General Jim Lane

James Henry Lane is one of the most bizarre and compelling characters ever to ride the prairies of Kansas. His career was one of obsessive ambition and, until the end, surprising success. His military victories in the Mexican American War acted as a springboard for a political career, and there was no better climate for a man of these two talents than the Kansas Territory. An unscrupulous opportunist in both his personal relations and political associations, he nevertheless became the Hero of Free Kansas by martialing the Free State volunteers into a coordinated defense of Lawrence in the Wakarusa War of 1856. He had previously led the convention of Free-State representatives which produced the anti-slavery 'Topeka Constitution', and would go on to represent the fledgling state as a Senator.

In 1858 Lane killed Gaius Jenkins, a prominent Free Soiler, in a dispute over land. However, his exceptional power as an orator combined with his unique charisma got him elected to the Senate when Kansas became a state in 1861; shortly after his arrival in Washington he added the new president of the United States to his list of admirers. The lack of Federal military in Washington immediately after the Confederate attack of Fort Sumter ignited a hysterical fear for Lincoln's safety, so General Lane's 'Frontier Guard' took up security positions in the White House and around the city until reinforcements arrived. It goes without saying that Lane basked in the warm glow of political patronage for the next few years.

Despite his overwhelming re-election to the Senate in 1865, his political ambitions eventually led to his demise. He supported the Reconstruction policies of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, in order to maintain his high standing in the eyes of the Executive Office. His constituents sided with the Radical Republican philosophy, and his reputation quickly soured. Physically and mentally exhausted, he committed suicide on a farm near Leavenworth.

Jim Lane was a consummate politician, espousing a different belief for each new crowd of voters, and winning them all with his riveting intensity. He was also a notorious womanizer, violent, paranoid, and highly unbalanced. However, he made an indelible impact on the early history of Kansas, and is an intriguing character for both his mythic victories and his tragic defeats. The Reverend H.D. Fisher was apparently an intimate associate of General Lane, and consequently wrote a lionizing account of 'the Grim Chieftan' in Gun and the Gospel; this account seems to capture the sense of awe and devotion on the part of his followers which, despite his scandalous faults, was the backbone of Jim Lane's political career.

The primary source of this article: A Frontier State at War: Kansas, 1861-1865, by Albert Castel. Cornell UP, 1958.
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