Kansas, Bloody Kansas:

Here’s Where Some Say the American Civil War Really Started

As if Territorial Violence Over Slavery Hadn't Been Bad Enough, the Civil War and Guerilla Savagery Loomed Ahead To Test Kansas Citizens

Sunday, August 31 2008 10:08   Kansas
Kansas, Bloody Kansas. Men murdered in cold blood, others wounded or beaten, a town sacked, buildings burned, homes looted, women robbed - and all of this even before the American Civil War began.

For seven years, from 1854 until 1861, pro-slavery, anti-slavery and free-state advocates in Territorial Kansas battled each other in words, politics and violence.

While the American Civil War clearly was a North versus South struggle, it was Kansas, and the civil war which raged inside the territory, that eventually would put the flame to the nation's powder keg.

"I think you could make a case for it," said Virgil Dean, historian for the Kansas State Historical Society. "The nation was watching what was going on, and events in Kansas really became a national event. While the stories about the violence were exaggerated, the attention that it drew, the focus on the question of slavery, that's why some say the Civil War started in Kansas."

To see how Kansas fits in the story of the American Civil War in the West, you have to look at it in two ways; first as a territory and then as a state.

Territorial Kansas

It was a time of westward expansion. Manifest Destiny. The nation's eyes were looking west for land, opportunity and fortune. So Congress approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

"It opened up the whole West," Dean said. "Old compromises were abandoned, and competition started anew."

But the law did more than just create new territories - it repealed the Missouri Compromise which outlawed slavery above the 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude in the Louisiana Territory.

Anti-slavery supporters were outraged because the Missouri Compromise-which allowed Missouri and Maine to enter the Union as states, one slave, one free-would have outlawed slavery in the new territories west of Missouri. Instead, Congress agreed that settlers in the new territories would be given the right to decide for themselves whether the new territories would be slave or free, a term called popular sovereignty.

If Congress hoped popular sovereignty would get them off the political hook, they were mistaken. What it created was a rush by pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions to populate Territorial Kansas and stuff the ballot box. A third group, called the free-staters, only added to the complexity of the situation.

"Losing Kansas would have been a serious blow to the slave states," Dean said.

As 1855 was drawing to a close, blood began flowing. In November a free-stater was shot and killed by a pro-slaver, starting the Wakarusa War. In December another free-stater was killed by a pro-slaver.

On May 21,1856, the town of Lawrence was sacked by pro-slaver Sheriff Samuel Jones and a posse of men. On May 24, John Brown, the radical abolitionist, and his sons killed five pro-slavers, what was later called the Pottawatomie Massacre. A series of battles and skirmishes followed throughout the rest of 1856.

"It was the year 1856 that gave Kansas the name, Bleeding Kansas," Dean added.

The last major incident took place in May of 1858 when a number of pro-slavery Missourians murdered 11 free-staters, what later became known as the Marais des Cygnes Massacre. The nation was appalled at the news.

By the end of 1859, things had quieted. John Brown was captured during his infamous Harper's Ferry raid in what is now West Virginia, tried and hanged. The majority population in Kansas Territory now was made up of free-staters and anti-slavers, and the majority said Kansas would be a free state.

In 1860, a Kansas admissions bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lincoln was elected President, and the Pony Express began service through Kansas along the Santa Fe Trail. On Jan. 29, 1861 President James Buchanan signed the admissions bill making Kansas a state, and on April 12 secessionist troops fired on Fort Sumter, S.C.

Kansas had survived the crucible of statehood birth , but went right into the American Civil War.

Kansas and the Civil War

While there were a few skirmishes early in the war along the Kansas-Missouri border, there only was one major battle in Kansas fought between Union and Confederate forces - the Battle of Mine Creek.

Federal forces, combined with Confederate indecisiveness, kept neighboring Missouri in Union control, although fierce guerilla fighting would make the state one of the most fought-over states during the war. But in 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price, a Missourian who at the start of the war helped battle Union forces in Missouri to a draw, decided to invade Missouri once more and take control of St. Louis.

With a force of about 12,000 men, Price eventually turned away from St. Louis after Union resistance. He turned west.

Price won several victories in the Kansas City, Missouri area, but on Oct. 21-23 was stopped and defeated at the Battle of Westport, the largest Civil War battle to take place in the West.

Kansas prepared for invasion, as Confederate forces retreated south along the border. Price intended to attack Fort Scott. He camped his army near Trading Post, the oldest, still occupied, settlement in Kansas. Just before dawn on Oct. 25, Union forces attacked and fighting continued for the rest of the day.

A Union cavalry charge of about 2,500 horsemen attacked a much larger force of Confederates numbering around 7,000. Confederate troops were forced to fight a rear guard action on the north bank of Mine Creek, near Pleasanton.

After about an hour, Confederate troops were in retreat. Price moved back into Missouri where federal forces gave him his final defeat at Newtonia. Price crossed the Arkansas River, and fighting in the West basically ceased after that.

Quantrill's Raids

Kansas, however, was not immune from other fighting, mostly from guerilla bands, and atrocities were committed on both sides. But the worst of the fighting, burning and pillaging was Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas on Aug. 21, 1863.

William Quantrill joined Confederate forces in 1861, but left to fight on his own after feeling Rebel leaders just weren't being aggressive enough.

Quantrill began his guerilla warfare in March 1862 by hitting Aubry, Kansas. In September, Quantrill overran Olathe. His raiding went on and on. Then in Summer 1863, Quantrill set his sights on Lawrence, the town that had been sacked in 1856 by pro-slavers.

"The Quantrill Raid rates as one of the biggest atrocities of the war," Dean said. "The raid itself was very brutal. There had been a lot of raids on both sides during the war, but the number of unarmed people that were murdered in Lawrence was unheard of."

Attacking at dawn with as many as 400 men, Quantrill's Bushwackers had control of the town for four hours. By the time they left, as many as 150 civilian men and boys had been killed, most of the town's buildings were destroyed and more than 100 homes were burned. Banks and stores were looted. Women were threatened and robbed. The written reports of murder tell of viciousness and savagery. Quantrill's raid would forever more be known as the Lawrence Massacre.


Kansas and the War Effort

Kansas not only bled inside the territorial and state boundaries, it bled in many battles with the Union Army outside the state.

According to the Kansas State Historical Society, before the Civil War ended more than 20,000 Kansas men enlisted, from a state that had only 30,000 men that were within age limits for military duty. The state provided four batteries of cannon and 19 regiments.

Also, Kansas had the highest mortality rate of any state within the Union - over 8,400 deaths.


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