The “Great Emancipator” and the “Grim Chieftan”

The “Great Emancipator” and the “Grim Chieftain” 

Jason H. Silverman

Abraham Lincoln was in trouble – and the fate of the United States tenuously hung in the balance.  The firing on Fort Sumter, five weeks after Lincoln took office, ominously signaled the start of civil war. This act, the President proclaimed, “forced upon the country the distinct issue, immediate dissolution or blood.”

The nation’s capital was located within the heart of slaveholding territory.  Surrounded by slave owning states, Lincoln’s White House had no fortifications and few loyal soldiers to protect and defend it.     All that stood between Lincoln and capture in those first few days was the width of the Potomac River, approximately 800 feet.

Lincoln’s emergency proclamation calling for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion and protect the capital went out three days after the firing on Fort Sumter, but Lincoln could not be sure whose troops would arrive first:  his or the Confederacy’s.  Virginia soon chose to join the Confederacy while Maryland hung over the brink of secession and made it very dangerous for Union soldiers traveling through the state.

For a week and a half Lincoln and the Union held their collective breaths.  The Union Army totaled less than 16,000 men with most of them serving in the West to guard against Indian raids.   Lincoln’s anxiety about the vulnerability of the White House was palpable to all around him.

The only force standing in the Confederates’ way was United States Senator from Kansas James H. Lane’s impromptu army of 116 composed of other Westerners, who Lane called together at Lincoln’s request to protect the President and the White House.   Lane called his company the “Frontier Guard,” and most of its soldiers camped in the East Room of the White House during the first ten days of the Civil War.   They became the first line of defense in a fledgling Union Army.

The Frontier Guard not only successfully protected Lincoln but, in so doing, might have actually altered the outcome of the war.  Confederate General Thomas B. Gates called the Confederates’ failure to capture Lincoln in the first days of the Civil War one of the “unsolved riddles of Confederate [war strategy].”  The unlikely friendship between James Lane and Abraham Lincoln perhaps holds the answer to that riddle.

They had a strange relationship indeed.  Begun two years before on the plains of Kansas, the man who would go on to become the “Great Emancipator” and General Jim Lane, already known as the “Grim Chieftain,” provided quite an unlikely friendship on first appearance.

Jim Lane very quickly went from ally of President Lincoln to something akin to a close friend.  Lane visited Lincoln every day in the White House; he sat in on important meetings with the President and his Cabinet; and he regularly offered Lincoln advice.   Lane’s burgeoning relationship with the president resulted in the jealousy and rivalry of the Republican Governor of Kansas, Charles Robinson, who consistently sought to poison the Lincoln and Lane relationship.

“Lane’s singular influence over Mr. Lincoln and his secretary of war, Mr. Stanton,” observed the Governor’s ally, Leverett Spring, “is one of the most inexplicable and disastrous facts that concern Kansas.  It was the source of the heaviest calamities that visited the commonwealth during this period, because it put [Lane] in a position to gratify mischievous ambitions, to pursue personal feuds, to assume duties and offices that belonged to others, to popularize the corruptest [sic] political methods, and to organize semi-predatory military expeditions.  His conduct not only embarrassed the state executive and threw state affairs into confusion, but provoked sanguinary reprisals from Missouri.”

If this is to be believed, it would appear impossible that Lincoln and Lane could ever be friends and allies.  And, at first glance, the contrast between Abraham Lincoln and James H. Lane, the wild-eyed, perhaps even mad, senator seems ridiculous.  Seemingly, the two men possessed few, if any, commonalities.

Ever the political pragmatist, Lincoln’s connection with Lane could simply be viewed as nothing more than mere savvy and temporary political accommodations.  But some contemporaries actually believed that Lane held a constant and sinister Svengalian influence over Lincoln.   Lane was an enigma, if not a chameleon, to all around him.   Mercurial in character, Lane “was a man of so many sides, no one—save perhaps Lincoln—knew which was real,” wrote one journalist.

Undeniably though, there were clear similarities between Lane and Lincoln.  Separated in age by only five years, both spent a good deal of their youth in Indiana. Both served in the United States House of Representatives. Both told a good story.  Both, in quite different ways, were riveting orators, able to captivate audiences.

The two also interacted significantly in public. They met through Lincoln’s friend Mark Delahay in Kansas during Lincoln’s campaign tour there in 1859.  Delahay, seeking the Republican senatorial seat from Kansas, wanted Lincoln to intercede with Lane on his behalf.  Lincoln agreed, and wrote to Lane.  Delahay, however, did not receive the nomination and Lincoln ultimately appointed him Surveyor-General of Kansas and Nebraska, an office he held until October 5, 1863, when Lincoln appointed him United States District Judge for Kansas.

But that was just the beginning of the political connections between Lincoln and Lane.  Lane actively supported Lincoln on the stump in both of his presidential campaigns.  In return Lincoln threw much patronage Lane’s way and, despite bitter opposition, supported the Kansan’s ambition for a high-ranking military position. Lane early on urged Lincoln to implement some of his most significant policies such as the arming and recruiting of Black soldiers;  issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and the instituting of a “total war” policy aimed at defeating the Confederacy both domestically and militarily.

Lincoln was no political novice and it is doubtful that Lane unduly influenced him.  All too aware of Lane’s politically impractical radicalism, Lincoln proceeded at his own pace. Yet, given Lane’s reputation as an irresponsible demagogue, his proximity to the President was a surprise to many. Two of the closest men to Lincoln, his secretaries John Hay and William Stoddard, both of whom disliked and feared Lane, still allowed the Kansas senator regular proximity to the President at Lincoln’s request.  Good natured that he was, Lincoln seemed to be bemused by Lane.  Writing to one of Lane’s enemies who stridently warned the President about Lane, Lincoln said “[Lane] knocks at my door every morning. You know he is a very persistent fellow, and hard to put off.”

A journalist remarked that “If Mr. Lincoln conferred upon Lane powers such as no other senator either possessed or desired, the latter was able to make substantial returns for the unprecedented favors which he had received.”   Realizing the value of Lane’s friendship, Lincoln, as he was wont to do, would allow no one to make up his mind for him.

Being a difficult person himself to figure out, Lincoln recognized and respected Lane’s complexities.  He eschewed Lane’s “mad-man” image and found Lane to be quite effective with him.  The President saw little of the maniacal behavior for which Lane became historically infamous.

In 1857 Lincoln’s predecessor, President James Buchanan, had denounced the citizens of Kansas as a lawless people “in rebellion against the government, with a military leader [Lane] at their head of most turbulent and dangerous character.” Lane himself replied to that in detail, saying that Buchanan “stands without a parallel in [his] falsification of history.”  Although Lincoln was besieged with constant protestations from some in Congress that “had [Lane] been running for office in Hindostan [sic] , he would have thrown his offspring to the crocodiles of the Ganges, or bowed among the Parsees at the shrine of the sun” in order to gain success, Lincoln continued to stand by him.

Sidney Clarke, a member of the House of Representatives from Kansas who had known Lane quite well concurred with Lincoln.  “When other men hesitated, he went forward with faith and courage.” Clarke wrote that Lane was “a comprehensive statesman, and his breadth of vision was as wide as the world in which he lived. There was but little hypocrisy in his nature. His faults were as conspicuous as his talents were brilliant.”

Lincoln viewed Lane as his political eyes and ears in troubled Kansas and found him to be a principled individual and a very powerful orator to the masses, if not to insiders. Whether on the stump or simply sitting across a table from Lincoln, Lane was a strong personality and a presence so powerful that some were said to comment they avoided him for fear of being “charmed out of their principles.”

Lane charmed no more by physical attractiveness than did Lincoln. Both were odd looking, homely even.  One contemporary described Lane as looking “like nobody else. . . . His hair stands out in every direction. . . . [his] eyes [resemble] anything you like.” A reporter described Lane as “long,” and “eely-shaped,” with a “careless, loose-hung look,” and “not an especially open countenance.” And another observed that he “could talk away his [unattractive] face in twenty minutes.”  These descriptions could be said of Lincoln as well.

All agreed that as a speaker Lane was a marvel, but in vividly different ways from Lincoln.  Contemporaries described Lane’s speechmaking as “voluble and incessant, without logic, learning, rhetoric or grace,” delivered in a voice that was “a series of transitions from the broken scream of a maniac to the hoarse, rasping guttural of a Dutch butcher in the last gasp of inebriation.” His diction “was a pudding of slang, profanity and solecism,” yet “the electric shock of his extraordinary eloquence thrilled.” Lane could “grit and grind his teeth at an opponent in a way that could be heard in the back rows.”  He would “close his teeth together and talk through them with a hissing sound that would make the flesh crawl, only to speak a moment later in mellow manner that would bring tears.”

Similar to Lincoln, Lane’s effectiveness as a speaker came from empathy with the common man, having “experienced the emotions common to every heart, and from an uncanny intuition.” He spoke mostly extemporaneously, concentrating on his audience rather than his text and he connected with his crowd just as Abraham Lincoln was able to do.

After hearing Lane speak, the notable abolitionist, minister, and soldier, Thomas Wentworth Higginson enthusiastically commented, “Never did I hear such a speech; every sentence like a pistol bullet; such delicacy and lightness of touch; such natural art; such perfect adaptation; not a word, not a gesture could have been altered . . . not a man in the United States could have done it; and the perfect ease of it all, not a glimpse of premeditation or effort, and yet he had slept in his boots every night but two for five weeks.”  No politician, especially the embattled Lincoln, could afford to ignore that kind of charisma.

Unlike Lincoln, Lane changed his political coat many times, creating a confusing myriad of political beliefs.  He had been a Democrat, the son of a Democratic congressman from Indiana. He had been an ardent supporter of Lincoln’s nemesis, Stephen Douglas, and had voted for the Kansas–Nebraska bill at a time when its repeal of the Missouri Compromise and substitution of the doctrine of popular sovereignty were strongly opposed by Lincoln and his supporters.   And he had grown up, he often admitted in his speeches, thinking that slavery was a perfectly justifiable institution.

Lane’s abandonment of popular sovereignty and Stephen Douglas and his conversion to the Republican Party was pure political expediency many said.  As was true of many, Lane did not believe in racial equality and voted for a clause in a proposed Kansas constitution that would ban free Blacks from Kansas. But political epiphany notwithstanding, none who would later hear him speak against the evils of the institution of slavery doubted his sincerity. “Let slavery lift its crest in the air,” he told his troops in 1861, “and here I solemnly vow that if Jim Lane is compelled to add a note to such an infernal chorus, he breaks his sword and quits the field.”  Slavery, he said, was “an emanation from hell.”

Lane used his skills for Lincoln directly, as well as for his cause. In 1864, when Lincoln and Andrew Johnson ran on the newly named Union Party ticket, Lane was, according to contemporary observers, of pivotal importance. He had a private meeting with Lincoln the night before the pre-convention caucus of the Grand Council of the Union League. The following day amid “appalling charges” leveled against Lincoln, Lane gave an eloquent compelling address:

“I am speaking individually to each man here, Lane exhorted, “Do you, sir, know in this broad land, and can you name to me, one man whom you could or would trust, before God, that he would have done better in this matter than Abraham Lincoln has done, and to whom you would be now more willing to trust the unforeseen emergency or peril which is to come? That unforeseen peril, that perplexing emergency, that step in the dark is right before us, and we are here to decide by whom it should be made for the Nation. Name your other man.”

Lincoln also recognized and appreciated Lane’s military background and his aggressive attitude in battle.   Lane’s Frontier Guard protected and defended Lincoln and the White House by bivouacking in the East Room for eleven days following the firing on Fort Sumter, thereby intimidating the Confederacy out of attacking.    Shortly thereafter, in recognition of his bravery, Lincoln rewarded the Kansan by appointing him a brigadier general of volunteers, an action unprecedented for a sitting U.S. senator. This led to howling calls for an investigation from Kansas governor Robinson who sent a replacement senator, and from the Senate itself demanding justification.

There’s no doubt that Lincoln initiated the appointment based upon his clear faith and confidence in Lane.  Writing to Secretary of War Simon Cameron in June 1861, Lincoln asserted that, “I have been reflecting upon the subject, and have concluded that we need the services of such a man out there at once; that we better appoint him a brigadier-general of volunteers to-day, and send him off with such authority to raise a force . . . as you think will get him into actual work quickest. Tell him when he starts to put it through, not to be writing or telegraphing here, but put it through.”

Questions immediately arose about Lane’s field command and complaints poured in from regular officers that Lane’s unorthodox leadership and fearlessness were dangerous.  Undaunted and unauthorized, Lane raided the pro-southern port of Osceola, Missouri, on the Osage River in September 1861 with 2,000 troops.  The town of 2,077 people was plundered and burned to the ground, 200 slaves were freed, and nine local citizens were court-martialed and executed.  Lane planned to follow that with a guerilla expedition into Indian Territory and Texas where he was to command 10,000 Kansas troops, including Black soldiers as well as 4,000 Indians.  However, he was ordered to stand down by the very military establishment he held in contempt.

Lane believed that the Confederacy needed to be hit hard on its vulnerable western flank, and he loathed the pomposity and caution of the West Point officers, endearing him to very few in the Old Army.  In fact, while in the Senate, Lane favored abolishing the academy at West Point on the grounds that many graduates from there lacked common military sense. “There is no board of examination,” he chided, “to separate the stupid from those who have brains.”  Lincoln, already frustrated with the inaction of General George McClellan, could sympathize. “I desired to surround the institution of Slavery with Free Territory,” Lane wrote when returning to his Senate seat in February 1862, “and thus girdle the cause of the rebellion itself. Without fault on my part as I believe, I have been thwarted in this, the cherished hope of my life.”

Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of Kansas, was jealous of Lane’s relationship with Lincoln so he undermined Lane’s efforts whenever and wherever possible.  Hunter fired back to Washington a report that said Lane’s units were “a ragged, half-armed, diseased, mutinous rabble taking votes as to whether troublous or distasteful orders should be obeyed.”  Lane, Hunter wrote, “has been trading in Washington on a capital partly made up of his own Senatorial position and partly of such scraps of influence as I may have possessed in the confidence or esteem of the President.”

Others in the region were just as critical of Lane’s leadership in the field. General Henry Halleck wrote McClellan in December 1861 that “I receive almost daily complaints of outrages by these men in the name of the United States.” Governor Robinson complained that “what we have to fear, and do fear, is that Lane’s Brigade will get up a war by going over the line, committing depredations, and then returning into our State.”

These complaints put Lincoln in a precarious situation.  While he very much admired Lane’s audacity, given the timidity of his generals, Lincoln could see the problems with disrupting the chain of command. He responded to Hunter that he was “sorry General Halleck is so unfavorably impressed with General Lane.” But he also reminded Hunter, that “[he] who does something at the head of one Regiment will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.”

A couple of months later, Lincoln wrote a joint letter to Lane and Hunter stating that he wanted them both to get along.  If Hunter could “consistently with the public service, and his own honor, oblige Gen. Lane,” wrote Lincoln, “he will also oblige me.”  But, Hunter’s jealousy of Lane would not allow him to oblige the President. Consequently, Lane was pulled from the field and went back to the Senate.  The “cherished hope of [Lane’s] life,” leading a military incursion into Texas and Indian Territory never occurred.

Lincoln’s intervention in the acrimonious relationship of David Hunter and Jim Lane demonstrated that, while he was perhaps influenced by the Kansas Senator, he was never dominated by him. On occasion he even publicly chastised Lane.  In 1864, Lincoln angrily wrote the two Kansas senators, Lane and Samuel C. Pomeroy that he wished they “would make a sincere effort to get out of the mood [they were] in. It does neither of you any good— it gives you the means of tormenting my life out of me and nothing else.”

On another occasion, the President met with Lane and a delegation from Kansas and Missouri in the East Room of the White House shortly after the pro-Confederate William Quantrill led a massacre in the antislavery town of Lawrence, Kansas.  The delegation demanded the removal of General John Schofield, whom it blamed for allowing the raid. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries, recorded that Lane lashed out “boisterously,” demanding to know if Lincoln thought it sufficient cause for the removal of a general who had lost the confidence of his people. “Not if he lost it unjustly”, Lincoln replied.  Lane fired back, “General Schofield has lost that confidence.” To which Lincoln angrily replied: “You being judge!”  Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, also present at that meeting, wrote in his diary that Lincoln was “sorry Lane had come here at this time,” but he was not about “to adopt all of [Lane’s] personal quarrels” as his own.  “For the present,” Welles recorded, “and until [Lincoln] knew more, he declined to interfere.”

Lincoln, of course, was that rare human being who could be enormously patient with someone’s flaws. Both of Lincoln’s personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, witnessed that “Lincoln, recognizing Lane’s great energy and influence in Kansas, had intended to make it a tributary to the Union cause, but [that Lincoln] had the idea of giving him the superior direction of management.”

Still, Lincoln believed that Lane served him well in the Senate.  While in Kansas, Lane had educated himself into something of a railroad expert, and he played a key role on the Pacific Railroad Act, a major Republican initiative.  Throughout the debates on the bill, Lane vigorously pushed for federal aid to that railroad, something that Lincoln very much wanted.

On the Senate floor, Lane was a champion for other Lincoln proposals.   His “wild fanaticism” had its use in Washington and Kansas when the timidity of other politicians stalled important programs.  He was, wrote a colleague, “a great lion here and his room is always filled with visitors; at this moment there is not a man in Washington more sought after.”

Lane’s tenacity was welcomed by many of the Republicans in Congress.  “I always conceived him cautious in devising his plans and mapping out his future life,” Representative William Niblack of Indiana said of Lane, “but bold and resolute in the execution of those plans, never deterred by any dangers which seemed to threaten him personally or by any consequences which might result to him.”  This opinion was echoed by Lane himself.   “As a citizen and a Senator, I have a right of criticizing the acts of Government,” he said, “and I mean to exercise it with the full flush of truthful patriotism—kindly, but fearlessly, cordially, but searchingly.”

Although the President had constitutional reservations about emancipation, Lane pushed Lincoln to attach the abolition of slavery to the war objectives of the Union.  Despite his own death threats, Lane advised Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation almost from the beginning of the Civil War and advocated it himself in speeches well over a year before Lincoln issued his preliminary version.  In a speech in the spring of 1861, Lane said, “Let us be bold— inscribe ‘freedom to all’ upon our banners, and appear just what we are— the opponents of slavery.” Antislavery, he said, must be the “watchword for our lips,” and “a shibboleth for our banners.” He would enlist Black soldiers, he told his Senate colleagues and the cheering galleries; and he did so in Kansas, one of the first such experiments in the Union Army.

But Lane knew that Lincoln was restrained by political realities that he himself did not have to heed.   Lane knew that Lincoln must wait for public opinion to accept the idea of freeing the slaves, and he readily sang Lincoln’s praise on the Senate floor.   “Uniting prudence and firmness, wisdom and simplicity, integrity and sagacity, generosity and elasticity of spirit in a singular degree,” Lane asserted, “with that practical knowledge of men and things [placed] him [Lincoln] head and shoulders above his peers for all the purposes of government.”

The bond between Lane and Lincoln, then, resulted from political expediency involving loyalty, military experience and style, vision, and Lane’s talent to persuade.   But that doesn’t do complete justice to their relationship.   Many contemporaries noted a personal affinity between the two built upon not only a common experience, but upon a deeper single-mindedness that the two men shared.

Like Lincoln, Lane was a decidedly different person than others described.  When Lane spoke in Connecticut in December 1863 the audience was surprised “to find before them a man of fair proportions, of genteel appearance, of unobtrusive manners, instead of the rough and savage animal which the anti-war papers have seen fit to represent him.”  Very much like Lincoln, there are many stories of Lane’s compassion, his kindness to individuals, and his “immunity to the temptations of money.”  “No night was too dark,” one friend wrote, “no storm too wild, no heat or cold too excessive, no distance too great [to help a friend.]”

Much like Lincoln yet again, Lane was susceptible to frequent “low” spells, (Lincoln called his the “hypo,”).  Perhaps both men today would be diagnosed as manic/depressive. One journalist thought Lane “grand, gloomy and peculiar” and felt “there always appeared to be something weighing on his mind—something which seemed to cause him trouble.”  Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon once wrote of Lincoln, that “melancholy dript from him as he walked.”  And an early friend noted: “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”

One contemporary described Lane and Lincoln as having a “noble discontent with the world” in common, but unlike Lane, Lincoln had “the refuge of books and their rationalizing calm.”  The two men, both tall, both carelessly groomed and dressed, both homely, both charismatic in speech, and both susceptible to emotional highs and lows, were able to find a commonality that few understood.  While Lincoln’s friends feared that he, in his darkest moments would commit suicide and sat up all night with him to prevent it, Lane finally succumbed to his depression on his Kansas farm on July 1, 1866, by jumping out of a carriage in which he was riding and shooting himself through the roof of his mouth.

By then Lincoln was dead, and Lane remained loyal to the office  by supporting President Andrew Johnson, although not with the same fervor as his loyalty to Abraham Lincoln.  “For several weeks previous to his departure [from Washington, Lane’s] mental condition excited the serious apprehension of his friends,” recalled Representative Sidney Clarke of Kansas.  “Those who knew him best, and were conversant with his wonderful mental and physical characteristics, saw in him a change which excited their most serious apprehensions.” Such comments suggest that the Lane who returned to his farm in Kansas in 1866 was not the Lane that Lincoln knew.

The preacher at Lane’s funeral emphasized that “time is the great elucidator of human intentions, as seen in human actions.” For all his faults Lane had been for Kansans “dear to our hearts as he certainly was to his friend Lincoln.”  And surely Lincoln would have agreed.

Early in his career in his Lyceum Address of 1838, Lincoln once commented on the unfairness of history, as vivid personalities were swept away and survived only in fading memories.   “The living history was to be found in every family,” he said, “a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related — a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.”  He went on, “But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the levelling of its walls. They are gone.

Lincoln would have included Lane as a special casualty of his time because the passions he aroused would soon be forgotten. He appealed to Lincoln as few men did, for the “Grim Chieftain,” at one time the “king of Kansas and the lion of Washington,” was also Abraham Lincoln’s loyal friend in life, death, and in history.


For more information on James Lane, please see:  Jim Lane, Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan (2007); Reeder M. Fish, The Grim Chieftain of Kansas and Oher Free-State Men in Their Struggles against Slavery (1885); Wendell Holmes Stephenson, The Political Career of General James H. Lane (1930); and James Muehlberger, The 116: The True Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Guard (2015).


Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History Emeritus at Winthrop University.