Sacking of Lawrence

Coordinates: 38°57′36″N 95°15′12″W / 38.96000°N 95.25333°W / 38.96000; -95.25333
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Sacking of Lawrence
Part of Bleeding Kansas

Ruins of Free State Hotel after the attack
DateMay 21, 1856

Border ruffian victory

Free-Stater Border ruffians
Commanders and leaders
Samuel C. Pomeroy (de facto) Samuel J. Jones
abolitionist civilians 300
Casualties and losses
1 wounded 1 dead

The sacking of Lawrence occurred on May 21, 1856, when pro-slavery settlers, led by Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, attacked and ransacked Lawrence, Kansas, a town which had been founded by anti-slavery settlers from Massachusetts who were hoping to make Kansas a free state. The incident fueled the irregular conflict in Kansas Territory that later became known as Bleeding Kansas.

The human cost of the attack was low: only one person—a member of the pro-slavery gang—was killed, and his death was accidental. However, Jones and his men halted production of the Free-State newspapers the Kansas Free State and the Herald of Freedom, destroying the presses and offices (with the former ceasing publication altogether and the latter taking months to once again start up). The pro-slavery men also destroyed the Free State Hotel and Charles L. Robinson's house.


Lawrence was founded in 1854 by antislavery settlers from Massachusetts, many of whom received financial support from the New England Emigrant Aid Company. The town was the de facto headquarters of Free-State Kansas, for which reason it soon became the epicenter of violence in the territory. The many pro-slavery settlers in eastern Kansas loathed the Free-State residents of the town (and vice versa). While the village had nearly been raided during the so-called Wakarusa War in December 1855, it was not directly attacked at that time.[1][2]

Abolitionists and Free-Staters at the time saw the sack as a reply to the non-fatal shooting on April 23, 1856, of Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, who was in Lawrence attempting to arrest Free-State settlers under the premise of events during the Wakarusa War.[1][2] Lawrence residents drove Jones out of town after they shot him. On May 11, Federal Marshal Israel B. Donalson proclaimed that the "assassination attempt" had interfered with the execution of warrants against the extralegal Free-State legislature, which was set up in opposition to the official pro-slavery or "bogus" territorial government.[1]

To The People of Kansas Territory

Whereas, Certain judicial arrests have been directed to me by the First District Court of the United States, etc., to be executed within the county of Douglas, and whereas an attempt to execute them by the United States Deputy Marshal was evidently resisted by a large number of the people of Lawrence, and as there is every reason to believe that any attempt to execute these writs will be resisted by a large body of armed men; now, therefore, the law-abiding citizens of the Territory are commanded to be and appear at Lecompton, as soon as practicable, and in numbers sufficient for the execution of the law.
Given under my hand this 11th day of May, 1856
I. B. Donalson,
United States Marshal of the Territory of Kansas
P. S.—No liability for expenses will be incurred by the United States until its consent is obtained.[3]

Donalson's proclamation and the presentment by the first district of Kansas's grand jury that "the building known as the 'Free State' Hotel' [sic] in Lawrence had been constructed with a view to military occupation and defense, regularly parapeted and portholed, for the use of cannon and small arms, thereby endangering the public safety, and encouraging rebellion and sedition in this country" enabled Sheriff Jones and Marshal Donalson assembling an army of roughly 800 Southern settlers. This group planned to enter Lawrence, disarm the citizens, destroy the antislavery newspapers, and level the Free State Hotel.[4][5][6]


The "Old Sacramento" cannon captured by U.S. during the Mexican–American War in 1847 and taken to the Liberty Arsenal. The cannon was fired by proslavery forces during the Siege of Lawrence.

On May 21, 1856, Jones and Donalson neared the town. A large force was stationed on the high ground at Mount Oread, and a cannon was placed to cover and command the area. The house of Charles L. Robinson (later to become the first governor of Kansas) was taken over as Jones's headquarters. Every road to the town and on the opposite side of the river was guarded by Jones's men, to prevent the free-soilers from fleeing. A number of flags were flown by Jones's men, such as the state banners of Alabama and South Carolina, a flag with black and white stripes, and flags bearing pro-slavery, inflammatory inscriptions, such as "Southern Rights" and "Supremacy of the White Race").[7]

Shalor Eldridge, proprietor of the Free State Hotel, soon learned of the oncoming forces, and he journeyed out to meet them; he was told by Donalson that the posse would enter into Lawrence and attack if and only if the citizens tried to resist Donalson and Jones's men. Donalson and Eldridge then journeyed to the hotel, where, according to the New York Times, Eldridge had prepared "an elegant dinner, the best that the fresh and abundant stores in the cellar could afford" (which included "costly wines") so as to placate the marshal and his men.[8] Eldridge was interviewed by Donalson while the federal agent and his followers ravenously consumed the meal, then left without paying. Shortly afterwards, the marshal dismissed his followers, who were immediately deputized by Jones.[8] Jones then asked to speak to a representative of the town. Samuel C. Pomeroy (who, along with Charles Robinson, had led the second group of settlers to the Lawrence city site in 1854) agreed to meet with the sheriff and discuss with him the situation at hand. Jones was clear in what he wanted: for the citizens of Lawrence to surrender all of their weapons. Pomeroy replied that he did not have the power to do this, as it was ultimately up to individual citizens to give up their arms. However, hoping to encourage Jones to leave the city peacefully, Pomeroy agreed to turn over the city's only artillery piece.[9][10] While Jones did seize this cannon, it did not appease him, as Pomeroy had hoped. According to the Lawrence minister Richard Cordley:

As soon as Jones had possession of the cannon and other arms, he proceeded to carry out his purpose to destroy the Free-State Hotel. He gave the inmates till five o’clock to get out their personal effects. When all was ready he[nb 1] turned [the posse's very own] cannon upon the hotel and fired. The first ball went completely over the roof, at which all the people cheered, much to the disgust of Jones. The next shot hit the walls but did little damage. After bombarding away with little or no effect till it was becoming monotonous, they attempted to blow up the building with a keg of powder. But this only made a big noise and a big smoke, and did not do much towards demolishing the house. At every failure the citizen spectators along the street set up a shout. At last Jones became desperate, and applied the vulgar torch, and burned the building to the ground. [...] Jones was exultant. His revenge was complete. "This is the happiest moment of my life," he shouted as the walls of the hotel fell. He had made the "fanatics bow to him in the dust." He then dismissed his posse and left.[13]

It was the "Old Sacramento" cannon that the pro-slavery forces made use of in their initial attempt to bring down the Free State Hotel. This weapon had been stored at the Liberty Arsenal until then.[14][11] The cannon would be recaptured by free-staters on August 12, 1856, during the Second Battle of Franklin.[14]

While Jones and his men were trying to bring down the hotel, the printing offices of the Kansas Free State and the Herald of Freedom newspapers were destroyed. The machinery was smashed, the type was thrown in the river, their libraries were thrown out the window, and loose copies were either thrown into the wind to be carried off, or used by Jones's party to set fire to the Free State Hotel.[7][13] When the newspapers were obliterated and the hotel had been brought to the ground, Jones's men then looted the half-deserted town.[7][13] As they retreated, for good measure they burned Robinson's Mount Oread home.[13]

One person—a member of Jones's gang—died during the attack, when he was struck in the head by a collapsing bit of the Free State Hotel.[12][15]

After "Old Sacramento" was recaptured, the free-stater Thomas Bickerton scavenged the lead type from the river and used it to make cannonballs.[14]


While the Free State Hotel was destroyed, Shalor Eldridge purchased the charred remnants of the structure and rebuilt it as the "Eldridge House". This building remained a fixture of Lawrence until 1863, when it was burned down by William Quantrill during the Lawrence Massacre (after which it would be rebuilt two more times, in 1866 and 1926).[16]

For a number of months after the Sack of Lawrence, the city was without a free state newspaper. This was exacerbated by the fact that Josiah Miller, who ran the Kansas Free State, decided not to start his former paper up again. The lack of a Lawrence-based news source ended when George Brown restarted the Herald of Freedom in November.[17]

The Sack of Lawrence resulted in the loss of the city's only cannon. This would be at least one reason that Free-Staters would attack Franklin's Fort in June and August of 1856, as they hoped to secure the "Old Sacramento" cannon for their own use.[18]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Some sources maintain that it was not Jones who fired the first shot, but rather David Rice Atchison. However, being inebriated, he aimed the cannon too high, and the shot missed the building.[11][12]


  1. ^ a b c Durwood Ball (2001). Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848–1861. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 174.
  2. ^ a b Connelley, William Elsey (2018) [1900]. John Brown in Kansas. Topeka, KS: Crane and Company. p. 53. ISBN 9781387365135. Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  3. ^ Connelley, William E. (1918). A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Vol. 1. Lewis Publishing Company. p. 545. OCLC 7306841812.
  4. ^ Durwood Ball (2001). Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848–1861. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 175.
  5. ^ Monaghan, Jay (1984). Civil War on the Western Border, 1854–1865. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 57.
  6. ^ Griffin, C. S. (1968). "The University of Kansas and the Sack of Lawrence: A Problem of Intellectual Honesty". Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains. 34 (4): 409–26.
  7. ^ a b c Monaghan, Jay (1984). Civil War on the Western Border, 1854–1865. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 57–58.
  8. ^ a b "Razing Hotel that Played Big Part in Kansas Slavery Fight". New York Times. March 30, 1924. p. X17.
  9. ^ Litteer, Loren (1987). 'Bleeding Kansas': The Border War in Douglas and Adjacent Counties. Baldwin City, Kansas: Champion Publishing. p. 37.
  10. ^ Cordley, Richard (1895). "Chapter VII". A History of Lawrence Kansas, from the Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Rebellion. Lawrence, KS: Lawrence Journal Press. Retrieved October 2, 2017. The only cannon the free-state men possessed had been surrendered at the sacking of Lawrence in May.[dead link]
  11. ^ a b Scharff, Virginia, ed. (2015). Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. pp. 58–59. ISBN 9780520281264.
  12. ^ a b Burt, John (2013). Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674070530.
  13. ^ a b c d Cordley, Richard (1895). "Chapter VI". A History of Lawrence Kansas, from the Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Rebellion. Lawrence, KS: Lawrence Journal Press. Archived from the original on November 23, 2002. Retrieved October 2, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c Butler, Maria. "Old Sacramento: Cannon of Crisis, Cannon of Freedom" (PDF). Douglas County Historical Society Newsletter. 27 (3): 2, 4.
  15. ^ Drake, Ross (May 1, 2004). "The Law That Ripped America In Two". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved October 2, 2017.
  16. ^ "Our Story". Eldridge Hotel. Archived from the original on February 24, 2017. Retrieved April 24, 2017.
  17. ^ Sutton, Robert (2017). Stark Mad Abolitionists: Lawrence, Kansas, and the Battle over Slavery in the Civil War Era. New York City, NY: Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN 9781510716513.
  18. ^ Cordley, Richard (1895). "Chapter VII". A History of Lawrence Kansas, from the Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Rebellion. Lawrence, KS: Lawrence Journal Press. Retrieved October 2, 2017.[dead link]

External links[edit]

38°57′36″N 95°15′12″W / 38.96000°N 95.25333°W / 38.96000; -95.25333