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Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union
Chapter VI: War on the Wakarusa
by Spring, Leverett Wilson


Wilson Shannon, of Ohio, the second governor of Kansas, was a lawyer of good repute, with an honorable record as governor of his native state, minister to Mexico, and representative in Congress. Genial, companionable, his sympathies and instincts naturally gravitating toward whatever is just and honorable, a tenacious, unwavering Democrat of the old school, he proved to be no iron, decisive storm-queller able to rule the anarchy let loose in the territory.

The period immediately preceding and the period immediately following Shannon's advent were not prolific in violence. The political fight -- the fence of hostile constitutional expedients, a hypothetical state government matched against a legitimatized territorial legislature -- got well under way.

Now and then the underlying ferment broke out into spasmodic acts of personal violence. The fortunes of Rev. Pardee Butler are among the most notable experiences of discomfort during this interval. The divine so far forgot all maxims of policy as to avow free-soil opinions in the pro-slavery town of Atchison. "I intend," said he, "to utter my sentiments where I please." A local bully had recently fallen upon an estrayed abolitionist who ventured into the region, and had soundly thrashed him. Public sentiment applauded the act, and, as it seemed to merit special recognition, a paper was drawn up gratefully recounting the bully's devotion to public interests, the signing of which became a test of political orthodoxy. A bright thought struck the junior editor of the "Squatter Sovereign," a rabid, pro-slavery newspaper published in town. It occurred to him that this paper might be useful in taming the doughty free-soiler, and he presented it to him for his signature, which, of course, was not secured. A mob of considerable size, understanding the game, and gathered in anticipation of the parson's probable decision, then took him in hand and hurried him toward the Missouri River, apparently with the purpose of tossing him into it. After reaching the bank his face was blackened. Then followed a long discussion -- the divine being a "target at which were hurled imprecations, curses, arguments, entreaties, accusations, and interrogatories." It was suggested that the ends of justice would be sufficiently served if he should immediately and permanently quit the country. These Atchison fanatics offered to point out the very tree on which he would be gibbeted in case of return, if he felt their discourse needed the illumination of an object-lesson. He stiffly replied that he should certainly return, provided his life were not taken and Providence permitted. The conservators of public peace relented so far as to consent to his remaining in the vicinity with the understanding that he should keep his mouth shut. "I shall speak as I choose," said the incorrigible parson; "I have done no wrong. I have as good a right to come here as you. I am but one man, you are many. Dispose of me as you think best. I ask no favors of you."

The discussion accomplished nothing in the way of compromise. The mob finally came to a vote on the question -- what sort of public honors shall be conferred on the divine? and a majority gave their suffrages in favor of hanging -- a verdict that undoubtedly would have been executed, had not the teller tampered with the returns in the interest of humanity and misreported the result. A milder sentence took effect. Extemporizing a raft out of cottonwood logs, and placing upon it the clergyman and his baggage -- the whole tricked out with derisive placards -- the gang thrust the strange craft out into the stream for a down-the-river voyage. After floating five or six miles, escorted a part of the distance by citizens of the town who followed along the banks, the traveler made land and escaped.

This outrage, which happened August 16th, was afterwards reenacted with variations. The Rev. Mr. Butler, undeterred by past experiences, visited Atchison again some months subsequent to his voyage on the Missouri, and fell into the clutches of a company just arrived from South Carolina, who were determined to put him out of the way. It was with the greatest difficulty that the South Carolinians could be prevailed upon to scale down the penalty from capital punishment to a coat of tar and feathers. They finally yielded, and the coat of tar and feathers was administered.

An elaborate pro-slavery reception awaited Governor Shannon on his arrival at Shawnee Mission September 3d. There was a speech by an orator, unsurpassed and unsurpassable in high-flying sentiment, who welcomed him to a land where "the gentle pressure of the hand attests the cordial welcome of the heart;" where no Catilines abound, "no lank and hungry Italians with their treacherous smiles, no cowards with their stilettos, no assassins of reputations." In this recovered Eden "the morning prayer is heard on every hill, the evening orison is chanted in every valley and glen." Doubtless the governor was glad to learn that rogues were scarce in Kansas, and that the squatters had such a penchant for praying. He was in accord with the optimism of the hour. Reported disturbances, like the misfortunes of Rev. Pardee Butler two weeks before, he believed to have been grossly exaggerated for partisan purposes. "There is no state in the Union where persons and property are more secure than in this territory." Whatever irregularities may have attended the election of the legislature, he contended that it has been duly recognized by the territorial executive and the president of the United States, and that its laws must be enforced. "I come amongst you," the governor said, "not as a mere adventurer to better his fortune and then return home, but as one desiring for himself and family a permanent location"

Governor Shannon fell into an unfortunate error at the beginning of his administration -- an error which he subsequently strove to correct -- in openly and exclusively affiliating with the Missouri party. He found that faction in complete possession of the government. Daniel Woodson, secretary of state, who acted as governor in the interval between Reeder's removal and Shannon's arrival, who signed the notorious laws of the first legislature -- a manageable sort of man, easily steered into any port -- was in favor with the pro-slavery party. They were indignant because President Pierce did not promote him to the governorship. For a time Shannon wholly resigned himself to Missouri influence and policy. He unwisely consented to preside at a convention of "the lovers of law and order," which assembled at Leavenworth November 14th, to formulate and publish to the world both their principles and their grievances. The conduct of "certain persons professing to be friends of human freedom" was denounced as "practical nullification, rebellion, and treason." The Topeka constitutional convention "would have been a farce if its purposes had not been treasonable." Any instrument which the Topeka government may present to Congress "ought to be scouted from its halls as an insult to its intelligence and an outrage upon our sovereign rights." Governor Shannon made a speech which was received with vociferous enthusiasm. "The president is behind you," he shouted; "the president is behind you." The convention, following the example of the meeting at Big Springs, formed a political party which was called the "law and order" party, and was expected to gather up all the pro-slavery elements of the territory. The 14th of November, said "The Kansas Herald" on the 17th, "will be a day long to be remembered, for the death-knell of the abolition, nullification, and revolutionary party was sounded."

But this mood of exultation soon passed away, and was followed by a sense of disquiet and apprehension. There began to be suspicions before long that no decisive victory had been gained when the legislature and the governor were captured. Free-state men managed to ignore the bulky statutes of Shawnee Mission. They discarded all the civil and legal machineries established by the legislature -- courts, justices of the peace, probate judges, registers of deeds -- and resorted to some make-shift. In Lawrence, deeds were recorded by a private citizen who acted without authority other than a vague, indefinite public consensus. Then these insurgents were consolidating into the unity of an efficient political organization, and that circumstance began to cloud the pro-slavery sunshine. Besides, there was the audacious Topeka movement, an amateur constitution drawing upon itself the eyes of the nation, rousing intense passions of friendship and hostility, and actually pushing through one house of Congress.

The Missouri border became eager to try more vigorous and summary measures in the treatment of territorial abolitionism than had thus far been prescribed, to substitute for the policy of legislating the Yankees out, the policy of wiping them out. In the indifferent, waning success of those milder expedients which culminated at the polls, and in the compilation of iron-clad statutes, public opinion steadily gravitated toward an aggressive root-and-branch policy as infolding larger buds of promise. Why not disperse the intruders and have a quick end of the foolishness? Lawrence, in particular, as the headquarters of sedition, had acquired an evil name that grew blacker with every turn of affairs favorable to the free-state cause. There came to be a general conviction that nothing less than the destruction of this opprobrious town would give peace and safety to the border, and naturally enough the passion to enter at once upon this heroic method of treating the case rose to an almost uncontrollable pitch. Only a pretext was needed to precipitate an attack, and the flimsiest would be accepted if nothing better offered.

A fatal claim-dispute, November 21st, 1855, at Hickory Point -- a settlement ten miles south of Lawrence -- furnished the coveted excuse for an appeal to arms. F. N. Coleman, a pro-slavery squatter, assassinated Charles M. Dow, a young neighbor of free-state proclivities, who made his home with old Jacob Branson. Dow was "a right peaceable man," said Branson; "a man that I thought as much of as any I ever got acquainted with."

Five days after the killing, an excited band of armed free-state men congregated about the spot crimsoned by Dow's blood to discuss under its dark inspiration measures of retribution. The assassin and his friends -- implicated more or less directly in the crime -- took alarm at the earliest signs of mischief and fled to Shawnee Mission. A proposition to fire their deserted cabins was discussed and rejected, though the adverse decision did not save them from being burnt down at night. The talk of the assembly befitted time and occasion.

It was the feverish talk of men profoundly stirred, but no plans of practical violence were adopted beyond the appointment of a vigilance committee, with instructions "to ferret out and bring the murderers and their accomplices to condign punishment." The committee exhibited more zeal than marksmanship in the discharge of their duties if Coleman may be credited. "I was not safe in traveling through the territory," he testified before the congressional investigating committee a few months after the homicide. "I had been shot at more than twenty times by men from Lawrence."

Old Branson is described as "an elderly man of most quiet and modest deportment," yet, according to the testimony of pro-slavery neighbors, whose evidence should be received with abatements, the butchery of his friend stirred him to great fluency of sanguinary talk. They report him as swearing mouth-filling oaths that a certain Harrison Buckley, who egged on the murder, "should not breathe the pure air three minutes," if he could once draw a bead upon him. Buckley, in real or simulated alarm for his life, procured a peace warrant for Branson's arrest, which was put into the hands of Samuel J. Jones, lately commissioned sheriff of Douglas County.

Sheriff Jones, a prominent figure in coming events, was a mixture of black and white that fairly represented the good and evil of the border -- a man of great energy, noise, violence, courage, and sincerity. He won his first partisan laurels at Bloomington polls on the 30th of March, when he succeeded in driving off two or three rather mettlesome and plucky election judges. That exploit gave him a very odious reputation in free-state circles.

At a late hour on the night of November 26th a loud, unceremonious thumping saluted Branson's cabin door. "Who's there?" shouted the old man. "Friends," was the reply. So urgent was the haste of these friends that they forced the door before they could be invited to come in. They told Branson to consider himself a prisoner, and to be very careful how he behaved. Slight indiscretions might lead to unfortunate results. Mrs. Branson ventured to inquire of the visitors by what authority they were pouncing upon her husband at dead of night, when her attention was called to a seven-shooter as a warrant singularly effective and constitutional. Jones pulled Branson out of bed, ordered him to put on his coat and trousers, mounted him on a sharp-backed mule, and set off for Lecompton via Lawrence.

News of the raid flew swiftly through the neighborhood. There was a hurried rally to overhaul Jones. On reaching Blanton he found Captain J. B. Abbott with fifteen men drawn across the road to dispute his passage. "What's up?" asked the sheriff. "That's what we want to know," Abbott growled. Pistols, squirrel-guns, Sharps rifles, were ready for business in a twinkling. One of Abbott's men, in the absence of better armament, provided himself with two large stones and proposed to play the part of a catapult against the enemy. But, notwithstanding the warlike aspect of affairs, volleys of words were the deadliest missiles exchanged. "Come out of that," somebody among the rescuers shouted to Branson, and out of it he came.

Abbott and his men hurried to Lawrence, where they arrived early in the morning. They halted at Dr. Robinson's house on Mt. Oread. "I shall never forget the appearance of the men," Mrs. Robinson wrote, "in simple citizen's dress, some armed and some unarmed, standing in unbroken line, just visible in the breaking light of a November morning. The little band of less than twenty men had ... walked ten miles since nine o'clock of the previous evening. Mr. Branson, a large man, of fine proportions, stood a little forward of the line, with his head slightly bent, which an old straw hat hardly protected from the cold, looking as though in his hurry of departure from home he took whatever came first."

Now that the rescuers had succeeded in their enterprise, they began to fear that it might lead to serious consequences, and the visit to Dr. Robinson was for explanation and advice. S. N. Wood, who acted as spokesman, narrated the events of the night. "Now what shall we do?" he asked in conclusion. "I am afraid the affair will make mischief'" Robinson replied. "The other side will seize upon it as a pretext for invading the territory. Go down to the town and call a meeting at eight o'clock."

The meeting was called, and after the circumstances of the rescue had been set forth by Wood and Branson, Robinson led off in a speech, outlining the policy which was subsequently pursued -- disavowal of all responsibility in the matter, dispatch of the men who were implicated out of town without delay, and adoption of a strictly defensive attitude. Conway, G. P. Lowrey, and others followed in the same strain. A committee of safety was appointed and clothed with authority to take such measures of precaution as the emergency might require.

Upon losing his prisoner, Sheriff Jones rode to Franklin distraught betwixt conflicting emotions of rage and exultation. The success of the Yankees exasperated him, yet in that success he foresaw a sure dawn of day for the pro-slavery cause -- foresaw the overthrow of Lawrence and the approach of that millennial period when he would "corral all the abolitionists and make pets of them."

Jones hastened to send missives from Franklin to his friends in Missouri calling for help. It soon occurred to him that appeals to Missouri might have a queer look, and couriers were sent to Governor Shannon with an exaggerated account of the troubles. In the judgment of Jones, it would require a force of three thousand men to deal effectually with the traitors of Douglas County and avenge the affronts offered to justice. The governor caught the sheriffs outlaw-crushing furor, and unhesitatingly ordered militia officers to collect as large a force as possible and march at once to Lawrence. Nobody, whether sheriff, militia general, or governor, thought it necessary to communicate with that town, to ask explanations or make demands. It was not a word and a blow, but a blow without the word.

Kansas volunteers did not respond in any large numbers to the governor's summons. The town of Franklin furnished a company led by Captain Leak -- a commander with unhappy, though not disqualifying antecedents. "Mr. Leak," in the words of a resident of Franklin, "was a traveling gambler -- he told me so himself." Other towns in the territory furnished contingents, but probably the whole number of Kansans did not exceed fifty. The great mass of invaders came from Missouri. They straggled along in detached parties toward Lawrence, armed with every variety of weapons from rusty flint-locks and old-fashioned horse-pistols to modern rifles, until twelve or fifteen hundred of them were concentrated in the vicinity -- encamping for the most part on the Wakarusa, a small affluent of the Kansas River -- an unwashed, braggart, volcanic. They laid the surrounding country under contribution, overhauled travelers, rifled cabins, fired hay-stacks, seized horses and cattle -- in a word, filled the region with confusion as an overture to letting slip fiercer dogs of war.

The militia generals, who responded to Shannon's call with frolicsome alacrity that befitted a pleasure jaunt, grew sober on reaching Lawrence. It was found that the committee of safety had developed an embarrassing amount of defensive energy. The chief command they intrusted to Dr. Robinson, with the rank of major-general, though he had never seen military service. To Lane they assigned a second rank. His practical war-record would naturally have claimed the first, but the committee, in the grave and critical juncture, did not dare to risk a frothy, pictorial, unballasted leadership. Five small forts covered the approaches to the town, within the lines of which some six hundred men -- large reinforcements having arrived from neighboring villages -- drilled incessantly. Two hundred of these men were armed with Sharps rifles -- a vexatious circumstance that gave the Missourians pause. A fresh installment of them -- the first reached Lawrence a few weeks after the March election was received just as hostilities began. "I have only time to thank you and the friends who sent us the Sharpe's rifles," Dr. Robinson wrote A. A. Lawrence December 4th, "for they ... will give us the victory without firing a shot."

General Eastin, editor of the pro-slavery "Kansas Herald," reconnoitred Lawrence and advised Governor Shannon that "the outlaws were well fortified," that an assault upon them would be at heavy cost. He counseled recourse to the - federal troops at Fort Leavenworth. His communication excited alarm at Shawnee Mission. Governor Shannon, who had viewed the whole matter as a mere bagatelle, requested permission of the authorities at Washington to employ United States soldiers in the emergency. He also urged Colonel E. V. Sumner, in command at Fort Leavenworth, to march for the scene of disturbance without awaiting orders. This request Sumner declined to comply with, but suggested that the great mob enveloping Lawrence should be made to understand it must confine itself wholly to defensive operations -- a hint which was promptly acted on. The War Department placed the garrison of Fort Leavenworth at Shannon's service, but Colonel Sumner refused to move until orders reached him from Washington.

If the besiegers outside of the town found themselves harassed by unexpected and increasing difficulties, the besieged inside of it were not free from perplexities. The influx of reinforcements taxed the commissariat very heavily. Whoever possessed supplies of food or clothing found himself uncomfortably circumstanced. The expression on the faces of tradesmen as they distributed their goods among the soldiery in exchange for worthless scrip was like lamplight glimmering on the wall of a sepulchre. There was a general observance of order and decorum. Most citizens made a virtue of necessity and contributed freely what otherwise must have been rudely confiscated. In a single instance a little outbreak of violence occurred -- expending itself in the sack of a small tailor's shop. One night during the siege, according to the story of a clerk, "about twenty men, armed with revolvers," invaded the premises and extinguished the lamp by firing a tobacco-box at it. "Before I could light a candle,"the clerk continued, "everything in the store was taken off the shelves and carried away." An Ohio woman who had the misfortune to keep a hotel -- the Cincinnati House -- in Lawrence during the impecunious era of the siege, wrote a few days after its close: "It looked strange ... to see the streets paraded from morning till night by men in military array; to see them toil day and night throwing up intrenchments; to see them come in to their meals each with his gun in hand and sometimes bringing it to the table.... How we toiled to feed the multitudes, seldom snatching a moment to look out upon the strange scenes -- often asking, 'What are the prospects to-day?' -- or at midnight as, worn and weary, we sought the pillow, discussing such themes as these ... -- 'There's prospect of an attack to-night.' 'The guard has been doubled, and we are all vigilance.'" ...

The sobriety of affairs in Lawrence induced the committee of safety to open communications with Governor Shannon. G. P. Lowrey and C. W. Babcock set out at one o'clock on the morning of December 6th for Shawnee Mission. Near Franklin they encountered a picket-guard, and were ordered to advance and give the countersign. "We got the cork out of the only countersign we had as soon as possible, and that passed us." The commissioners soon stumbled upon another batch of sentinels. "Where are you going?" they demanded. "Things are getting dangerous hereabouts," said Babcock, "and I've made up my mind to scoot for Illinois." "Abolitionists scared in Lawrence, eh? Don't believe we can let you pass." After some discussion it was agreed that the officer in command, who turned out to be the traveling gambler, Captain Leak, should be consulted. This worthy was reported asleep, but it was a sort of sleep which the most energetic shaking, permitted by a very lax military etiquette, could not break, and his valuable advice was inaccessible. The commissioners managed to pacify the guard and worry through the lines. In general, the Missourians were talkative and expressed their opinions unreservedly. Some of them fumed over reports that the Lawrence had substituted a red flag for the Stars and Stripes. Some gloried in the ruin about to fall on the abolition stronghold -- a ruin that would not leave one stone upon another. Others cursed Reeder as the author of all the trouble "We must have his head even if we have to go to Pennsylvania after it."

Lowley and Babcock found Governor Shannon in ill humor. He roundly denounced free-state men -- charged them with driving from the territory settlers who were politically obnoxious and firing their cabins, and with displaying a startling spirit of insubordination and rebellion by their resistance to territorial officers and their nullification of territorial laws. The delegation from Lawrence contended that the governor had been deceived; that Lawrence was no more responsible for the rescue of Branson than for the precession of the equinoxes; that the question of territorial legislation did not enter into present complications, and that he was beating about in heavy fogs of ignorance and misapprehension concerning the facts out of which they rose. "I shall go to Lawrence," said Shannon, "and insist upon the people agreeing to obey the laws and delivering up their Sharps rifles." "We have not resisted the laws," the commissioners retorted. "As to the rifles nobody would be safe in going before our people with any proposition to deliver them up. If you have such an idea you had better stay away and let the fight go on."

For the first time suspicions began to haunt Shannon that he might have been misled by his Missouri advisers. The shrewdness, poise, and quickness to detect an opponent's weak points displayed among the outlaws, whose intelligence he had put at a paltry valuation, astonished Shannon. They ought to have scattered like a flock of affrighted birds at the first rustle of danger instead of digging trenches, learning the manual of arms, and discovering an embarrassing skill in diplomacy.

The governor, on his arrival at the Wakarusa camp, found the militia, excited by whiskey and ignorant of free-state strength, clamoring for permission to attack the town. He spared no efforts to discourage their frenzy. In this movement he was heartily and effectively seconded by Atchison. "But for his mediatorial offices," said Butler, of South Carolina, speaking in the Senate March 5th, 1856, vaguely and imperfectly comprehending the ugly dilemma in which the over-hasty Missourians found themselves, "the homes of Lawrence would have been burned and the streets drenched with blood." Senator Butler thought that these kind offices were very inadequately appreciated. But let the ingrates beware. "If ever D. R. Atchison shall pass the line again and say as Caesar did, 'I have passed the Rubicon and now I draw the sword,' I should dread the contest."

Shannon visited Lawrence December 7th, in company with prominent Missourians, to prosecute negotiations for peace. Robinson and Lane received the visitors in behalf of the citizens and of the committee of safety. The interview completely undeceived Shannon. Now the pressing question was not how to disperse free-state outlaws, but how, without an explosion, to disperse the Missourians, whom the governor called "a pack of hyenas." To accomplish this he urged the representatives of Lawrence to be as generous as possible in the matter of concessions. A treaty was concluded, astutely designed to bear more than one interpretation -- a treaty in which contradictory phrases shouldered and jostled each other, but which succeeded amidst the confusion in informing the Missourians that the governor "has not called upon persons residents of any other state to aid in the execution of the laws, and such as are here in this territory are here of their own choice."

Governor Shannon called a meeting of the Missouri commanders at Franklin. They were not consulted about the treaty, and knew nothing of its tenor. With the exception of Atchison, who did not relish the pass to which matters had come and declined to attend, the principal military men were present. Shannon insisted that Robinson and Lane should accompany him to Franklin, and aid him in sugar-coating the unpalatable treaty. The governor led off in a long talk, and rehearsed the details of the campaign. Lane followed, but had hardly spoken half a-dozen sentences when some arrogance of manner or impolicy of language gave offense, and the sensitive gentry began to pick up their hats and revolvers. "Wait a minute," Shannon interposed, "and hear what Dr. Robinson has to say." Robinson succeeded in getting the attention of the restless audience, while he expounded the unreason of the demand, so popular among Missourians, that free state men should surrender their Sharps rifles. They had a constitutional right to bear arms. You, gentlemen, in your own case, would not for an instant tolerate the impertinence of such a claim. Further, Lawrence was not a party to the assault upon Jones. What is more, Lawrence has never resisted the service of a legal writ. "Is that so, Mr. Sheriff?" a militia colonel broke in. The sheriff could not deny the statement. "Then we have been damnably deceived," said the colonel.

The inevitable must be accepted, and the baffled Missourians swore with a lighter accent than might have been expected. Sheriff Jones was disgusted at the turn of affairs. Hopes of a future opportunity to settle with the abolitionists gave him a little comfort. "I'll get up another scrape," he said, "if I'm opposed in executing the laws. No old granny shall stop me next time.

Atchison did not remit his efforts for peace. "The position of General Robinson is impregnable," he said in a speech to the disgusted invaders, "not in a military point of view, but his tactics have given him all the advantage as to the cause of quarrel. If you attack Lawrence now, you attack it as a mob, and what would be the result? You would cause the election of an abolition president and the ruin of the Democratic party. Wait a little. You cannot now destroy these people without losing more than you would gain."

Saturday, December 8th, the pleasant weather so -- mild that many soldiers on both sides were in summer clothing -- suddenly changed into winter. In the evening a tremendous sleet-storm set in and extinguished among the Missourians whatever ardor for fighting may have survived the frosty articles of peace. They retired sullenly, carrying three "dead bodies -- one killed by the falling of a tree, one shot by the guard accidentally, and one killed in some sort of a quarrel." The victory of Lawrence was complete -- a bloodless victory won by strategy.

A single voice was raised in solemn and public protest against the peace. After the treaty and its stipulations had become known; after speeches of felicitation on the happy subsidence of perils that threatened to engulf the settlement in ruin had been made, an unknown man -- tall, slender, angular; his face clean-shaved, sombre, strongly lined, of Puritan tone and configuration; his blue- gray eyes honest, inexorable; strange, unworldly intensities enveloping him like an atmosphere -- mounted a dry-goods box and began to denounce the treaty as an attempt to gain by foolish, uncomprehending make-shift what could be compassed only by the shedding of blood. Since that day the name of this unknown man, plucked down from the dry-goods box with his speech mostly unspoken, has filled the post-horns of the world -- Old John Brown.

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