The Kansas Frontier Attorneys who Protected Abraham Lincoln
By James P. Muehlberger
On April 27, 1861, a grateful President Abraham Lincoln thanked 116 men-among them 49 Kansans-say-ing that “language was incapable of expressing how great an obligation he and the people all over this country are under to this little band of patriotic men for their services in preventing, as they undoubtedly did prevent, this capital from falling into the hands of the enemy.” Who were the men in this “little band,” and what had they done? Most were battlefield veterans who had fought in General James H. Lane’s army against pro-slavery soldiers in “Bleeding Kansas” during the six years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. After the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln asked these men to bivouac in the White House and serve as his armed bodyguard-the first “Secret Service”-and they likely saved Lincoln’s life. As a result of the recent discovery of documents identifying these men, 18 of whom were Kansas frontier lawyers, their story can now be told for the first time.1
II. "On to Washington!"
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Confederate leaders realized the South was vastly outnumbered. Te Confederates’ best chance for success depended on a quick strike leading to victory. Many believed their best chance for victory would be to eliminate the one person with the courage and determination to “put the foot down firmly” if necessary-Abraham Lincoln. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley said, “Tere was forty times the reason for shooting [Lincoln] in 1860 than there was in ‘65, and at least forty times as many intent on killing him.” Tere were rumors that an army of Confederates, flush with victory after the capture of Fort Sumter, was marching toward the capital to drag Lincoln from bed and hang him from the nearest tree. 2
Washington was located in the red heart of Confederate country. Located 40 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the nation’s capital was a slave-owning city carved out of Maryland. Most of its residents and government employees either owned slaves or were pro-slavery, and the city was completely surrounded by the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. Washington had no fortifications, only a handful of loyal soldiers, and was infested with Confederate spies and saboteurs. Te South rang with cries of “On to Washington!” Jefferson Davis’s wife sent out cards inviting her friends to a May 1 reception at the White House. President Lincoln startled his cabinet by stating, “If I were [Confederate General G.T.] Beauregard, I would take Washington.”3
In April 1861, there was not yet a U. S. Secret Service. No Federal Bureau of Investigation. No Central Intelligence Agency. No well-trained federal agents who could be dispatched to gather intelligence relating to a threatened presidential assassination or overthrow of the government. Most of the 16,000 men in the U. S. Army were out West fighting Indians. Te military force that remained in defense of Washington consisted mainly of loyal government clerks and the military band. Te clerks had been armed, but they knew little about war. Lincoln desperately needed fighting men who could handle a gun, stand under fire, and not hesitate to fire into the face of the enemy. Fortunately for Lincoln, scores of experienced soldiers from Bleeding Kansas had just arrived in Washington to enroll in the army. Jim Lane, who had just been elected as Kansas’s frst U.S. Senator, was their leader. Lincoln summoned Lane, who he had met 16 months earlier during his visit to the Kansas Territory, to the White House to discuss the crisis.4
When Lane arrived at the White House, he gripped Lincoln’s huge, hard hand. At 52, Lincoln was a strapping 200 pounds of muscle on a 6-foot 4-inch frame, his black suit draped over sinewy shoulders and a narrow waist. His shoulders and forearms were so strong that he could hold a heavy, double-bladed ax horizontally in one outstretched arm and hand without a quiver. His gray eyes peered out beneath bushy eyebrows, set in a leathery face. He was the virile figure of his presidential campaign: the strong, independent, Western rail-splitter, and not yet the haggard, hollow-eyed figure of Civil War photographs.
Te men met for several hours in Lincoln’s second-floor office, where a fire crackled and blazed in the marble fire- p lace behind a brass fender. Lincoln’s worktable stood between two tall windows that faced the South Lawn, looking out across the marshes to the jumbled blocks that surrounded the unfinished shaft of Washington’s monument. Lincoln explained the situation and told Lane: I don’t know who I can depend on.” Lane replied, “I’ll organize a body of men who will fire when called upon.”
Te rebels were well known to Lane and the Kansans-they had fought pro-slavery soldiers in successful military campaigns for six years in the Kansas Territory. Lane believed the rumored attack on the White House was a certainty. He knew the mood of his men, some of whom had fought South Carolina men in the Kansas Territory. Knowing them to be rough men ready to do violence on Lincoln’s behalf, Lane warned Lincoln: “Te only trouble is they may fire whether called upon or not. Teir blood is up!” Pro-slavery men had left blood from the friends and family members of the Kansans on the prairie grass. Now it was time to even the score.5
Lane told Lincoln that there must be a display of force at the White House to discourage the Confederates from attacking, as pro-slavery soldiers had shown a dislike for attacking fortified positions in Kansas. He believed that the large East Room could be used and defended as a base of operations for the nearly 50 Kansas fighters he had at his disposal. Lane hoped that the Confederate soldiers would hesitate to attack entrenched, battle-hardened fighters. Lincoln had met most of these rough-hewn Kansans during his visit to the Kansas Territory 16 months earlier, and he quickly agreed to Lane’s proposal.
III. Bloody Kansas
Te Kansas Territory Lincoln had visited in December 1859 was a rugged, deadly place. Te vast territory, a huge swath of open plains stretching west to the Continental Divide and including much of present-day Colorado, had frst been opened to white settlers by the May 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Te question of whether Kansas would be a free or slave state was to be decided by the voters (i.e., white males). Free State and pro-slavery men flooded into the territory in an effort to determine the outcome of slavery in Kansas, and violence quickly ensued. Weapons began flooding into the territory, and partisans on both sides soon became walking arsenals. Newspapers began calling the territory “Bleeding Kansas.”
Lawyers were also attracted to the territory. Land sales and claim disputes led to much legal business. Towns that were county seats (and therefore the sites of courts), such as Leavenworth and Lawrence, were favorites of frontier lawyers. Te vast majority of these men were not graduates of law school, but had trained for the bar by apprenticing themselves to another lawyer. They tended to focus on common sense, rather than highly technical legal analysis. Many soon became leaders of the Free State men.6
IV. "The White House is Turned to...