Race and Radicalism in the Union Army
By Mark A. Lause
University of Illinois Press
Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Shadow of John Brown
John Brown and other abolitionists, black and white, discussed many questions beyond slavery. William Addison Phillips remembered that, among those who knew him, Brown openly criticized the nation's "forms of social and political life." He "condemned the sale of land as chattel" and "thought society ought to be organized on a less selfish basis; for, while material interests gained something by the deification of pure selfishness, men and women lost much by it." According to one of his sons, Brown's "favorite theme was that of the Community plan of cooperative industry, in which all should labor for the common good; 'having all things in common' as did the disciples of Jesus in his day." At one point, Brown and his men imagined what they called the "State of Topeka," a utopia in which neither race nor gender barred citizenship and equal rights; its logo was the image of a black man with a cannon and sword over the slogan "Justice to all Mankind." In extraordinary circumstances, such a vision helped to detonate and shape a crisis national in scope, global in its implications, and expansive in its possibilities.
Phillips and others who would later face the Confederates at Honey Springs in 1863 had brought west with them a view of "free labor" as more than the absence of chattel slavery. Their activities in Kansas grew not only from their moral opposition to slavery but from their fear of its effects on the American republic, which inspired John Brown and others to take direct action against slavery and the proslavery authorities. Conversely, contemporary elites sought the social, economic, and political development of the territory, as quickly and profitably as possible, replicating the standards of white civilization. Simply excluding slavery from the territory, then, could not have resolved the tensions underlying "Bleeding Kansas."
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As the battleground in a national struggle over resources, Kansas paradoxically had little to offer early settlers. On the edge of what had long been regarded as "the Great American Desert," development there faced formidable obstacles of geography and climate. The introduction of capitalism, particularly coincident with a national economic depression, meant that most of the settlers would remain economically marginalized for some time. The specific attempt to introduce slavery into the territory made Kansas the flashpoint for what was becoming a national crisis.
After six years of white settlement, Kansas averaged a bit more than one person per parched, windswept square mile, reaching a population only about a quarter that of Arkansas and a tenth that of Missouri. Most residents huddled in isolated little cabins or crude dugouts along with their dogs, pigs, and chickens. The proportion of females had only begun to approach that in the states, and only around a tenth of the overall population exceeded the age of forty-five. Almost all the towns on the map amounted to no more than a few buildings over a wide spot on an ungraded trail. Only Leavenworth, Atchison, and Lawrence topped a few thousand residents, and even well-known towns such as Fort Scott or Moneka numbered its residents in the hundreds. The seasonal passage of the legislature through Topeka overtaxed the capacity for housing in not only the capital but also the surrounding towns. Few were as well off as Augustus Wattles, who hosted John Brown and his men in a little structure at Moneka that could barely seat a dozen adults. Overall, about a quarter of the whites who went to Kansas abandoned the territory, and "hard times" left another quarter of them bogged in a barter economy. In practical terms, most who went west to better their lot had certainly not done so.
Fundamental problems defied rapid development. The territory had so little timber that construction usually required importing lumber at great cost. Commerce choked on poor transportation and a circulation medium clogged by the paper promissory notes of the "wildcat" banks, the value of which deflated with the Panic of 1857. The gold rush to Pike's Peak in 1858 drew thousands farther west. Plagued with bitter winters and broiling summers, Kansans faced particularly brutal conditions with a drought, lasting from the fall of 1859 into the fall of 1860. July drove temperatures as high as 132 degrees, and September 1860 brought a plague of grasshoppers. More than politics seemed to conjure biblical imagery.
The most ambitious and influential gentlemen brought west the aspirations, ideas, and values of the antebellum states. Entrepreneurs positioned a few logs as an "enclosure" and then used claims of improvements in lieu of currency, thus establishing "towns" that made money through real estate speculations even though they existed only on paper. Increased land prices in turn helped to exclude the landless from access to the soil, creating a class of wage earners. Speculators made inroads into tribal lands and agitated for the negation of Indian claims. The new patriarchs of Kansas explicitly restricted citizenship to "white" male residents.
Even among white men, though, the cherished American image of an egalitarian West required very selective memories. Settlement replicated familiar social structures and hierarchies, and the human material for this replication tended to come from neither the utterly impoverished nor the largely successful, such as Horace Greeley, who freely advised young men to go west but had little incentive to move there themselves. The process created opportunities at the top for some of humbler origins, generating anecdotes of upward mobility mistakenly embraced as representative, while the relative standing of most would remain unchanged or even worsen.
Specific political conditions shaped another set of obstacles to any egalitarian future for the territory. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the region to the possibility that those Americans who could afford it might establish their legal right to own other people. Struggling to maintain its dominance in national affairs, the Democratic Party grappled with new "Southern rights" arguments asserting the universal legality of slavery, which moved other Democratic leaders to propose a "squatter sovereignty," leaving the matter to the settlers in the territories. Thereafter, though, the stability of the party required demonstrating to the Southern faction that this new doctrine could bring Kansas into the Union as a state that sanctioned human slavery.
Those who emerged at the top in this process of replicating "civilization" justified the outcome and the process. A contemporary novelist depicted the explanation of one such apologist: "the weak are made to serve the strong in the same manner that the little fish serve the big ones, the bugs the birds, the bird, the hawks, and they in turn serve us." Certainly, some slaveholders believed that the natural world—human nature—mandated hierarchy and slavery, which justified the imposition of a nonrepresentative proslavery territorial government by force of arms.
Sectional tensions framed the development of Kansas. In November 1854 a population with only 1,114 legitimately resident voters cast 2,871 ballots, and in March 1855 officials tallied 6,320 votes in a territory with only 2,892 possible voters. Based on such returns, the federal authorities ascribed legitimacy to what the "free-staters"—settlers from the nonslave-holding states—called "the bogus legislature" at Shawnee Mission, which hoped to bring the territory to statehood with slavery. Essentially, the Democratic administrations had to secure the unity of the party and the nation by demonstrating to southern elites that "squatter sovereignty" could establish slavery in Kansas.
Hostile paramilitary groups took the field in Kansas, sanctioned by an alleged proslavery majority actively supported by the federal government. They named themselves the "Social Band," the "Friends' Society," or the "Sons of the South," but their victims believed they acted at the command of a centralized leadership in the three-degree "blue lodges" associated with the Southern Jurisdiction of Scottish Rite freemasonry. Then, too, many would-be filibusteros patrolled the territory, their organization variously attributed to the Order of the Lone Star or the Knights of the Golden Circle. All offered a romanticized and abstract ideal of Southern rights and comradeship with prominent Southern leaders. Such veteran Indian fighters and freebooters set the tone for the participation of those whose legacies of political terrorism and violence would haunt the West for years, individuals such as the Missouri slave traders and businessmen Jo Shelby and Thomas R. Livingston or the Ohio schoolteacher turned horse thief William C. Quantrill.
Political violence in Kansas grew naturally from interest in expansionism, which unified Southern Democrats in a way it never quite did for Northern elites. Charles Robinson—leader of the free-staters in Kansas—noted that earlier, in California, he faced Ben McCulloch, the Texas Ranger and future Confederate general. Florida's "Colonel" Harry Titus counted as another "chief pillar and ornament" of the early territorial government; his career included filibustering adventures against Cuba and Nicaragua. A society free of slavery may develop rigid social hierarchies sustained by bodies of armed men and a corrupting political system, but the presence of "the peculiar institution" and the need to defend it by any means virtually mandates these features.
No less than the proslavery forces, the free-staters—who favored the organization of a state without slavery—looked to people with prior political leadership, such as Charles Robinson. During the California gold rush, settlers angry over "land monopoly" formed armed bands of squatters that confronted the authorities in the streets of Sacramento before launching the Settlers' League, which became active for many years in local and state politics. A Massachusetts-born sympathizer wounded during the Sacramento squatters' uprising, Robinson thought the fighting in California had foreshadowed that in Kansas in several respects. The titular head of the "Topeka movement," he later became the first free-state governor of Kansas.
Even more important, James H. Lane, a Democratic politician from Indiana, seized the opportunity Kansas presented to remake himself. Although he had long repeated white supremacist arguments about African Americans and had favored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the "Grim Chieftain" made a frighteningly smooth transition into a free-state spokesman. As did other radicals, Phillips found Robinson increasingly too conservative, though still "a man you can honor for his ability without feeling ashamed of his character." In contrast, Phillips liked what Lane said but alternately "admired him, and again shrank from him with the conviction that the public interest could never be safely entrusted with him."
The logic of seeking and holding public office would leave participants more concerned with "development" than with mapping out social changes. As in any settlement, the civil and military authorities exercised power through institutions that had grown from the specific needs of a ruling class or dominant elite. Under most circumstances, these factors permit shifts to resolve contradictions endemic to the dynamics of a changing society. The mid-nineteenth-century American republic, however, experienced two related problems. First, clashes among these authorities reflected an unprecedented crisis in the coherence of the ruling elites and their institutions; second, an ideology of American republicanism had introduced a usually minor factor in such considerations: the aspirations of ordinary people unwilling to accept the status quo.
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While western settlement replicated time-honored structures and values, it also imported dissenting traditions and frequently drew disproportionately from those discontented with the old order back east. Phillips thought settlement drew "a class of thinkers to the territory, who are, of all others, the worst to manage." Perhaps nowhere did they constitute so prominent and influential a proportion of settlers as in Kansas. The Vegetarian Settlement Company, socialist German Turners, and others attempted to establish colonies in the territory, and freethinkers organized a library to combat the influence of religious denominations. Opponents equated temperance with abolitionism, because a vocal hostility to alcohol seemed so characteristic of settlers from the free states.
Political abolitionism played an understandably critical role in Kansas, largely because it had, over the previous decade, embraced a broadening set of other concerns and fostered a much wider antislavery political movement. The Liberty Party had started in 1839 with a single-issue condemnation of southern slavery and began building a wider constituency with a "broad platform" that officially or informally expanded to include a spectrum of antebellum reform ideas, including a quasi-socialist notion of land reform. Particularly after 1846, critics of slavery, regardless of strategic differences, tended to share a sense that the institution not only constituted a gross injustice to the slaves but undermined republican values and the dignity of free labor. Political antislavery attained more successes, and in the wake of the Mexican War, the new Free-Soil party entered national politics in the 1848 elections.
The popular agitation for radical land reform by northern "lacklanders" introduced a cause that brought vast numbers of whites into conflict with "Slave Power," which stood in the way of their personal and collective hopes for success. Rooted in the working-class politics that had episodically erupted in New York for years, the National Reform Association (NRA) had begun its work around "the land question" in 1844 and within two years began regularly collaborating with sections of the abolitionist movement, particularly the one headed by Gerrit Smith, John Brown's benefactor. By 1852 the NRA had inspired as many as a quarter of a million Americans to sign petitions for a series of radical "Agrarian" measures, including the establishment of a legal limitation on individual land ownership. Among the most radical of the abolitionists, Smith envisioned a broad but explicitly abolitionist coalition embracing the Germans, particularly "such of them as breathed the revolutionary spirit of 1848," and the Agrarianists, since "every real land reformer is an abolitionist."
As early as 1850 midwestern land reformers imagined Kansas to be a reasonable testing ground for free-soil politics. Relentlessly pushed by the demands of western development, as well as those of eastern social reformers, Congress reluctantly passed the Homestead Bill, inspiring the NRA to undertake the largest nationally coordinated petition drive in American history to date (1850–52). The Kansas-Nebraska Act, wrote William Addison Phillips, ignored "the right of the settlers to the soil," marking the triumph of "Manifest Destiny" over Anglo-Americans as surely as it did over the Indians or Mexicans.
Phillips had not yet turned thirty when congressional passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act enabled the organization of the territory. Born in 1824 at Paisley, in Scotland's Renfrewshire, he had learned and devout Presbyterian parents, who placed him in an academically oriented grammar school where he "uniformly stood at the head of his class," especially in mathematics and Latin. Phillips's formal studies came to an end, however, when the family immigrated to Randolph County, Illinois, during 1838 or 1839. He followed his eclectic interests in his new country, in 1852 writing regularly for Benjamin Franklin John Hanna's Chester Herald. While studying law, he became Hanna's partner and started writing for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Both these newspapers ardently advocated National Reform politics, and Chester had a circle of the pro-NRA Brotherhood of the Union, in which Hanna and likely Phillips held membership.
Described as "a Free State knight errant" and the "bell wether of Horace Greeley's flock," Phillips went west as a correspondent for the New York Tribune. He soon found himself periodically "hunted like a wild beast." In response he cultivated his physical strength and stamina, becoming a formidable fighter. He also quickly found a dedicated group of volunteers that sought to master troop evolutions "from the old-fashioned sergeant major polka to the Crimea drill." Through it all, he remained an uncommonly bookish man, regarded by those who knew him as "an original thinker, especially on all subjects of religion, morals, general politics, economics, and civilization." Although Phillips never discussed religion, he did not share Brown's piety and characterized himself as "not a full believer in the orthodox dogmas of the church." Still, Phillips fully shared Brown's conviction that moral duty required resistance to slavery.
Excerpted from Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A. Lause Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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