“This Unparalleled Outrage…”: An Antebellum Raid on a Federal Arsenal, Part 1

We’ve all heard the story, right? As a fragile country teetered on the brink of civil war, an older, charismatic ‘captain’ gathered an ‘army’ of impressionable young men. In the autumn stillness he led them towards a United States arsenal, intent on capturing arms and ammunition to sustain a campaign centered on the issue on slavery. As the arsenal was seized, government employees were detained as captives. Federal troops were quickly dispatched to the scene to secure public property and keep the peace. News of the raid splashed across newspapers in distant parts of the country, sounding the alarm that those on both sides of the issue were becoming increasingly militant.

If you thought the previous paragraph related to John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, you’d be wrong. Instead, this story focuses on the December 1855 raid on the government arsenal at Liberty, Missouri, orchestrated by pro-slavery judge James Turner Vance Thompson and a company of border ruffians. In spite of these seeming similarities between the two events, Brown’s and Thompson’s raids were starkly different. We’ll work to unpack both sides.

Judge James Turner Vance Thompson (Nelson Atkins Museum of Art)

Judge James Turner Vance Thompson was 67 years old when civil war broke out in 1861 and was feeling every bit his age. Paralysis soon set in on the aged justice, rendering him hardly able to sit without discomfort.

Born in Lincoln County, North Carolina, his father had served in the North Carolina Line during the Revolutionary War. Just five years old when his father relocated the family to the Kentucky wilderness, Thompson himself later relocated to Clay County, Missouri, north of Kansas City on the Missouri River.  Making his home at the county seat of Liberty, he there began a long career in law and politics. First elected to the Clay County court in 1828, he was later elected to three terms in the Missouri Senate and in 1845 made an unsuccessful bid for Sterling Price’s vacated US Senate seat. In politics Thompson was an active Democrat, often serving as a state delegate and twice as a presidential elector, reflecting in 1870 that “…I am and always have been an old-fashioned states-rights Jackson Democrat.”[1]

Clay County, Missouri, ca. 1877 (Missouri Digital Heritage)

Beyond politics, Thompson was seemingly involved in all aspects of Clay County business and culture. He was a founding officer of William Jewell College, even donating the land where the college continues to operate today. He was a stockholder in the local Kansas City & Cameron Railroad and was active in the local agricultural and mechanical association. He also operated and later leased the popular Thompson House Hotel in downtown Liberty.

At home Thompson raised a large family, counting at least seventeen children between three marriages. He was also an unabashed slaveowner. The 1830 census enumerates five slaves to Thompson, increasing to 24 in 1840, and 39 enslaved in 1850. In July 1853, one of Thompson’s slaves was lynched by an angry mob following an assault on a white overseer.[2]

The following year, the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened to topple decades of precarious compromises, opening the territories for settlement and empowering residents to determine via popular sovereignty whether the territories would be admitted to the Union as slave states or free. As northern abolitionists (dubbed ‘Jayhawkers’) raced west to settle the Kansas prairie, proslavery factions (dubbed ‘Border Ruffians’) slipped west from Missouri to swing the territory in their favor. Located on the Missouri – Kansas border, Clay County was uniquely situated to witness – and sometimes incite – the violence and bloodshed that became hallmarks of the Bleeding Kansas conflict. And Judge James V.T. Thompson was only too anxious to place himself squarely into the conflict.

Benjamin F. Stringfellow (Kansas Historical Society)

In January 1855, Thompson was named to a committee of the Kansas Aid Society in Liberty, charged with securing subscriptions to support “all who are willing to go to Kansas” with the aim of “protecting the frontier settlements west of the Missouri River.”[3] In company with notorious Border Ruffians David R. Atchison and Benjamin F. Stringfellow, Thompson called public meetings across Missouri to rouse the “fury the passions of the multitude.”[4] In one speech, Stringfellow urged the crowd to

“…mark every scoundrel that is the least tainted with free-soilism or abolitionism and exterminate him. Neither give nor take quarter from the damned rascals…mind that slavery is established where it is not prohibited.”[5]

Atchison was no less vocal, calling for Missourians “to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district” as a means of upholding slavery.[6] Thompson, Atchison, and Stringfellow were further accused of organizing a secret association

“…to turn out and fight when called on from headquarters, to contribute money to carry out the objects of the association, to share equally the damages that may accrue from the overt acts of any of its members, and to carry these points even to the price of disunion.”[7]

Harkening back to the November 1837 attack on Elijah P. Lovejoy and his abolitionist newspaper, the Alton Observer, Thompson was heard to urge that the press of the moderate Industrial Luminary newspaper in Parkville, Missouri, “should be thrown into the Missouri River, and its editors hung.”[8] Perhaps acting on Thompson’s entreaties, on April 14, 1855, a pro-slavery mob broke into the offices of the paper, threw the press into the nearby river, and ran its editors out of town.

David Rice Atchison (Findagrave)

The following month Thompson was named to a Clay County committee tasked with identifying “all persons in the least suspected of Freesoilism or Abolitionism and notify them to leave the county immediately,” and in July 1855 sat as Vice President of a pro-slavery convention in Liberty.[9] Thompson also acted as an agent for the proslavery Squatter Sovereign newspaper, in Atchison, Kansas, which proclaimed “the same sovereignty in the Territories that he possessed in the States.”[10]

As 1855 waned, violence sparked along the Wakarusa River in the Kansas Territory. On November 21, a proslavery settler shot and killed a free-soil neighbor near the Jayhawker stronghold of Lawrence. Claiming self-defense, the settler surrendered to a nearby proslavery sheriff, who instead arrested a free-soil witness to the incident. Mobs organized on both sides, intent on serving their own versions of justice. After a free-soil mob managed to release the prisoner and retreated to Lawrence, the territorial (proslavery) governor, Wilson Shannon, called out the Kansas militia to retrieve the prisoner.

Responding to Shannon’s call, Benjamin F. Stringfellow and David R. Atchison, began raising border ruffian volunteers across the river in Missouri, recruiting hundreds of men (some accounts suggesting up to 1,500) for a campaign on the Kansas prairie. Before the men could embark, they needed arms and accoutrements to sustain themselves. For this, Stringfellow and Atchison had to look no farther than Judge James Turner Vance Thompson, whose sights were set on a nearby Federal arsenal.

To be continued…

[1] Liberty Tribune [Liberty, MO], August 12, 1870
[2] Hannibal Journal [Hannibal, MO], July 12, 1853
[3] The Kansas Herald of Freedom [Wakarusa, KS], February 3, 1855
[4] St. Louis Democrat [St. Louis, MO], May 16, 1855
[5] Collections of the Kansas Historical Society, Volume 10, 1908, pg 126
[6] Potter, David M. and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848 – 1861. Harper, 1976. Pg. 203
[7] ibid
[8] St. Louis Democrat, May 16, 1855
[9] Kansas Herald of Freedom [Wakarusa, KS], May 12, 1855
[10] Squatter Sovereign [Atchison, KS], February 13, 1855

4 Responses to “This Unparalleled Outrage…”: An Antebellum Raid on a Federal Arsenal, Part 1

  1. Before one tumbles into the rabbit-hole of Missouri politics and how it impacted the situation in neighboring Kansas Territory…
    The Wilmot Proviso, submitted to Congress in 1846, was an unsuccessful attempt to prohibit slavery in “whatever territories would be acquired as result of the 1846 War with Mexico.” In this attempt, David Wilmot showed himself to be a visionary: Wide Awake to what the Democrat Party intended with “the manufactured Mexican border dispute” and what would likely be the end result, i.e. California, Texas, and all the former Mexican possessions in between carved up into countless “new” states, all supporting slavery.
    Two effects of the Wilmot Proviso: David Wilmot left the Democrat Party and joined the Free-Soil Party; and Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, one of the few Democrats to support the Wilmot Proviso, remained in the Party, but split that Party in Missouri. For the remainder of the antebellum period Missouri politics devolved into a three-way contest, pitting Benton Democrats against Anti-Benton Democrats against WHIG candidates. The pro-slavery Democrats of Clay County, Missouri were decidedly of the Anti-Benton faction.
    Fast-forward to 1854 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act ESTABLISHED slavery as the default position in all territories; and in 1857 the Taney Court declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional… all of which provided ammunition for the pro-slavery “just abiding by the Law” agents inside Kansas Territory (many of those agents armed with the guns and ammunition misappropriated from the Federal Arsenal at Liberty.)

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