Section #16 - Open warfare in “Bloody Kansas” follows fraudulent election wins for Pro-Slave State forces
Chapter 193: The “Wakarusa War” Presages Greater Violence To Come In Kansas
The Two Camps In Kansas Prepare For Open Warfare
In parallel with their efforts to form their “legitimate government,” the Free Staters also ready themselves to go to war with the Missouri men if need be.
Their preparations begin early in 1855 with the formation of the “Kansas Legion,” another secret order with members whose members wear black ribbons and who define their mission as:
First, to secure to Kansas the blessing and prosperity of being a Free State; and secondly, to protect the ballot box from the leprous touch of unprincipled men.
Securing the armaments needed for potential combat is a priority for the Free State men, and they send James Abbott, an early New England Emigrant Aid Society transplant, back east to contact Eli Thayer for help. Ironically two abolitionist preachers, Henry Ward Beecher and Thomas Higginson, respond with a shipment of 117 Sharp’s rifles, crated up in boxes, marked “Bibles,” and sent west – along with one 12 lb. howitzer, canister and fused shells.
The eastern press hears of this move and christens the cargo “Beecher’s Bibles.”
At the same time, the Pro-Slavery forces are also preparing for battle. On October 3, 1855, they organize a “Law and Order” posse dedicated to putting down “treason” in Kansas. In mid November they meet in Leavenworth, with Governor Shannon present, to plot their strategies.
Both sides are now prepared to win through violence.
November 21, 1855
A Dispute Over A Land Claim Lights The Fuse
The bloodshed begins on November 21, when Charles Dow is murdered by Franklin Coleman in Hickory Point, Kansas, setting off what becomes known as the “Wakarusa War.”
The motive for murder is not about slavery, but rather a heated dispute between the two neighbors over ownership of a 250 yard strip of land adjacent to their homes. The weapon is a shotgun, which leaves Dow bleeding to death in town, while Coleman retreats to his home to await arrest for his act.
Dow happens to be a Free State backer, and his friend, Jacob Branson, collects his body and has it buried. He then organizes a Free State “committee of vigilance” meeting on November 26 to decide how to avenge the death. A posse is formed to capture Coleman, but it ends up burning down his house after learning he has fled to Missouri.
When Branson returns home, he is arrested by Sheriff Samuel Jones for “disturbing the peace.”
As Jones tries to take Branson to jail, he encounters a band of Branson’s Free State friends who threaten violence to gain his release. Jones responds with restraint by surrendering Branson, who returns to Lawrence and the safety of Charles Robinson’s home.
From there, tensions mount quickly. Sheriff Jones informs Governor Shannon of Branson’s abduction. Shannon responds by calling out the territorial militia and issuing a public plea for help to restore law and order. The public response is more than the Governor bargains for, as roughly 1500 Pro-Slavery Missourians show up, all eager to attack the town of Lawrence and kill Branson along with his backers.
December 8, 1855
The “Wakarusa War” Is Resolved By Cooler Heads
The Missouri raiders assemble their main camp below the Wakarusa River, running west to east, just south of Lawrence, and prepare for a siege by establishing blockades along all roads into town.
Free State defenders inside Lawrence prepare a series of circular earthen forts, some seven feet high and one hundred feet across, along with connecting trenches and other rifle pits. They are commanded by James Henry Lane, who begins to earn his lasting nickname as “The Grim Chieftan.”
As the siege begins, so too do negotiations involving Governor Shannon and both sides.
Violence is avoided until the afternoon of December 6, when three perhaps unwitting Free State riders are stopped on a road leading to their homes, and interrogated as to their intentions. After guns are drawn, two men escape, but a third, named Thomas Barber, is killed by the Missourians.
Word of Barber’s death reaches Governor Shannon, who now fears that his militia units will be unable to stem a full out assault on Lawrence by the Pro-Slavery troops.
To forestall more bloodshed, Shannon meets both sides between the evening of December 6 and December 8, to work out a peaceful settlement. Here he enjoys a moment of success when an agreement is signed by ex-Senator David Atchison, Charles Robinson and James Lane. Its content is relatively anodyne: in exchange for no longer harboring Jacob Branson from prosecution (even though he has already left town), the government will lift the siege and not hold the citizens of Lawrence in contempt of the law.
For those in Lawrence, the outcome is regarded as a victory – and a gala ball is held to celebrate. Their city is intact; the Pro-Slavery forces have backed away; and the slain Thomas Barber will not have died in vain. To insure their future protection, Governor Shannon, perhaps inebriated at the time, has also authorized the Free Staters to form their own protective militia, something he will later regret.
The response among most of the Border Ruffians is the exact opposite. Not only have they been deprived of the military victory they prepared for at Lawrence, but both Jacob Branson and the Free State “nullifiers” have escaped without punishment. David Atchison, who signed the accord, defends his action by saying that a slaughter would have built sympathy in the North for a Free Kansas, and forced Washington to take a closer look at the legitimacy of the Pro-Slavery election wins.
Following the anti-climactic “Wakarusa War,” a momentary lull descends on Kansas, with the next act on the horizon being the December 15, 1856 vote on the Topeka Constitution and the Black Exclusion clause.
Sidebar: John Brown Writes About The Wakarusa War
One figure who misses out on the action in Lawrence is the fiery abolitionist, John Brown, who moves to Kansas in October 1855 to join three of his sons in fighting on behalf of the Free Staters. Brown settles at the town of Pottawatomie Creek, some 50 miles south of Lawrence. When he learns of the pending siege, he heads toward the conflict, only to arrive after the truce is negotiated. He writes the following account of the episode to his wife and other children, still living in North Elba, New York.