Border War: Kansas and Missouri

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Border War Between Kansas and Missouri

Border War

What  is known as the "Border War" or "Bleeding Kansas" in Kansas Territory was a conflict between the advocates and opponents of slavery, to settle the question as to whether Kansas should be admitted into the Union as a free or slave state. The name arose from the fact that most of the stirring scenes of that conflict were enacted in the eastern portion of Kansas, near the Missouri border. Both sides were thoroughly aroused by the debates in Congress on the bill organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and as soon as the bill became a law they were ready for action. The "Border War" lasted from 1854 until 1861, and, like all affairs that continue through a period of several years, was made up of a number of minor events. Most of these occurrences are described in more or less detail in the sketches of the administrations of the territorial governors, or of the various counties in which they were laid, as well as under the titles of Wakarusa War, Pottawatomie Massacre, Hickory Point, Franklin, Oswatomie, Black Jack, Fort Saunders, Fort Titus, Marais des Cygnes, etc.

In the course of the contest, each side developed some strong and efficient leaders. Prominent among the pro-slavery men were David R. Atchison, Benjamin F. and John H. Stringfellow, Thomas Johnson, John Calhoun, Samuel J. Jones and Daniel Woodson. On the free-state side the most active and best known men were Charles Robinson, William A. Phillips, James H. Lane, John Speer, George W. Smith, Cyrus K. Holliday, George W. Deitzler and John A. Wakefield.

On May 12, 1854, more than two weeks before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill (a.k.a. Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854), the Emigrant Aid Society was organized in Boston, Mass., and in July it received a charter from the Connecticut legislature. News of this movement reached western Missouri, and on June 15 the Platte County Self Defensive Association was formed. At a meeting at Weston, Mo., July 20, it was resolved to "remove any and all emigrants who go to Kansas under the auspices of abolition societies." With the Emigrant Aid Society on one side and the Self Defensive Association and kindred organizations upon the other, the issue was clearly defined, though no acts of violence were committed in the year 1854. Pro-slavery men crossed the river and held meetings among the Kansas squatters. One of these meetings, on Salt creek in June, pledged the squatters to give no protection to anti-slavery settlers, and recommended slaveowners to bring their negroes to Kansas as soon as possible. The first actual clash came in August, when the settlers at Lawrence met at Judge Miller's house to adopt some form of squatter regulations. A band of pro-slaveryites, under the leadership of an Indiana lawyer named Dunham, attempted to break up the meeting. The free-state men quietly adjourned until their opponents left, and then proceeded with the meeting, electing John A. Wakefield chief justice. Subsequently a compromise was effected with the pro-slavery settlers, and this squatter government ruled until the arrival of Gov. Reeder and the inauguration of the regular territorial government.

The activity with which the emigrants from the Northern states began founding settlements and making improvements of a permanent character alarmed their opponents. The Platte Argus, a rabid pro-slavery paper, declared that these "northern cattle" must be driven out, and the Self Defensive Association met at Weston and resolved "That this association will, whenever called upon by any of the citizens of Kansas Territory, hold itself in readiness together to assist and remove any and all emigrants who go there under the auspices of emigrant aid societies."

With the election of March 30, 1855, for members of the first territorial legislature, the situation became more intensified. Missourians in large numbers came over and voted for the pro-slavery candidates, after which they returned to their homes across the river. The actual free-state settlers refused to recognize the authority of a legislative body elected by illegal votes, and also refused to obey the laws enacted by such a body. On April 30, at a squatter meeting in Leavenworth, Cole McCrea, a free-state man, shot and killed Malcolm Clark in self-defense. McCrea was arrested, but the following September the grand jury failed to find a bill against him. The same day that Clark was shot, a vigilance committee of some 30 members was organized in Leavenworth. One of its first acts was to tar and feather William Phillips, after which he was ordered to leave the territory. Phillips was accused by the committee of having aided in the killing of Clark, by handing McCrea a revolver just at the critical moment. He refused to leave the territory, and on Sept. 1, 1856, the day of the city election in Leavenworth, he was killed in his house by a pro-slavery mob.

Rev. Pardee Butler (q. v.) was banished on Aug. 16, and on the 28th the Squatter Sovereign said editorially: "We will continue to tar and feather, drown, lynch, or hang every white-livered abolitionist who dares pollute our soil."

On Oct. 25, 1855, Samuel Collins was killed by Patrick Laughlin, who, under the guise of a free-state man, had joined the Danites and then published their ritual. Wilder says this was the first political murder in Kansas, the killing of Clark in the preceding April having been done in self-defense. Charles W. Dow was shot and killed by Franklin N. Coleman near Hickory Point, 10 miles south of Lawrence, on Nov. 21, 1855, being the second free-state man to meet his death by violence. Growing out of this murder were the arrest and rescue of Jacob Branson, which started the Wakarusa war. On Dec. 6, 1855, Thomas W. Barber (q. v.) was killed. This was one of the most wanton and cold-blooded homicides of the entire border war.

Clouds, dark and portentous, overhung the Territory of Kansas at the beginning of the year 1856. On Jan. 17, Stephen Sparks, his son and his nephew, were waylaid on the way home from Easton from the election of state officers under the Topeka constitution. Capt. Reese P. Brown, a member-elect of the Topeka legislature, went to their assistance, and with others succeeding in effecting their rescue. That night Brown was assaulted by a pro-slavery mob at Leavenworth, armed with knives and hatchets, and was so severely injured that he died before morning. The Squatter Sovereign of Feb. 20 recommended the hanging of all who had anything to do with the Topeka constitutional convention.

Then followed a systematic effort to drive the free-state men from the territory on trumped-up charges. Judge Lecompte instructed the grand jury to return indictments for treason against Andrew H. Reeder, Charles Robinson, James H. Lane and a number of others. On April 19, Sheriff Jones attempted to arrest Samuel N. Wood at Lawrence, but Wood refused to be arrested. The next day Jones called upon the citizens to aid in making the arrest, but as the people of Lawrence did not recognize the validity of the laws passed by the "bogus" legislature, they declined. On the 23d, Jones returned with a posse of United States troops and arrested several men without resistance. That night Jones was shot and wounded by some unknown party, and the next day the citizens of Lawrence denounced at a public meeting the shooting of the sheriff.

Matters now remained comparatively quiet until May 21, when a deputy United States marshal named Fain, accompanied by a strong posse went to Lawrence and arrested George W. Smith, George W. Deitzler and Gaius Jenkins. It was no part of the free-state programme to resist the Federal authorities, and the men arrested by the deputy marshal offered no protest. Later in the day Sheriff Jones visited Lawrence with a body of his satellites and four pieces of artillery. The Free-State Hotel, and the offices of the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State were destroyed; stores were broken open and pillaged, and Charles Robinson's residence was burned to the ground. Holloway says that Jones sat on his horse and viewed with complacency the destruction of the hotel. "Gentlemen," said he to his posse, "this is the happiest day of my life, I assure you. I determined to make the fanatics bow before me and kiss the territorial laws." When the walls of the hotel fell, the sheriff again addressed his men with "I have done it, by God I have done it. You are dismissed; the writs have been executed."

On the night of May 24-25, three days after the sack of Lawrence by Sheriff Jones, occurred the Pottawatomie massacre (q. v.), when Doyle, Wilkinson, and other pro-slavery settlers were killed by a party of free-state men led by John Brown. Then followed the free-state attacks on Franklin, the capture of Forts Saunders and Titus, and the battle of Middle creek in Linn County. David S. Hoyt was killed by pro-slavery men near Fort Saunders on Aug. 12, just before the place was captured, and on the 19th of the same month a man named Hoppe, a brother-in-law of Rev. Ephraim Nute, was shot and killed by a man named Fugit, merely because he lived in Lawrence. Fugit was tried and acquitted by a partisan court.

In Sept. 1856, Capt. Harvey, a free-state leader, fought the battles of Slough creek and Hickory Point in Jefferson county, winning victories in both instances. Later Harvey was captured by United States troops commanded by Col. Cooke and some of his men were sentenced to five years in prison by Judge Cato. On Sept. 16, David C. Buffum was killed by Charles Hays.  

Around Atchison and Leavenworth there was a reign of terror throughout the year. Frederick Emery's gang of border ruffians, under the guise of "regulators," harassed free-state men in every possible way. Steamboats bearing emigrants from the Northern states were turned back, and settlers known to be opposed to slavery were ordered to leave the territory. Phillips, in his Conquest of Kansas, tells how C. H. Barlow, with eight families from Illinois, and two families from Iowa, were disarmed in Missouri and escorted back to Liberty with instructions not to set foot in Kansas. Laban Parker was killed and his body tied to a tree about 10 miles from Tecumseh. A large hunting knife was left sticking in his breast, and tied to the handle of the knife was a toad-stool, on which was written: "Let all those who are going to vote against slavery take warning."

With regard to sending back free-state emigrants, a pro-slavery newspaper of Missouri said: "We do not approve fully of sending these criminals back to the east to be reshipped to Kansas—if not through Missouri, through Iowa or Nebraska. . . . We are of the opinion, if the citizens of Leavenworth city or Weston would hang one or two boat loads of abolitionists, it would do more toward establishing peace in Kansas than all the speeches that have been made in Congress during the present session. Let the experiment be tried."

Notwithstanding the machinations of the opposition, free-state settlers continued to pour into the territory. At meetings in Milwaukee, Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, and other northern cities in June 1856, the people contributed nearly $250,000 for the relief of Kansas settlers and to aid emigration. In August some 600 immigrants came in through Iowa and Nebraska over "Lane's road."

The year 1857 started in with the promise of being as turbulent as its predecessor. On Feb. 19, "Bill" Sherrard was killed by John W. Jones at Lecompton, and in April Martin Kline was killed by Merrill Smith, the marshal of Leavenworth. James Stevens was murdered at Leavenworth on July 31 by John C. Quarles and W. M. Bays, and the next day the murderers were hanged by the citizens to an elm tree near Young's saw mill. William Knighten and William Woods were arrested as accessories and taken to the Delaware City jail.

The arrival of Gov. Walker in May, and the promises he made to give the people a fair and impartial administration did much to allay the hostile spirit, and the activities of the contestants were confined chiefly to holding conventions and organizing for the purpose of carrying the elections. Late in the year trouble broke out in Linn and Bourbon counties and continued throughout the year 1858. The free-state men arrested the preceding year for treason were brought before Judge Cato for trial, but the cases were "nollied" by the prosecuting attorney. Charles Robinson was arraigned for trial in Judge Cato's court on Aug. 18, charged with "usurpation of office," in having accepted the office of governor under the Topeka constitution, but he was acquitted by the jury. Toward the close of the year, interest centered in the adoption and ratification of the Lecompton constitution. Excitement ran high, but there was little actual violence.

The most atrocious event of the year 1858 was the Marais des Cygnes massacre on May 19, when nine free-state men were lined up and shot by Capt. Charles Hamelton's band of border ruffians. The free-state party, having gained control of the legislature, passed laws of a more liberal character than those of the first session, and this served as a stimulus to emigration from the Northern and Eastern states, so that by 1859 the opponents of slavery were in a decided majority in the territory. However, the pro-slavery men were not yet willing to abandon the fight. On Jan. 25, 1859, Dr. John Doy and his son Charles were arrested in Kansas and taken to Weston, Mo., where they were lodged in jail on a charge of "nigger stealing." In the first trial the jury disagreed, but, in June, Dr. Doy was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. On July 23 a company of Kansas men, led by Maj. J. B. Abbott, went to Weston and released him. With the ratification of the Wyandotte constitution on Oct. 4, 1859, by a vote of nearly two to one, the slave power recognized the "handwriting on the wall" and retired from the field. The "Border War," which for several years had disturbed the entire country, had ended, and the term "Bleeding Kansas" was no longer applicable to the territory. Many historians, however, strongly connect the Border War and Bleeding Kansas with the culmination of the American Civil War which commenced in 1861. See also: Missouri Civil War History and Kansas Civil War History.

(Sources listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. Description: Long before the secession crisis at Fort Sumter ignited the War Between the States, men fought and died on the prairies of Kansas over the incendiary issue of slavery. “War to the knife and knife to the hilt,” cried the Atchison Squatter Sovereign. In 1854 a shooting war developed between pro-slavery men from Missouri and free-staters in Kansas over control of the territory. The prize was whether Kansas would become a slave or a free state when admitted to the Union, a question that could decide the balance of power in Washington. Continued below…

War to the Knife is an absorbing account of a bloody episode in our nation's past, told in the unforgettable words of the men and women involved: Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, Sara Robinson, Jeb Stuart, Abraham Lincoln, William F. Cody, and John Brown—hailed as a prophet by some, denounced as a madman by others. Because the conflict soon spread east, events in “Bleeding Kansas” have largely been forgotten. But as historian Thomas Goodrich reveals in this compelling saga, what America's “first civil war” lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in ferocity.

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Recommended Reading: Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865. Description: The first phase of the Civil War was fought west of the Mississippi River several years before the attack on Fort Sumter. Starting with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Jay Monaghan traces the development of the conflict between the pro-slavery elements from Missouri and the New England abolitionists who migrated to Kansas. "Bleeding Kansas" provided a preview of the greater national struggle to come. Continued below…

The author allows a new look at Quantrill's sacking of Lawrence, organized bushwhackers, and border battles that cost thousands of lives. Most impressive are chapters on the American Indians’ part in the conflict. The record becomes devastatingly clear: the fighting in the West was the cruelest and most useless of the whole affair, and if men of vision had been in Washington in the 1850s it might have been avoided.


Recommended Reading: Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Description: Few people would have expected bloodshed in Kansas Territory. After all, it had few slaves and showed few signs that slavery would even flourish. But civil war tore this territory apart in the 1850s and 60s, and "Bleeding Kansas" became a forbidding symbol for the nationwide clash over slavery that followed. Continued below…

Many free-state Kansans seemed to care little about slaves, and many proslavery Kansans owned not a single slave. But the failed promise of the Kansas-Nebraska Act--when fraud in local elections subverted the settlers' right to choose whether Kansas would be a slave or free state--fanned the flames of war. Nicole Etcheson seeks to revise our understanding of this era by focusing on whites' concerns over their political liberties. The first comprehensive account of "Bleeding Kansas" in more than thirty years, her study re-examines the debate over slavery expansion to emphasize issues of popular sovereignty rather than slavery's moral or economic dimensions. The free-state movement was a coalition of settlers who favored black rights and others who wanted the territory only for whites, but all were united by the conviction that their political rights were violated by nonresident voting and by Democratic presidents' heavy-handed administration of the territories. Etcheson argues that participants on both sides of the Kansas conflict believed they fought to preserve the liberties secured by the American Revolution and that violence erupted because each side feared the loss of meaningful self-governance. Bleeding Kansas is a gripping account of events and people-rabble-rousing Jim Lane, zealot John Brown, Sheriff Sam Jones, and others-that examines the social milieu of the settlers along with the political ideas they developed. As Etcheson demonstrates, the struggle over the political liberties of whites may have heightened the turmoil but led eventually to a broadening of the definition of freedom to include blacks. Her insightful re-examination sheds new light on this era and is essential reading for anyone interested in the ideological origins of the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Hardcover). Description: During the Civil War, the western front was the scene of some of that conflict’s bloodiest and most barbaric encounters as Union raiders and Confederate guerrillas pursued each other from farm to farm with equal disregard for civilian casualties. Historical accounts of these events overwhelmingly favor the victorious Union standpoint, characterizing the Southern fighters as wanton, unprincipled savages. But in fact, as the author, himself a descendant of Union soldiers, discovered, the bushwhackers’ violent reactions were understandable, given the reign of terror they endured as a result of Lincoln’s total war in the West. Continued below…

In reexamining many of the long-held historical assumptions about this period, Gilmore discusses President Lincoln’s utmost desire to keep Missouri in the Union by any and all means. As early as 1858, Kansan and Union troops carried out unbridled confiscation or destruction of Missouri private property, until the state became known as "the burnt region." These outrages escalated to include martial law throughout Missouri and finally the infamous General Orders Number 11 of September 1863 in which Union General Thomas Ewing, Federal commander of the region, ordered the deportation of the entire population of the border counties. It is no wonder that, faced with the loss of their farms and their livelihoods, Missourians struck back with equal force.


Recommended Reading: Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Description: The long agony" was over: Kansas, as of January 29, 1861, was a state--it had "moved to America." In Leavenworth, Lawrence, Topeka, and other towns Kansans celebrated the "glorious news" of the coming of statehood in a "fury of excitement." Cannons boomed, cheering crowds gathered on the street corners, a judge and a militia general stood on their heads, and the saloons were scenes of inebriated revelry. Continued below…

So begins Albert Castel's classic history of Kansas during the Civil War. Long recognized as a key study on the war in the trans-Mississippi West, Civil War Kansas describes the political, military, social, and economic events of the state's first four years. Castel contributes to a better understanding of the Civil War in this region through a realistic presentation and analysis of the Kansas-Missouri border conflict, the operations of the Missouri guerrillas under Quantrill, and the Union and Confederate military campaigns in Missouri, Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and Kansas itself.

Recommended Reading: Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865: A Riveting Account of a Bloody Chapter in Civil War History. From Library Journal: The Civil War on the Kansas-Missouri border was initially fought by Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers, guerrillas from Missouri and Kansas, respectively. Union troops mostly displaced the Jayhawkers by 1862, but the Bushwhackers remained active until Lee's surrender. Continued below...

Historian Goodrich describes the death and destruction the guerrilla war wrought on this region through excerpts from diaries, letters, local news accounts, and published articles, letting the victims do most of the talking. Citing cases that graphically underscore the terrorism, Goodrich captures the fear of the populace. He indulges in a few overly dramatic statements… This title should be considered for public libraries with strong Civil War collections.

Sources: Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc., Volume I, pp. 207-211, with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar.

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