“The black flag will be hoisted” Shannon’s Martial Woes, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon found out that men at the Wakarusa camp intended to intercept his message Colonel Sumner and the 1st Cavalry after he visited Lawrence, but it confirmed the danger he already suspected from both touring the camp and speaking with the proslavery militia’s leaders. He also had other, possibly worse news about the town’s besiegers. George Douglas Brewerton prints a letter from J. C. Anderson, which Shannon’s office neglected in the rush of events to note the date or time. Anderson, who Brewerton introduces as a member of the Kansas Assembly, wrote to militia general William P. Richardson, who passed word on. The legislator had

reason to believe from rumors in camp that before tomorrow morning the black flag will be hoisted, when nine out of ten will rally round it, and march without orders upon Lawrence. The forces at the Lecompton camp fully understand the plot, and will fight under the same banner.

Brewerton’s footnote describes the black flag as a generic signal, but raising the black flag had another meaning in the nineteenth century. A black flag meant no quarter. One raised it not just to declare the hour at hand, but also to promise merciless slaughter. If the people of Lawrence feared their home becoming a second Greytown, then their besiegers hoped and planned for it.

Shannon’s letter of the sixth to Sumner, the one nearly intercepted, suggests that he had Anderson’s missive on hand at the time of writing:

It is hard to restrain the men here (they are beyond my power, or at least soon will be)from making an attack upon Lawrence

The Governor could have written this regardless of Anderson, possibly relying on Samuel Jones’ report of the unruly camp as well as his own impressions, but Shannon must have thought himself in at least limited control of the army to fret after losing that control in the near future. Anderson’s rumors would necessarily entail that loss. He also introduces a further wrinkle into the story:

If Governor Shannon will pledge himself not to allow any United States officer to interfere with the arms belonging to the United States now in their possession, and, in case there is not battle, order the United States forces off at once, and retain the militia, provided any force is retained, all will be well

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Brewerton explains in another footnote that some of the Missourians had taken muskets from a federal arsenal in their vicinity before coming to Kansas. If they had done so, which seems likely considering at least some Missourians came over in militia formations, then the besiegers had more to worry about than just missing some mayhem. The 1st Cavalry might decide, reasonably enough, that they had stolen the guns and must surrender them at once. The mere presence of United States forces interposed between the proslavery men and Lawrence would likely prevent bloodshed, but if they came into the camps demanding the arms that might bring on a clash of arms with the military.

That in itself might deter some proslavery men, but they had to know that the 1st Cavalry remained at Fort Leavenworth. If they could sack Lawrence expeditiously, they might finish the job and surrender any arms asked of them without trouble thereafter. Anderson, understandably, closed by urging “speedy measures” and fearing that things might already have gone past the point of no return.

 

 

The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Gentle Readers, I left you with a body and it doesn’t do to leaved them sit too long. Contemporaries called the crisis at Lawrence arising out of the tangled Coleman-DowBranson-Jones dispute the Wakarusa War, but most of it involved rather more warlike rhetoric and warlike preparations than actual war. It must have felt very much like one at the time and easily could have gone that way, but the actual carnage proved largely limited to one man. Thomas Barber drew the proverbial short straw and in so doing proved that the proslavery cordon about Lawrence capable of more than imposing inconvenience and occasional terror.

William Phillips laid out the state of the siege on December 6:

At this time, while the Missourians had invested Lawrence, they found it difficult to keep it closely guarded to the south and west. There was a distance of twenty miles between the camp at Lecompton and Wakarusa. General Atchison had a force on the north side of the Kaw river, opposite Lawrence; but, while it was guarded thus on three sides, the only means of preventing people from leaving Lawrence for the south of the territory was by horse patrols, which scoured the country.

The senator from Missouri appears once more. He clearly means to imply that David Rice Atchison has command of a camp, and Bourbon Dave had certainly come to Kansas to raise Hell before at the head of an army, but neither Alice Nichols nor Nichole Etcheson puts Atchison in even unofficial command this time around. Nor have I seen indications of that in the primary sources, aside from Phillips. Rather it seems that Atchison came into Kansas in early December, 1855, at the request of Wilson Shannon. The Governor hoped that Atchison, like Albert Boone, could help restrain the proslavery men. He might have had the right of it, as he mentions Atchison’s help alongside Boone’s in his Howard Report testimony.

About one o’clock, Thomas Barber, his brother Robert, and brother-in-law Thomas Pierson rode out of Lawrence. According to Robert’s statement to Brewerton, he and Pierson had revolvers but Thomas rode unarmed. They went through the gap in the lines that Phillips describes. Brewerton notes

Pierson and the two Barbers were, at the time of this affray, regularly enrolled as privates of the Bloomington Company (D), of the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteers, then serving in Lawrence, to defend that place against the so-called “Army of Invasion,” under Governor Shannon; they were absent on leave at the time.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

While shooting men on leave doesn’t make for the most equal of contests, the Barbers and their antagonists from the proslavery force appear equally belligerent parties. As such, we have upon us the seed of the very conflagration that Wilson Shannon and Charles Robinson feared, but Samuel Jones and William P. Richardson fairly lusted after: armed (bar Thomas) militants in both parties’ paramilitary would clash violently, with fatal result.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The Barbers and Pierson went out of Lawrence for their homes, seven miles away. “Three and a half miles” out, in the words of Robert,

we observed a party of from twelve to fifteen mounted men to the right of the California road, in which we were travelling. This party was apparently making directly for it. They were over half a mile from us when we first saw them. We then left the California trail, to take a cross road, to the left, which was the shorter one to our residences; this was immediately after we discovered the horsemen. We had at this time no idea that they intended to interrupt us, nor did we quit the highway for the purpose of avoiding them. We had left the main road by some half a mile, when we saw two of these mounted men advancing before the rest, as if to cut us off; this they did by approaching us on our right, and placing themselves in front of us, or nearly so.

If Robert sounds a bit too innocent, then we should keep in mind that neither side wore issued the rank and file distinctive uniforms one could recognize at a great distance. Most likely everyone came in whatever they wore every other day. A militant could look exactly like an ordinary person going about his business. Even the presence of large firearms wouldn’t strike an ordinary observer as all that remarkable. The Barbers could quite reasonably have suspected nothing until the two men peeled off to intercept them.

“You have the power to secure peace.”

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

More Bad News for Governor Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheriff Jones goes to Lawrence

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

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

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

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

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

William Phillips

William Phillips

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

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

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

Major Blank and the Case of the Smuggled Cannon

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

The Missourians, and a few hundred Kansans, established a blockade around Lawrence. Samuel Jones’ force whiled away the time by taking potshots at people working at the town’s defensive works. Much drinking and cursing of abolitionists ensued while Jones and William Richardson, a general of the Kansas militia and Blue Lodge man, dreamed up new ways to use the situation to destroy the free state movement. Their cordon generated concern in Lawrence, with residents worrying that they might not have provisions to feed all the men who had come to aid in their defense, but the border ruffians/territorial militia/overgrown posse had not established a perfect barrier. If one could carry off a good lie or didn’t mind a gunpowder serenade, one might make it.

This made for good stories, true or not. Brewerton introduces a section of them with just that disclaimer, proceeding immediately thereafter to insist that he had them on the best authority. Charles Robinson and others admitted that the free state movement had an existing practice of smuggling arms through suspicious Missouri towns. It wouldn’t make for much of a stretch for that to continue through a Missourian blockade in Kansas. He likewise agreed with the rumor afoot in the proslavery camps that Lawrence had a cannon.

A Major Blank, of a family for which Brewerton confesses great fondness on the grounds that one rarely hears of a Blank of any sort suing for libel, told him the story of the cannon’s arrival. A good field piece would serve as a force multiplier, something that Lawrence could very much use. But one couldn’t just go off and buy a cannon off the rack in Weston. Word came, however,

that some sympathizing New Yorker had sent a six or twelve-pounder (we have forgotten which), with ammunition to match, to assist their troops in killing off the “Border Ruffians,” and moreover, that this “material aid” was now lying all snugly boxed and safely stowed away, in the warehouse of a Kansas City commission merchant.

That put the cannon in reach, but one could hardly hitch it to the back of a horse and trot along past the Missouri lines. Like people the world over, nineteenth century Missourians had a powerful aversion to having cannons shot at them and would work to prevent it. For that matter, so would the authorities in “Pro-Slavery up to the hub” Kansas City. The free soiler daring enough to go for the cannon might hand it over to the enemy in trying to move it. But Major Blank, frontier man of mystery, took council with some of the fabled Yankee schemers. They hatched a plan a and Blank rode out with “a stout Pennsylvania wagon, drawn by a couple of active mules.”

At Kansas City, the good major eschewed his military dignity and went by mister. He declared himself a citizen of Lawrence in Kansas City on private business. Mr. Blank expected to have a poor trip for his trouble, he told the merchant from whom he would take the cannon, but he knew that a friend of his, Mr. John Smith, had boxes stored there that he could bring along as a favor. Maybe Smith would pay him, maybe not, but one does friends favors.

John Smith’s property constituted two boxes, the cannon in one and the carriage in the other. Blank set to work getting both into his wagon, but the merchant grew suspicious. Just what would go to Lawrence in those boxes? He insisted on a look inside before leaving them go. Blank claimed that his friend just had supplies from New York, a wagon and some oddments, and would have done better to buy in St. Louis and save on freight. The merchant persisted, demanding that Blank open the boxes.

At this stage of the conversation, Mister Blank seized the axe and knocked up one side of the lid of the larger receptacle, which, as he well knew, contained the wheels, and then threw down the instrument, at the same time calling out triumphantly,

“There, Mister, I didn’t tell yeou, just look for yeourself. Guess you’ll said I’m right another time; ef that ain’t a buggy-wagon it ain’t nothin’ at all. Don’t yeou see teh wheels?”

Poor light and a limited angle for viewing showed only the wheels of the cannon’s carriage. Chastened, the pro-slavery merchant confessed his error:

“Well, I’ll jest allow I wor a spot too particular this time; so hist them inter your wagon, boys, and roll out as lively as you choose. Jim, you infernal nigga, whar air you; come hyar, and help these gentlemen pack thar plunder. Stranger,” added he, turning to the Major, “mout I ask you to step inter the office and take a drink? I’ve powerful far article of corn whisky in thar.”

Blank imbibed and soon enough made off with the cannon. He got most of the way back to Lawrence before his wagon stuck in the mud. He could hardly decamp with the cannon and hope for the best with all the border ruffians about. Nor could he extricate his wagon himself. Thus he sat by the side of the road and waited for proslavery men. A pack of border ruffians soon came by, on their way to one of the two camps outside Lawrence. Could they help a fellow out of the mud? Doing so constituted common courtesy, so the Missourians obliged, hitching up a pair of horses with the mules and putting their shoulders into it.

Blank arrived in Lawrence shortly thereafter and the story, too good to keep quiet, soon went out. The besiegers responded by letting not so much as a barrel of flour through to Lawrence until sifted thoroughly. It might have happened that way. Brewerton almost surely invented the dialog, or had it from one who had, but Lawrence didn’t have a cannon before the siege and came on one during it. Such things don’t fall out of the sky.

Meanwhile, back in Lawrence

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Creep in Lecompton

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon, still at Shawnee Mission, had a problem on his hands over in Lecompton. Sheriff Samuel Jones, to whom he had given command of Kansas’ militia, received his instructions not to bring things to a head with the free state men in Lawrence. The 1st Cavalry would soon arrive to manage things. Jones wrote back that he really didn’t want to wait, adding that he now had warrants not just for Jacob Branson and his rescuers, but also Herald of Freedom editor George Brown. He expected to have more warrants soon. His quest to serve a single warrant had turned into a general campaign against any prominent antislavery Kansans he could reach. But Governor Shannon had also sent instructions to the militia units under Jones’ command to do no more than protect Jones. Could the officers restrain the sheriff?

Doing so would have required a desire that at least one of them did not possess. William P. Richardson, a Blue Lodge man from way back, had found an excuse to employ the force available to him. In answer to Shannon’s orders to refrain from aggressive acts, Richardson wrote back:

I believe it to be essential to the peace and tranquility of the Territory that the outlaws at Lawrence and elsewhere should be required to surrender their Sharpe’s rifles. There can be no security for the future safety of the lives and property of law-abiding citizens unless these unprincipled men are (at least) deprived of the arms, which, as we all know, have been furnished them for the purpose of resisting the law-in fact, peaceable citizens will be obliged to leave the Territory, unless those who are now threatening them are compelled to surrender their rifles, and artillery, if they have any.

If Richardson had his way, the government really would come to take their guns, possibly more. The general proved savvy enough to couch his plans in terms of Shannon’s expressed interest in preserving order, but he proposed something far more drastic than arresting some lawbreakers. Richardson intended to disarm a large portion, perhaps all, of the free state militia companies and so leave them in the tender mercies of proslavery Kansans. Between Jones’ planned arrest of free state leadership and Richardson’s seizure of arms, the proslavery party could turn this into the free state movement’s final days.

The general essentially said as much:

I am diligently using every possible precaution to prevent the effusion of blood and preserve the peace of the Territory. As the Sharpe’s rifles may be regarded as private property by some, I can give a receipt for them, stating they will be returned to their owners at the discretion of the Governor.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

You can’t call William Richardson anything less than diligent. He understood that Shannon’s orders did not permit him to seize the weapons on his own, but he’d be happy to have the governor’s authorization. Then the matter of what to do with those guns would fall in Shannon’s lap.

Richardson wrote Shannon on December 3. He yet had no word from Washington on whether or not he would have the 1st Cavalry. That didn’t come until the next day, due to downed telegraph lines in Missouri. He isn’t clear on whether he had Richardson’s or Jones’ letters in hand before then, but it seems likely. In previous correspondence to Lecompton, no more than a day passes. Richardson makes reference to the fatigue of the rider carrying his missive and how Shannon would do well to send a fresh man with an answer. Thus the anxious governor probably spent a long day before he learned that Franklin Pierce had placed the army at his disposal.

The Blue Lodges, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2, 3

W.P. Richardson would only tell the Howard Committee that he would not tell them about the Blue Lodges that plotted to control the future of Kansas. J.C. Prince told some, but admitted he would not tell all he knew because he had sworn otherwise and feared retaliation. John Stringfellow, clearly proud of the lodges’ work, told the committee all manner of things that everybody who lived in Kansas or Missouri could have seen for themselves. He went on, however, to deny much logistical coordination between the lodges. The committee’s remaining witness on the issue continued in much the same vein.

Jordan Davidson testified that

There is a secret society in the State of Missouri, for the purpose of introducing slavery into Kansas Territory. The proper name of the society, as recognized by its own members, is “Social Band,” “Friend’s Society,” and by some the “Blue Lodge” and “The Sons of the South.”

Davidson had never seen any written bylaws of the group to say that it had a single official name. Nor, he admitted, did he often attend meetings. He had too much work to do in the day and wanted rest too much at night to put on regular appearances. But he felt confident to speak to the group’s general nature, goals, and activities. Specifically:

The order compelled no man to come into this Territory and vote.

But the order did go over and vote. When asked directly of the Blue Lodge served as a way to organize men for election stealing, Davidson agreed almost without qualifier:

The greatest weight it had was in this way, for protection when we did get here; that when we got into a scrape we should not fall foul of each other. The friends of the society were friends to slavery in the south, and to extend it here if we could do it by lawful means.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Lawful means concern Davidson repeatedly in his testimony. He declares the lodges “governed by law,” indulging in “no compulsion beyond the law” and saw “nothing in it contrary to the law”. Davidson

never heard any of the leaders of the invasion of the 30th of March say it was illegal to come over here and vote. I heard an investigation of that matter in the lodge. One of the members asked how they could come here and vote lawfully, if they were objected to as not citizens of the Territory. The answer was to squeeze it in somehow, and if we could not get to vote, there was no violence to be used.

All of that sounds like protesting a bit too much. Davidson declares that he himself viewed voting in Kansas as right by the law, but even if we take that at face value then others in his lodge had their doubts. Otherwise, why would they require a discussion? Why admit that if challenged, they should find some way to “squeeze” the votes regardless? Some of that can come down to an assertion that Kansan voting scruples simply must yield to Missourian. Then a Missourian need not accept the legitimacy of examining his credentials. He might even feel free to simply lie.

Davidson further testified

Some of the wisest of our party, I suppose, did not fully believe that voting here was lawful, but they contended that it was right as there were a good many others coming here to vote; I considered it right myself, and came here of my own accord.

What we consider right often differs from what we find lawful. In such cases, we generally think it right to ignore the law. The border ruffians did the same. Davidson agreed with them and came of his own free will. But his invocation of right here, in light of his repeated insistence on the lawfulness of election stealing, suggests that he meant more than that he came to Kansas and did what he thought right. One must remember that Davidson testified under oath before a committee of the House of Representatives. The “here” to which he came meant Kansas, but not just on the occasion of the election. He came back to testify, apparently without a summons, and with a clear conscience. His testimony thus has an air of defiance to it: He came and told what he knew, as he liked, with pride. By implication, Davidson dared them to do something about it.

The Blue Lodges, Part Three

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1 and 2

W.P. Richardson stonewalled when asked about the Blue Lodges. J.C. Prince told some, including that he feared to tell all, but spent much of his testimony making a claim and then qualifying it back nearly to oblivion. Several of his statements read as denials that he hoped the Howard Committee would understand as stating the opposite. John Stringfellow, his proslavery bona fides unassailable, testified at greater length. He began by rehearsing the claim that his brother made all the way back in Negro-Slavery, No Evil that the free soilers started the whole mess by organizing the Emigrant Aid Society. Before that, thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all expected that Kansas would come into the Union as a slave state.

That proslavery men held this story as orthodox dogma does not mean that they lacked facts on their side. It had always taken affirmative legislation to bar slavery from entering territories. The absence of restriction ensured a future presence all the way back to the Southwest Ordinance that created Tennessee. If popular sovereignty meant, rhetorically, letting the people decide then those who defended it as such had very good reason to know just how the people would decide. Territorial settlement operated on the de facto principle of slavery national and freedom sectional.

Emigrant Aid meant cheating to proslavery Missourians, who then resolved that they would lose Kansas if they stood idle. With the business couched in defensive terms, Stringfellow dated the founding of the Blue Lodges to October, 1854. He might have believed all that himself, though I’ve seen references to Blue Lodges forming in the summer of 1854 and it seems likely that he knew what his brother spent the summer occupied with, but he went on to argue

The members of these societies knew each other, and in public and private pledged to use all honorable means to make Kansas a slave State. They raised no more money than for the incidental expenses of their meetings. The condition of affairs of Kansas were discussed in these meetings. We consulted and talked about the mode of carrying out our object, which was by voluntary emigration. With respect to the then approaching elections means were taken to prevent underhanded advantages, which we feared would be taken to control the elections in favor of the free State party. Part of the means taken was to come into the Territory from Missouri to prevent or counteract illegal voting on the part of hired voters from the east and other free States.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

These honorable means included carting cannons over the border, attacking polling places, shooting guns at suspected free soil voters, and hiring their own voters, facts that the Committee knew from other witnesses. One could consider paying border ruffians an incidental meeting expense, but it seems much more likely that Stringfellow intended himself understood as denying that any payment for border ruffian activities took place.

Stringfellow testified that the societies, while mostly a Missourian phenomenon, extended into Kansas “to a limited extent”

they were united associations, with officers, and they communicate with other societies through their officers. The design was to direct or advise rather than to assist persons where to settle in the Territory.

Thus the word could get around about where proslavery men had best go to find friends, or needed to go to carry precincts. So things remained until the March elections. Since then

public organizations or aid societies have been formed all through the slave States, so far as I can learn, to enable settlers favorable to the institution of slavery to reach the Territory without assuming any control over their acts after they get here. Several gentlemen have left the Territory and the border of Missouri since March election in 1855, and visited the slaveholding States and addressed the people, urging the importance pecuniarily and publicly of a proslavery emigration to Kansas Territory.

Those organizations did their work well enough, Stringfellow said. He pointed to increased southern emigration in the spring of 1856 as proof, but he put it down

more to the general belief in the importance of such emigration rather than to the societies or Missourians.