At the center of the anti-slavery movement in Kansas was the city of Lawrence, which had been established in the Fall of 1854 by anti-slavery emigrants from New England. Though hundreds of settlers had moved to Kansas from the east expressly to establish Kansas as a free state, the pro-slavery forces of Missouri had gained control of the Kansas government and, through intimidation, determined to make Kansas a slave state.
In 1856, Lawrence was called home to about 1,500 residents, almost all of whom supported the Free-State movement, and as such, became a target for the Missouri forces.
A previously threatened attack in December 1855, the Wakarusa War, was settled before blood was shed. But the southern sympathizers were determined to “put down” the resistance of Lawrence citizens.
On April 23, 1856, pro-slavery advocate and Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones went to arrest several Free-State men and was shot by an unknown person. Jones would survive the shooting, and on May 11, Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson proclaimed that the citizenry of Lawrence had interfered with the execution of warrants.
In the meantime, a Lawrence newspaper called the Herald of Freedom was actively publishing numerous anti-slavery articles, which had long been a source of bitter contempt to the pro-slavery forces operating in Kansas.
As a result, Sheriff Samuel J. Jones collected a posse of some 700 men intending to destroy the Herald of Freedom offices, as well as another newspaper called the Kansas Free State.
The “posse” gathered on the outskirts of town and stationed a large force and cannon atop Mount Oread. The home of Lawrence resident, and the first governor of Kansas, Charles L. Robinson, was commandeered as the headquarters for the operation. Troops were also posted on every road leading into the city to stop anyone from escaping.
The troops then marched into the city under two flags – one a blood-red flag on which was “Southern Rights,” and the other, the United States flag. The men then went to the newspaper offices, destroyed the presses, and threw them and the types into the river. They then began destroying the Free State Hotel by firing on it with a cannon. When the cannonball missed, the building was set afire and, by evening, was a roofless, smoldering ruin. The troops then began to rob various locations before burning the home of Charles L. Robinson.
One person died during the melee – ironically, it was a pro-slavery proponent who was killed by falling masonry.
The attack, on May 21, 1856, considered by some as the actual first battle of the Civil War that would not officially begin for five more years, further inflamed both parties fighting over Kansas and led to more skirmishes in what is known as the Kansas-Missouri Border War.
Unfortunately, for the City of Lawrence, this would not be its only attack. During the Civil War, it would again be made a target in what is known as the Lawrence Massacre.