Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 1

with 7 comments


Ruins of the Free State Hotel, Lawrence, Kansas. From a Daguerreotype. (The Kansas State Historical Society)

One of the most surprising things I learned from reading Michael F. Holt’s exceptional book, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, was that the “Sacking of Lawrence” was not the murderous affair I had always thought it was. It led to further research on my part and the realization that I was guilty of combining the stories surrounding the raid on Lawrence with other violent events occurring in the region, an area in which I am a resident. As is often the case with history, I had developed a mythical sense of the day, one that went well beyond the simple destruction of property. This new post series summarizes the findings of my search for the truth about the events of May 21, 1856. Its writing helped to crystallize my understanding of why the Kansas and Missouri borderland became such a focal point for politics in the 1850s. It also revealed that there has been much liberty with the facts and that even today, historians do not agree on all of the specifics.

7 Responses

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  1. Hi Rene,
    Lawrence was “sacked” twice, in 1856 and 1863. In terms of mistaken ferocity, might you be conflating the events of the latter with your current reading about the former? The widespread murder and property damage in the 1863 “Lawrence Massacre” made the Bleeding Kansas era destruction level indeed look like child’s play. It may very well be you already know this, and I only mention it because the 1856 event is not typically exaggerated in the literature or the popular mind.


    Drew W.

    February 17, 2009 at 9:40 pm

  2. Rene,
    Just in terms of the latest stuff, I don’t recall how much detail she went into about the Sacking of Lawrence, but for an overall account of the period I like Nicole Etcheson’s book “Bleeding Kansas”. “Peacekeeping on the Plains” is a really good study that explores the U.S. Army’s role during the period. The “Kansas Territorial Reader”, an essay collection ed. by Virgil Dean, is worthwhile, too. I don’t know of any modern book length accounts of the 1856 event. I am sure there are articles galore from KHQ (like the one you mention above) or Kansas History but I don’t have any read recs from those journals.

    For the Lawrence Massacre I still think Tom Goodrich’s book “Bloody Dawn” is the best.

    Drew W.

    February 17, 2009 at 11:49 pm

  3. Rene,

    I don’t have it in front of me to double check, but my recollection is that Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857 contains an excellent overview of Kansas 1856-58. It may not be precisely what you’re looking for at the moment, but put it on the list — outstanding.


    February 18, 2009 at 6:23 pm

  4. Thanks Drew. Very helpful. If you think of others, please let me know.

    Good tip elektratig. I’ve got Stampp’s book and will take a look.

    Rene Tyree

    February 18, 2009 at 7:55 pm

  5. Hi Rene,

    Here are a few sources you might check regarding information about this event:

    James C. Malin, “Judge Lecompte and the ‘Sack of Lawrence,’ May 21, 1856,” pt. 1, Kansas Historical Quarterly 20, no. 7 (August 1952): 465-494.

    “Governor Reeder’s Escape from Kansas,” Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol. 3, 1886, pp. 205-223.

    Shalor Winchell Eldridge, _Recollections of Early Days in Kansas_. Topeka: Kansas State Printing Plant, 1920.

    James Rawley, _Race and Politics_. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co, 1969.

    Jay Monaghan, _Civil War on the Western Border_. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955.

    William Gienapp, _The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856_. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    My own book, _Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln_ briefly discusses the Sack of Lawrence, but mostly in reference to how it was seen across the North and what it meant for James Henry Lane’s speaking campaign for a free state of Kansas.

    I hope that helps.

    Ian S.

    February 24, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    • Ian,
      My thanks. Great suggestions!
      I’ve seen some of the articles on the Kansas State Historical Society but you’ve highlighted some I have NOT seen so I’m very excited to take a look at those.

      I do have Gienapp’s book and will look closer at that one. Monaghan’s and Rawley also look excellent and I’m anxious to look at your book as well.

      Thanks again!


      Rene Tyree

      February 24, 2009 at 5:55 pm

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