A slippery opportunist with a violent temper, the senator-soldier from Indiana played a big role in the early history of Kansas.
With his small family and their belongings in tow, former U.S. Congressman James H. Lane slipped quietly into Kansas Territory in April 1855—leaving behind the shattered remnants of a once-promising political career. A year earlier the Indiana representative had cost himself the backing of his stunned constituents by supporting the unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now he was looking for a new life on the broad prairies of Kansas, a troubled and virtually lawless land carved out by the passage of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’ historic act.
Already, eastern Kansas was filling with Free Soil supporters and proslavery emigrants—ideological foes drawn from the Ohio Valley, New England and Missouri to settle the land according to Douglas’ controversial principle of “popular sovereignty.” Soon this border ground would teem with scores of dangerous characters, all willing to settle their differences with violence—the likes of hard-fighting Ohioan James Montgomery, slavery’s sworn blood enemy John Brown and gunslinging Missouri Senator David Atchison.
The garrulous Jim Lane fit right in. A slim 6-footer with sunken cheekbones, wild hair and wilder eyes, he was a zealous, grim specter of a man with unwavering convictions and steadfast visions of glory. He tended to pontificate just like his father, Amos, a legendary congressman who had reportedly “commanded an eloquence that could raise a hurricane or melt his audience to tears.” All theatrics and passion, the younger Lane lacked Amos’ intellect; he was, one contemporary said, “by nature an actor.” But like his father, his appearance on a stage, the back of a wagon, even a tree stump could drive an audience mad.
By 1855 Jim Lane was also a figure of considerable reputation. Born on June 22, 1814, in Lawrenceburg, Ind., the third of seven children, he was an amalgam of his earliest influences: his father, the crafty lawyer and politician; his schoolteacher mother Mary; and his two older brothers—one a future assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury and the other a West Point–educated soldier.
Lane began his career as a merchant, running the dry goods business J.H. Lane & Co. But a natural inclination to speak his mind eventually pushed Lane onto the stage history had reserved for him. Passing the Indiana bar at age 26, he followed his father into the law profession and the hurly-burly world of Western politics, where he argued the Democratic Party agenda with ferocity.
In 1846 the outbreak of war south of the border spawned bright new prospects for ambitious men willing to risk death in Mexico’s hinterlands. Lane jumped at the chance, and his popularity among Indiana’s volunteers earned him the colonelcy of the state’s new 3rd Infantry. One of General Zachary Taylor’s volunteer regiments, Lane’s 3rd made a name for itself in the February 1847 Battle of Buena Vista, combining with the Mississippi Rifles of Colonel Jefferson Davis to repel a heavy Mexican cavalry charge. Lane later raised another regiment, the 5th Indiana, but the war ended before it saw action.
The modest success of the “Steadfast Third” set Lane on the path to political stardom. Indiana voters made him lieutenant governor in 1849, then sent him to the U.S. Congress. However, he was soon undone for voting in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Since many Indianans vehemently opposed the spread of slavery, that vote represented either a serious error in judgment or a calculated step taken with a new future in mind. (Rumors flew of some backroom deal with Douglas but went unproved.) Regardless, Lane was finished in his home state—it was now Kansas or bust.
Residents of the developing Free Soil town of Lawrence welcomed Lane to their community with curiosity and speculation. (Mrs. Lane found the transition somewhat less enjoyable. She soon returned to Indiana and filed for divorce.) The eccentric Hoosier’s position on slavery was unclear, and the stance of such a prominent citizen was sure to become crucial. Already the territory’s proslavery faction had gained the upper hand with the election (obviously aided, the Free Soilers alleged, by ballot stuffing) of a legislature that shared their sentiments, based at Shawnee Mission. While debate raged over the legality of the new government, Lane waded the territory’s turbulent political waters—quietly gauging the chances of organizing Lawrence-area Democrats and observing the strength of pro- and antislavery sentiment. A number of Kansans believed he was in favor of slavery; others thought he was on the fence. One Missourian who had served under Lane in Mexico encountered the former colonel near the Kansas border and assessed that Lane “had not then decided on which side he would cast his fortune, as he carefully avoided any expression that would indicate the party he would support.”
Among his new neighbors, Lane found little support for the Democratic Party, which, along with President Franklin Pierce, supported the territory’s “legally” elected legislature. But he sensed opportunity within the loose ranks of the fledgling Free State Party, formed by disgruntled antislavery residents in September 1855. Having determined his new political course—one he hoped would lead to the U.S. Senate—Lane deftly politicked his way into party leadership and the presidency of its constitutional convention, which opened in Topeka on October 23.
The gathering in Topeka deter- mined the Free State Party’s path and made Lane a national figure once more. No one in Lane’s Kansas audiences had seen or heard anything quite like him; he stalked stages like a fanatical preacher, rocking lecterns with his furious theatrics and converting enemies to his flag with the force of his personality. Rallying around Lane’s impassioned cries for a new, “legitimate” state government to oppose the legislature, Free Staters produced a constitution written to speed Kansas’ admission to the Union as a nonslavery state.
In the midst of a remarkable political rebirth, Lane jumped at a chance to show off his soldiering skills in Kansas’ brief “Wakarusa War”—a nearly bloodless affair that unfolded in November 1855 with the killing of a Free State settler by a proslavery man. Tension between the enemy factions exploded, and an angry 1,200-man proslavery army gathered to attack Lawrence—which Lane and fellow party leader Charles Robinson had transformed into a fortified camp. Icy December winds interceded to freeze the Kansas plains and cool tempers before fighting erupted. But members of the government in Topeka remembered Lane’s conspicuous role in protecting the heart of Free State country: When the legislature met for the first time the following March, it rewarded the now widely popular Lane (along with Pennsylvanian Andrew H. Reeder) with berths in the Senate—assuming, of course, that Congress accepted Kansas’ application for statehood.
Considering the territory’s still tiny population (perhaps 9,000) and the questionable status of this second territorial government, statehood seemed a virtual impossibility, however. Hostile congressmen all but shouted Lane out of Washington when he arrived to deliver Kansas’ sloppy application in April 1856. Statehood would not come for another five years.
Returning west, Lane prowled the lecture circuit, delivering speeches to electrified crowds and raising money for the Free State cause. Meanwhile, tensions mounted back home. On May 21, fiery Missouri Senator David Atchison led a band of proslavery “Border Ruffians” into Lawrence. “If one man or woman dare stand before you,” Atchison bellowed, “blow them to hell with a chunk of cold lead.” Spurred by free-flowing rhetoric and liquor, the guerrillas destroyed the presses of Lawrence’s two newspapers and went on to burn the Free State Hotel—the hated symbol of the abolitionist heartland.
The next day in the nation’s capital, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks—spurred on in part by Charles Sumner’s recent “Crime Against Kansas” speech—beat the Massachusetts senator senseless with his cane. Enraged by these events, 56-year-old antislavery fanatic John Brown took it upon himself to exact revenge: In the darkness of May 24-25, he and a handful of followers slaughtered five proslavery settlers along Kansas’ Pottawatomie Creek—an atrocity that Brown deemed was God’s will.
The bloodshed of May sparked outright war in the Kansas-Missouri borderlands, as Missouri “Bushwhackers” clashed with bands of Kansas “Jayhawkers.” Indicted by territorial authorities for treason (along with other Free State officers), Lane returned to Kansas under an alias, opening a new emigrant road into the territory to replace old routes blocked by gun-toting Missourians. With the sides skirmishing along the border, Lane led a series of raids on proslavery strongholds while eluding federal troops, marshals dispatched to arrest him, and Missouri gunmen after his hide.
Eventually the warrant against him lapsed, and Lane hit the road again, this time to stump for Republican presidential candidate John C. Frémont. He even returned to Indiana to mend fences with his ex-wife, whom he remarried and brought back to Lawrence. Then, on October 5, 1857, under the watchful eye of Lane and some Free State volunteers, Kansas voters elected a new legislature with a Free State majority. That governing body convened on December 7 and named Lane major general of the territorial militia. With a single antislavery legislature in place and a steady stream of Northern settlers pouring into the territory to increase its majority, Kansas’ path to statehood now seemed clear.
Jim Lane’s promising future nearly vanished in a few moments of frontier violence the following year. For months the pugnacious politician and a man named Jenkins had been at odds over the use of a well on land each claimed to possess. On June 3, 1858, Lane warned Jenkins and three friends away from his property; when they ignored him, Lane repeated his warning at gunpoint. But Jenkins and his associates kept coming, and Lane opened fire—killing his nemesis with a shotgun blast. Lane was wounded in the leg.
Although he was eventually acquitted of murder, Lane nevertheless found himself widely despised and bereft of political stock. He spent the next year scratching out a living as a lawyer from his Lawrence home. Then, on March 17, 1859, the city newspaper published a letter from Lane in which he defended his shooting of Jenkins. Kansas’ political chameleon played coy, meekly asking for “the right of free speech and permission to labor as a private in the great Jeffersonian Republican party of freedom.”
But with Kansas’ political future—though not its violent tendencies—settled and the state’s admission to the Union on the horizon, Lane was in full comeback mode, adroitly rehabilitating his image in time for the upcoming national elections. At stake was the Senate seat he had barely glimpsed three years earlier.
Courting the religious vote, Lane publicly embraced the Methodist faith, the land’s most popular Christian denomination. He then hitched his wagon to the young Republican Party and hit the campaign trail in support of dark horse presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln—garnering headlines for the lanky Illinoisan and firming up his own shaky support back home. “He would go to a place where they were about resolved to hang him,” Lane supporter John Speer wrote, “and come back with Lane for the Senate inserted in their resolutions.” Speech followed fiery speech; again Lane’s work paid off.
Kansas joined the Union as a free state—the nation’s 34th—on January 29, 1861, and veteran Free Staters celebrated their hard-fought victory. On April 9, the state legislature confirmed its first U.S. senators, longtime enemies Samuel Pomeroy and James Lane. On April 12, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, compelling President Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers with which to quash the rebellion. Naturally Lane led the charge out of Kansas, tramping into jittery Washington, D.C., three days later as the captain of 120 “Frontier Guards”—hard-bitten, gun-toting Lane loyalists eager to defend Lincoln and the capital. The rough Westerners camped out in the Capitol’s East Wing, under the eye of the “gaunt, tattered, uncombed and unshorn” Lane, who stood out in his “rough rusty overcoat, a torn shirt, and suspenderless breeches.” After one night in the Capitol, where their presence offered the president a degree of comfort as well as amusement, Lane’s motley Kansans joined other Western volunteers in the comfortable Willard Hotel. When fears of a Confederate attack subsided, Lane discharged his men and headed for home.
Back in Kansas, an invigorated Lane warned neighboring Missourians in a series of speeches that a decision by their state to secede would invite an attack. His threats turned ominous in June when Lincoln rewarded the energetic politician with the authority, as a brigadier general of volunteers, to raise a force with which to defend his adopted state. With a Senate seat in one hand and a general’s commission in the other, Lane was walking a fine line—a fact his enemies didn’t hesitate to point out.
Nevertheless, the senator-soldier set to work organizing the generously named Kansas Brigade—a predictably shady mix of Jayhawkers and frontier roughnecks divided into regiments of infantry and cavalry. From his headquarters at Fort Lincoln, a dozen miles north of Fort Scott in southeastern Kansas, Lane eyed events unfolding in southern Missouri, where Union Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon had cornered and scattered Confederate forces under Generals Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor, and Ben McCulloch.
On August 10, a Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek deprived Missouri of its staunchest Union defender, Lyon, who died in the battle, increasing fears that there might be a Confederate invasion of Kansas. With only his own disorganized brigade between Price and the Kansas heartland, Lane dispatched a small force east to discover Price’s intent. But the former governor was more interested in reclaiming territory secured by Lyon’s Federals, and after a brief skirmish with Lane’s thin lines, he led his Southerners north.
As Price laid siege to Lexington, which fell on September 20, Lane slipped into western Missouri with about 1,500 men, determined to fly the Stars and Stripes over any secessionist towns he found. His rough Kansans eagerly confiscated provisions and slaves as they marched, and on September 22 entered Osceola, a key commercial center on the southern banks of the Osage River. After Lane shelled the small collection of defenders into submission and drunken troops liberated the town of its valuables, the brigade departed, leaving devastation and bitterness in its wake. “I found all through Western Missouri a deadly horror entertained towards Lane,” one Eastern reporter later noted. “Everywhere that he has been, he carried the knife and torch with him, and has left a track marked with charred ruins and blood.” Price’s army, meanwhile, had easily slipped south into the safety of Arkansas.
In between military excursions, Lane continued to assail his Kansas opponents and Missouri secessionists from the podium—working more or less as what Ralph Waldo Emerson called a “half orator, half assassin.” Despite his limited military experience (colorful newspaper reports notwithstanding), he petitioned the president for command of a department in order to quash partisan interference and, he said, improve communication in Kansas and Missouri. Otherwise, he added with typical hyperbole, he would be forced to “quit the field, and most reluctantly become an idle spectator of the great struggle, and witness, I have no doubt, the devastation of my adopted state and the destruction of its people.”
Lincoln soon created the Department of Kansas but left its command in the hands of Maj. Gen. David Hunter, an irascible West Pointer who would later incur Southern wrath by setting fire to the Virginia Military Institute.
Frustrated in his bid for higher rank and a larger command, Lane returned to his Senate work in Washington and began lobbying the president and Congress for leadership of an ambitious new expedition. With a large force, Lane hoped to march south into Arkansas and the Indian Territory to gain the allegiance of southern Indians and secure Kansas’ southern border. Union officials hoped the mission would also quiet the unrest on the Kansas-Missouri line.
Lane’s proposition met with enthusiastic approval of virtually everyone except Hunter, who seemed to know little about it. Already less than thrilled with his distant command, Hunter read with surprise newspaper reports of the erstwhile brigadier general’s upcoming campaign. “The trouble,” he told Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, “is that I know of no such brigadier-general, Senator Lane having told me expressly and in terms, at the only interview we have had since his return to Kansas, that he had not accepted his commission, and was only my visitor ‘as a Senator and member of the Military Committee of the Senate of the United States.’” When Lincoln came to the natural conclusion that Hunter, as department commander and Lane’s superior, should command the expedition, a bitterly disappointed Lane lost interest. In late February 1862, Lane notified his constituents that he would give up his controversial general’s commission (which, as Hunter had indicated, he had never officially accepted) to concentrate on his civic duties.
In Washington, Lane continued his metamorphosis from Democratic compromiser to Radical Republican, calling not only for more rigorous prosecution of the war but also for the emancipation and military enlistment of slaves. Appointed recruiting commissioner for the Department of Kansas in July 1862, Lane campaigned to fill Kansas’ three white regiments and then one black unit (the 1st Kansas Colored).
Lane was back home in Lawrence on August 21, 1863, when 400 of William Clarke Quantrill’s Confederate raiders galloped into town looking to avenge Jayhawker crimes in Missouri. During a four-hour rampage, as many as 180 people fell before the raiders’ guns or died in the flames that quickly swept the town. Lane—one of Quantrill’s prime targets— managed to escape certain death by slipping out of his new brick home while his wife convinced the bushwhackers he was out of town. Recovering a horse and some clothes, Lane joined in a hastily organized pursuit of Quantrill’s band, which nevertheless managed to slip safely back into the western woods of Missouri.
Vociferous as ever in his denouncement of Quantrill, Lane called for “the devastation of the border for a distance of thirty-five miles into Missouri.” Ultimately, nothing came of all the talk—a fact that made Lane’s radical friends wonder if he was again playing politics. Talk of thwarting his reelection grew. But Lane was not quite finished: Playing to his strengths, he began stumping for Lincoln, who was up for reelection. Then, in September 1864, Sterling Price galloped back into Missouri with 12,000 men—threatening Kansas and giving Lane the opportunity to get back in the saddle and generate more headlines. The senator quickly offered his services to Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, commander of the Department of Missouri, and served as an aide during the brief campaign, which ended once again with Price’s retreat from the state.
Buoyed by that success, Lane won reelection—along with the president and numerous other area Republicans. That gratifying victory, however, was his last hurrah. The assassination of Lincoln in April 1865 forced him to shuffle his political cards. In an effort to cozy up to the new president, he supported Andrew Johnson’s 1866 veto of the movement to secure Constitutional rights for former slaves, what would become the 14th Amendment. Lane’s decision confounded his supporters.
Meanwhile, rumors of shady business dealings began to dog the senator, and Lane, perhaps worn-out by a decade of scheming, began to slip mentally. When his old friend John Speer visited him in late June, Lane greeted him by saying: “The pitcher is broken at the fountain. My life is ended; I want you to do my memory justice; I ask nothing more.”
On July 1 Lane stepped from a moving carriage, said “Good-bye, Mac” to his brother-in-law and fired a revolver into his brain. Perhaps it was his fiery spirit that kept him alive for 10 more days.
“Jim Lane died of Andy Johnson,” the New York Tribune editorialized as the Kansas meteor lingered in a coma. It was a tactless comment on Lane’s final political misstep. Doubtless the soldier-senator recognized his own failings and foresaw the end of his career. For the man Kansans had come to know as the “Grim Chieftain,” that might have been just too much to bear.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.