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The Kansas Territorial Militia

In 1854 the Kansas Territory was opened to settlement. Farmers saw the opportunity to buy land cheaply from the government, and businessmen saw profits to be made. Others, however, saw political opportunity; the Kansas-Nebraska Act had decreed that the voters of Kansas would decide whether there would be slavery in Kansas.

The opposing political factions were divided into the pro-slavery and free-state camps. Each side periodically resorted to violence, so much so that a succession of territorial governors quit in exasperation over their inability to control it.

In addition to armed gangs, both sides used militia forces which were called up when the need arose. Additionally, the territorial governor could call upon Federal troops at Fort Leavenworth. This article deals only with those militia forces which acted in response to a call from either free-state or pro-slave governments.


Northeastern Kansas

In November 1855 Jacob Branson, a free-state man, was arrested by Samuel Jones, the pro-slavery sheriff of Douglas County. A band of free-state men intercepted Jones, rescued Branson, and made off for Lawrence. Knowing that pro-slavery forces could use this as an excuse to attack Lawrence, the citizens formed volunteer militia companies and fortified the town.

Free-state men from neighboring communities formed companies and marched to the aid of the people of Lawrence. Sheriff Jones reported to territorial Governor Wilson Shannon that the countryside was in an open state of rebellion and requested 3,000 men to carry out the laws of the territory. Governor Shannon knew that there was no organized militia other than a staff of a few generals. On November 27 he ordered Adjutant General Hiram Strickler to assist Jones. A general call went out for men to report for duty with the militia. A special effort was made by some officers to recruit pro-slavery men from Missouri to put down the “damned abolitionists” in Lawrence. Nearly 1,500 Missourians armed themselves and tramped into Kansas, where the territorial militia officers enrolled them into the Kansas militia.

The militia army camped on the Wakarusa River near Lawrerice, and thus began the bloodless “Wakarusa War.” Governor Shannon was not in favor of what promised to be a bloody assault on Lawrence. Additionally, it appeared that the men who had rescued Branson had long since fled the town. Governor, Shannon successfully negotiated a truce between the two sides, and the pro-slavery militia was disbanded and went home to Missouri. While Shannon had been negotiating with the leaders of Lawrence, he was wined and dined (heavy on the wine), and signed a document authorizing the free-State men to defend themselves from the very militia that he had already mobilized. He later claimed to have been tricked into signing this document.

When Governor Shannon left office in August 1856, Secretary of State Daniel Woodson became acting governor. At the time James Lane, a politician and major general of the free-state militia, was rumored to be leading an armed force into Kansas from Nebraska. On August 25, 1856, Woodson declared the territory to be in a state of open rebellion, and called out the militia to head off Lane. Politicians in Missouri had already assembled a force of 450 men to oppose Lane, and they answered Woodson’s call. Although Lane’s army was non-existent, free-state men mobilized to protect themselves. Several minor skirmishes resulted, property was looted, and innocent men murdered. The militia called out byWoodson camped at Lecompton near Lawrence. It had grown to a force of about 1,000 men. The new territorial governor, John Geary, finally arrived in Kansas and on September 12, ordered that all militias in the field be disbanded.

On September 17 the federal commander at Fort Leavenworth requested that the governor provide two territorial militia infantry companies to assist the federal military in maintaining peace. On September 28 an additional cavalry company was requested. Geary responded, and provided two companies with pro-slavery sympathy and one of free-state men. The free-state men were stationed at Lawrence and the pro-slavery companies at Leavenworth. The ensuing peace was too much for the militiamen to stand. On November 19 the Lawrence company petitioned Geary to be relieved from duty as there was no need for their services, and within a week the pro-slavery companies had done the same. They were all mustered out on December 1, with their mustering-out pay coming from Geary personally. Upon their disbandment, to prevent a repeat of the farce of Missourians being enrolled in the Kansas militia Geary ordered that all eligible males from the ages of 18-45 be enrolled into the militia so that they could be properly called out if the need arose again. Whether any Kansan bothered to do so is unknown.


Southeastern Kansas

By this time the opportunity to win Kansas by force had passed, and the issue would ultimately be decided by the ballot-box. However, old hatreds still persisted, and open violence was still not at an end, particularly in southeast Kansas. There, one free-state man, James Montgomery, enjoyed extraordinary success at attracting loyal followers, robbing and harassing pro-slavery men, and avoiding apprehension by federal authorities. In December of 1857, free-state and pro-slavery men were in arms against each other, James Lane, as head of the free-state militia, detailed an officer to take command of the free-state militia at Sugar Mound. The arrival of U.S. troops from Fort Leavenworth restored peace and the militia disbanded, but James Montgomery had instructions from Lane to remain in the field. Montgomery began robbing and driving away pro-slavery men, as well as committing various other outrages. He later claimed, however, that this “jayhawking” was done on his own and not as any militia commander. When U.S. Cavalry were sent to apprehend him in April of 1858 something inconceivable happened – the cavalry were fired upon. Prior to this the U.S. troops, whjle sometimes believed to have pro-slave sympathies, were universally recognized as legitimate authority and never directly challenged. Montgomery’s men killed one soldier and mortally wounded another, and the cavalry, armed only with pistols, were forced to retreat. Montgomery escaped.

In June 1858, a new territorial governor, James Denver, formed a militia company to be stationed in southeast Kansas to maintain the peace. The approximately 50 men of this command implored the governor for weapons but were told to supply their own. Despite this handicap, the presence of this company and United States troops brought at least a temporary peace to the vicinity. Southeast Kansas remained peaceful, and the local citizens resented an armed force in their midst. This, together with the continuing cost of maintaining the militia, led to the company being disbanded in October 1858.

James Montgomery resumed his “jayhawking,” and a new territorial governor, Samuel Medary, was determined to capture him. In January of 1859 volunteer militia companies were authorized for Linn and Bourbon counties, and 600 muskets to arm them were requested from the federal government. The plan was to use the federal cavalry to drive the “outlaws” into their fortifications, lay siege, and bring up cannon to blast them out. Before this happened, Montgomery surrendered to authorities, apparently after having engineered a political resolution to the criminal charges against him. On February 12, 1859, the territorial legislature enacted the Amnesty Act forgiving all citizens for past crimes [committed in five southeastern counties] which had been motivated by political differences; Montgomery escaped prosecution.

This was the last significant activity of the militia until the outbreak of the Civil War.

(Source: Benedict, Bryce D. “Militia Forces Fought in Early Kansas.” Plains Guardian)