Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Going Home to Lawrence"

Lawrence, Kansas 1863 or 1864 (KSHS)

This is a remarkable correspondence from Lieutenant Nimrod Hankins, 9th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, which confirms that many Red Legs resided in Lawrence. It also illustrates how some Red Legs were protected by certain Kansas Army officers. The letter is located in the Missouri State Archives, Missouri’s Union Provost Marshal Papers: 1861-1866.

Shawneetown Kansas
March 30th 1863

Commanding Officer
9th Kas Vol Cav Olatha Kas

Some horses being stolen on last Friday night south of this place I thought prudent to take a small scout. I took four men and went to the bridge on the Kaw River and there thought I had found track of said Horses, followed up trail three miles west of the Six Mile House on my return I arrested two Red Legs Jeff Davis [Joseph B. Swain], and A. Sayvor [Al Saviers], brought them to camp intending to send them to Head Quarters, but on receiving a dispatch from Maj. Ransom [Major W.C. Ransom, 6th Kansas Cavalry], stating that to his [c]ertain knowledge they were both with him in Mo the night the  Horses were stolen and also that he had arrested them by your order and accepted their parole to report to Head quarters Fort Leavenworth immediately I released them. There was about fifty Red Legs passed here Saturday evening going home to Lawrence. All leading Horses. I was not here being on scout. They had passes from Maj Ransom. I am Col your most obt Servt Lieut N. [Nimrod] Hankins
Commanding at Shawneetown Kas

Where, exactly, were these fifty Red Legs returning from? In the next post I will examine what was perhaps the largest Red Leg raid of the war and how it prompted the downfall of Hoyt’s structured fraternity.  


  1. I look forward to it, believe me.

    Your words "structured fraternity" strike a cord. Maybe you know this, but not only was Hoyt a long-time freemason (think 'structured fraternity') but he was also a member before the war of another secret group, a structured fraternity if you will, called the "Black Strings." The Strings were originally organized to physically protect Wendell Phillips following the Boston riots of January, 1860, but soon spread to Ashtabula County among John Brown fanatics. Such fanatics formed the core of Company K, Kansas Seventh, of which John Brown, Jr., followed by Hoyt, served as captain.

    So is it possible that the reason it's so hard to get 'inside' information about the Red Legs is that it was truly a fraternity like the Black Strings or the freemasons? I've been pondering that question a while.

    One difference ought to be noted. The Black Strings used an emblem that could be overlooked by the public at large, but would be recognized by the group. The Red Legs, not so much. I consider Conneley's(?) assertion that red leggins were worn 'to allow the members to identify one another in the brush' to be unlikely in the extreme. In fact, I doubt a falser statement was ever written.

    As always, source documents available on request ;)

  2. Would love to see the information on "The Black Strings."

  3. Here are a few to get you started (meaning I haven't gone much further than this):

    William Wild Thayer (McKivigan, "The Reminiscences of William Wild Thayer," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol 103, 1991) notes that "'Brown' men under the leadership of T. W. Higginson, James Redpath, George Hoyt, and others determined to exercise the the right of free speech..." in Boston, at the Dec 1860 Anti-slavery meeting. So they set up door guards, "men posted by the 'Black Strings'. Of these there were 60 men, all armed and drilled in alarm cries to be sounded as necessity might require." He later notes, "As we marched out [i.e. after the meeting] some one shouted, 'There's Hoyt, kill him!' Mounting upon the seat of a carriage with the driver, he retorted, 'Yes I am George Hoyt. Come on you cowards. Kill me, G-- d--n you.'"

    After that, "We marched to Mr. Phillips house. Some of us stayed there every night for a week, as there had been threats to burn the house & kill Mr. Phillips."
    George Smalley "Memories of Wendell Phillips," Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Volume LXXXIX, 1894) remarks about the group, "I put myself at [Phillips'] disposal, and he gave me the names of a few men who could be relied upon: young abolitionists, all of them...Le Barnes, Hoyt... and Frank Sanborn. This little group came, or some of them came (to Phillips' house) night after night while the danger lasted..."
    Higginson (cheerful Yesterdays, 240) also mentions the group guarding the meetings, though he does not mention Hoyt specifically.
    Albert Von Frank ("The Secret World of Radical Publishers," Boston Histories, 2004) quotes Thayer as remarking about the bodyguards, "Our members wore around their necks, under the collar, a narrow black ribbon as a distinguishing mark. We knew each other as 'Black Strings.'"
    The Black Strings are also mentioned in Kreig's "Whitman and the Irish," while Peterson ("John Brown: the Legend Revisited") notes there were Black Strings in Ohio as well. It is possible of course that Hinton or Hoyt brought to idea from Boston to Ohio, where the John Brown Leagues were strongest, and from where Brown, Jr, raised most of his company.

    There is a story in Fox ("Early History of the Seventh") where he notes that Company K used to meet after dark and listen to the mutterings of an unnamed speaker. He would always end the meeting by asking them if they swore to avenge the death of John Brown. "We will, we will," they would say. And then they would sing John Brown's Body in closing. Company K itself, at least early, seemed to have all the makings of a structured fraternity as well.

  4. ... or the society could have spread the other direction (i.e. from Ohio to Boston). David Reynolds "John Brown, Abolitionist" makes Brown the founder of the Black Strings, "to coordinate the activity of the Underground Railroad to improve its efficiency."

    But the city of Ashtabula says that the Strings arose after Brown's death to protect JB Junior from the Harpers Ferry investigation.

    As with all such secret societies, they tend to be slippery, so who knows?

  5. An on-line source on the black strings:


  6. El Borak, any chance you could give the cite for the story about Company K singing the John Brown song in Fox? I'd love to track it down.

  7. Benjamin, try this one:

    "As may be supposed, Company K was made up of abolitionists of the intense sort. I believe that it was this company that brought the John Brown song to Kansas: at least I had never heard it until they sang it immediately after their arrival. For a while after the company joined the regiment the men would assemble near the captain's tent in the dusk after "retreat" and listen to the deep utterances of some impassioned orator; the voice was always low and did not reach far beyond the immediate circle of the company, who stood with heads bent drinking in every word. The speaker always closed with "Do you swear to avenge the death of John Brown?" and the answer always came back low and deep, "We will, we will": then would follow the John Brown hymn, eung in the same repressed manner, but after the last verse of the original song was sung it would be followed by a verse in accelerated time beginning with, "Then three cheers for John Brown, jr." This almost lively wind up of these nightly exercises had the same effect on me as the quickstep that the music plays immediately on leaving the enclosure after a soldier's burial. At first the whole regiment used to gather just outside of the sacred precincts and listen, but soon it ceased to attract and the company itself became too busy avenging to hold their regular meetings."