In 2007, Overland Park lawyer James Muehlberger found something nobody else was looking for.
While taking a sabbatical from his law firm, he spent several days in the Daviess County, Mo., Courthouse searching for the largely handwritten case filings of the only successful civil action filed against Jesse and Frank James.
He found it on his final day.
With those papers, filed in 1870, Muehlberger wrote the 2013 book “The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James.”
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Not long ago, Muehlberger found something else.
While on another leave, Muehlberger went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and found the handwritten member roll and action report of the Frontier Guard.
That was the name given the force of 116 Kansas men, including their captain, U.S. Sen. James Lane, who camped inside the White House and guarded new President Abraham Lincoln for 10 days at the beginning of the Civil War.
The small book discovered by Muehlberger listed the guard’s members and included a day-by-day report of their activities. Muehlberger, a lawyer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, had spent years looking for such a document at archives across Kansas.
“But because the guard’s members were not in the regular U.S. Army, I was told that no official military entity had any records of it,” Muehlberger said recently.
The ad hoc force has been shrugged off by one historian as “house guests” during the volatile period.
But Muehlberger thinks the Frontier Guard arguably helped save the republic. His book about the men, “The 116: The True Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Guard,” will be released in early December.
The newly elected president arrived in Washington at a moment of peril. He already had dodged a February assassination attempt in Baltimore on his way to the capital. And, upon the April 12 bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, rumors raced that Washington soon would be invaded.
The city was isolated, caught between two slave states, Maryland and Virginia. At night, the glow of rebel campfires was visible.
At the time, the U.S. Army numbered only about 16,000 men, with many of those soldiers scattered across distant outposts.
One officer told Lincoln that he doubted those federal soldiers assigned to Washington could shoot into the face of Virginia rebels, as they likely had many friends among them.
Then James Lane of Kansas arrived in Washington.
For the previous six years Lane had helped lead the Kansas free state forces against their pro-slavery counterparts during the Bleeding Kansas struggles. He knew that if Confederates truly seized Washington, they could cripple the momentum of Lincoln’s administration.
On April 15, Lincoln released an emergency proclamation for 75,000 troops.
Two days later Lincoln, who had met Lane during the future president’s visit to the Kansas Territory in 1859, called the new senator from Kansas into his White House office.
“I don’t know who I can depend on,” Lincoln said.
Lane told him he could assemble a force from the approximately 100 Bloody Kansas veterans who had come to Washington, hoping to land positions in the U.S. Army.
“Their blood is up,” Lane told Lincoln.
Many of those men soon marched from the Willard Hotel to the White House. They dumped crates of rifles on the rugs in the East Room. Lane himself slept outside the Lincolns’ bedroom door.
For the next 10 days, the guard made itself visible.
Its only apparent combat action was a skirmish in which the members brought back a rebel flag as a trophy, described in the guard’s record as a “terribly piratical-looking rag …”
Their more important victory was keeping the Confederates confused.
“Lane had learned during the Bleeding Kansas days how to make a small force appear bigger than it was,” Muehlberger said.
During the day he would boast across Washington — knowing that Confederate spies were always within earshot — about how his force could keep hundreds of rebels at bay. Then, at night, he would send his men to march back and forth across a wooden bridge.
“The rebel camps thought they were hearing hundreds of men, but it was the same men, again and again,” Muehlberger said.
When troops answering Lincoln’s emergency call finally arrived in Washington on April 25, Lane considered the emergency over.
“Secession may howl, but the Union is safe,” he told guard members that day.
Lincoln, in turn, declared that “Nothing is too good” for the guard members. Many received political appointments.
One served as a consul to Hong Kong and Shanghai, another was appointed a postmaster. Another served as a deputy collector at a New York customs house. Still another worked as an internal revenue assessor in New York.
Almost 50 of the guard’s members were lawyers.
“Describing these men as mere lawyers is like describing Doc Holliday as a dentist,” Muehlberger said. “These were tough guys, as good with a revolver as they were with a pen.”
Two of the lawyers became governors of Colorado; another served as governor of Oregon. Two represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate; three served Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Only Lane, arguably, didn’t share in the guard’s success. Crushed by Lincoln’s 1865 murder, Lane committed suicide the next year.
After his death, Muehlberger thinks, Lane’s enemies marginalized him.
“They said he was crazy,” Muehlberger said. “I think Jim Lane has been treated unfairly. But if not for him, Lincoln would have been assassinated during the first week of the war.”
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.