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Sack of Lawrence

May 21, 1856

Tensions in Kansas Territory were high in the spring of 1856. Incidents of violence along the Kansas-Missouri border between antislavery and proslavery factions were on the increase. The proslavery government was headquartered in Lecompton; the free-state government was headquartered in Topeka. Lawrence’s leaders were supportive of the free-state cause. A series of events led to the Sack of Lawrence on May 21, 1856.

Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones, a proslavery supporter, was attempting to arrest an antislavery man on April 23, 1856, when he was shot in the back. Jones survived and was driven out of town by Lawrence freestaters. J. B. Donaldson, a federal marshal determined that freestaters had interfered with the execution of the warrants and were using the Free State Hotel as a fort.

Proslavery supporters along the Kansas-Missouri border were concerned about a growing number of freestaters and had sent out a call to Southern states for able-bodied men to join their cause. About 400 men from Alabama and Georgia answered the call and on May 2, 1856, the expedition arrived near the border to offer military support. Proslavery troops killed abolitionist John Stewart on May 5, 1856. Then Charles Lenhart, an antislavery supporter, was killed while investigating Stewart’s murder.

Amidst the brewing violence was the conflict of competing governments. Judge Samuel Dexter Lecompte, a proslavery supporter, ordered the arrest of Topeka’s free-state legislators on the grounds of treason. Freestaters like Charles Robinson and former governor Andrew Reeder refused to appear before the grand jury. To prevent the freestaters from fleeing, Jones’ stationed a large force of men and cannon near Mount Oread close to Robinson’s house. He posted troops on roads leading into the city.

On May 21, 1856, troops marched into Lawrence with a United States flag and one promoting “Southern Rights.” They attacked the free-state newspaper Herald of Freedom, which had been highly critical of the proslavery government, destroying the presses and throwing the type into the Kansas River. They fired on the Free State Hotel with cannon balls, and then gutted the building with gunpowder and flame. They attacked the Kansas Free State newspaper, looted and vandalized other businesses, and burned Robinson’s house. The troops claimed they were executing the law. One man died during the violence, a proslavery man was killed with falling debris.

When John Brown, Jr, heard about the attack he gathered the men of the Pottawatomie Rifles; they arrived too late to help Lawrence. The Pottawatomie Rifles took their revenge several days later during the Pottawatomie Massacre on May 24, 1856.

Entry: Sack of Lawrence

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2016

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.