“You are always in some scrape” The Capture of Charles Robinson, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Hunt for Andrew Reeder: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Reeder’s diary is in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 3

 

While Andrew Reeder hid in a hotel in Kansas City, Charles and Sara Robinson traveled openly through the Show Me State. The free state first family made it to a ship and down the Missouri to Lexington before trouble found them. There a committee knocked on his door while the Governor slept. He got up, answered it, and learned that they meant to arrest him as a fugitive from justice. Robinson protested that they had no indictment against him and a fugitive would hardly travel in the open as he and his wife had. They wouldn’t hear it. Nor did they agree to let Robinson appeal to his fellow passengers for relief. Finally Charles Robinson asked his wife if he should use the pistol they had with them.

Sara Robinson told him to go for it on the grounds that the committee would either murder Robinson or hand him over to people who would. She had good reason to worry. Accepting arrest hadn’t saved Reese Brown back in January. Reeder fled Kansas rather than stay and make himself a cause célèbre when he heard that if he submitted, he would not make it out alive. If the free state delegate warranted a lynching, then why not the governor?

But the committee assured her that no harm should come to her husband, they would pledge their honor and lives if need be for his protection, if he would go with them; when Mrs. R. withdrew her objection, and both left the boat

The Robinsons left with the committee, who took them before a Judge Sawyer. This Sawyer of Missouri declined to get the Robinsons to whitewash any fences. He hailed originally from Massachusetts, the same as Robinson, “and treated his prisoner more like a prince than a fugitive from justice.”

That night another boat came into Lexington and a passenger on board, Dr. R. H. McDonald, caught wind of Robinson’s arrest. McDonald knew Robinson from their California days, when he took a bullet out of Kansas’ free state governor after a riot.

His first salutation was, “Well, it is you, sure enough! When I heard a man with your name was a prisoner I thought it must be you, as you are always in some scrape.”

Small world. McDonald’s wit did little for Robinson, though his decades-later recollection sounds like one of those things he told people many times over.

Judge Sawyer let Sara Robinson go on with the Howard Committee’s materials; nobody suspected any indictment against her. The Governor remained in custody for a week, at one point telling him that two men had come and tried to organize a lynch mob. When someone suggested the judge turn Robinson out armed the same as the mob, they declined to pursue the matter.

Robinson left Sawyer’s custody when word came from Lecompton that an indictment against him did exist and Wilson Shannon requested his extradition. At that point, the grand jury only had Robinson on the hook for “usurpation of office” rather than the more serious treason charge. A Deputy Marshal arrived, “armed and equipped with requisition, posse, revolvers, and conveyance” to collect the usurping Governor back to Kansas.

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“They will kill you if you go” The Capture of Charles Robinson, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Hunt for Andrew Reeder: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Reeder’s diary is in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 3

We left Andrew Reeder on the lam in Kansas City. A proslavery mob had come to his hotel in search of George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom. They didn’t seem to know that Kansas’ free state delegate to Congress hid out under the same roof, though some thought to look for him all the same. A mob narrowly missed both men and lingered around the building for some time before dispersing. They must have thought Brown and/or Reeder still present, as they set watchers on the building before leaving. Reeder spent the night without so much as a candle in his room.

Tuesday, May 13, 1856 brought bad news. Charles Robinson and his wife, Sara, had left Kansas ahead of Reeder. Neither took the precaution of a disguise. According to the Governor’s Kansas Conflict they carried with them, on the advice of Howard and Sherman of the Committee,

the testimony already taken by the Congressional Committee as there was great danger that it might be seized and destroyed.

The Robinsons assumed that, since no indictment had yet come for them specifically, they could probably get clear of Kansas without trouble. They left by way of Missouri, which brought them to trouble. It happened that a proslavery convention had lately finished its work at Lexington, which Robinson believed involved planning for a new invasion of Kansas. The convention knew or suspected that Robinson would soon have an indictment against him.

The free state’s first family made their way through Kansas city without incident, boarding a steamboat there. The Governor took a nap and

was thus occupied when on arriving at Lexington he was aroused by loud raps at the door of his room. On opening it he was confronted by some gentlemen, who informed him they were appointed a committee to notify him that he must leave the boat at that place.

Robinson had come as far as Lexington, Missouri but would go no farther. They believed him a fugitive and intended his arrest. The Governor protested that he knew of no indictment against him and had not traveled under any subterfuge. Fugitives simply don’t behave like that. Improvising, Robinson tried to get up a mob. He learned that the boat housed many people “drinking freely” and asked to plead his case to them. Should the Governor convince the mob, then they would protect him.

That asked a great deal of a mob in Missouri’s slave country, but Robinson had few options. The committee come to arrest him refused to let him try, claiming that mobs would listen to no reason and the reason of a known antislavery man least of all.

It appearing that force would be used if necessary, Robinson referred the matter to Mrs. Robinson, whether use such means of defense as he had-one revolver-or to go with the committee, when she promptly replied, “They will kill you if you go, and you may as well make a stand here.”

The Two Lawrence Parties

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Gentle Readers, I’m sorry to say that gotten confused again. It seems that Lawrence hosted two parties at the end of the Wakarusa War. At the first, a tipsy Wilson Shannon got news of an impending attack and signed a commission for the free state militias. That took place on the night of December 9, 1855. The gathering didn’t have a fraction of the eight hundred or so that Charles Robinson told his wife and the other presumed-upon women of Lawrence to provide for. Those festivities took place the next day. Governor Shannon, having learned that no force threatened Lawrence after all, took his leave before it began. The date of a party doesn’t make for a huge error, but an error all the same. Either way, Sara Robinson’s delight at the short notice holds true.

The larger party consumed the better portion of Sara’s day:

Early morning finds us busy in the culinary department. The making of seven loaves of bread and five of cake, with other necessary work, leaves only a few stray moments in which to finish a letter

Keep in mind that Robinson did this without the benefit of kitchen appliances. Even with them, bread baking can make for a demanding task. She conscripted a pair of young men to help her carry her wares to the festivities, and on arrival found herself

astonished by the huge baskets of provisions which were provided. Had the Missourians looked in upon the well-filled tables prepared on so brief notice, they would have given up the idea of starving us to terms; and had New England added her presence among the welcome guests, with her well-filled pockets and stocks in trade, she would have realized that, in the large open-heartedness and freedom from conventionalities of her frontier children, there is much of the real, true enjoyment of life.

And they worked damned hard to see to it, she might have added.

Not everyone appreciated the spread. Governor Shannon might have gone, his enthusiasm for Lawrence dampened by the failure of the promised army to appear, but Sheriff Samuel Jones appeared. Sara Robinson remarked that some besides Jones

did not cherish that spirit of forgiveness and conciliation, which makes man magnanimous in the treatment of an enemy; and the general’s party at one time came near proving anything but a “peace party.” There was a spirit there full of ambition, and a desire for office. And while the murder of young Barber was fresh in the minds of his friends; while the voice of poor, weak human nature would say revenge if the right chord was touched; and while “Sheriff Jones,” and officer of the territorial courts, was an invited guest of Gen. Robinson, and political capital could be made; with what wonderful ingenuousness it wrought to keep alive this spirit of revenge in their breasts!

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

According to Nicole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, a fair amount of boasting took place on the part of the proslavery men. Boasting also came from the other direction, in the form of retelling the late war’s stories, per Robinson speeches ran heavily in that direction:

The bringing of the cannon through the enemy’s country, and of the powder by the ladies, had honorable mention.

The matter of the cannon requires no further explanation, but I passed over the powder previously. Lois Brown and Margaret Wood smuggled gunpowder and ammunition past the proslavery cordon hidden in voluminous layers of petticoats. Robinson doesn’t mention them by name, but she does refer to a pair of women who got two kegs of gunpowder through. The patrols stopped them, but on seeing they had only two ladies in a buggy let them pass without examination. On their return, neither woman could disembark for the weight and so required lifting out.

What Shannon Signed

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

This post did not go on the time scheduled for reasons that elude me, Gentle Readers. I’m sorry for any confusion due to referring to its contents before you had a chance to read them.

At the gathering celebrating the end of hostilities against Lawrence, some hours into the night, Charles Robinson rushed up to Wilson Shannon. He had news of proslavery men marching on the town at that moment. The free state leader urged Shannon to sign a paper authorizing his and James Lane’s forces to repel the attack. Shannon protested that they needed no word from him to defend their lives and property, but Robinson pointed out that many thought Lawrence home to a gang of rebels spoiling for a fight. The Governor’s blessing would dispel such impressions. Robinson put a paper in Shannon’s hand and he signed it, “without any critical examination.”

A few days later, when Shannon wrote his account of events for Franklin Pierce, he declined to mention the episode at all. At the time, he told George Douglas Brewerton, Shannon understood the paper as a one-time authorization to meet a specific threat. But what did he sign? Sara Robinson provides a copy:

To Charles Robinson and J.H. Lane: You are hereby authorized and directed to take such measures, and use the enrolled forces under your command in such manner, for the preservation of the peace and the protection of the persons and property of the people of Lawrence and vicinity, as in your judgment shall best secure that end.

A single paragraph consisting of one run-on sentence doesn’t seem like much for Shannon to read, even in a rush. Maybe Robinson’s penmanship did not rise to the occasion. Maybe Shannon had a few too many, as William Phillips suggests, or had too long a day. Maybe the Governor did read it, but didn’t care to admit a poor choice; he had made others. Whatever he claimed later, Shannon clearly signed an open-ended grant of authority. In effect, Shannon gave the free state movement one of the best gifts it could hope for. Their questionably legal militias now had the imprimatur of the highest territorial authority.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Had an attack come that night, or the next morning, this might have come to nothing. No one could fault Shannon too badly for blessing men acting in self-defense, though someone surely would have tried. The Governor had no such luck:

On the next morning after this transaction took place, upon the most diligent inquiry, I could not learn that any force whatever had ever made its appearance before Lawrence upon the previous night; and on a full inquiry into the matter since, I am now satisfied that there was no hostile party at any place near Lawrence on the night of the 9th.

Someone lied to Shannon and the free state men got a sweeping grant of power from him for it. Charles Robinson, the most obvious suspect, told Brewerton that he had the word from “the officer of the guard.” He clearly hadn’t seen anything himself, instead spending the night at the party. Whether some panicky sentry imagined an attack or someone chose to invent one and passed word on, the sources available to me don’t give any hint.

Signed, Not Read

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

On December 9, 1855, Wilson Shannon made his third visit to Lawrence. With him came Sheriff Jones, General Stricker, of the Kansas militia, and a few other proslavery men. If Shannon came not with the hundreds that Robinson told his wife and the other ladies of Lawrence to prepare for, then it seems plenty of Lawrence’s own wanted their share of the fun. After spending most of the day in town, evening brought the promised revelry.

The “social gathering,” as the Governor puts it, took place at the Emigrant Aid Society Hotel, in the same rooms used for negotiations and laying out Thomas Barber:

There were but two rooms finished in the hotel; they were small, and in the third story, and were, therefore, very much crowded by the company assembled. The time was spent in the most friendly and social manner, and it seemed to be a matter of congratulation on every side that the difficulties so lately threatening had at length been brought to a happy termination.

Sara Robinson and William Phillips both have Shannon downright giddy at the party, declaring that day the happiest of his life and that he considered moving to Lawrence. The Governor had reason to celebrate, given how close things had come. I haven’t seen anything that sheds light on Jones’ impression of the party, but I doubt he felt near so happy at the resolution of things as Shannon lets on.

Nor, perhaps, did others take it as gracefully as hoped. Robinson writes that

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

A rumor came during the evening from the invading horde still lingering in the borders, and reached the watchful ear of the governor. “His militia” were so indignant with him for the truce, that they threatened him with lynching, and an immediate attack upon Lawrence. He is fearful, and lacks the boldness of a man who has done his duty. Lynching is an unpleasant mode of making one’s exit, and especially undignified to a person holding the honorable office of governor. Such a terminus to his career must be avoided.

Don’t let the prissy Victorian stereotypes fool you; nineteenth century women could have a wicked sense of humor. I imagine she wrote that with considerable relish.

But where did that rumor come from, exactly? Shannon received it from Robinson’s husband, Charles. About ten that night, Shannon told George Douglas Brewerton,

Dr. C. Robinson came to me, in a state of apparent excitement, and declared that their picket guard had just come in and reported that there was a large irregular force near the town of Lawrence who were threatening an attack; adding that the citizens of Lawrence claimed the protecting of the Executive, and to this end desired me to give himself and Genl. Lane written permission to repel the threatened assault. I replied to Dr. Robinson that they did not require any authority from me, as they would be entirely justified in repelling by force any attack upon their town; that the law of self-preservation was sufficient, and that any authority which I might give would add nothing to its strength.

The Governor had a point. Just why would they need his sign-off to defend themselves? And why written permission at that? Robinson’s account doesn’t say, though he does admit that it turned out on investigation that no such group threatened to attack Lawrence. He did give an explanation to Shannon when asked:

they had been represented as having arrayed themselves against the laws and public officers of the Territory, and that he [Robinson] therefore wished me to give him written authority to repel the threatened assault, so that it might appear hereafter, if a rencounter did take place, that they were not acting against, but with the approbation of the Territorial executive.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

That all sounds reasonable enough. Shannon knew as well as anybody that most of the proslavery men had not welcomed news of peace and they had at least talked about attacking Lawrence despite any settlement. The ink had hardly dried on the peace treaty, which Shannon had had spent “four days and nights” of “laboring most incessantly” to secure. He bemoaned the cost of “many valuable friends” in the effort. Now it would all fall apart anyway? Anybody would get a bit cross in that situation.

Shannon might also have understood himself as in danger, as Sara Robinson suggests, and he had pledged to protect Lawrence so long as they accepted the eventual ruling of a court on the territory’s laws:

I should have looked upon any assault upon the town of Lawrence on the night of December the 9th as an outrage, and wholly unjustifiable, and I should have felt myself bound, both in duty and honor, to have exerted myself to the utmost to have prevented so unwarrantable an act of violence.

What could the Governor do in such a circumstance? He’d given his word. He had every reason to believe the rumor. Charles Robinson presented him with a piece of paper, just then written, and Shannon signed it “without any critical examination.”

Sara Robinson receives good and bad news

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

On December 9, 1855, the people of Lawrence, Wilson Shannon, and at least a few of the leading men of the proslavery army besieging the town had more in common than biology and geography dictated. They all hoped that the army, which came hoping for war to the knife, would accept Shannon’s orders, the blandishments of their leaders, and a peace treaty that gave them nothing in particular as sufficient cause to go home. If they did as they had plotted and attacked Lawrence anyway, Lawrence would defend itself. A pitched battle between proslavery and antislavery forces would ensue. With the eyes of both sections on Kansas and its troubles, things might spiral out of control well east of the Missouri border.

A driving storm, and the exhaustion of the whiskey, might have helped some proslavery men see the better part of valor; they can’t have encouraged sticking around. Others determined to tough it out. According to Sara Robinson

many […] turbulent spirits, who had been dragged out of Missouri by their cupidity, by much persuasion, and by being told that now was the time, if ever, for the extermination of the Yankees, made loud complaints, and were determined upon a fight. Their anger towards the governor was also expressed loudly at this peaceful termination of the raid.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Robinson counted ex-Senator David Rice Atchison, the man who ensured the opening of Kansas to slavery, among the disgruntled. She reports a secondhand story of him promising that while the army could not fight just then, they would “fight some time, by G-d!” She might have uncritically reported a rumor, but Atchison could just as heavily have put on a show to get the proslavery men to depart. That would fit well with his role helping Shannon rein them in.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

By this time, Charles Robinson and his wife had not seen each other in more than a day. He summoned her to give good news and bad: They had negotiated a peace, but she and the women of Lawrence needed to get arrange refreshments for Shannon and any proslavery men who remained on the morrow. The guests might number seven or eight hundred. Mrs. Robinson declined to tell the reader of the rapture which the latter news may have brought, entirely omitting reference to spontaneous dancing, cartwheels, or any other species of jubilation one might expect. She satisfied herself with the report to posterity that

New England’s high-toned propriety would be shocked at the idea of “getting up” a party on so short notice […] What would occupy a month’s time there, and any amount of unnecessary words, is done here equally as well in an eighth part of the time, with the greater amount of pleasure coming to all.

A single night’s work seems rather shy of an eighth of a month, but the women of Lawrence got the job done. I can’t imagine many enjoyed a full night’s sleep or a peaceful Sunday. I dearly hope that they gave their husbands an earful for the trouble. Seven hundred men didn’t come in for the festivities, but they might have. Things might have gone better for Governor Shannon, though not for the poor women expected to feed the lot, if they had.

The Influence of Snow Power Upon History

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Wilson Shannon ordered the proslavery militia, mob, and posse to get gone from Lawrence. They must remove and disband, the militants going home with the town intact, its printing presses undamaged, blood, save that of Thomas Barber, left unshed. Shannon had gotten them empty assurances and somehow, with the help of David Rice Atchison and Albert Boone, twisted arms far enough to get thirteen of their leaders on board. But would they abandon their siege or abandon their leaders? Shannon didn’t feel confident enough to issue his order disbanding them until a day after settling things in Lawrence and Franklin, December 9, 1855. The threat of a wildcat attack remained hanging over Lawrence, a fact prominent in Shannon’s narrative as well as those of his antagonists.

Paper alone could not secure peace. Paper and the word of esteemed men in the proslavery camp had a better chance. But the underwhelming treaty prompted those present to look for other reasons why the army lost interest. Sara Robinson described the night of December 8-9:

The night was exceedingly tempestuous. The wind raged with unequalled fury, and was full of driving snow and sleet. All of the afternoon it had been so strong and furious, that boards, ten or twelve feet long, lying in a pile back of the house, had been blown, end over end, in every direction. But the night had added violence to the storm, and scarcely anything could make headway against, or live long out in it. Our Scotch friend, Mr. Phillips, had just come in with ears almost frozen.

Sara Robinson had a house to weather the night in. In the camps, they had tents. Some of the better off might have commandeered buildings, as Shannon did, but most of Lawrence’s enemies would have had to make do with the comfort of a layer of canvas or less. Robinson reports that some of them seized an outlying building, but men came out from Lawrence and took them prisoner. They returned with charges “almost frozen.”

The Robinsons’ Scotch friend likewise appreciated nature’s particular clemency, though he also had a good word for Lawrence’s martial fortitude:

Not to negotiation alone was the country indebted for peace. Many were really terrified at the idea of attacking Lawrence when they supposed the people there were going to fight, and had slipped on, glad to get home. Then the supply of whiskey was exhausted; and on that eventful Saturday night the elements warred with peculiar bitterness against the border ruffians in camp. Night set in; it was dark as Erebus. The wind had blown from the south all day, and threatened rain; at dusk it wheeled to the north, and came down with icy keenness, and driving a snowy sleet.

[…]

In the bitter cold the adventurers stood around their camp-fires, or tried to nestle under the wagon-covers that flapped in, or were overthrown by, the furious wind. Logs were piled high on the camp-fires, and the wild gale swept the flames and sparks up through the gnarled limbs of the old oaks and walnuts of the Wakarusa bottom.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Fun times. Phillips would hardly shrink from a chance to paint the proslavery men as cowards, trembling at the martial manliness of Lawrence. Probably some did, as coming to the festivities doesn’t require quite the same courage as doing something that might get one shot. Proslavery writers frequently paint their adversaries as similarly timid, to the point where some clearly believed it. Faced with actual antislavery men with actual guns, they may have reconsidered. But having come so far, more likely trembled from the miserable cold. If their leaders could give them a face-saving excuse to leave, why not take it? Phillips admits as much in the end, deciding that

had that been a mild and pleasant, summer’s night, there would have been an attack.

Wilson Shannon Meets Thomas Barber

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

On the morning of December 7, 1855, Wilson Shannon and Albert Boone rode into Lawrence amid an escort of free state men. They went to the Free State Hotel to meet with the leaders of the besieged, James Lane and Charles Robinson. They doubtless received plenty of hard looks for the obvious reasons, but likely also due to the surprise that awaited them at the hotel: the body of Thomas Barber in what Sara Robinson, Charles’ wife, called “perfect repose.” She also relates a far more romantic version of Thomas’ last words, where he declares “O God! I am a murdered man!” While both Peirson and Robert Barber may have wanted to demonstrate Thomas’ manly restraint and control in depicting his last moments, they have the benefit of witnessing them as well.

Robinson also reported that Barber’s death ought not have come as a surprise to anyone:

General George W. Clarke, the Indian Agent, went on his way to meet Governor Shannon at the Wakarusa headquarters, and there declared with horrid oaths, I have sent another of these d—-d abolitionists to his winter-quarters.”

It makes for a good story, but Robinson also has Albert Boone declare that he expected nothing like that on seeing the body. Wilson Shannon “gave a perceptible shrug of his shoulders.”

William Phillips

William Phillips

William Phillips, who saw the encounter personally, tells a different version. On seeing Barber laid out at the hotel:

There was a start. I could see the weak, vacillating, guilty governor tremble as his first glance fell on that silent figure. He had heard of the occurrence, but he proceeded to inquire of General Robinson the particulars of the case, which the general calmly told him. […] Colonel Boone expressed surprise and regret, and begged that no one should mention the name of any gentleman as having been of the party that fired, until it could be proved.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Phillips alludes to Clarke’s cheerful report, but doesn’t spell it out. He must have heard of it, unless Sara Robinson invented it herself, but the absence of specifics suggests he had doubts about its veracity. Both Phillips and Robinson have decidedly hostile attitudes toward Shannon, which one can’t fault them for considering his poor choices brought an army to their doorsteps, but the obvious shock of Phillips’ version fits better when the Shannon present in his own writing. A surprise body might unsettle just about anyone, but in Barber’s perfect repose Shannon could see the effusion of blood he dreaded come much closer to fruition. One body, in such times, could soon turn into two, two to twenty, and so on. Once pitched battle began, who could say where it would end?