Section #18 - After harsh political debates the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision fails to resolve slavery
Chapter 203: Open Warfare Breaks Out Across Kansas
May 21, 1856
Pro-Slavery Forces Sack The Town Of Lawrence
One day after Sumner delivers his “Crimes In Kansas” speech, another turning point occurs in the saga of the territory, this time in the Free State capital of Lawrence.
At the center of this incident is Samuel Jones, Sheriff of Douglas County. Jones is a Virginian by birth who emigrates to Westport, Missouri in 1854 at age thirty-five years to become postmaster. He favors opening up Kansas as a Slave State, and joins the Border Ruffians in stealing the congressional seat election on March 30, 1855. Along with Samuel Lecompte – President Pierce’s choice as Chief Justice of the territory’s Supreme Court — Jones co-founds the town of Lecompton, and opens an initially prosperous lumber and saw milling operation there.
In September 1855, he is appointed Sheriff of Douglas County by the Pro-Slavery legislature. His domain includes Lawrence, where he is christened the “bogus Sheriff” by townspeople, who repeatedly threaten him, as in this message signed by the “Secret Twelve:”
Sheriff Jones—You are notified that if you make one more arrest by the order of any magistrate appointed by the Kansas Bogus Legislature, that in so doing you will sign your own Death Warrant. Per order. SECRET TWELVE
In turn a Free State posse abducts his prisoner on the way to jail, provoking the Wakarusa War incident in November 1855. In April 1856 he is twice pummeled by mobs and then suffers a gunshot wound in the back while trying to make arrests in Lawrence.
On May 15, 1856, tension rises when Free State Governor Charles Robinson is jailed in response to warrants issued by Judge Lecompte.
On May 21, Jones returns to Lawrence to make additional arrests, only this time he arrives on the scene with a force of 700 men, some Federal militia and others pro-slavery marauders itching for a battle. To signal their determination, they haul four cannon to the scene.
Confronted with this overwhelming firepower, the residents of Lawrence allow U.S. Deputy Marshal Fain to enter the town and carry out his duties peacefully. Having completed his assignment, the head of the Federal militia dismisses his men from duty – which leaves Sheriff Jones and the remaining pro-slavery gang in place.
This is their chance to wreak havoc on Lawrence and they take it. They sweep into town and turn their attention first to the offices of the two leading opposition newspapers, the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State. Both are torn apart, with their presses and type dumped in the Kansas River.
The Free State Hotel, headquarters of the resistance movement, is next, with the four cannon lined up facing the building and ex-U.S. Senator David Atchison directing the fire. When the structure walls survive, kegs of powder are piled inside and the building is burned to the ground.
General looting follows along with the destruction of the home of Charles and Sarah Robinson. Robinson himself is already in jail, having been arrested on May 10 and charged with treason for his role as the Free Stater’s chosen Governor of Kansas.
As the invaders depart, Sheriff Sam Jones is said to exclaim:
This is the happiest day of my life, I assure you.
John Brown Takes Revenge In His Potawatomie Massacre
With the town of Lawrence still in shambles from the Pro-Slavery assault, the Old Testament abolitionist, John Brown, responds with an eye for an eye.
Brown is fifty-six years old when he moves in October 1856 from his home in New Elba, New York to Potawatomie Creek, Kansas, to join several of his sons in the crusade against slavery. He regards this as his personal destiny, having “consecrated his life” to the cause back in 1837 in response to the murder of Elijah Lovejoy.
His business and family affairs are marked for years by grievous losses, but these only affirm his belief that the Lord has a great purpose still in store for him – namely to lead a black army crusade in the South to kill plantation owners and free the slaves. He will regard this as an act of “honorable violence.”
But first he is called upon to avenge the sack of Lawrence.
Along with four of his sons Brown sets out on the night of May 24, 1856 after two main targets – a member of the Pro-Slavery legislature named Allen Wilkinson, and another man, “Dutch Henry” Sherman.
In their search for Wilkinson, they arrive first at the home of one James Doyle, a pro-slavery man living in Potawatomie. His wife Mahala describes what happens next:
Mahala sixteen year old son, John, adds more gory details to the account:
James Doyle is shot to death and his two older sons, William and Drury have been hacked to death with broadswords by the time Brown and his men leave their farm. But that much bloodshed is not enough.
After killing the three Doyles, the search continues for Allen Wilkinson, a member of the pro slavery “Bogus Legislature.” Brown’s band arrives at his home after midnight, and haul him out of bed. His wife, Louisa Jane, provides the rest of the story:
Four are now dead, but the savagery continues into the morning of May 25.
Their attention now turns to “Dutch Henry” Sherman, and in searching for him, they arrive at the home of James Harris, who evidently lives nearby. Around 2AM on May 25, Harris is awakened by John Brown and his son, Owen, both of whom he recognizes. The Brown’s ask Harris as to the whereabouts of “Dutch Henry” Sherman, and then interrogate three other men who are guests at the house. One of them happens to be William Sherman, Henry’s brother, and that seals his fate.
James Harris provides the following testimony on the proceedings:
As brutal as these attacks are, Brown is able to dismiss them as “righteous” in their intent. As he later says:
It is better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should live on.
Others are not so dismissive.
Up to the night of May 24-25, the actual death toll in Kansas has been minor. One man is killed during the Wakarusa War incident, and one dies in the raid on Lawrence, struck by a falling brick.
Thus the killing of Brown’s five victims, accompanied by the gruesome character of their wounds and a certain sense of randomness to their fate, seems different to those on both sides – almost a signal that prior restraints need no longer apply to future confrontations.
June 2, 1856
The Violence Continues At The Battle Of Black Jack
The Potawatomie murders seem to reflect John Brown’s rage over the accumulated humiliations suffered by his anti-slavery camp. Lawrence is helpless against Sheriff Jones’ marauders on May 21; Sumner cannot defend himself against Brooks on May 22; Free State “Governor” Charles Robinson is arrested on May 24, while “Senator” Reeder flees for his own safety.
Brown calls Robinson “a perfect old woman” and the Topeka legislature “more talk than cider.” Potawatomie is his message that the weakness cannot go on:
We must show by actual work that there are two sides to this thing and that they can not go on with this impunity,
Robinson views the act differently, saying that the massacre will simply give Governor Shannon another excuse to call in more federal troops against the Free Staters – and indeed that is what he does.
But Brown is undeterred by the criticism, and organizes his Potawatomie Rifles Brigade to pursue the fight. His next target is U.S. Deputy Marshal H.C. Pate, who also serves in the territorial militia and who participated in the assault on Lawrence. In seeking to arrest Brown for his murders, Pate arrests two of his sons – John Jr. and Jason. Brown intends to free them.
On June 2, Pate and a band of some two dozen men are camped at Black Jack, twenty miles south of Lawrence, along Captain’s Creek.
They are attacked there shortly before dawn by Brown and Captain Samuel Shore’s brigade. A pitched battle ensues, lasting for upwards of three hours, It ends when Brown slips several men into Pate’s rear, convincing him that reinforcements have appeared from Lawrence, and that he is surrounded. In response, he raises a white flag and surrenders along with twenty-three of his men. During the skirmish four of Brown’s men are wounded in action.
Brown proceeds to draft a formal “Article of Agreement” which calls for an exchange of prisoners: Brown’s two sons in return for Pate and his lieutenant, W. B. Brocket. Both sides sign and the battle is over.
Some historians will later refer to this engagement at Black Jack as the “opening battle in the Civil War.”
For Governor Shannon it is one more signal that events are out of control in Kansas, and that he is out of answers on restoring order.