Kansas Historical Quarterly - The Robinson Rifles
by General William H. Sears
August 1933 (Vol. 2, No. 2), pages 309 to 320
Transcribed by lhn; HTML editing by Tod Roberts
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.
IN 1887-1890 I was one of the instructors at the Lawrence Business College; also a part owner of the school. I organized a military department and had a large company of uniformed men, all students of the school. Taking advantage of a provision of the Kansas military law, I induced the governor to commission me as captain of the company as an independent company of the Kansas reserve militia and named the company "The Robinson Rifles," in honor of Ex-Governor Charles Robinson. When formally notified of this Governor Robinson presented the company with a beautiful silk banner; on one side being the flag of the United States and on the other the great seal of Kansas with the name of the company on it. This flag cost $165, and the governor presented it to the company with appropriate ceremonies and speeches. This company became the best military organization in the state of Kansas. I secured arms from the state for the company, and we were regularly inspected with the regular national guard companies. We secured the use of the armory used by the Usher Guards, or Company H of the National Guard, and drilled there regularly every afternoon at 4 o'clock.
On one occasion the company marched from Lawrence to the home of Ex-Governor Charles Robinson, five miles northeast of Lawrence, followed by all the girl students in the Business College in express wagons, and there on the governor's farm we had target shooting and a picnic dinner. After the dinner we engaged in a sham battle on the lawn while the governor and his wife sat on the porch of their home and witnessed it.
When the legislature met in 1893 the Populist party, in combination with the Democrats, controlled the state senate, and the newly elected governor was a Populist-L. D. Lewelling, of Wichita.1 The house was claimed by both the Republicans and the Populists; but the Republican secretary of state certified that the Republicans had a majority of ten, while the Populists proclaimed they had a majority of ten. When the new legislature met two rival houses were organized in the hall of the house of representatives. Douglas, of Wichita, was elected speaker of the Republican house, and Duns-
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more, of Thayer, was elected speaker by the Populists. For two weeks these rival houses conducted legislation, each ignoring the other; the two speakers sitting side by side at the speaker's stand. Finally the Populists took possession of the house and barred the doors so the Republicans could not get in. Then on the morning of February 15, 1893, the Republican house, headed by their speaker, Mr. Douglas, and their sergeants at arms, broke down the door of the hall of the house of representatives with a sledge hammer and rushing in they forcibly ejected all the Populists. Immediately Governor Lewelling ordered the National Guard to come to Topeka and declared martial law. National guardsmen were placed at every entrance to the capitol and no one was permitted to enter without a pass signed by the adjutant general, Col. H. H. Artz, who, of course, was a Populist.
When the news came to Lawrence that the Governor had called for troops and declared martial law, I sent him the following telegram: "I am competent to handle a company of troops or a larger body of men and I would be glad to organize a company and come to Topeka to help you uphold the constitution and the laws and to preserve order." In anticipation of a favorable reply, I assembled in my law office a few of my friends. At nine o'clock that night I received the following telegram from Topeka: "Come up with the boys in the morning.-L. D. Lewelling, Governor."
I immediately sent my friends out all over town to solicit recruits for my company, and by 11 o'clock I had 61 men enlisted. These were assembled in Jeffersonian Hall, on Eighth street on the south side near New Hampshire, the next morning at eight o'clock. There I lined up my company and asked all who had seen military service to take one step to the front. More than half of the men stepped forward. Then I formed the company in sets of fours; numbers 1 and 4 being the well-drilled men, and numbers 2 and 3, the undrilled men. I soon learned that the Santa Fe train for Topeka was two hours late; therefore, I had about three hours to train the men in the most important movements.
In the meantime the news got out in town that I was organizing a company to go to Topeka. Men who were opposed to my movement went to the Santa Fe ticket agent and asked him to refuse to sell me and my company tickets for Topeka. He at once declined and said that it was his duty to sell to everybody; then this self-appointed committee went to Bud Hindman, the sheriff of Douglas county, and asked him to organize a force of deputy sheriffs and put me and my
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company under arrest and confine us in the Douglas county jail. The sheriff declined to act. Then this committee telephoned to Geo. T. Nicholson, general passenger agent for the Santa Fe railroad at Topeka and asked him to instruct the Santa Fe agent at Lawrence not to sell us tickets. Again a refusal was made. Then this committee telephoned to Mr. Douglas, speaker of the Republican house, with the result that he ordered 300 of his 600 armed sergeants at arms to proceed to the Santa Fe depot in Topeka and arrest my company when it arrived, and put it in the Shawnee county jail.
About nine o'clock, while drilling my company, Governor Lewelling called me on the long-distance telephone and asked me if I had organized a company and if I would bring it to Topeka. I told him my company was organized and I was drilling it, and would come to Topeka on the train which was two hours late. I said that his telegram, under the constitution and laws of Kansas, was equivalent to a commission and that he had full power to authorize me to organize a company, but that I wanted him to have a commission made out for me dated February 15, and delivered to me when I arrived in Topeka. I also asked him to instruct his ordnance sergeant to have uniforms, arms, and belts filled with cartridges laid out for me in the arsenal ready for my company when it arrived. All this the governor promised to attend to promptly.
I resumed drilling my company until about 10 o'clock, when again Governor Lewelling called me on the telephone. This time he told me that his spies had reported that the Douglas house had sent 300 armed deputies to the Santa Fe station in Topeka to arrest the members of my company and put them in the Shawnee county jail, and asked me, "How are you going to get here?" I told the governor not to worry, that I would be there.
After this conversation with the governor I continued to drill my company until it was time to go to the train. We marched to the Santa Fe depot and there I purchased tickets for Topeka for all my men. After boarding the train I called my officers around me: George O. Foster, now registrar at the University of Kansas, first lieutenant; my brother, Clarence H. Sears, second lieutenant; Frank O. Hellstrom, orderly sergeant; J. E. Miles, of Atchison, second sergeant; Percy Daniels, Girard (son of the Populist lieutenant governor of Kansas, Col. Percy Daniels, of the Seventh Rhode Island artillery in the Civil War), third sergeant; Otis S. Allen, fourth sergeant, and Wm. T. Dias, of Jefferson county, whose
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father was one of Stonewall Jackson's foot cavalry, fifth sergeant. I repeated to these men what the governor had told me over the telephone. I assigned to each of these officers a proportionate number of the company, then I went through the train and instructed each man to obey his immediate officer until further orders.
As the train was approaching Topeka, I had the officers assemble their squads on the steps of the long train on both sides of it, and when they were about a quarter of a mile from the station in Topeka they jumped off the train. Each officer took his squad by a different street and they walked in scattered formation, like civilians, and all assembled, at the same moment, at the west end of the city library building, which stood in the northeast corner of the capitol grounds. When the train arrived in Topeka, the platform was packed with armed deputy sergeants at arms. I went out of the front door of the smoker on the left side of the train, ran around the engine and took a hack for the capitol. For a fee of one dollar the hackman drove his team at a gallop all the way. On arriving at the National Guard line that surrounded the capitol, I was admitted by the officer of the day on my commission signed by Gov. Lyman U. Humphrey, as captain of the Robinson Rifles, and still good under the constitution and laws of the state for eighteen months. I immediately reported to the governor in his office, informing him that my company would be ready for duty in thirty minutes. I then went into the adjutant general's office, put on my uniform, sword and revolver and ran to the city library building. There my company was just forming. We crossed the capitol grounds from the library building to the arsenal at double time. In less than thirty minutes we were uniformed, rifles loaded and bayonets fixed, and immediately marched to the governor's office. I formed my company in the hall in front of the executive offices and there Governor Lewelling received it and complimented the men upon their loyalty to duty and to the state, and said that he would have quarters assigned to us in the building in a few minutes.
While waiting to be assigned to quarters, a young man approached me wearing a red badge and inquired if this was the Lawrence company. I replied in the affirmative. He then said, "Come this way with your company." I believed he was a messenger from the governor. The executive offices, at that time, were in the east wing of the capitol. I followed the messenger with my company through the corridor and the rotunda until we reached the great stairway going up to the hall of the house of representatives. At
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that time I really did not know where I was, as I had not visited the capitol for several years. We found the stairway barricaded with great telephone poles, the ends of the two lower ones separated from the wall on the stairs by about three feet. Our guide passed through this opening and we followed him in single file. Suddenly we found ourselves in front of the door of the lobby leading into the hall of the house of representatives. There I was confronted by Col. D. R. Anthony, of Leavenworth, Speaker pro tem. Hoch, afterwards governor, and Commissioner Green of the supreme court. Colonel Anthony said to me, "What company is this?" "This is the Robinson Rifles, independent company of the Kansas Reserve militia," I replied. Colonel Anthony then asked, "By what authority do you come here?" I replied, "By the authority of L. D. Lewelling, governor of Kansas." At this statement, the men confronting me and others who had assembled with them, seemed to be much excited. At that moment my orderly sergeant, Frank O. Hellstrom, whispered in my ear: "Captain Sears, this is the Douglas house, for God's sake let's get out of here!" Immediately I gave the order, "Company, about face! Forward, march!" The company, in reverse order, went rapidly down the stairs in single file and in a few minutes we were again lined up in front of the governor's office. The members of my company felt that this was a very narrow escape from capture by the 600 armed deputies of the Douglas house.
Very soon after this incident my company was assigned quarters in the corridor below the executive offices, the supreme court being on the south side and the state library on the north. Here I formed my company in line of masses four deep with the lieutenants in the rear, and addressed the men in these words: "If any members of this company feel that they have joined it under a misapprehension and would like to be released, I say to you now that you can step out of the ranks, go to the arsenal and leave your uniforms and arms there and go home. I guarantee no member of this company will ever criticize you for thus resigning, and not one of us will ever call you a coward. I await your decision." The men stood tense and silent for more than a minute. Not one of the company left the ranks; then my brother, Clarence, the second lieutenant, said in a deep voice: "Not a damn man!" This sententious, and slightly profane, statement brought a storm of cheers from the men and all pounded the floor with the butts of their rifles. Indeed, the cheering
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and pounding of rifles made so much noise that the governor sent messengers to find out what was the matter.
At this point I must explain that five of my company of sixty-one men failed to appear for muster in Jeffersonian hall that morning. I never saw them to know them afterwards. Of the remaining fifty-six men, six were Prohibitionists, twenty-four were Republicans, and twenty-six were Democrats.
After the cheering subsided, I said, "I am proud of this company, and I shall now administer to you the most solemn oath ever administered to man, and that is the military oath." Every man raised his right hand and I read the oath to them and they all assented to it. Then I said to them: "I received an order from Governor Lewelling to bring this company to Topeka to assist him in upholding the constitution and laws of this state and in preserving order. He has given me a commission as captain of this company, dated yesterday; therefore, my authority is complete, under the constitution and laws of this state. I shall obey every lawful order given me by the governor, and I expect this company to obey my orders. You are now soldiers, and it is not for you to question the reason for orders; as Tennyson said in his famous poem, `The Charge of the Light Brigade,'
"`Theirs' not to make reply,
Theirs' not to reason why,
Theirs' but to do and die."'
Following this brief address, the first platoon of my company, under Lieut. George O. Foster, remained in quarters; the second platoon, under Second Lieut. Clarence H. Sears, was assigned to protect the arsenal. On arriving at the arsenal Lieutenant Sears brought out the Gatling gun, which was a machine gun, and put an old sergeant of the regular army, who was in his platoon, in charge of it. I instructed Lieutenant Sears that if the great mob assembled in the streets, made an attack, he should turn this Gatling gun on the mob and instruct his men to act as sharp shooters and shoot only the men who had guns in their hands and were firing. My instructions were that not a shot must be fired by my men unless they were fired upon first.
The morning of the 17th I was made officer of the day and was in charge of the guard line. Early in the forenoon I was standing on the east steps of the capitol when a rush was made on the guard line. One of the guards was Coryell Faulkner. His father was a Civil War veteran, and at this time was superintendent of the
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soldiers' orphans' home at Atchison. When the rush came, Faulkner ordered "halt" three times, but the attackers refused to obey and Faulkner leveled his rifle at them and pulled the trigger. The cartridge failed to explode. Afterwards I took the rifle from Faulkner's hands, a breech-loading Springfield, threw up the breech block and ejected the cartridge. An examination showed that the firing pin was bent so it did not hit the cap, and therefore the cartridge failed to explode. I said to Faulkner, "Did you attempt to fire on that mob?" Faulkner replied; "I was graduated from the military school at Mexico, Mo., and I was taught to order halt three times and if the order was not obeyed, to fire. I ordered halt three times and the mob failed to stop, so I pulled the trigger." I was deeply moved and shocked by Faulkner's statement, for I realized that if one shot was fired into that mob, which was composed of thousands of people crowding the streets near the capitol, a great battle would have been precipitated and no doubt hundreds would have been killed and wounded.
A few days after the "Topeka War" was over, I sat at a marble table in the parlor of the old Dutton house, in Topeka. Around this table sat Walter Costigan, editor of the Ottawa Journal; State Senators Baldwin and John W. Leedy, afterwards governor, and the famous Populist orator, Mrs. Mary Ellen Lease. I told the story of the rush on the guard line and exhibited the cartridge. All of them examined it. As Mrs. Lease held it in her hands, she said, "Because of this courageous, soldierly act of Coryell Faulkner, his father shall remain as superintendent of the soldiers' orphans' home at Atchison." That night there was a conference of prominent state leaders with Governor Lewelling in the parlor of the Throop hotel in Topeka. I came in a little late and the governor called me to him and gave me a seat. beside him on a sofa. He immediately turned and put his hand on my knee and said, "Here is a young man that saved me from humiliation and disgrace, and possible assassination." For the second time I exhibited the cartridge that failed to explode, and after all had examined it I presented it to the governor. He accepted it and said, "I shall preserve this cartridge as the most important exhibit of the `Topeka War.'" I have never seen this cartridge since.
To go back to the rush on the guard line, I must explain that I ran to the quarters of the first platoon of my company, Lieutenant Foster in command, and ordered him to move on a run with his men
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with bayonets fixed and rifles loaded, to the first stairway west of the governor's offices and head off the mob which was headed for the hall of the house of representatives, every man loaded with provisions to feed the starving members of the Douglas house and the 600 deputy sergeants at arms. I accompanied Lieutenant Foster and we succeeded in cutting off about half of the mob before they got into the rotunda and pushed them back down the corridor past the governor's offices and down the steps at the point of the bayonet. and on out into the street. All the time the line of bayonets was pushing them back, this mob was shouting and swearing, with white faces, but not one of them fired, though they were all armed with revolvers and guns. They knew that one shot fired at my company would release a storm of Springfield rifle bullets, and no man had the nerve to fire.
The only person injured in the rush of the mob on the guard lines was Doctor Pattee, who appeared to be near the guard line when the rush came and was struck over the head with a revolver and blood ran down his face. I witnessed this incident myself. Doctor Pattee was then living in Topeka. He now lives in Lawrence, and is the owner of the Pattee Theater building. I think he must have been an innocent bystander at that time.
By this time the feeling had become so intense at Topeka, and the partisan feeling and party lines were so tightly drawn, that the leaders on both sides realized that a violent outbreak was imminent. It was learned that many excursion trains were arriving in Topeka loaded with armed Populists and Democrats. All available arms and ammunition in every town in the state had been purchased by the rival parties and it looked as though we might have civil war at any moment. President Harrison wired the troops at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley to be prepared to move on Topeka at any moment. At this critical juncture, Col. O. E. Learnard, of Lawrence, then owner and publisher of the Lawrence Journal, now the Journal-World, urged the leaders of both parties to send for Ex- Governor Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas, then living on his great farm five miles northeast of Lawrence. This was done, and when the governor arrived a conference composed of the leaders of both parties was held in the old Copeland hotel, one block east of the capitol grounds. At this conference Governor Robinson pointed out that the only way to prevent civil war and bloodshed, which would be a lasting blight on the fair name of the state, was for the rival parties to come to some agreement; in other words,
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make a treaty of peace. The governor suggested that both sides to the conflict agree to submit the whole controversy that had divided the house of representatives into two bodies to the supreme court for decision, and that both sides must agree to abide by this decision, whatever it might be. Governor Robinson's suggestion was adopted, and immediately the governor's order declaring martial law was recalled, and all the troops assembled were ordered home.
The adjutant general's office furnished me a transportation order, and I returned to Lawrence with my company, after a four-days' absence. When our train drew into the station at Lawrence I was surprised to find an enormous crowd assembled there. I formed my company in a hollow square on the platform and there we were welcomed home by appropriate speeches. A large push truck was used for a platform, and Jesse J. Dunn, of Garden City, a student in the university, presided. Some years later Dunn was elected chief justice of the supreme court of Oklahoma. Mr. Dunn introduced Ex-Governor Charles Robinson and he made the principal speech of welcome. He said, "Captain Sears, I charge you to preserve the muster roll of this company, for it is a roll of honor. This company responded to a call of duty and assisted the governor of the state in upholding the constitution and the laws and preserving order at Topeka." In responding to the address of welcome by Governor Robinson, I said, "I named this company the 'Robinson Rifles' in honor of Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas. As measured by his achievements, he is the greatest man this state has produced. We feel signally honored to have the governor present at our homecoming and are delighted with his words of welcome and commendation.
"I hold in my hand a printed circular showing that last Friday night a mass meeting was held at the armory in Lawrence, called for the purpose of showing disapprobation of my action in enlisting `irresponsible men and boys under the name of the "Robinson Rifles" and taking them to Topeka to assist Governor Lewelling to trample constitutional liberty under foot.' `Irresponsible men and boys!' Why, my friends, the best blood in the state flows in the veins of the members of this company. I see before me George O. Foster, of the University; Otis S. Allen, whose father is one of the justices of our supreme court; F. Percy Daniels, whose father was colonel of the Seventh Rhode Island artillery during the Civil War and is now lieutenant governor of Kansas; Fred A. Clarke, whose father is a distinguished citizen of Kansas and served a term as sheriff of
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Douglas county; Charles Henry Lease, whose mother, Mary Ellen Lease, is a famous orator and now president of the Kansas State Board of Charities; and many other fine young men compose this company. No partisan consideration marked the action of the members of this company in joining it, because six members are Prohibitionists; twenty-four are Republicans; and twenty-six are Democrats. Good citizenship always rises above party considerations or factions. I am proud of the loyalty and good discipline exhibited by the members of this company, and I wish to say to Governor Robinson that we will preserve this muster roll as a roll of honor."
Headed by a band, I marched my company up town from the station, followed by a vast procession of citizens from Douglas, Jefferson, Leavenworth and Johnson counties. The sidewalks were packed with people and many were on the roof tops and at the windows. We marched into Jeffersonian Hall, and there I dismissed the company.
While we were absent from the city I was subject to abusive statements in the daily papers of the town, and for a time I suffered a social and business boycott. To counteract this I wrote a brief story in which I set forth the constitution and the military laws of the state; the telegraphic order from the governor to organize the company, and the commission I received from the governor as captain. The law and the facts were with me, absolutely, and when this story was published in the Lawrence Journal my old friends began to come back to me, and many of them apologized for refusing to recognize me or speak to me on the streets.
In recognition of my conduct in the Topeka legislative war, Governor Lewelling appointed me brigadier general of the Kansas National Guard, and before my term of service ended I was promoted to senior brigadier in command of the National Guard of the state.
I had grown up in the National Guard, had commanded two school companies and the "Robinson Rifles" in the Business College, and was also drill master of the Indian regiment at Haskell Institute for two years. While in command of the National Guard I was given a free hand by Governor Lewelling and put into effect the following reforms:
1. I established a system of target practice; provided the noncommissioned officers with target manuals and the commissioned officers with copies of "Blunt's Target Practice." A great quantity
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of fixed ammunition had accumulated in the arsenal at Topeka, and I shipped most of this out to the companies. Sharpshooter and marksman badges were distributed to the men for efficiency at the rifle ranges.
2. When I took command there were four regiments of infantry in the state. I disbanded half of the companies and reorganized the balance into two regiments. The allotment of military supplies from the federal government was then sufficient to provide these two regiments with everything they needed, including overcoats, blankets and tents.
3. I organized a troop of cavalry, one platoon being at Lawrence, and the other at Baldwin, and they met for drill, part of the time at Lawrence, and part of the time at Baldwin, and when the weather was good and the ground fit, the two platoons met at Vinland for drill. The men furnished their own horses, for which a small allowance was made to them.
4. I established engineer, hospital and signal corps, and when these organizations were perfected the National Guard of Kansas was a complete, independent military force, comprising all arms of the service; for we had a battery of artillery with machine guns, one section being at Wichita, and the other section at Topeka.
5. I organized a school for the officers, numbering 125 men, and sent them to Fort Leavenworth with their tentage, blankets, fatigue uniforms and arms, and there they were drilled by regular army officers in the daytime and attended lectures given by army officers, in Old Sherman Hall, at night. Seven army officers, who were instructors in the post-graduate school at Fort Leavenworth, were our instructors. We found at this school the largest military library in the world, and we considered our instructors the best in the world. Before we left this school, through the solicitation of army officers, nearly every National Guard officer had subscribed to some military magazine and had purchased important books on military science. Some years later, while private secretary to Clara Barton, of the Red Cross, and at that time a member of her family, it came to me to entertain Lieut. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, and during our nearly two hours conversation I told him about the school for National Guard officers I had organized at Fort Leavenworth; whereupon General Miles said, "General Sears, I didn't know you were the man that organized that officer's school; but I made the details of the officers for your instructors. The regular army had been holding its right hand out to the National Guard for many years in vain, and you
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were the first one to start a movement to bring us together." The Army and Navy Journal gave us a long story about the organization of this school, and immediately I received letters from nearly every adjutant general of the United States asking me for details about the school, with the result that in a short time there were National Guard officer schools organized in every state of the Union, except Nevada.
6. There had been no encampments of the National Guard in Kansas for seven years. The legislature had refused to appropriate money for camps. But I found the money and reestablished them. Each of the thirty-two companies in the National Guard were receiving annually $300 for contingent company expenses. The company at Hill City paid only one dollar per month for an armory, and the captain had accumulated over $600 in the bank, which he later returned to the state military fund. Other companies, that paid little for armory rent, blew in the surplus on balls and parties. I issued an order providing that each company would be paid the actual cost for armories and other necessary expenses. In a short time there was saved about $6,000, and to this was added some $3,000 more from a military fund, and these funds were used for reestablishing encampments. The officers and men served without pay at the encampments, and the city that secured an encampment furnished the wood for campfires, straw for the tents and, in one case, the bread and beef also.
In recognition of my work for the National Guard I have been accorded the honor of invitations to West Point commencements ever since 1926 and have attended five of them.
The officer's school that I organized at Fort Leavenworth was continued for four years prior to the war with Spain, with the result that the Twentieth Kansas, in the Spanish American War, which was composed largely of the officers and men of the two regiments of the National Guard of Kansas, made a fine record in the Philippines under the leadership of Gen. Wilder S. Metcalf and Gen. Frederick Funston.
1. See, also, J. Ware Butterfield's "The Legislative War of 1893: Inside, Outside, and Back Again," in Kansas Historical Collections, v. VII, pp. 453-458, and W. P. Harrington's "The Populist Party in Kansas," ibid., v. XVI, pp. 403-450.