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.

 

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“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.

 

“Families are leaving for Missouri.”

Wilson Shannon

Sterling Cato sent along a report of John Brown’s murders for Governor Wilson Shannon, who duly forwarded it to President Franklin Pierce. Cato dated his missive from Paola May 27. Shannon seems to have received it at the same time as a separate letter, dated the previous morning, from William Barbee of the Second Brigade, Southern Division, of the Kansas Militia. At any rate, he offered up Cato’s letter before Barbee’s in the attachments to his letter for the President. Barbee wrote

We were all surprised this morning by the sad intelligence that W. Wilkinson, (late member of the Legislature,) was, together with a Mr. Sherman and three Messrs. Doyle, on Saturday night taken from their beds by the abolitionists, and, in the hearing of their families, ruthlessly murdered and hacked to pieces; also, a man found dead at the Pottawatomie. There were some twenty in the gang. All is excitement here; court cannot go on.

John Brown

Barbee had Brown’s numbers inflated, but in the dark, dispersed, and in rumor eight men can easily turn into more than twice as many. Barbee didn’t see any of the bodies himself, but he did speak to Wilkinson’s widow and reported as much to Shannon. He also gave the Governor news that would have pleased John Brown:

Families are leaving for Missouri. Yankees concentrating at Osawatomie and upon the Pottawatomie, also at Hickory Point, where they have driven off the inhabitants without even provisions or clothing, save what they had on.

Brown hoped to provoke general strife and drive the proslavery side from Kansas. If Barbee had the right of it, killing those men got him off to a great start. For Barbee and Shannon, this meant they had to do something to restore order. Obviously that would involve armed force, so Barbee listed what he had to hand:

We can, perhaps, muster to-day, including the Alabamians, who are now encamped on Bull creek, about 150 men, but will need a force here. I have dispatched to Fort Scott for 100 men. The men will come from Fort Scott under Major Hill. There will be more men in readiness, if needed, at Fort Scott. We are destitute of arms; send by wagons for both my brigade and General Heiskell; we are together; we have scarcely any arms.

Barbee tells Shannon, and we who get to read over his shoulder, a great deal in a short paragraph. He has the Alabamans, Jefferson Buford’s men, all lined up and ready to kill abolitionists. He sought support from the US Cavalry out of Fort Scott and received word already at time of writing that they would come, so either the commander there acted on his own authority or Shannon had given him some prior order to come to the militia’s aid in such a situation. But contrary to our stereotypes of the American West, the militia and Buford’s Alabamans didn’t come with a small arsenal in every backpack. They would need more hot lead than a hundred or so cavalrymen could provide in order to join them as a credible peacekeeping force, or to embark on the long-feared purge of antislavery Kansans. Either would probably suit most involved, save for the soldiers.

John Brown and the Black Law

John Brown

The tax cut/ACA Repeal bill will probably have a vote in the Senate this morning. It was poised to pass last night but the effort fell apart at the last minute. We still have a chance to stop this thing. The first vote is schedule for 11:00 this morning. Give ’em an earful: 202-224-3121.

We left John Brown on the night of Saturday, December 8, 1855. He quizzed James F. Legate about the condition of enslaved people in the South and then got into an argument with him about the nature of prayer. A storm blew in that night. Persuaded by that, their leaders, Lane, Robinson, and Governor Shannon, the Missourians decided they would get no satisfaction and had better things to do than freeze themselves to death in the cold. They went home.

Brown didn’t trust the peace settlement, which he rightly considered the product of much conniving and a non-trivial amount of alcohol. He had no argument at all with the outcome. The proslavery men left, which made them cowards. You didn’t see antislavery men skulk off in defeat; Brown’s Liberty Guards stayed on hand in Lawrence until December 12. The victory, even if he didn’t get to kill any enslavers, buoyed John Brown enough that he wrote excitedly of the it to Frederick Douglass and others. Regrettably, I don’t have access to those letters. Stephen Oates quotes them:

“I did not see the least sign of cowardice or want of self-possession exhibited by any volunteer of the Eleven companies who constituted the Free State Force,” he said in his letter to Mary, “& I never expect again to see an equal number of such well behaved, cool, determined men.”

On the fifteenth, voters ratified the Topeka Constitution and its black law provision. Brown left no record of how he greeted the latter news. James Redpath says he took it poorly, along the way informing the reader that he first heard of Brown after the events of the Wakarusa War and so correcting a prior error of mine that put him present on Brown’s arrival in Lawrence. As Redpath has it, they first met at the Ossawatomie caucus after the affair at Lawrence. Presumably, he refers to a free state meeting to debate the merits of their constitution:

The resolution that aroused the old man’s anger declared that Kansas should be a free white State, thereby favoring the exclusion of negroes and mulattoes, whether slave or free. He rose to speak, and soon alarmed and disgusted the politicians by asserting the manhood of the negro race, and expressing his earnest, anti-slavery convictions with a force and vehemence little likely to suit the hybrids then known as Free State Democrats.

It would fit everything we know about Brown if the law did infuriate him, but he never said so in any letters we have even to his intimates. Oates argues, I think reasonably, that Brown’s anger did flash hot over the law but that he probably put it in the context of the bogus laws and saw it as an adequately lesser evil fit compared to the territorial government and Missourian invasions.

 

 

John Brown has Questions

John Brown

The tax cut/ACA Repeal bill will hit the Senate for a vote this week. Let your Senators know how you feel about them taking health insurance away from millions to pay for tax cuts for billionaires.

Charles Robinson and others saw to it that John Brown did not finish his fiery speech denouncing the peace that ended the Wakarusa War. From their perspective, everything came to the best end. Only one antislavery man died and a general battle did not ensue. Lawrence had a very stressful time of it, but the town survived and Robinson and James Lane connived to get Governor Shannon to recognize their militia. Brown thought they gave up something material, acknowledging the supremacy of the territorial laws and government. He left town unmoved by assurances that no one had conceded anything material.

While Lane and Robinson negotiated with Shannon and other proslavery leaders, Brown had a talk with James F. Legate. (Legate previously featured here as the man who warned the free state leadership that Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants for their arrest.) In 1879, Legate recalled spending that Saturday night with Brown. Legate had experience living in the South and Brown had many questions.

So far as I can tell, John Brown never made it further into the South than Harper’s Ferry and elsewhere in modern West Virginia. He knew about slavery from seeing enslaved people in the North of his youth and speaking to people who had stolen themselves to freedom. It took only that to convince him of slavery’s monstrous wrong, much as records of the same in slave narratives might do for us, but he had this opportunity to learn more and took it. I haven’t been able to find Legate’s own recollection from the Leavenworth Weekly Press online, but Stephen Oates summarizes:

Were they as passive as some people said? Did they have attachments with their masters? Or were they willing to fight for their liberty should the opportunity arise?

Legate did not inform posterity of how he answered, but the questions themselves point to Brown’s long-range thinking. Right now he had the struggle in Kansas, where few slaves lived to fight for their freedom. He also had Missouri right next door, with rather more slaves on hand. Maybe Brown thought he would take a trip over there in the near future. Maybe he still thought of Virginia, as he had for years.

The conversation turned then to an argument about the prayer and Legate must have found Brown as immovable on his theology as on slavery. That led to Brown praying that the Almighty would strengthen his hand against the Missourians, “enemies of God.”

Silence and Silencing John Brown

George W. Brown

The tax cut bill will hit the Senate for a vote this week. Let your Senators know how you feel about them taking health insurance away from millions to pay for tax cuts for billionaires.

George Washington Brown left a few details out of his account of John Brown’s arrival in Lawrence during the Wakarusa War. With John Brown now deemed a madman and guilty of attacking the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, not to mention Kansas much settled, the editor must not have seen much glory in associating himself with the old man. He has Brown appear in Lawrence and a military company forms around him on the spot.

Newspaper Brown omitted how he met the crusading Brown outside the Free State Hotel, gratefully shook his hand, and introduced him to the free state leadership. He received his commission from Lane and Robinson and viewed Thomas Barber’s body before going back out and dreaming up his attack plans. Then the newspaper’s account picks back up, with Brown out around Lawrence drumming up support for his plan to attack Franklin and ignoring contrary orders. It again leaves out Brown’s response to news of peace, which he suspected meant surrender.

As soon as James Lane and Charles Robinson got done telling the news, Brown mounted the unsteady platform they used to give his own speech. His biographer Villard has extracts:

He declared that Lawrence had been betrayed, and told his hearers that they should make a night attack upon the pro-slavery forces and drive them out of the Territory. “I am an Abolitionist,” he said, “dyed in the wool,” and then he offered to be one of ten men  to make a night attack upon the Border Ruffian camp. Armed with lanterns, his plan was to string his men along the camp far apart. At a given signal in the early morning hours, they were to shout and fire on the slumbering enemy. “And I do believe,” declared John Brown in telling of it, “that the whole lot of them would have run.”

John Brown

Brown might have just gotten himself and several other men killed, but the Missourians did come to Kansas with a remarkable faith that they would never face a serious fight. Villard claims that James Lane thought it was a good idea too, so one can’t attribute it entirely to Brown’s poor command of tactics. Critics and friends alike pulled Brown off the platform before he could talk everyone into something rash. Villard credits Charles Robinson with masterminding that. The Emigrant Aid Company man generally took the least militant tact when it came to actual fighting, so that would fit his character.

 

Good and Bad News for John Brown

John Brown

Gentle readers, I’m not going to do a full political post today but I want to draw your attention to the attack against civilization currently pending before the Senate and encourage you to make your opposition known to your Senators. If the reasons there don’t suffice, then the GOP also looks likely to use it as a vehicle to pack the courts with the sorts of judges who think Donald Trump would make a great president. Those are lifetime appointments, so imagine Judge Trump ruling on your civil rights into the 2060s.

 

Back to Kansas. We left John Brown finding out that John Junior did him proud by breaking the gag law that the bogus legislature passed outlawing antislavery statements. He went right up to the proslavery man and declared, in as many words, that no one had a right to hold a slave in the territory. Junior dared the proslavery party to come get him. John Brown would have none of that and resolved that no proslavery man would take any son of his. Soon after hearing that news came the free state elections for delegates to the Topeka Convention. Expecting trouble, the Browns arrived armed at the polls in Pottawatomie. No Missourians appeared and no local proslavery men caused any trouble, so Brown stood by while his sons voted. Then everyone went home.

The lack of disturbance at the polls pleased Brown greatly. He wrote his wife that he thought things on the turn in Kansas. The territory has suffered powerfully, but since the Missourians didn’t show they might have had their fill of Kansas. The same optimism that drove Brown into deep debt and failed businesses appeared again. Winter followed the good news and promptly laid the Brown boys up again, with their father the only able-bodied man at Brown’s Station for some time starting in late October. He regretted that that kept him from helping the neighbors as much as he meant to. At the start of November he finally replaced the first tent on the claims with a mud-chinked structure. Salmon recovered enough to help with the second building and things looked up, or at least progressing, again.

Samuel Jones

For Thanksgiving, not yet a standardized national holiday, Brown called on his brother-in-law, Samuel Adair. With Adair and his wife at Osawatomie, Brown received the news that Kansas pitched toward a great explosion after all. Franklin Coleman, a proslavery man, murdered the antislavery Charles Dow at Hickory Point, ten miles off from Lawrence. Jacob Branson, who had put Dow up before then and served as an officer in the antislavery militia, arranged a meeting to look into the death which Coleman understood as a lynch mob. He ran for shelter with Governor Shannon and Sheriff Samuel Jones, the latter of whom drummed up a posse to arrest Branson on the strength of a warrant that Shannon arranged for him. Free staters led by Samuel Wood sprung Branson from Jones’ custody, at which point he declared Lawrence in a state of rebellion and got Governor Shannon to call out the territorial militia to suppress it. David Rice Atchison and hundreds of Missourians, informed by Jones before he bothered to let Shannon know what happened, decided they could do militia service across the border and started into Kansas bent on a fight. Deeply disturbed, Brown rushed to his sons and dispatched Junior to find out the lay of the land.

Silencing John Brown

John Brown

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

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

Redpath relies on William Phillips here:

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

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

Charles Lawrence Robinson

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

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

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