, more precious than any work, in ivory or marble, from the cunning hand of art, has been plundered, and where the cry, “I am an American citizen,” has been interposed in vain against outrage of every kind, even upon life itself. Are you against sacrilege? I present it for your execration. Are you against robbery? I hold it up to your scorn. Are you for the protection of American citizens? I show you how their dearest rights have been cloven down, while a tyrannical usurpation has sought to install itself on their very necks.

That made for ample horrors in itself, but Sumner declared that the motivation for this “wickedness” “immeasurably aggravated” it. Lust for power, while often leading to horrors, had nothing on slavery’s “rape of a virgin territory”. The forced union of virgin Kansas and profane slavery arose from “depraved longing” to make another slave state. While the whole world condemned it, Americans set forth to force slavery onto their own.

That “enormity, vast beyond comparison” still only told part of the story. “Imagination” could not contain what it grew to in the context of the American Union:

for this purpose are hazarded the horrors of intestine [?] feud, not only in this distant territory, but everywhere throughout the country. Already the muster has begun. The strife is no longer local, but national. Even now, while I speak, portents hang on all the arches of the horizon, threatening to darken the broad land, which already yawns with the mutterings of civil war.

I don’t know if Sumner had up to the day information from Kansas on the preparations of I.B. Donaldson’s army-sized posse, but word of its summoning had more than a week to reach Washington before he spoke. He may have had it in mind here, but could as easily have meant Buford’s expedition or the siege of Lawrence back in December. News clearly took less than a month to get back to the east and might, depending on the telegraph, take only a day; Franklin Pierce sometimes got word from the territory within days. Probably Sumner knew or had good reason to suspect that Donaldson would soon march, but he doesn’t specify.

“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.

A Closer Look at the Free State Hotel

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left the Free State Hotel a burned ruin, after attempts to level it with cannon fire and blow it sky-high with gunpowder failed. Before Samuel Jones and his proslavery army destroyed the place, it featured occasionally in the Kansas story. To Jones and men like him, the Emigrant Aid Company had built a fortress that might withstand any assault. To their free state enemies, it appears just as a large building. A stone building of considerable size could easily serve both roles. Before leaving the building behind, we should take a closer look. For that, I rely upon Martha B. Caldwell’s The Eldridge House, published in volume nine of the Kansas Historical Quarterly (PDF page 363).

The New England Emigrant Aid Company might have had trouble with its finances, but its board knew that people they sent to Kansas would need somewhere to stay while they looked for claims and built their own houses. The plan envisioned several hotels, each capable of housing three hundred people. The board entrusted Samuel Pomeroy, the same Pomeroy who Jones spoke to on the day the hotel burned, with buying sawmills and building those hotels on August 26, 1854. The first Company party arrived in Lawrence on Septemeber 15 of that year and they built the first hotel

by setting up two rows of poles a distance apart and bringing them together at the top, then thatching the sides with prairie hay. The gable ends were built up with sod and contained the doors and windows. The floor was hard sod.

Luxury had yet to arrive in Kansas, but sod floors and walls didn’t set the hotel far apart from the general run of frontier building. Community functions, including church services, took place there until it burned. Its replacement went on the same lines, but with higher walls and cotton cloth lining the interior. Nobody intended for the sod-walled tent to remain indefinitely and the Aid Company’s trustees asked Pomeroy and Charles Robinson to get moving with a proper building. By November 2, they had managed to dig the cellar out.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Construction faced many obstacles, taking nineteen months and never quite reaching a full opening. The Company often ran out of money, with Robinson informing the board that construction stopped in part for that reason at the end of November. The mill that Pomeroy had set up couldn’t keep up with the demand of private customers, so lumber had to come up the river from St. Louis. Kansas’ turmoil can’t have sped things along either. One can forgive the difficult logistics of the Kansas frontier, but Caldwell believes the men in charge also distracted themselves with land speculation and points to the Company later refusing agents the freedom to conduct private business and revoking permission from Pomeroy.

All of that meant that the first emigrant parties to come in the spring of 1855 did not find a hotel waiting for them as planned. In January, the Herald of Freedom advised them not to expect the finest lodgings but promised that Lawrence could handle people ready to rough it. Come February, Pomeroy advertised for someone to furnish and run the hotel. Soon enough, Shalor W. Eldridge took up the lease. He already ran the company’s hotel in Kansas City, the same one where Andrew Reeder would hide the next year.

By spring, the basement had walls and waited on lumber but the shortage of that material had grown so acute that it prompted a revision of plans. The Aid Company intended a timber frame building but a perpetual lack of timber made that impossible. Instead they would build in “stone and concrete.” This argues strongly that no one envisioned the Free State Hotel as a fortification, at least until the spring of 1855, but the change of plan in the context of the deteriorating Kansas situation might well have looked like one aimed at military necessity from the outside. By this point the delays had already made the hotel infamous, with Josiah Miller of the Kansas Free State editorializing against it. People passed Lawrence by or left in disgust for lack of proper accommodations and yet the Company refused to either finish the work or sell to someone who would. Flooring, pre-fabricated in St. Louis, and doors arrived in town only on August 19.

At the beginning of October, two floors stood more or less complete, internal walls going up and windows in place. That served well enough to make the building host to social events, starting with a party thrown by the Kansas Rifles boasting elaborate invitations and a hunting contest to feed the guests. Five hundred people attended despite cold, rain, and deep much. They dined on “squirrel, rabbit, prairie chicken, wild turkey, and one roast pig, together with cakes and pastries.” Not much more than a week after, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow and the Wakarusa War began. The hotel became a barracks and headquarters, then housed Thomas Barber’s body and the peace talks. The subsequent festivities further put it to good use.

After the Wakarusa War, construction resumed. Putting up plaster and supplying furniture took place in December. By January, rumors circulated that the Free State government might quit Topeka for a more fortified spot. Surely they could get the hotel done by February 15, but that date came and went. In March, “between twenty and thirty men were constantly employed.” Their work concluded by April 12, when the papers reported the end of construction. Caldwell quotes the Herald of Freedom on the hotel’s final form:

50 feet front, 70 feet back; three stories above the basement; contains 50 separate apartments, besides a hall in each story. The basement is divided into three rooms, each 18 feet square -two to be used as pastry and meat kitchens, the other as storehouse or cellar. The first story is 11 feet from floor the ceiling, is divided into 9 rooms; the dining hall 18 feet wide and 47 feet long; hall 9 1/2 feet wide, entire length of building; Gentlemen’s parlor, 18 feet square; Ladies’ parlor, 18 x 20; Reading Room, 18 feet square; Sitting room, 16 x 18; two bed-rooms, 9 feet square; office, 6 x 14 […] stairs leading to the roof, which is flat, and affords a fine promenade and a splendid view of the surrounding scenery. There are thirty or forty port-holes in the walls, which rise above the roof, plugged up now with stones, which can be knocked out with the blow of the butt of a Sharp’s rifle.

The Howard Committee

The military use of the building must have come to mind more and more, even if the original plan involved none of it, but the main focus of the description remains on the hotel amenities. It had outhouses “of the neatest kind” and a partially-built stable which would hold fifty horses and keep your buggy out of the rain. Brown’s paper, which ought to know considering it drew funds from the Emigrant Aid Company too, estimated the cost of the building at over $20,000. The grand opening would take place on the first of May.

Samuel Jones

Eldridge set into furnishing the hotel to meet that date, ordering pieces from St. Louis and Boston. He spent over five thousand dollars, but most of the furniture had yet to arrive when the Howard Committee did. The people of Lawrence loaned him some of their own to spare him embarrassment. I.B. Donaldson and Samuel Jones then intervened. Jones convalesced briefly under the hotel’s roof after his shooting. With all trouble then in the offing, the grand opening did not take place as planned. The Eldridges held out hope all the same, with a set of rules for guests coming off the Herald of Freedom press on May 10. Instead Lecompton’s grand jury declared the Free State Hotel a military edifice and recommended someone do something about it. A recovered Jones lied to the proslavery mob about having an order for the building’s destruction and saw it done.

Unanswered Questions about the Sack of Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon explaining the sacking of Lawrence to Franklin Pierce. He said, essentially, that sometimes people get a little excited and a lot of pillaging happens. What could you do? After the fact, he kept a promise he had made to Lawrence before this all began. Now that they had disarmed, thanks to Sheriff Samuel Jones riding into town and collecting what arms he could at the head of a small army, he ordered Colonel Sumner of the 1st Cavalry to dispatch men from Fort Leavenworth to guard Lawrence. For good measure, he also ordered a company for Topeka.

This all looked bad, of course. Shannon, charged with maintenance of law and order in Kansas, had permitted armed invasion, the pillage of one of its towns, and the destruction of a considerable amount of property. What kind of governor did that? He knew his conduct would come under scrutiny, both by antislavery figures outside Kansas and by proslavery politicians looking for a fall guy. Much of Shannon’s letter suggests that he understood the president as one of the latter. He got the job in the first place because Pierce fired Andrew Reeder for mismanaging the ascent of slavery, after all. Toward the end, the governor made the subtext into text:

I have relied solely on the forces under the command of Colonel Sumner, in order to maintain peace and good order in the Territory and enforce the execution of the laws. I have furnished no posse to the Marshal, nor have I been called on by that officer to do so.

Pierce had asked if Shannon drew on the force under Colonel Cooke out at Fort Riley, which the governor had not done. The stress on exclusivity suggests both that Shannon wanted the president to know he hadn’t gone mad with his new power to summon the army and that he hadn’t repeated his blunder of the winter and given proslavery forces a pretense to invade under his authority. Nor had I.B. Donaldson come to Shannon and asked for a posse, which could have come from the ranks of the 1st Cavalry. He hadn’t approved any posses since the small force sent into Lawrence with Jones on the occasion of his shooting, weeks before. Pierce would have to understand that Shannon did everything he could and simply did not deserve the blame for what happened after. The buck did not stop there.

All through this, I have wondered just how much of the story Shannon told honestly and how much he worked to excuse himself. The governor doesn’t appear to have outright lied, though he may have mistaken some things. He wrote for an audience that had every reason, including a past bungling, to hold him accountable and so we must expect him to paint himself in the most favorable light. But the matter of Donaldson’s posse remains ambiguous. Did Shannon firmly suggest he take the military instead of summoning any proslavery man with a grudge to move on Lawrence? He might have seen Lawrence as a problem that the posse would take care of for him, as suggested by his indifference to the town’s plight while it remained under arms. That would encourage him not to press the matter. Donaldson clearly turned him either way, but Shannon could still have ordered Sumner’s men out to serve as a kind of peacekeeping force; he tried to do just that during the Wakarusa War.

And why did Donaldson refuse the aid Shannon might have offered him? Concern for his safety makes perfect sense in light of how Lawrence treated Samuel Jones. Shannon told Pierce that the Marshal feared the soldiers might tip off the men he aimed to arrest, but if Donaldson feared that then why wait weeks to move? Why issue a proclamation calling for the largest posse he could possibly assemble? Donaldson deserves the lion’s share of the blame for bringing in his posse, but what did Shannon really do to deter him? During at least days closeted together in Lecompton, they must have discussed Lawrence. What did they say? Did all of this go according to plan and get disavowed later? Or did Shannon try his best and get outpaced or outmaneuvered?

I don’t know.