“This Unparalleled Outrage…”: An Antebellum Raid on a Federal Arsenal, Part 2

See Part I…

For Captain Luther Leonard, an assignment as military storekeeper at the Liberty Arsenal was likely envisioned as a means of easing into retirement. A West Point graduate (Class of 1808), Leonard had already seen nearly forty years of continuous service. As captain of a light artillery battery, he was present for the at least ten engagements during the War of 1812, including the battles at Fort Niagara and Plattsburgh. For more than two decades following he served as sutler to the 5th US Infantry. By his 1845 appointment to the Liberty Arsenal, the years were taking their toll. Described as “a most eccentric, queer, good fellow,” he suffered from a dislocated shoulder, and cataracts that left him with only limited vision.[1]

Liberty Arsenal (Missouri Digital Heritage)

The Liberty Arsenal (alternately known as the Missouri Depot) should not have been a demanding post. Situated on a bluff near the Missouri River and approximately three miles south of Liberty, the arsenal was established in 1837. The ten-acre complex was constructed of locally quarried stone, and bricks that were fired onsite. There were quarters for officers and men, a powder magazine, workshops, laboratories, and the arsenal itself, where a variety of military stores were kept, ranging from cannon and rifles to sidearms, edged weapons, and accoutrements. Originally intended as a means of defense for the early frontier, the arsenal soon transitioned to a convenient ordinance storehouse for nearby Fort Leavenworth and other points west. With no looming threat from hostile Native Americans, Leonard oversaw only a skeleton staff at the facility. Despite the troubles looming just across the border in Kansas, he likely could not have imagined that the Wakarusa War would soon explode on his very doorstep.

On December 4, 1855, Nathaniel Grant, a clerk at the Missouri Depot (and later colonel of the 82nd Missouri Militia), returned from a trip to Liberty and apprised Leonard that he had heard talk about local proslavery militia falling on the depot to procure arms for their coming campaign in Kansas. Grant told Leonard that the talk was likely bluster, and Leonard took him at his word, preparing no means of defense in the event of an attack.

Later that afternoon, Leonard spied Judge James Turner Vance Thompson in the arsenal yard. By his own account, Leonard “walked up to him, and greeted him civilly, and asked him to walk to my quarters.”[2] Thompson demurred, insisting that he’d like to look around the facility. While directing Thompson through the armorer’s shop, Leonard spied a growing crowd in the arsenal yard. Intending to go see the cause of the commotion, he was stopped at the door and instructed that he could not leave. The aged soldier was shocked to find one of the men holding him hostage with Thompson was the father-in-law of his own clerk, Nathaniel Grant, who had warned him of a possible incursion earlier that day. Though feeble, Leonard attempted to push his way out of the building with no success.

“I told them I was an old man, with a dislocated shoulder and but one eye, and I should not undertake to fight with them. I told Judge Thompson I thought it was poor business for the United States to build arsenals for a mob to break them open.”[3]

While confined to the shop, the mob outside grew to upwards of 100 men under the command of Ebenezer Price, who a decade earlier had served in Doniphan’s Expedition during the Mexican War. The mob located keys for the powder magazine and broke open other doors, amassing a collection of swords, pistols, rifles, ammunition, powder, and even three, six-pound cannon. As the mob pillaged the military stores, Leonard queried his captors in the shop.

“Old Sacramento,” a cannon captured during the Mexican War and later seized from the Liberty Arsenal in 1855. The cannon was damaged in 1896 and is today on display in Lawrence, KS (Wikipedia)

“The judge and the others told me there were troubles in Kansas, and they wanted arms, and would do nothing wrong with them. I told the judge this was aggressive of the part of Missouri, and every community was competent to take care of its own affairs, and that the Missourians ought not to interfere. A good deal more was said on both sides, and I felt indignant of the aggression.”[4]

After the loot was loaded into wagons, Price and the mob departed the depot. Judge Thompson was the last one to leave, releasing Leonard on his departure. Though he admitted the judge “did not say an uncivil word to me,” Leonard was incredulous to what had just occurred.[5] “Resistance was useless,” he lamented, leaving him to only protest against “this violent and unlawful seizure.”[6] He quickly sat down to dash off two letters, outlining the events of the day and seeking guidance for how to move forward.

Edwin V. Sumner later rose to the rank of major general and died in 1863 (LC)

Leonard’s first letter pleaded for help from Edwin Vose Sumner, colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort Leavenworth, the nearest U.S. military presence to Liberty. Sumner quickly dispatched Captain (and future Confederate general) William N.R. Beall and one company of the 1st Cavalry with orders to protect the government property at Liberty “if it costs the last man in your company.”[7]

Henry K. Craig, Chief of Ordinance

Leonard’s second letter was sent to Colonel Henry K. Craig, Chief of Ordinance in Washington, DC. Leonard again recounted his experience with “this unparalleled outrage” and advised Craig that the arms had been taken to the Kansas Territory “to engage in some disturbances said to exist among the inhabitants thereof.”[8]

Though cautioned that the armament had crossed state lines, Sumner and Craig opted not to light out in search. “Under any other circumstances I should feel it to be my duty to pursue the marauding party at once, and retake the guns, but I cannot do this without taking sides in this momentous quarrel,” Sumner reasoned.[9] Instead, Leonard would need to be contented with company of men sent to protect those remaining weapons at the arsenal.

The arms had in fact crossed over into Kansas. One account suggests the arms were conveyed in five wagons to a pro-slavery camp on the Wakarusa River, where “they were received with hearty cheers, and their flag hoisted on a tree in the center of the camp.”[10] The cache was then carried to the besieged free-soil stronghold at Lawrence, where it appeared violence might erupt between the warring factions. Cooler heads prevailed, and a peace treaty was signed on December 8. The Liberty Volunteers returned to Missouri with their looted arms only days after seizing them. The so called “Wakarusa War” ended with little bloodshed, but served to foreshadow a bleak decade in Kansas.

William N.R. Beall, later a Confederate cavalry general

Back in Liberty, Beall’s company arrived at the depot on December 7, the captain reporting that he found the robbery “was on a large scale.”[11] The remaining arms were checked against an inventory, finding that Thompson, Price, and the mob had absconded with three pieces of artillery, 55 rifles, 67 sabers, 100 pistols, 20 Colt revolvers,  ammunition, including shot, shell, and thousands of cartridges, equipment, and accouterments. Beall called on the prominent citizens of the area and urged them that the property must be returned.

On December 11, Judge Thompson called on Beall, advising him that the arms and equipment taken from the depot had returned to the Liberty area, and that “the parties who took them are anxious to return them.”[12] Beall directed the material be brought to the arsenal gate, where they would be received. On their return, Leonard inspected the material and found that at least $400.00 worth of arms and equipment had not been returned, including rifles, sabers, pistols, and artillery harnesses. The Ordinance Department in Washington advised Leonard to make up the deficiency by purchasing what could be found in the local area. Colonel Craig later ordered all public property to be removed to the safety of Fort Leavenworth and the St. Louis Arsenal.

Beall’s cavalry remained at Liberty until Christmas when they returned to Fort Leavenworth. In the new year Luther Leonard was reassigned to the arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts. The aged veteran retired to an asylum Somerville, Massachusetts in 1862, where he died in February 1865.

The Liberty Arsenal he left behind was again sacked on April 20, 1861, this time by secessionists under the command of Colonel Henry Lewis Routt, one of the mob who pilfered the arsenal in 1855. The arsenal was decommissioned after the Civil War, and today a Missouri historical marker denotes the site.

Judge James Turner Vance Thompson was arrested and indicted for conspiracy against the Federal government, not for the role he played in the 1855 seizure of the arsenal, but instead for his attendance at an October 28, 1861 meeting of the Missouri General Assembly in which a sham legislature passed an ordinance of secession. Thompson was ordered to serve home confinement throughout the remainder of the war. He appealed to President Andrew Johnson for a pardon, writing that “I am now seventy-two years of age and am paralyzed so that I am scarcely able to sit in my chair.”[13] The pardon was granted in March 1866. When Thompson sought to have his voting rights restored, in lieu of attesting an oath of allegiance he instead referred to the pardon as evidence of his suitability.[14] Thompson expired in 1872 and was buried at Liberty.

John Brown in 1859

There are both tantalizing similarities and stark differences in the 1855 sacking of the Liberty arsenal and John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Journalists and politicians began comparing the two as early as November 1859. We’ll unpack both sides in our final installment.

To be continued…


[1] Findagrave.com
[2] Report of Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas. Washington: Cornelius Wendell. 1856. 1130.
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] National Historical Company. History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri. St. Louis: National Historical Company. 1885. 175.
[7] Mullis, Tony R. Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. 2004. 161
[8] National Historical, 175.
[9] Mullis, 162
[10] National Historical, 175
[11] ibid
[12] ibid, 176
[13] Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865-67, Fold3.com
[14] https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/islandora/object/civilwar%3A2893

5 Responses to “This Unparalleled Outrage…”: An Antebellum Raid on a Federal Arsenal, Part 2

  1. This series of Liberty Arsenal articles is proving to be thought-provoking… While declaring myself to be anti-slavery, I also believe in the Rule of Law. And I can understand the bemusement experienced by citizens of the United States in 1854 after passage of the Kansas- Nebraska Act. Because 34 years earlier, President James Monroe had signed the Missouri Compromise (which specifically laid out “where slavery could be, and where slavery could NOT be”) into Law. The Compromise Bill of 1820, Section 8, states: “And be it further enacted. That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude, not included within the limits of the state [of Missouri], contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited…”
    Suddenly, with the stroke of a pen, the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854 REPEALED “the forever prohibited practice of slavery” within the limits of the Louisiana Purchase. And agents in Missouri broke one law (theft of property from a Federal Government Arsenal) in order to uphold another law (the free movement of property – i.e. slaves – into ANY and EVERY territory of the United States) as permitted by the Kansas- Nebraska Act.
    Bleeding Kansas is only surprising in that it was not more violent.

  2. This does demonstrate that “popular sovereignty” was never going to work. The settlers of the territory would never be allowed to vote for a free state.

    The trouble was the extension of slavery was a national, not a state issue, and pretending it was was just going to lead to conflict.

  3. It was smart of Beall and others to not confront Thompson while they still had the weapons. But, what would they have done if the Missourians had not returned the arms? No government could allow three cannon to be held by persons with unlawful intent. That part of the country was such a pwder keg at the time.

  4. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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