Sacking of Lawrence

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Sacking of Lawrence
Part of Bleeding Kansas
Ruins of Free State Hotel after the attack
DateMay 21, 1856

Pro-slavery victory

Free-State Abolitionists Pro-slavery settlers
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 activists, 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 (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 anti-slavery settlers from Massachusetts, many of whom received financial support from the New England Emigrant Aid Company. The town soon became the epicenter of violence in Kansas Territory, as many pro-slavery settlers in the area loathed the free state citizens 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]

In regards to the Sacking of Lawrence, many abolitionists regarded the non-fatal shooting of Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, who was attempting to arrest free-state settlers in Lawrence, as the immediate cause of the violence.[1][2] Lawrence residents drove Jones out of town after they shot him, and on May 11, Federal Marshal Israel B. Donaldson 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 territorial government.[1] Donaldson'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 defence [sic], regularly parapetted and port holed, for the use of cannon and small arms, thereby endangering the public safety, and encouraging rebellion and sedition in this country" led to Sheriff Jones and Marshal Donaldson assembling an army of roughly 800 southern settlers. This group planned to enter Lawrence, disarm the citizens, destroy the anti-slavery newspaper presses, and level the Free State Hotel.[3][4][5]

A number of men from Texas and South Carolina joined Donaldson and Jones's posse. On May 21, 1856, while this group was camping a few miles west of Lawrence, David Rice Atchison gave a speech to these men, promising that they would be "well paid" for their service and that they were working for "the present administration". They were there for "the entire South" and the goal was to spread slavery, and stop anti-slavery newspapers in Lawrence. Atchison promised that he would lead them into this battle, and made them all cheer as a promise to draw blood. He also mentioned that the flag he rode under was the red flag of the South—red for the color of blood they would spill. Elsewhere Atchison had promised to see Kansas in Hell before he let it become a free state.[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 pro-slavery forces during the Siege of Lawrence.

On May 21, 1856, Jones and Donaldson 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 and/or inflammatory inscriptions (i.e. "Kansas the Outpost", "Southern Rights", and "Supremacy of the White Race").[7]

Shalor Eldridge, the proprietor of the Free State Hotel, soon learned of the oncoming forces, and he journeyed out to meet them; he was told by Donaldson that the posse would enter into Lawrence and attack if and only if the citizens tried to resist Donaldson and Jones's men. Donaldson 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 Donaldson 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 argued that there was not much he could do in this regard, as it was ultimately up to the 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 the sheriff 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-slavers made use of in their initial attempt to bring down the Free State Hotel. This weapon had been stored at the Liberty Arsenal until it was seized by pro-slavery forces in 1855.[14][11] (The cannon would eventually be captured by free-staters later in 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 were trashed; their libraries were thrown out the window, the presses were smashed, the type was thrown in the river,[nb 2] and any remaining papers were either thrown into the blowing wind to be carried off or were used by Jones and his men to burn down 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, they burned Robinson's home on Mount Oread for good measure.[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]


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, respectively).[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]
  2. ^ The type would later be scavenged and melted down by the free-stater Thomas Bickerton, who used it to make cannonballs for the "Old Sacramento" cannon, after the artillery piece was captured during the attack on Franklin's Fort (August 12, 1856).[14]


  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. ^ Durwood Ball (2001). Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848–1861. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 175.
  4. ^ Monaghan, Jay (1984). Civil War on the Western Border, 1854–1865. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 57.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "Copy of David R. Atchison speech to proslavery forces". Kansas Memory. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Monaghan, Jay (1984). Civil War on the Western Border, 1854–1865. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 57–8.
  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.
  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. 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. 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.

External links[edit]

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