I: Kansas, 1855-56
President Franklin Pierce. The “doughface” politician (a northerner that supported the slavery cause) hailing from New Hampshire from the beginning of his 1853-57 term twists himself in knots to stand behind Missouri and that state’s southern brethren:
Kansas Territory’s proximity to Missouri ensured a substantial proslavery majority among the new settlers. Despite that electoral advantage, Senator David R. Atchison organized his constituents to invade the polls in eastern Kansas and elect a proslavery territorial delegate to Congress in fall 1854 and an overwhelming proslavery majority to its legislature in spring 1855.
Amongst my other perusing that spawned the July Crisis series include Tony Horwitz railing against historical revisionism on 19 June 2013. The scale of revisionism surrounding the history of 1850s Kansas is so epic I question whether descriptions of the time period have ever been impartial— Durwood Ball seems to indicate the territorial election was administered freely. As I mentioned in Part 1, they weren’t:
Governor Reeder ordered the first territorial census completed in February 1855. Returns from eighteen districts showed a total population of 8,501 residents (excluding Indians) with only one-third of them declared as eligible voters. The remaining numbers were women, children, aliens, 172 free blacks, and 192 slaves. 2,905 white, twenty-one-year-old males were eligible to elect the first territorial legislature.
In other words, there were approximately 2,830 eligible voters in the territory of Kansas in February/March 1855.
Newspapers on both sides of the border appealed for an overwhelming turnout on Election Day. “Missourians, remember the 30th day of March, A.D. 1855, as Texans once remembered the Alamo,” exclaimed the proslavery Leavenworth Kansas Herald. On Election Day March 30th, a whopping 6,318 votes were tallied. A Congressional committee later determined that only 1,410 votes were legal and 4,908 were fraudulent. (The vast majority of voting fraud was committed by proslavery Missourians but, to be fair, abolitionists also cheated.)
223% of those eligible to vote cast ballots on 30 March. This can lead to only one conclusion—the Border Ruffians stole the election. This led to non-Border Ruffians referring to their “elected” officials as the “Bogus” Legislature and all acts and legislation passed as similarly “bogus.” One of those acts was the appointment of Douglas County Sheriff:
Sheriff Samuel J. Jones was a resident of Westport, Mo. He made himself conspicuous as a ruffian at the Bloomington prescient, in Douglas County, at the election of March 30, 1855. There he, in border style, had drawn his revolver and his watch, and said to the judges of the election he would give them five minutes to resign, and when that time expired and they had not wavered, he extended the time one-half minute more.
“Sheriff” Samuel J. Jones, a non-resident of Kansas, was described by his many detractors as the “bogus” sheriff. Considering Jones helped engineer the stolen March election, calling the man a thief with a stolen office seems more appropriate. Durwood Ball describes this incensed group of Free Soil Republicans as turning radical:
Serving the interests of Atchison and the South, those representatives enacted a Draconian slave code that penalized all antislavery agitation in the territory and outraged free-soil supporters in the North. With Southern Democrats controlling most federal offices and the territorial legislature, alienated free-state settlers and activists organized to write a state constitution and elect a legislature and executive officers. In early 1856, with the blessing of Republican supporters, the free-state government would apply to Congress for statehood as a free Kansas.
“Serving the interests of Atchison and the South” was essentially President Franklin Pierce’s only policy during his term in office. This became a problem for the Commander-in-Chief when his field commanders demanded formal orders:
The confrontation between proslavery and free-state factions came to a head in late November 1855, when about fifteen hundred Missourians, responding to the governor’s summons of the Kansas Territorial Militia to suppress an insurrection, besieged the principal free-state settlement of Lawrence. Soon realizing his mistake, Governor Wilson Shannon telegraphed President Pierce on December 1 for the “authority to call on the United States forces . . . to preserve the peace.” Three days later, fearing a bloodbath, Shannon appealed directly to Colonel Sumner at Fort Leavenworth. Initially, Sumner wanted to intervene to prevent an armed clash, but “mature reflection” compelled the old soldier to await the president’s order.
This turn of affairs put immense political pressure on Pierce:
Shannon’s request placed the president in a quandary. Pierce and the Democratic Party had invested massive political capital in the successful application of popular sovereignty in Kansas. The year 1856 was an election cycle, and Pierce decided to seek renomination by the Democratic Party, which would face fierce competition from the newly formed Republican Party. Pierce and his party’s success depended on making popular sovereignty work.
Durwood Ball leaves unmentioned that this quandary is completely of Pierce’s making. Shannon is the second territorial governor Pierce has appointed for Kansas; Pierce dismissed the first, Andrew Reeder, after Reeder refused to certify the 30 March 1855 elections for the territorial legislature which had been blatantly stolen by the Border Ruffians. Naturally Pierce appoints “[a]n extreme Southern man in politics, of the border ruffian type” to replace Reeder. Pierce had a single task for Shannon:
Engineering the success of popular sovereignty in Kansas and making the territory a slave state, thus politically strengthening the South’s power, were Pierce’s ticket to the Democratic nomination for a second presidential term.
Stolen elections, stolen legislature, stolen office of sheriff, stolen popular will (popular sovereignty yielding a free state was the worst nightmare for Pierce and his administration)—was any authority in Kansas legitimate? There was one institution, the U.S. Army. One regiment of cavalry troops, under the command of Edwin Vose Sumner:
Touring Europe in the spring and summer of 1854, Sumner made no public declaration on the Kansas-Nebraska Act when he returned in September. As a federal army officer, he abstained from party politics, unlike some peers such as his idol Winfield Scott and his enemy William S. Harney. Promoted to colonel of the First U.S. Cavalry, one of [Jefferson] Davis’s new regiments, on March 3, 1855, Sumner organized his command at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, that spring and then established his headquarters at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in June. After marching up the Oregon Trail during the fall, Sumner and the First returned to their post on November 2. Later that month, the partisan conflict rolled up to the gates of Fort Leavenworth.
Edwin V. Sumner was the quintessential good soldier…
[Edwin Sumner was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 30 January 1797.] Appointed to the infantry from civilian life in 1819, Sumner had demonstrated reliability, level-headedness, and courage during nearly four decades of service. He had distinguished himself in staff positions, instruction and training, frontier reconnaissance, armed combat, and post and departmental command. His long experience had also taught him the fickleness of federal military intervention in civil disturbances. In 1838 Sumner politely refused the Pennsylvania governor’s request that he intervene his dragoons against rioters in Harrisburg, the state capital, but while commanding the Ninth Military Department from 1851 through 1853 Sumner intermittently assigned regulars as a posse comitatus to aid law enforcement in the unruly New Mexico Territory. His promotion to colonel of the First Cavalry by Secretary of War Davis in 1855 was a reward for his long and faithful service in the army and his distinction in its mounted arm.
…caught in the path of the emerging firestorm caused by a beleaguered president rewriting the very concepts of treason and insurrection:
Pierce’s challenge was to contain the oppositional free-state government, which Republicans and some free-soil Democrats in Congress championed as the legitimate body representing “bona fide” settlers of Kansas. A presidential message issued to Congress on January 24 and a proclamation released on February 11 defined the legal threshold of “treasonable insurrection,” ordered “all . . . unlawful combinations” in Kansas to “disperse and retire peaceably,” and threatened the deployment of “local militias” and even federal troops against any “organized resistance” to the Kansas territorial government.
Deploy “local militias” against any “organized resistance” to the Kansas territorial government? Is it just me, or did President Pierce give formal approval for the formation of death squads on 11 February 1856? Worse, Sumner and his cavalry troopers were put directly under the command of Wilson Shannon:
Four days later Secretary Davis instructed Colonel Sumner at Fort Leavenworth and Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke at Fort Riley to fill the governor’s requisitions of federal troops to act as a “posse comitatus” should “insurrectionary combinations” overwhelm the “judicial proceedings” and the “ordinary” enforcement powers of “the United States Marshals.” Sensitive to the American suspicion of standing armies, Secretary of State William Marcy cautioned Governor Shannon to requisition federal regulars as a last “resort.” The president, however, had handed the control of federal troops in Kansas to the governor.
What? The 1st Cavalry Regiment weren’t militia or National Guardsmen, they were Regular Army! What legal justification allowed Pierce to claim he may break the U.S. Army’s established chain of command and place federal front-line forces under the control of a political hack like Shannon?
Pierce based his policy on federal law, historic precedents, and the “Cushing doctrine.” On May 27, 1854, addressing enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, Attorney General Caleb Cushing had opined that the Constitution empowered presidents to deploy federal military forces as a posse to help “United State Marshals” enforce the judicial process—executing arrest warrants and enforcing court orders—in the face of organized domestic resistance. As a posse, federal troops served under the legally constituted authorities to enforce the laws of the land.
Oh, so this is where we get the precedent that empowered John Yoo and Jay Bybee to write certain Justice Department memos in 2002. What a surprise…a political appointee in the Cabinet has a legal opinion and it carries the force of law for more than a century and a half. Hopefully Sumner is a trained military lawyer…
The standard for what constituted “organized resistance” would inform Sumner’s legal interpretation of the free-state legislature in summer 1856.
Colonel Sumner disagreed with the Pierce administration’s military policy in Kansas. In Davis’s instructions, the president had limited federal troops to supporting as a posse the law-enforcement efforts of marshals and sheriffs. However, anticipating new invasions in the spring, especially from Missouri, Sumner wanted some latitude to intervene against “all armed bodies, coming either from Missouri or from a distance, north or south,” to maintain order and preserve the peace. As a politician, the president wanted to avoid the appearance of targeting, with a federal military constabulary, citizens of any political stripe, particularly Atchison’s Missourians. Speaking for Davis, Adjutant General Samuel Cooper reiterated to Sumner that he had authority to “judge” neither the “disposition” nor origin of any organized party, “whether armed or unarmed.” He could only answer the governor’s “requisition for a military force” to overcome “armed resistance . . . to the laws and against the peace and quiet of the Territory.” Sumner’s worry was that territorial authorities, all of whom were Democratic, would launch his regulars exclusively against free-state settlers, their political opposition, but allow Missourians, their allies, to roam and plunder freely.
You don’t say. I’m beginning to think this might explain the Sack of Lawrence…
When in Lawrence on April 23 a free-state assassin shot Democratic sheriff Samuel Jones, who was assisted by seven regulars, Sumner earnestly advised the governor not to summon the Kansas militia, called them “partisans,” and galloped to the scene, at Shannon’s request, to calm tempers. The previous winter, Shannon had begged the president for federal military assistance, but immediately after the Jones shooting, the governor groused to his boss, Secretary Marcy, about his administration’s complete dependence on Sumner’s regulars.
To prove his mettle, Shannon tried to dispense with Sumner’s troops. When U.S. Marshal Israel B. Donelson summoned a civilian posse to serve federal warrants in Lawrence, Sumner exhorted the governor to dismiss the men—Missouri “partisans,” as the colonel accurately described them—predicting serious trouble if they entered Lawrence behind a marshal or sheriff. But Shannon refused, and the incredulous Sumner reported their exchange to Secretary Davis. Ten days later on May 21, this posse of five to eight hundred men sacked free-soil Lawrence. This brigandage coincided with the savage caning of abolitionist senator Charles Sumner, a cousin to the colonel, by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in the U.S. Capitol.
Wait, Charles and Edwin Sumner were related? Would that set off Colonel Sumner, spinning him into full belligerency in the Kansas-Missouri border war?
The sack of Lawrence unhinged Kansas. During the night of May 24, abolitionist John Brown and a handful of followers retaliated by savagely murdering five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek. Hundreds of Missourians streamed over the border to hunt the killers, and partisans on both sides attacked, murdered, and plundered their enemies. As Sumner dispatched cavalry squadrons to disperse armed gangs at Shannon’s direction, he raged to Adjutant General Cooper, “If the matter had been taken in hand at an earlier date, as I earnestly advised the Governor, the whole disturbance would have been suppressed without bloodshed.” The partisan contest had escalated to a violent “guerrilla” war, which his regulars might have to suppress with “force.”
Now on the political defensive, Shannon presented Sumner an operational plan to clear roads and check invasions with regular troops. When bushwhackers wounded one of his troopers and two horses near Lawrence, Sumner rode into the field on June 2 to supervise the five squadrons—about two hundred and fifty men—now assigned to constabulary duty. Two days later, the governor issued a law-and-order proclamation threatening with arrest by federal troops all unauthorized “military organizations” that failed “to disperse and retire peaceably.” Among the partisan armies disbanded personally by Colonel Sumner was one that coalesced around John Brown and another even larger proslavery outfit led by Kansas delegate to Congress John W. Whitfield.
Edwin Vose Sumner, ever the good soldier. Still, Durwood Ball identifies a major issue with Sumner’s constabulary actions:
In both cases, Sumner, not the deputy marshal in tow, read the president’s and governor’s proclamations to the assembled men and ordered them to go home. However necessary in the field, Sumner’s process violated a legal protocol of posse comitatus: the deputy marshal should have read the proclamation, and Sumner should have acted against the mobs only when they failed to obey the dispersal order.
Good points, though the actions of the Pierce Administration are irregular enough that the legal protocol probably could be called into question. However, Sumner’s course of action put him on a collision course with the Secretary of War…
Sumner’s report of May 12 panicked President Pierce when it was laid on his desk on May 23. He immediately telegraphed Shannon to disband the marshal’s posse and to see the legal “process in the hands of the marshal quietly executed . . . with the force of Colonel Sumner.” But that same day, from the War Department, Secretary Davis praised Sumner’s restraint; his role was simply to answer the governor’s summons—not to break up the marshal’s posse unilaterally.
…but it bears reminding that Jefferson Davis would eventually lead a full-scale rebellion against the United States. His word on anything regarding American military policy is highly suspect. But I share his disdain in abstract for what occurred next:
Pierce’s dispatch to the governor, however, would transform the army’s mission in Kansas from posse service to military constabulary duty—much to Davis’s displeasure. As a legal posse, regulars served court officers: the marshals or sheriffs. As an armed constabulary, federal troops often patrolled or scouted eastern Kansas without the legal cloak of federal marshals or county sheriffs executing the business of the courts. This kind of military operation in domestic society smacked of “dragoon government” and rankled Davis’s constitutional scruples.
Now someone in the Pierce Administration shows his constitutional scruples?
The constabulary operation initiated by Shannon and described to him by Sumner infuriated Secretary Davis. On June 19, after reading Sumner’s report and a copy of Shannon’s plan, Davis critiqued the governor’s federal military constabulary in a brief drafted for the president. The secretary absolved Sumner of committing troops to disperse “insurgents” and uphold the “law” immediately following the Pottawatomie Massacre, but he blasted Shannon for exceeding his instructions—for failing to exhaust the “judicial process” and the marshal’s “ordinary powers” before he requisitioned federal troops “to disperse lawless combinations.” Stationing squadrons where “violence had occurred, or . . . [was] apprehended” transformed Sumner’s regulars into “an armed police,” service that was both unconstitutional and illegal. Nor should federal regulars “be quartered in settlements or villages with a view to such employment.” Sumner was acting on Pierce’s hastily written “dispatch” of May 23 and the governor’s proclamation “to suppress commotion and party strife in the territory,” but, according to Secretary Davis, neither action was the “intention” of the president’s proclamation or the War Department’s instructions.
The idea of heavily-armed soldiers acting as police officers disturbs me, but issues with “dragoon government” should have been starkly apparent given the fact Pierce and his administration threw their support directly behind the Border Ruffians. Pierce’s preferred policy in Kansas cost him reelection.
II: Pathological Presidential Pusillanimity
Proving that fate has a sense of humor, the chickens finally came home to roost for Franklin Pierce the same week Sumner broke up the Browns’ forces:
In the first week of June, Pierce lost the Democratic presidential nomination to James Buchanan, his minister to England. The Buchananites persuaded the lame-duck Pierce to make changes in Kansas. Democrats feared wholesale Southern secession should the Republican Party win the presidency. The restoration of peace and the success of popular sovereignty in Kansas would demonstrate to Americans that the Democrats could still govern the country and heal sectional division. The sack of Lawrence and the subsequent murder and mayhem had convinced Pierce to replace Governor Shannon, whom he blamed for the domestic explosion. Although Sumner’s constabulary operations restored stability to eastern Kansas by mid-June, he was replaced by Brevet Major General Persifor F. Smith, colonel of the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen. Smith was a loyal Democrat, had married into a slave-owning family in Louisiana, and had befriended Pierce during the Mexican-American War. His background recommended him to Northern and Southern Democrats as an officer who would command Kansas with Southern and the Democratic Party’s interests in mind.
The Topeka dispersal was the last dirty assignment Shannon directed Colonel Sumner to carry out:
On June 23, before absenting himself on “personal business,” Governor Shannon handed Colonel Sumner one final unpleasant mission. The previous spring the Free State Party had called a “Grand Mass Convention at Topeka” to precede the assembly of the free-state legislature on Independence Day. Shannon instructed Sumner to “disperse” that body—“peacefully if you can, forcibly if necessary”—should it try to convene. Citing and glossing specific statutes, Shannon explained at length that the free-state legislature was illegal, even insurrectionary, under Kansas territorial law and thus was legally subject to dispersal, by force if necessary. With the fall election approaching, the president was under pressure from Southern Democrats to apply his office to uphold the legitimate Kansas territorial government and prosecute its illegitimate free-state rival.
By all indications, Shannon was attempting to encourage Sumner to lay waste to Topeka. That didn’t happen:
Written on July 7 at Fort Leavenworth, Sumner’s report was straightforward and pithy and placed the best possible spin on his delicate and unpopular mission. He had deployed troops to Topeka, he explained to Adjutant General Cooper, in direct response to summonses from Governor Shannon and Acting Governor Woodson. Once in Topeka, Sumner deferred all legal interpretation to the civil authorities. Acting Governor Woodson, in consultation with the other civil officers present, decided to prevent the free-state legislature, an illegal body under Kansas law, from convening. After free-state legislators refused to dissolve their assembly on the marshal’s command, Woodson summoned the army, and Sumner executed the dispersal orders. Sumner remarked, “I consider myself very fortunate in having accomplished my object without using an angry word, or receiving one in the slightest degree disrespectful [sic].” Here was the federal army’s moral force, urged by Davis in February, effectively applied to a volatile civil episode.
Unfortunately for the hapless Pierce Administration, Edwin Sumner had become skilled at diplomacy:
On the colonel’s order, the cavalry advanced rapidly until the horses were practically chomping and slobbering in the faces of the free-state militia drawn up before the hall and under a homemade banner, which broadcast, “OUR LIVES FOR OUR RIGHTS.”
This reminds me of something, oh right…exactly the same reason the Confederates fought the Union.
Sumner stared fiercely at the militia boy beating his drum defiantly, and ordered him to cease. Giving way to the regulars as free-state leaders had instructed, the militia commander ordered his men to “dress left” and file away “in double quick time.” The parting crowd cheered their devotion and courage.
As Sumner let his troopers settle, a committee of the free-sate convention approached him. Its spokesman assured him that neither the convention nor the militia intended “resisting the United States Troops.” Sumner replied that his mission was to prevent the “Legislature” from convening, not to “disarm the militia” or to disperse the popular “Convention.” He would immediately “retire” his battalion when his duty was done. The news triggered a round of huzzahs for Sumner. Dismounting his horse, the colonel climbed the steps to Constitution Hall and strode smartly into the crowded house.
Bull Sumner’s approach brought a hush to the house. When offered a chair at the desk, he “jocularly asked” whether the free-state legislators “wanted to make him their speaker.” This morsel of humor raised “a hearty shout and laughter” from the floor. After a few private words with the “gentlemen” immediately around him, Sumner took the seat offered him. Samuel F. Tappan, assistant clerk to the house, called the chamber to order and began taking roll. He announced all names twice; Caleb S. Pratt took roll a third time. Thirty-four house members were in town that day; seventeen responded; the house lacked a quorum. To exercise their defiance, however, those members present agreed to forge ahead with the peoples’ business, and Tappan dispatched the sergeant-at-arms to round up the absentees, many of whom had fled Constitution Hall when Sumner’s battalion advanced up Kansas Avenue.
At this point, when this free-state “assemblage” tried to call its members to order as the house, Colonel Sumner sprang from his chair to halt the legislative formation, illegal under Kansas law. Under his interpretation of the law, he could not allow the convention to take the first step over the legal threshold to insurrection. To the assembly he declared:
Gentlemen, I am called upon this day to perform the most painful duty of my life. Under the authority of the President’s Proclamation I am here to disperse this Legislature and therefore inform you that you cannot meet. I therefore in accordance with my orders command you to disperse. God knows I have no party feeling and will hold none so long as I hold my present position in Kansas. I have just returned from the borders where I have been sending home companies of Missourians and now I am here to disperse you. Such are my orders that you must disperse. I now command you to disperse. I repeat that this is the most painful duty of my whole life. But you must disperse.
From the floor, Judge Philip C. Schuyler asked, “Are we to understand that the Legislature is dispersed at the point of a bayonet?” Sumner replied, “I shall use the whole force in my command to carry out my orders.”
Sumner’s greatest asset was his voice and sense of duty, which he used to great effect in Topeka. This was not a common trait amongst federal authorities in Kansas:
The following day, Colonel Sumner and his battalion escorted Woodson and other federal authorities back to Lecompton. During the stopover, Sumner visited a nearby First Cavalry camp where the marshal was jailing his free-state prisoners. Among the men held there was Charles Robinson, the free-state governor, who was under arrest and awaiting trial for treason. Sumner met with Robinson, who denounced the “administration” and labeled the dispersal an “outrage.” During his visit, the colonel learned that Donelson had ordered the camp’s commanding officer to “read” all letters addressed to the federal prisoners. The “shocked” Sumner countermanded Donelson’s “restrictions” and instructed Captain William S. Walker “hereafter . . . to report immediately whenever, in his judgment, improper commands were given him as jailor.”
Fascinatingly, not only the free-state governor but the first appointed territorial governor, Andrew Reeder, was charged with treason in 1856. Supporting the Missourians eventually made Edwin Sumner’s command of Kansas federal forces a liability for the Pierce Administration:
Colonel Sumner knew the source of his political troubles. By late May, he had become so unpopular in western Missouri that Atchison’s followers had begun circulating a petition “praying for the immediate removal of Col. Sumner.” What had happened to Sumner’s standing among the Missourians, who knew him well from his long service on their frontier? First, although initially praising Pierce’s commitment of federal troops to Kansas, ultra-Southerners and Atchison himself soon turned against federal military involvement and began haranguing the president to let the “Law and Order Party” enforce territorial law and corral the free-state movement. They soon realized that Sumner’s neutrality or independence was an impediment to their Southern campaign in Kansas. Second, the Atchison people became apoplectic when Shannon and Sumner, for unknown reasons, allowed the free-state legislature to conduct business, which included swearing in the government’s officers in Topeka, on March 4. That tolerance raised doubts among Southern Democrats about Shannon’s and Sumner’s commitment to suppressing free-state treason. Third, in June Sumner blockaded the roads from Missouri to Kansas to law-and-order forces but left unguarded the Iowa and Nebraska borders traversed by free-soil settlers and merchants. That inequity enraged Missourians.
Oh, I bet the “inequity” enraged the Border Ruffians. These criminals dared to call themselves law-and-order types after Samuel J. Jones, Sheriff of Douglas County, Kansas led the raid that sacked Lawrence (which happened to lie within Douglas County, Kansas)! As for free-state treason, the root of the Border Ruffian criminality would not remain buried for long:
The Topeka dispersal intensified congressional scrutiny of the Pierce administration’s Kansas policies. In spring 1856, the Republican-controlled House had dispatched a committee, chaired by Michigan representative William A. Howard, to investigate allegations of proslavery election fraud in Kansas. The committee majority found that poll-crashing Missourians had elected the Kansas Territorial Legislature just as the free-state movement claimed, and thus condemned Pierce’s deployment of the army to enforce laws passed by that “bogus” body.
When the rampant illegality in Kansas came to light in that summer, Pierce’s cowardly Secretary of War was forced to run for cover:
The Howard Report, combined with the Topeka dispersal, compelled the Senate to pass, on July 21, a resolution demanding to know whether the War Department had instructed commanding officers in Kansas to break up “any meeting of the people of that Territory, or to prevent, by military power, any assemblage of the people of that Territory.” Nine days later, Davis replied that his office had issued “no such orders,” attaching seven official items to prove his point. Among those documents were his original orders to Sumner and Cooke issued in February, Cooper’s clarification for Sumner sent in March, Davis’s approval of Sumner’s course dispatched on May 23, and Davis’s July 19 endorsement inscribed on Sumner’s Topeka report. President Pierce submitted Davis’s report to the Senate on August 5.
Jefferson Davis’s sniveling attempt to lay blame on Colonel Sumner’s shoulders for carrying out Davis’s and Pierce’s orders to the letter was easily debunked:
The secretary’s official endorsement, written on July 19 as Congress debated Pierce’s Kansas policy and the Topeka dispersal, sought to protect the colonel and the War Department. Sumner’s sober account demonstrated to the secretary’s satisfaction that “circumstances, not disclosed in previous reports, existed to justify him in employing the military force to disperse the assembly at Topeka.” Sumner had done his duty—he had dissolved the free-state legislature on the governor’s and acting governor’s orders—he was in the clear.
Davis’s animosity toward Sumner might have traced all the way back to the 1830s. Both served in the 1st Regiment of Dragoons upon its activation in 1833, 1st Lieutenant Davis under Captain Sumner at the time. But it may have been Jefferson Davis’s notorious thin skin that really set Pierce’s Secretary of War over the edge:
Davis’s sensitivity to Sumner’s Missouri reference was not solely legalistic. A slave-owning Mississippian, the secretary had helped secure passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and he supported Kansas becoming a slave state. By association, Sumner’s attack on “Missourians” was finger wagging at Atchison, an old and dear friend with whom Davis had attended Transylvania College in the early 1820s and served in the U.S. Senate. Davis and Atchison shared the cause to advance the fortunes of the slave South in the United States.
Ultimately, the Sumner’s liability as a military commander in Kansas centered around the growing hatred the Border Ruffians harbored toward the federal government in general. Some of that animosity runs forward to the 21st century:
“You know, sometimes I’m referred to as the man that started the Civil War in Missouri. Sometimes the arsenal is called the Missouri Fort Sumter. But it wasn’t just me, but also a lot of you, who could clearly see the far off Federal Government was uncaring, was evil, was corrupt, and was trying to steal our property and our rights.” – Civil War re-enactor Jim Beckner’s portrayal of Col. Henry Routt
I hasten to point out that Henry Routt was convicted of treason—for raiding the federal armory in Liberty, MO. But it was Edwin V. Sumner himself that wrote the best rejoinder to aggrieved Missourians:
“The Missourians were perfectly satisfied so long as the troops were employed exclusively against the Free-State party; but when they found that I would be strictly impartial, that lawless mobs could no longer come from Missouri, and that their interference with the affairs of Kansas was brought to an end, then they immediately raised a hue-and-cry that they were oppressed by the United States Troops.”