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Notable Scumbags of the Civil War VIII: James H. Lane

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Notable Scumbags Of The Civil War – The Eighth In A Series

Sen. James H. Lane, The “Grim Chieftain” 1814-1866

While most Americans are aware of the Civil War to some extent, many tend to romanticize and idealize the struggle, to view it through a gauzy haze largely fueled by Lost Cause hagiography, the Southern apologist, arrant claptrap purveyed most successfully in Gone With The Wind. This is an error. The conflict was miserable and bloody, without glory or grandeur, marked by massive slaughter on a scale never experienced before or after on the North American continent. Nowhere was the war’s innately vicious character more evident than on the Western frontier, on the border between free soil Kansas and slaveholding Missouri. Rather than regular army units in battle, combat was mostly between irregulars, guerrillas in civilian clothes, armed to the teeth, well mounted, hell bent on slaughter and depredation. “Bushwhackers” or “Wildwood Boys” rode for the South, led by the young, handsome, and monstrous William Quantrill, still somewhat known due to Western movies such as The Outlaw Josey Wales (a street is named for him in Alexandria, VA, to that city’s eternal shame).

Few recall his Union counterpart, however, Jim Lane, the Grim Chieftain, captain of the Kansas “Jayhawkers” or “Redlegs.” Tall, gaunt, his scant hair wildly scattered, Lane waged war without mercy upon Missouri, plundered, burned, and murdered. Elected to high office at the state and national level multiple times, an ardent abolitionist and early advocate of black Union troops, a renowned orator, and Lincoln’s important political ally, Lane was also a looter, a killer, a war criminal, and very likely mad to a large degree, as shown by his death by suicide at a relatively young age. While previous subjects like Benjamin Butler had more than one facet to their personalities, they pale in comparison to the complications presented by Jim Lane’s character. He was an ever shifting kaleidoscope of a man, a human landscape that always varied, brave and noble at one moment, self centered, venal, and vicious the next.

Lane was born and raised in Indiana where he practiced law like several of our previous subjects. When the Mexican-American War started, he formed a regiment of volunteers and served with distinction. As always, the conquering hero who survived the war was crowned with the laurels of political office. In 1849, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Indiana, then Congressman in 1853. In that office, with the expediency that marked his career, he voted with the consensus for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created two new territories with the question of whether they should be free soil or slaveholding left up to their inhabitants. The bill’s chief proponent, Stephen Douglas, intended to finally settle this key question of Western expansion, but the legislation was only a recipe for chaos and slaughter. Lane’s supporting vote made his name poison to Indiana Freesoilers and ruined his political prospects in his home state. Impoverished and desperate to make a living for himself and his family, he moved to Bloody Kansas in 1855.

Lane soon established himself as an important political figure in the raw, brand new territory. With his usual agility, he did another political back flip and became the most ardent of the Freesoilers. Tall and homely by any standard, Lane accentuated his striking appearance with rather bizarre attire even by American frontier standards, seal skin coat, cowhide vest with the hair still on, fur cap, and high boots. On the podium, he engaged in a strange sort of strip tease as he harangued the crowd, peeled down to his shirtsleeves as he hurled imprecations and slanders against slaveholding opponents, those who “stood the wrong way on the goose” (shorthand slang of the time for the slavery question). He was renowned as an orator, more for his vehemence and emotional ardor than for logic or reason, but like every good demagogue, he had an uncanny sixth sense for an audience’s mood.

The Free Soil position wasn’t based on racial equality. Only the most ardent abolitionists advocated full civil rights for blacks at that time and they were overwhelmingly regarded as a lunatic fringe. Lane believed in the inherent inferiority of the black race like virtually all white Americans of his day including Lincoln (who had the breadth of character to later transcend this view, to his infinite credit). This benighted outlook persisted in the U.S. as the majority, consensus view well into the mid-20th Century, a reproach upon our claim to be a democracy. Freesoilers largely opposed slavery on economic grounds. They didn’t want Southerners with their virtually costless slave labor to compete against their open hire, wage paying system. Rather than act from altruistic concern over blacks, they wanted to exclude them entirely, to keep Kansas lily white and run along the free labor lines of other Midwestern and Northern states. Lane voted in favor of a clause in the state constitution that would have barred blacks from living in Kansas.

Since the question of whether Kansas was to be free soil or slaveholding had to be settled by a local vote, diehard advocates of both positions flocked to Kansas, intent on stacking the deck. Missourians who lived nearby crossed the border on horseback and claimed to be Kansas residents. Crude and raw rednecks, more likely to settle a question with a pistol or an Arkansas toothpick than a ballot box, they were matched man for man by their Freesoil opponents. Lane was their leading figure. He presided over a Freesoil convention in 1855 in Topeka that drafted an antislavery constitution for the prospective state of Kansas.

Slavery proponents responded with their own document, called the Lecompton Constitution after the town where it was written. Pro-slavery forces had the Federal government behind them and the territorial governor’s support, but the Freesoilers fought on nonetheless for the Topeka constitution, led by firebrands like Lane. Increasingly bitter and violent encounters between Freesoilers and slavery advocates aggravated the situation and added further pressure toward secession and civil war. Lane was in the thick of it, organizing a fortified defense of Lawrence in 1855 in the face of marauding Missouri border ruffians. While I agree with DeGaulle that there’s no such thing as an indispensable man, there’s no doubt that Lane played an instrumental role leading Freesoil resistance in Kansas. Please don’t think of the man as a gallant figure, though. Lane’s idea of fighting back consisted of mounting armed raids into Missouri where he paid the border ruffians back in kind with murdered farmers, burnt buildings, and freed slaves.

Even with the busy, constant press of political intrigue, border raids and escalating violence, Lane still found time in his frontier life to exercise his passions in the private sphere. He challenged one opponent to a duel, the territorial governor, James Denver. A powerful vindictive streak found an outlet in a dispute with a neighbor, Gaius Jenkins, over a plot of land belonging to Lane that Jenkins had acquired. Jenkins was also a Freesoiler and a politician of some note, holding a position as an alderman. P.R. Brooks, a Lawrence resident at the time, related his version of the deadly incident to his father In a letter. According to Brooks, Lane took up residence in a house that Jenkins claimed and warned him not to draw water any more from the well in the front yard. Dependent upon the well for his water and goaded beyond endurance by Lane’s effrontery, Jenkins went to the well early one morning accompanied by four friends, all armed.

Lane came out of the house with a shotgun. He warned Jenkins that he’d shoot him if he dared take any water from the well. With his friends, Jenkins didn’t dare back down and lose face. He went to the well. Lane shot him square in the chest with ninety-eight buckshot. Jenkins dropped to the ground. Alerted by the shot, his grieving, screaming wife raced to Jenkins and took him in her arms, but he was already dead. One of Jenkins’s friends wounded Lane in the leg, but not seriously.

When Lane killed Jenkins, he left a fresh minted widow and four bereaved children, gathered around the freshly slaughtered corpse of their husband and father, weeping piteously. The whole incident sounds like something from a Peckinpah movie, frontiersmen engaged in a desperate, hard scrabble for a living. already beset by enemies, who fall into a stupid, pointless quarrel that ends in death and a shattered family. Jenkins received a huge funeral and there was talk of lynching Lane, but when finally brought to trial, his counsel sowed enough doubt among the jury that he was found not guilty. Lane’s apologists point to this verdict to extenuate this incident in his life, but even though the real truth of what happened will never be known, there’s no doubt that Lane overreacted to the situation with extreme aggression and savagery.

Additional allegations about Lane at this time speak of other passions that raged inside the cadaverous beanpole beyond the urge to kill his fellow man. Enemies on both sides, pro-slavery and Freesoil alike, accused Lane of a lascivious nature and numerous sexual offenses, to include an accusation of rape. Married and with four children, Lane divorced his wife in 1856, but remarried her a year later. As we all know, domestic arrangements do have their upsets, even back in the good old days. Political enemies have regularly accused one another of sexual deviance since Roman times, for example, Thomas Jefferson, vilified by his opponents for having illegitimate black children, with the added force of being actually true in that instance. This by itself is a good reason to view these allegations skeptically. Moreover, the documentary trail to support such rumors about Lane is vanishingly faint. For this reason, I give scant weight to these tales. I will throw it out there, however, in the interest of gossip.

The Civil War’s onset engaged Lane fully. He campaigned mightily on Lincoln’s behalf in the 1860 election. Whether driven by expediency or genuine conviction, he advocated increasingly radical positions, most prominently outright abolition of slavery. When war finally came, Lane provided more than political support for Lincoln. He and the Kansas Frontier Guard stayed in the White House at the war’s beginning to physically protect the President. They were no more than several dozen civilians who lounged about the East Room of the White House when they weren’t performing rudimentary squad drills by gaslight, but they provided Lincoln with badly needed reassurance and psychological support until real troops arrived and permanently cemented his alliance with Lane. Scholars have long debated the precise nature of Lincoln’s relationship with Lane, dubious about whether association with such a disreputable person could have really benefited him. Clad in a halo of sainthood conferred after his assassination, moderns like ourselves forget that Lincoln could be an extremely cynical and sophisticated politician when circumstances required it. While Lane’s opponents made him out as a madman and he gave more than a little support to that contention by his conduct, he was paradoxically a supremely sophisticated, major political operative, important both for the support and the advice he could provide.

The new state of Kansas sent Lane to the U.S. Senate in 1860. In Washington, he impressed onlookers with his refined dress and manners, a dramatic contrast to the leather clad, raving frontier rowdy they’d expected. The itch for action was greater than any desire to legislate and Lane soon returned to Kansas where he raised a brigade of Jayhawkers with himself as their general, the only sitting U.S. Senator to ever concurrently hold that rank. In September 1861, in response to a recent Union defeat, Lane led a force of 600 men into Missouri with the objective of repelling an advance into Kansas by Confederates troops under General Sterling Price. Vastly outnumbered by a huge Confederate cavalry force at Dry Wood Creek, Lane and his men sensibly turned tail and ran, leaving their mules behind for the grinning, whooping Rebs to round up. Muleless but undaunted, Lane’s men tangled with the Rebs again three days later and gave them the worst of that encounter. Both encounters were no more than skirmishes.

Lane and his men headed eastward into Missouri for over two weeks until they reached the prosperous town of Osceola on the Osage River on September 23rd. He’d heard rumors the river town held Confederate money and war materiel and vowed to destroy the place. As with many atrocities in history, accounts vary as to the damage done by Lane and his men, but there’s no doubt he did indeed fulfill that particular promise. The Kansans encountered slight resistance outside Osceola, a few Reb troops and local militiamen (that is, untrained farmers and town men). Heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the Yanks who came equipped with artillery, the Rebs were soon scattered. The Jayhawkers went on a hog wild rampage of looting and destruction. No Confederate property was found, so they took the Osceolans’ property instead, to purportedly include a piano as Lane’s personal cut of the take. It’s even alleged they ransacked the town’s churches. The loot was loaded onto wagons by Jayhawkers, quite loaded as well, having helped themselves to the locals’ liquor supply. Many were so drunk they had to be hoisted onto the wagons with the plunder. Again, while numbers vary depending upon who tells the story, more objective accounts state that Lane summarily executed nine local men after a five minute court martial and then had them buried in a shallow grave. The Redlegs capped the party off by setting the whole town ablaze before they left for Kansas.

Osceola Put To The Torch

Long before the Geneva Convention, even in the mid-19th Century there were well defined rules of conduct in warfare. While the term “war crime” wasn’t used at that time, it was still generally understood that armed combatants weren’t allowed to attack civilians or to put towns to the sack like a ravaging medieval army. This isn’t the only example of a war crime in the Civil War either on the Union side (the sack of Athens, Georgia) or the Confederate (the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow). Nonetheless, the Osceola Raid was remarkable for its open avariciousness and total lack of military justification, with not even a fig leaf to cover up Lane’s actions. As the Union commander, Lane was responsible for Osceola’s sack, an utterly reprehensible, monstrous criminal act that he instigated, multiple acts of theft, arson, and murder under the sanction of Union authority rather than honest combat against an armed foe. It was a foul deed, the worst in a long, checkered career, one that bore bitter fruit as Lane soon learned to his regret.

The war dragged on and the Union strained every sinew to defeat the stubborn Confederacy. Roundly condemned for Osceola, particularly by high ranking Union Army officers, Lane’s military command ended and he was made recruiting commissioner for Kansas. With his fascinating chameleon nature, the man who once bragged he would no sooner buy a black than a mule organized the first black troops in the U.S. Army. In 1862 the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry (Colored) was formed, against the wishes of Secretary of War Stanton pursuant to Lane’s authorization. Lane understood that black manpower added to the U.S. Army as a literal force multiplier would be a key factor in the Union’s ultimate victory. Note that this was a year before the 54th Massachusetts was formed, the subject of the film Glory (no discredit meant to their honorable service). The 1st fought valiantly in Kansas against the Confederates. Lane was also an important supporter of making abolition a primary Union goal in the war. He played a significant role in persuading Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, one of the finer moments in U.S. history, an actual step, however tentative, toward being an actual democratic republic.

Confederate forces remained active in the form of irregular guerrilla cavalry, ready not so much to wage war as a blood feud for many had lost kin and property to Jayhawker bands that despoiled the Missouri countryside. Their leader, the previously mentioned William Quantrill, was an outstanding guerrilla leader and tactician, bold, cunning, and cruel. He and his Wildwood Boys roamed the Missouri forests and emerged only to kill Union soldiers and locals they considered traitors, often before their families. The Osceola Raid had infuriated Quantrill and he vowed revenge with a specific promise to burn Jim Lane at the stake for his crimes. With the careful planning that marked his operations, Quantrill gave precise instructions to several armed bands to coordinate their movements in separate columns toward their goal, Lawrence, Kansas. Hundreds of rough old country boys rode toward Lawrence with blood in their eyes and slaughter in mind, tough, meaner than snakes, many with human scalps hung from their saddles, each man armed with six or seven loaded revolvers. Born to the saddle and used to dozing while they rode, they kept on the move for twenty-four hours. Among their number were Cole Younger and Frank James about whom I believe I need say no more. They crossed into Kansas in darkness, undetected by Union troops. Exactly as Quantrill planned, the columns converged just before Lawrence.

Hell came to breakfast that early dawn of August 21, 1863. The bushwhackers galloped into town, whooping and screaming as they shot down bystanders, and embarked upon an orgy of murder and pillage. Women and small children were spared, one of the few taboos of the border war, but men and even teenage boys were either led out into the street and murdered or shot down where they stood or sat before their shrieking, pleading families. The total death toll is estimated at between 185 and 200, the worst civilian massacre of the Civil War, a deed comparable to WWII atrocities. Every bank and business in the town was robbed and numerous buildings torched, to include all but two businesses.

Murder In The Streets Of Lawrence

And what of Jim Lane amid all the chaos, arson, and indiscriminate slaughter? With the usual quick instincts that made him a political survivor for so long, Lane threw dignity to the wind, jumped out of a second story window, raced away in his nightshirt, and hid deep in the middle of a thick cornfield. There he spent several hours crouched amid the cornstalks, screams and angry shouts in his ears, the smell of smoke in his nose, chiggers viciously biting his bare feet and legs.

Quantrill went in person to Lane’s house and politely inquired of his wife if Lane was at home. Mrs. Lane honestly replied he wasn’t. Quantrill expressed his regrets. Another bushwhacker, John McCorkle, claimed to recognize three pianos in the house as property looted from Missouri. (If this is true, and it may only be Confederate slander, I must wonder, did Lane, in addition to all his other foibles, have some sort of piano fetish? Even in the mid 19th-Century, when you didn’t even have a record player, who the hell needs three pianos?) Deprived of his prey, as second best revenge Quantrill ordered Lane’s home torched, the finest and largest in Lawrence. He formed up his men in good order and left well before any organized Union resistance could arrive. A few cavalry troops made some disorganized attacks upon the bushwhackers, but were easily driven off with the patented bushwhacker tactic of a line charge by hundreds of men, each with the reins in his teeth and a six-gun in each hand blazing away as he rode full tilt toward the enemy.

Despite this major setback, Lane emerged alive from the Lawrence Raid and with a viable political career ahead of him. Quantrill’s civilian massacre became a notorious scandal throughout the North, described in breathless, gory detail by the hundreds of yellow rag newspapers of those days. Prompted by Lane’s destruction of Osceola, Quantrill’s master stroke of mayhem only led to further, worse destruction and human misery. Four days after the raid, on August 25, Gen. Thomas Ewing issued General Order No. 11 that required the mass eviction by Union troops of the four northwestern Missouri counties that immediately abutted Kansas. With ruthless efficiency, men in blue drove civilians away from the farms and hamlets they’d hacked out of the wilderness and set the empty buildings ablaze. Under the implacable leadership of Charles “Doc” Jennison, Jayhawkers systematically burned the counties clean until tall, red brick chimneys were the only sign of human habitation. For decades afterward, the “Burnt Counties” remained unsettled, as if cursed by ghosts of blood, tragedy, and sorrow. The expulsion of a territory’s civilian population as punishment for providing support to the guerrillas (draining the sea that the fish swim in, to put it in Maoist terms), is another war crime comparable to Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front. As noted before, the Civil War was neither good nor ennobling. Nowhere was this more true than on the Kansas-Missouri border.

Lane shrugged off the loss of his house and carried on. Once again, he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln in 1864, giving a key speech before the Grand Council of the Union League that quelled dissent against the increasingly unpopular President. As the North’s fortunes improved with Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta, so did Lincoln’s election prospects until he eventually secured re-election. The war continued to its bitter end. In spite of regular Army officers’ bias against him, Lane managed to secure a position as a civilian aide-de-camp to a general and was present at the Battle of Westport in 1864, an overwhelming Union triumph.

Victory came in 1865 and with it should have come the sweet fruits of peace. Yet they were denied to Lane. Lincoln, his chief and great political patron, was viciously murdered shortly after the war’s end. Lane transferred his allegiance to his successor, Andrew Johnson. The grim border raider acquiesced to Johnson’s policy of Southern appeasement, so much so that he supported the President’s veto of the first Civil Rights Act. One wouldn’t be enacted for almost a hundred years, in 1964 thanks to another Johnson, an ironic coincidence. The vote alienated Lane from the Radical Republicans who ran Congress. Worse, it appalled many Kansas supporters. By trimming his sails to the prevailing political wind, as he had with his vote for Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lane had once again seriously undercut his own position. Ever volatile, prone to crippling fits of depression that often laid him in bed for days, Lane plunged into his own deep black morass of despair. He had frequently threatened suicide in the past when things looked bleak. As with his other threats of destruction, he made good on this promise too. In Kansas in 1866, while riding in a carriage with his brother, he threw himself out and shot himself through the roof of the mouth. After ten long days in hideous pain, he died of the wound.

When I finish these biographic sketches, I try to point out any good the man did as well as the bad. None of the previous horrible people I’ve discussed poses quite the conundrum that James Lane does. Lane had so many, ever shifting facets I’m somewhat uncertain how to approach him. On the credit side, Lane was an early, strong supporter of abolition and black Union soldiers, whether motivated by opportunism or genuine political principle. A brilliant orator and powerful political figure, he supported Lincoln wholeheartedly and played an important role in both of his elections. At the same time, even for a politician Lane was unusually ready to sacrifice his stated values in favor of expediency when it came to legislation. The most salient example of this was his support for Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act, a terrible setback to the cause of human equality in this country. That the vote badly backfired against him is only poetic justice. It can also be said that Lane fought valiantly to preserve the Union and defeat the Confederacy, putting his own life on the line when he could have stayed in the Senate in safety. The easy rebuttal to this, however, is to simply note that Lane’s military service basically amounted to little more than theft and murder, brigandage under the guise of patriotic service. The chief example of this is the Osceola Raid. Also, as his murder of Gaius Jenkins demonstrates, Lane was strongly driven by violent, aggressive impulses, unusually so even in frontier America. Lane’s many crimes simply can’t be excused. Yet I still can’t just write him off as a scoundrel. He was too important for that, politically and historically. I can only conclude that, as Churchill said of Russia, he was a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Bibliographical note: As with previous subjects, I’ve drawn on a number of sources that I found on the Internet to put together this sketch. One important source was an article published in 2001 by the Kansas State Historical Society, Lane And Lincoln by Craig Miner. Another valuable resource for information about Lane’s fatal quarrel with Jenkins was the document repository of Territorial Kansas Online. A good account of the Lawrence Raid and Lane’s narrow escape may be found in The Devil Knows How To Ride, a biography of Quantrill by Edward E. Leslie. For those of you interested in learning about the Kansas-Missouri border war though fiction, you couldn’t do better than to read Wildwood Boys by James Carlos Blake, one of my favorite living writers. I’ll warn you up front, however; it’s not for the weak of heart. One biography of Lane, The Liberator Of Kansas, was written by a personal friend of his, John Speer, and for that reason is probably not objective. Readers interested in a more balanced account of Lane’s life and career should probably read Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan by Edward Collins, for which I’ve provided an Amazon link below:

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