“Fear & excitement”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign advised that good proslavery men must somehow silence their antislavery counterparts. John Brown’s murders proved the point and he did not shy from connecting them to anyone who gave them aid and shelter, however uninvolved in the killing itself. That didn’t mean they should go out of their way to murder people in the dark of night, but then the proslavery party had the territorial government on its side. They didn’t need to skulk about quite so much as Brown and company.

They didn’t need Stringfellow’s advice or permission to get going either. A resident of Osawatomie wrote his Cousin Sidney on Wednesday, May 28,

Osawatomie is in much fear & excitement. News came tonight that a co. of Georgians and Alibamians were coming to make this their headquarters. All work is nearly suspended, the women are in constant fear.

Jefferson Burford’s Georgians and Alabamans already camped nearby. It wouldn’t take much to move them in and they had come all this way to murder abolitionists. Seeing what could come their way, the residents of Osawatomie and the vicinity got together in a public meeting which published conciliatory resolutions. (I haven’t been able to find a copy, Gentle Readers.)

Those resolutions received the unanimous acclaim of the meeting, but in person the members differed on whether Brown and his men had committed a grave offense or acted in some kind of tragic self-defense. Certainly the local proslavery men had not made for the best of neighbors, but efforts to show that Brown knew of the Shermans’ threats against Squire Morse and others have yielded no clear evidence that he did. If he had those incidents specifically in mind, he wouldn’t have hesitated to bring them up. Rather he seems to have acted from a general conviction that the free state party needed to avenge itself and terrorize their enemies. His heroic act of murder would do that open the floodgates of antislavery anger.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Brown may well have gotten the latter, though it’s hard to separate the impact of his killings from the sack of Lawrence. Later on, free state leaders like Charles Robinson said that they always had a considered position in favor of armed nonviolence. The events of the Wakarusa War and the sack of Lawrence demonstrated that not everyone agreed with that. Robinson often struggled to contain the more militant antislavery Kansans, who counted more than just Brown and his intimates among their number. They never liked all this backing down and talking things out. The fall of Lawrence and Robinson’s arrest removed the leading voice for a more diplomatic solution from the board, at least for a time.

Furthermore, even though Robinson paints himself as the consistent man of peace and had a reputation to back it, his party consistently explained their preference for diplomacy as situational. They did not want to strike the first blow, nor strike United States troops. Keeping their noses clean helped politically, at least so long as political violence in Kansas remained intermittent and small-scale. If the fate of Lawrence hadn’t changed that permanently, then Brown’s murders may well have done the trick. As long as no one on your side goes hunting the enemy, refraining feels normal. Once someone has, the question must naturally arise for men reared in nineteenth century masculinity as to why they haven’t themselves gone in? Were they cowards? Boys playing soldier? Women? Even if they had a sincere objection to the use of force before, the proslavery reaction would make Brown’s claims of self-defense more plausible to others in retrospect. Now they really did have proslavery men coming for them, so they had best stand ready.

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“There must be no night work”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

The Squatter Sovereign advised its reader that in response to the Pottawatomie murders,

Every pro-slavery men in Atchison county ought immediately to call at Atchison, and learn the news and course determined.

They had abolitionists to hunt. It wouldn’t take a psychic to see the solution the paper had in mind, though coordinating our of Atchison made good logistical sense and would bring some paying customers by the newspaper office. However, John Stringfellow’s paper also intended to help its readers learn the news. Right after the call to arms came a report on John Brown’s massacre under the headline Civil War in Kansas:

Since the organization of the Territory the abolitionists have proposed various games by which they hoped tow in Kansas, at all of which, so far, they have been defeated. Failing to carry the elections by fraudulent voting-by packing upon us unscrupulous census takers, by which we were defrauded of our just representation-by placing abolition judges to preside over the elections-by an attempt to swindle us out of our representatives after they were elected-by attempting to defeat all our legislation after we had met in the Legislature-by attempting to defy the officers of the law in enforcing its requirements, they have commenced a new game-that of midnight murder.

Before we get into the murdering, remember all the other reasons the antislavery party deserves the hatred of all good proslavery men. They did the fraudulent voting. They tried to cheat honest Kansans out of fair representation. They packed the election staff with their partisans. Atchison, Kansas studiously observed Opposites Day. This level of perversity, while depressingly common, still deserves recognition. Stringfellow, like people of every era who know their own tactics can’t stand the light of day, outsourced them to the opposition.

That long sentence to outrage the reader primed them for the actually new news

armed bands of assassins are prowling about, murdering men at midnight for no offence except their political opinions.

Remember, Gentle Readers, Stringfellow’s brother Ben argued that one should murder abolitionists for abolitionism. John might say that the overt act of preaching antislavery justified the difference, but he would have undermined himself in the previous piece where he said that those who tried to sit out the slavery fight would get attacked from both sides.

The Sovereign went on to a bit of self-praising, reminding readers that the proslavery side treated the contest “in a bold, manly, open manner”. By that we should not think that they killed no one, only that they did most of their murders in broad daylight and with pride; proslavery men had standards. Stringfellow urged that their side should not sink to John Brown’s level:

There must be no night work, but in the face of day we must hunt these banded outlaws to death or out of the Territory.

The paper asked where this would end, if they let it go on? Brown’s victims, per the Sovereign’s lights, did nothing wrong. Some of them hadn’t even marched against Lawrence once. If the antislavery party would martyr such innocents, then the proslavery side must show them that they played “a losing game.” Only then would they stop. Thus:

Every man who is known to have taken any active part with these lawless traitors, should be silenced in some way.

Reckless murderers, assassins and thieves

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

 

Set on the notion that the proslavery party should obey the law, unless self-defense came into it, John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign situated itself on well-trod ground. Most everyone in any era thinks that the law doesn’t bind them in a suicide pact. If you have to run a red light to get away from someone who stuck a gun in your face, no one is going to fault you for doing it. It’s not a safe choice, but neither is sticking around. Stringfellow, and his brother Benjamin, considered the mere presence of antislavery men a similar situation. John Brown proved them, at least this once, right by hauling men out of their homes at night to hack them to death with swords.

Had Stringfellow’s paper confined itself to that point, it would hardly warrant our attention. Like his brother Ben, John Stringfellow would not so constrain himself. He argued that they would hold up their end of a civil war if the Free State party saw fit to throw one and furthermore cast his net far wider than Brown’s eight men:

Hundreds of the Free State men, who have committed no overt acts, but have only given countenance to those reckless murderers, assassins and thieves, will of necessity share the same fate of their brethren. If civil war is to be the result in such a conflict, there cannot be, and will not be, any neutrals recognized. “He that is not for us, is against us” will of necessity be the motto

Stringfellow sounds like his brother here, bent on wiping out the enemy and keenly attentive to the aid that non-militant collaborators give to the militants. People who looked the other way or shared their roof with John Brown and company did involve themselves in the fray, whether they bore arms or not. By aiding the enemy, they joined the ranks. This may sound extreme, but the logic holds. People who make it easier for a murderous enemy to carry on are helping that enemy murder you. The distinction between the gunman and the person who sold them the gun and wished them well doesn’t matter much from the victim’s perspective. John Brown knew the same thing and acted on it much as either Stringfellow might have expected themselves to act if it came to a shooting war.

A good politician doesn’t finish without suggesting a course of action in these things, so Stringfellow continued:

Every pro-slavery men in Atchison county ought immediately to call at Atchison, and learn the news and course determined.

In other words, the boys had best come on in. They had abolitionists to hunt. Maybe this time they would suffer no disappointments.

Midnight murders, assassinations, burglaries and arson

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Wilson Shannon thought it best to use the military to suppress the free state movement in order to restore the proslavery order in Kansas. This, in turn, would prevent his territory sparking a general civil war. Armed bands of proslavery men might endanger that project, but nowhere near so much as the antislavery side would. Shannon believed that out of general conviction. John Brown’s murders made him, at least in the one narrow case, right. So the Governor called out the army and soldiers went about ordering anyone they found in a group under arms to go home.

Immediate reaction to the Pottawatomie killings outside government officials proved more mixed. Some proslavery individuals did leave the area after Brown did his bloody work, but the party didn’t give up. Actual Kansans might outnumber them, but they had plenty of men in Missouri, the Kansas militia, and territorial government to even the score. John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign laid into the story with its June 10 issue, having missed the week before. A throat-clearing exercise under the headline Free State Party In Kansas got things going:

Midnight murders, assassinations, burglaries and arson seem now to be the watchwords of the so-called Free State party. While those rebellious subjects confined themselves to the resistance of the law, in their attempts to make arrests, and execute process in their hands, the pro-slavery party in the Territory was determined to stand by the law, and aid the officers in executing process, and the courts in administering justice.

Mind the past tense; Stringfellow did. “Every pro-slavery man” should stick to that, but times do change.

Self-protection -defense of one’s life, family, and property are rights guaranteed to all law abiding citizens; and the manner and mode of keeping off murderers, assassins, &c., are not confined to any very strict rules of law

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Proslavery men could, would, and should keep themselves strictly within the law. But faced with an emergency, a direct threat to their lives and property, they might color outside its lines. No one could fault them for answering to self-preservation instead of the statute book. Stringfellow couches this as a response to an emergency, and did write to answer Brown’s murders, but he could have just as easily made the claim two years prior. His brother did:

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

Benjamin Stringfellow placed the emergency point at the mere presence of antislavery men. John Stringfellow, who voted for laws that did make expression of abolitionist sentiments a crime, now had a more immediate reason to make the same argument.

 

“I thought it best”

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon at last had cause to use the power that Franklin Pierce had delegated to him and call out the 1st Cavalry to preserve order in Kansas. That meant, to both men, suppressing the antislavery movement in the territory. Armed bands of proslavery men didn’t warrant anything like similar concern. That didn’t mean Shannon was entirely blind to the optics of the situation, though. He ordered Captain Wood’s command out of Lawrence, where he put them only after the proslavery men did as they would with the town and moved on. News of John Brown’s killing spree had Shannon move those men out, so he called on Colonel Sumner to replace them at Lawrence.

Here, Shannon felt a need to explain himself to the president:

I do not know that my instructions, at least in express terms, give me the power to call on Col. Sumner for troops to be located at different points in the Territory for the purposes I have already stated; but the plan met the entire approbation of Col. Sumner, and I was so well satisfied of the policy of it, that I thought it best, under the emergency to carry it out at once.

If he went too far in ordering something like martial law for significant portions of Kansas, then Shannon promised he could easily fix it. At any rate, he hadn’t done any harm given the situation. The Governor got the harm out of his system, at least for the time, when he ignored Lawrence’s pleas for protection and promises to cooperate with Israel Donaldson if only he would draw his posse from their number instead of Missourians bent on killing abolitionists.

That action had born fruit, as we know, in the capture of Brown’s elder two sons. Neither had anything to do with the murders along the Pottawatomie, naturally. They picked the wrong relatives, as so many of us do. With his report to President Pierce, Shannon also enclosed a dispatch from John R. Church, a second lieutenant of the Cavalry. Church saw the Pottawatomie Rifles and reported the matter up the chain. This all happened on May 26, before the Browns reunited after the murders:

I came upon a body of men from Osawatomie and the surrounding country, who, as well as I could judge, numbered some seventy or eighty, although they pretended to have about one hundred and thirty. This body was commanded by a Captain Brown, and was evidently a Free-State party. They had been at Palmyra about two days, and had frightened off a number of Pro-Slavery settlers, and forced off, as far as I could learn, two families.

Church says “forced off” and “frightened,” not “dragged out of their beds and hacked to death.” He doesn’t mean the murders, or he would have said something more. The Free State men don’t say anything about scaring someone off in their accounts of the situation, but there mere presence might have done the job and they all told their stories with the more sensational news that followed in mind.

Church rode up to John Junior, the captain here, and informed him that bands of armed men of any politics broke the law. They needed to go home. “After considerable talk,” Brown agreed. Church stuck around long enough to make sure the Rifles broke camp, then moved on to chase a rumor that a hundred fifty Missourians had crossed over for a new invasion. Arriving, he found rumors and exaggerations. Bull Creek, the mooted concentration point, held only a few displaced proslavery people from Palmyra and a party aimed at going further west but stopped by the chaos ahead of them on the road. Others under the same officer as Church, Captain Wood, would arrest Brown all of two days later.

“A force competent to put it down”

Wilson Shannon

Governor Shannon had to do something. His choice of nothing previously worked the ruin he now faced. By ignoring Lawrence’s reasonable fears that a proslavery “posse” would turn out a band of hooligans bent on their destruction, he made their rampage through the town possible. In response to that devastation, John Brown went off into the night and committed five murders with his sons and a few others. Hauling proslavery men out of their beds and hacking them to death spread tremendous fear. Now that both sides knew for a fact that armed bands would hunt down and kill them for their politics, the volcano on which Shannon long sat would bear no more inaction.

When things got to this point in the past, Shannon stepped in. He tried to get the 1st Cavalry to interpose and went himself to Lawrence to negotiate a fragile peace that mostly endured from December until the end of April, when his inaction destroyed it. Even before news of the murders reached Shannon, he lurched into action in response to the sack of Lawrence. As he told the President:

I addressed a letter to Colonel Sumner, at Fort Leavenworth, calling on him for three companies of United States troops – one company to be stationed at Lawrence, one at this place [Lecompton], and one at Topeka.

Sumner, who this time around had orders ahead of time from the president to comply with Shannon’s requests, obliged. He also attached his letter to Sumner, which explains his motivation at the time:

In view of the excitement and present state of feeling in the country, and for the purpose of securing the safety of the citizens, both in person and property, as well as to aid in the execution of the laws and preservation of the peace of the Territory

That fits with Shannon’s consistent belief that events in Kansas could easily spiral out of control. He always casts the antislavery party as the real villains, but Shannon had eyes enough to see the obvious. He urged Sumner to “as little delay as possible” and added

The armed organization to resist the laws would seem to be broken up for the present, so far as the town of Lawrence is concerned, but there is danger that this formidable organization may show itself at some other point, unless held in check by the presence of a force competent to put it down.

Shannon the civil servant and Shannon the proslavery man share the same mind. The threat, even after a gratuitous attack on them, remains the free state men. The Governor needs force to put them down, not proslavery hooligans who have a fig leaf posse to justify themselves and promptly colored outside the lines. Though he didn’t know every detail of what happened at Lawrence then, he admitted to Pierce that he believed orders to respect private property and otherwise behave themselves got spotty adherence. Resistance to the laws counted as a vile crime for antislavery men. A proslavery mob could apparently do as they liked and the Governor would castigate them with the most eloquent of shrugs.

 

“How long shall these things continue?”

Wilson Shannon

William Barbee wrote Governor Shannon that proslavery families fled the Osawatomie area for fear of John Brown’s murdering band. He and the rest of the Kansas militia needed arms and reinforcements to keep what fragile peace remained. They could get the latter from the United States Cavalry out of Fort Scott, but the militia still needed more guns than it had. So if the Governor could shake some loose, everyone would appreciate it.

Barbee wrote from a camp he shared with William Heiskell, who also commanded a militia brigade. Heiskell wrote himself, probably on the grounds that the two of them writing would more likely get a good response. He informed Shannon:

All here is excitement and confusion. We have just heard of the murder on Saturday night of Allen Wilkinson, Doyle and his two brothers, and William Sherman; all living in Franklin county, near Pottawatomie creek. The body of another man has been found at the ford of the Pottawatomie. These murders, it is supposed, were committed by the abolitionists of Osawatomie, and Pottawatomie creeks, on their return from Lawrence.

Like Barbee and Cato, Heiskell wrote with imperfect information. He thought that three Doyle brothers died, rather than two and their father. He seems to have heard that someone died in the creek, but not that Dutch Bill Sherman did.

Basic facts conveyed, as he understood them, Heiskell moved on to the point:

How long shall these things continue? How long shall our citizens, unarmed and defenseless, be exposed to this worse than savage cruelty? Wilkinson, it is said, was taken from his bed, leaving a sick wife and children, and butchered in their sight. The two young Doyles were unarmed, and shot down on the prairie like dogs.

The Free State leaders at Lawrence made similar pleas to Shannon, which he brushed off. They too could claim a trail of bodies left by their foes, if one rather more spread over time and space. Shannon favored slavery for Kansas and disliked armed strife, at least when he would have some accountability for it, but also blamed the antislavery side for causing all the problems. That some free state militants escalated things to a massacre would suit his preconceptions and convictions exactly, even if the horrifying events of the weekend didn’t justify a strong response all on their own. Shannon had to do something, from his own convictions, out of his official responsibility for Kansas, and likely also if he expected to remain its governor.

 

“I’ll drive this knife to the hilt until I find your life”

John Brown

Squire Morse, an old Michigander with two kids, sold Frederick Brown some lead bars that he took over to the Grant house to make into bullets. Dutch Bill Sherman and his proslavery friends took note of that and told Morse that he needed to quit the area or he would leave it permanently at the end of a rope. He had until eleven that morning to get gone, at which point they returned and decided to upgrade his murder weapon to an axe. They also gave him until sundown, after his children cried and pleaded. Morse took his two boys and went to the Grant’s. He stayed with them for a while, but insisted on sleeping rough in the prairie rather than risk being caught in town at night. The stress of that and the threat to his life eventually ended it. The Grant family caught some of it too, with Dutch Henry Sherman calling to tell them of More’s expulsion and that many other antislavery families had to go too.

The proslavery men around Osawatomie had made dire threats before. Sanborn had it from a Mr. Foster that in the same spring of 1856,

William Sherman had taken a fancy to the daughter of one of his Free-State neighbors, and had been refused by her. The next time he met her he used the most vile and insulting language toward her, in the midst of which Frederick Brown appeared and was besought for protection, which was readily granted. Sherman then drew his knife, and, speaking to the young woman, said: ‘The day is soon coming when all the damned Abolitionists will be driven out or hanged; we are not going to make any half-way work about it; and as for you, Miss, you shall either marry me or I’ll drive this knife to the hilt until I find your life.

Frederick supposedly told Sherman that if he tried it, “he would be taken care of.” Foster tells this all after the fact in a passage largely about defending the Browns for murdering Dutch Bill, so we have to read it with some skepticism. Furthermore, if the Browns or the other Pottawatomie Rifles thought that their families in the area stood at serious risk they most probably would have either stayed home or made arrangements for their safety. Sherman may have made the threat to the woman, and Brown answered it as reported, but their behavior suggests that they believed their hostile neighbors talked big and never delivered.

Morse’s travail suggested that things had changed. The absence of the antislavery men and presence of Georgians who came those hundreds of miles to kill abolitionists bolstered their convictions.

A rope, an axe, violent crying and violent illness.

John Brown

John Brown’s son Frederick went into Dutch’s Crossing to buy some lead bars. He aimed to use that lead for free state bullets and enlisted the Grant family to help make them. With Lawrence under threat again, they needed the ammunition. In many places, all that might go unmarked. Dutch’s Crossing presented several problems for that, all of which go back to the German-born “Dutch” Sherman brothers. Illegal squatters and likely petty criminals from way back, they went all-in for slavery and acted belligerently toward their antislavery neighbors. One of the Shermans and some of their proslavery friends saw Frederick Brown passing by with the lead and asked what he meant to do for it. Frederick told them.

The proslavery men didn’t take it out on Frederick, a relatively young man carrying a bunch of useful bludgeons; a man could get bruised trying to bruise a guy like that. Instead they went to the older Michigander who ran a store nearby and sold the lead. Squire Morse, who had two small children, received a visit first thing in the morning as soon as the free state men moved out for Lawrence. Dutch Bill, the Doyles, and Allen Wilkinson (a bogus legislature member) showed him a noose and told him that they would hang him for selling the lead.

But not just now. The proslavery men gave Morse until eleven to abandon his store and claim. They had only talked big before. Now they had a rope and gave a deadline. This fit the typical script for lynching a white man. The warning must have only felt sporting and refusing to abide by it would give them further aggravation. After making the threat, they departed to drink.

George Grant, then a child, recalled what happened next:

About eleven o’clock a portion of them, half drunk, went back to Mr. Morse’s, and were going to kill him with an axe. His little boys -one was only nine years old- set up a violent crying, and begged for their father’s life.

That childhood memory would stick with you. The violent crying and begging even moved the proslavery men, a little. They amended their deadline to sundown. Morse wasted no time:

He left everything and came at once to our house. He was nearly frightened to death. He came to our house carrying a blanket and leading his little boy by the hand. When night came he was so afraid that he would not stay in the house, but went out of doors and slept on the prairie in the grass.

Morse remained in the area, but he hid out in the bush and came in for meals with the Grants. The travail took its toll on an already older man, who soon took “violently ill” and died. A doctor saw to him in that time and attributed the death to “the fright and excitement of that terrible day when he was driven from his store.”

All this for selling some lead, which Morse himself got from Dutch Henry originally. That Sherman brother got in on the action too, going over to the Grants to tell them that they had ordered Morse out “and a good many others of the Free-State families have to go.” George Grant doesn’t report it as a personal threat to them, but the Shermans knew that Brown took his lead to them to turn into bullets. With some Georgian proslavery militants nearby and the antislavery militia away, they had to feel intensely vulnerable.

Twenty or thirty pounds of lead bars and one noose

John Brown

Affairs between the proslavery and antislavery white colonists in Kansas did not go smoothly in general. Nothing that had happened in the territory’s short, stormy history pointed toward happy coexistence. Osatwatomie fit perfectly with the rest of the territory, maybe more so courtesy of outspoken antislavery men like the Browns in close company with similarly outspoken proslavery men like the Doyles and Shermans. August Bondi found that out the hard way when, new to Kansas, he called on the former as a fellow German. On learning his antislavery politics, they told him that he’d best get lost or he might get lynched.

That conversation put Bondi in touch with the Browns, who promised to have his back if the Shermans ever followed through. For a long time, they and others like them proved all talk. That began to change in the spring of 1856, just about the time that Cato opened his court and John Junior and the Pottawatomie Rifles made their sceneAccording to George Grant, who shared his recollections in 1879:

There was a company of Georgia Border Ruffians encamped on the Marais des Cynges, about four miles away from us, who had been committing outrages upon the Free-State people; and these proslavery men were in constant communication with them. They had a courier who went backward and forward carrying messages.

When news of the new threat against Lawrence came to the area, the free state men prepared to go to the town’s rescue. Frederick Brown visited a store run by a Michigander down at Dutch Henry’s Crossing, where the Shermans lived and operated their tavern. Frederick bought twenty or thirty pounds of lead, then took it over to Grant’s father’s house on a Sunday morning. Frederick and the Grant kids, including young George, spent the day making bullets from the lead.

Heading from old Squire Morse’s store to the Grant home took Frederick past Dutch Henry’s house. There he found several proslavery men, including James Doyle and sons and Dutch William, Henry’s brother. Seeing a known free state man with a load of twenty or thirty pounds of lead got them wondering if he meant it for something. Frederick told them his business, which “much incensed” them.

The next day, the Browns and other armed men started for Lawrence. That left no one around to keep the proslavery party in check and

a number of these proslavery men-Wilkinson, Doyle, his two sons, William Sherman, known as ‘Dutch Bill’- took a rope and went to old Squire Morse’s house, and said they were going to hang him for selling lead to the Free-State men.