Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War

John Brown

John Brown

Evacuation of Missouri Counties under General Order No. 11, painting  by George Caleb Bingham, 1870.

Martial Law in Missouri by George Caleb Bingham, 1870.

“Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave states. Since there is no escaping your challenge, we accept it in the name of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers, as it is in right.

— Senator William Seward, on the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, May 1854

1856 map showing slave states in gray, free states in pink, U.S. territories in green, and Kansas in white.

1856 map showing slave states in gray, free states in pink, U.S. territories in green, and Kansas in white.

Bleeding Kansas, or the Kansas-Missouri Border War, was a series of violent civil confrontations between the people of Kansas and Missouri that occurred immediately after the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The border war began seven years before the Civil War officially began and continued into the war. The issue was whether or not Kansas would become a Free-State or a pro-slavery state, which resulted in years of electoral fraud, raids, assaults, and retributive murders carried out by pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” in Missouri and anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” and “Redlegs” in Kansas.

On May 30, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed, which opened the two territories to white settlement primarily so that a railroad could be built across the vast plains to the Rockies. Though the area was reserved for the Indians, the treaty was disregarded with the coming of the steam engine. Little did those long ago legislators realize the chain of events they had set in motion that would end in the Civil War and usher in an era of violence that would plague the plains for the rest of the century.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the issue of extending slavery north, allowing the two territories to decide the matter. As a result, settlement of the state was spurred, not so much by westward expansion as by the determination of both pro-slavery and abolitionist factions to achieve a majority population in the territory.

Prologue to the Civil War

Prologue to the Civil War

With congressional power in the Southerners’ grip, the federal government placed the volatile issue of slavery into the hands of those settling the new territories. Abolitionists, extreme in New England, were pitted against Southerners, who realized that if Kansas became a Free-State, their strength in the Congress would be eroded. This tip in congressional power threatened their political, economic, and cultural existence in the South.

New England abolitionists soon began organizing emigrant aid societies to encourage like-minded citizens to settle in the new territory. One of the men who joined the New England Emigrant Society and settled in Kansas for several years was Horace Tabor before moving on to LeadvilleColorado, to become later known as the famous “Silver King.”

Pro-slavery interests in and throughout the South took counteraction. Towns were established by each faction in Lawrence and Topeka by the Free-Staters and Leavenworth and Atchison by the pro-slavery settlers.

On August 1, 1854, 29 northern emigrants, mainly from Massachusetts and Vermont, were the first to arrive in Lawrence, Kansas, named for Amos A. Lawrence, a promoter of the Emigrant Aid Society. In September, a second party of 200 men, women, and children arrived. Soon all the tasks required to organize a new territory for statehood would become secondary to the single issue of slavery.

The First Territorial Capitol at Pawnee, Kansas, was only used for one session before moving to Lecompton, Kansas when the pro-slavery advocates controlled the state. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

On October 16, 1854, the first anti-slavery newspaper was established to voice the New England Emigrant Society’s sentiments. The newspaper called the Kansas Pioneer further enraged the pro-slavery supporters.

Pro-slavery Missourians flooded the state to vote at the first election in November 1854, where armed pro-slavery advocates intimidated voters and stuffed ballot boxes. Andrew H. Reeder was elected as the first territorial governor of Kansas.

Another election was held in March 1855 for the first territorial legislature. With the pro-slavery advocates winning again, the members ousted all Free-State members, secured Governor Andrew Reeder’s removal, adopted pro-slavery statutes, and began to hold their sessions at Lecompton, Kansas, about twelve miles from Lawrence. Severe penalties were leveled against anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding, and those who assisted fugitives could be put to death or sentenced to ten years of hard labor.

In July 1855, Kansas’s first territorial capital was completed of native stone at the now-extinct town of Pawnee on the Fort Riley reservation. However, its use was short-lived due to its distance from Missouri and the pro-slavery faction that controlled the Kansas legislature.

John Brown, 1850s

John Brown, 1850s.

Though the pro-slavery tickets had won the earlier elections in 1854 and 1855, the results were not accepted by free-soilers, and a rival government was set up at Topeka in October 1855. Southern sympathizers – not only from Missouri but from as far away as Alabama – began to form paramilitary bands to destroy the abolitionist power in Kansas.

On October 7, 1855, John Brown arrived in Osawatomie, Kansas joining his five sons who had become engaged in the fight of the Free-State cause. At first, Brown was reluctant to join his sons due to his age, 55. But, a letter from his son, John Jr., requesting arms changed his mind. Packing a wagon, he headed west, gathering weapons along the way and declaring, “I’m going to Kansas to make it a Free-State.”

On December 1, 1855, a small army of Missourians, acting under the command of “Sheriff” Jones, laid siege to Lawrence in the opening stages of what would later become known as “The Wakarusa War.” The intervention of the new governor, Wilson Shannon, kept the pro-slavery men from attacking Lawrence.

But, later when a young man, who had come to the aid of the Free-Staters, rode off to his home about six miles west of Lawrence, he was met on the way by a group of pro-slavery men from Lecompton

Though the man never drew his weapon, he was shot in cold blood by the pro-slavery faction. His body was returned to Lawrence, where the entire citizenry followed it to its burial, in the presence of his young wife and children, in Pioneer Cemetery. More than any other, this event hardened the Free-Staters to realize that they had come, not simply for an election to determine whether Kansas would be a free or slave state but to fight a war over the issue.

“They may kill me, but they cannot kill the principles I fight for. If they take Lawrence, they must do it over my dead body.”

— G.W. Bell, Douglas County Clerk

Anti-slavery Jayhawkers clashed with Bushwhackers from neighboring Missouri. The two sides were provoked to bitter and often bloody struggles in Kansas Territory to sway the popular decision to their favor.

Missouri Border Ruffians

Missouri Border Ruffians

Both sides were abetted by desperadoes and opportunists where people were tarred and feathered, kidnapped, and killed. Confrontation and deadly skirmishes over the issue of slavery would continue in the Kansas Territory for the next five years in an era to be forever known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The word Jayhawker came from a mythical bird that cannot be caught. At first, the term was applied to both the pro-slavery and abolitionist rebel bands. But, before long, it stuck to the anti-slavery side only. Those that favored the Confederacy soon earned the name of Bushwhackers because they primarily lived in the “bush,” or country and their legs “whacked” the bushes as they rode. Both sides would eventually include semi-legitimate soldiers and even grudgingly acknowledged by the Union and Confederate forces. However, other members of these two groups were simply bandits who had a quasi-military excuse for ambush, robbery, murder, arson, and plunder.

In 1856 the pro-slavery territorial capital was “officially” moved to Lecompton, Kansas. In April of that year, a three-man congressional investigating committee arrived in Lecompton to look into the Kansas troubles. The majority committee report found the elections to be fraudulent and said that the Free-State government represented the will of the majority. However, the federal government refused to follow its recommendations and continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature as the legitimate government of Kansas.

On May 21, 1856, a motley group of more than 500 armed pro-slavery enthusiasts raided Lawrence, the abolitionist movement’s stronghold. They burned the Free-State Hotel (now the Eldridge Hotel), smashed the presses of two Lawrence newspapers, ransacked homes and stores, and killed one man.

Senator Charles Sumner Attacked

Senator Charles Sumner Attacked

Not only was violence erupting in Kansas, but also in Congress itself. On May 22, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was beaten unconscious by Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina. Just three days previously, Sumner had made a fiery speech called “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he accused pro-slavery senators, particularly Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, of cavorting with “the harlot, Slavery.” Preston Brooks, the nephew of Andrew Butler, believing that Sumner had insulted his uncle, walked into Sumner’s chambers, where he slammed a metal-topped cane onto his head time and time again. His injuries stopped Sumner from attending the Senate for the next three years.

The caning of Sumner became a symbol in the North of Southern brutality. Meanwhile, while Brooks was initially censured for his actions, he became a hero in the South for defending the Southern honor and was subsequently reelected by his constituency.

On May 24, 1856, John Brown, self-appointed avenger, four of his sons and two other followers, raided a settlement on the Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas dragging five innocent pro-slavery men from their homes, they hacked them to death with artillery swords. After Osawatomie, John Brown earned the nickname “Osawatomie Brown” as he led anti-slavery guerrillas in the fight for a free Kansas during the rest of the year.

In retaliation, the town of Osawatomie was attacked by 400 pro-slavery Missourians in August 1856. Along with 40  other men, John Brown defended the town, but in the end, all but four homes at the settlement were burned by the invaders, and John Brown’s son Frederick was killed. When the invading army returned, four wagon loads of dead and wounded were brought into Boonville, Missouri.

In September 1856, a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, arrived in Kansas and restored order. However, his tenure was to be a short one as, in 1857, the Lecompton legislature met, it became clear that free elections would not be held to approve a new constitution, and Geary resigned. Robert J. Walker was then appointed governor, and a convention was held at Lecompton, where a constitution was drafted. Only that part of the resulting pro-slavery constitution dealing with slavery was submitted to the electorate, and the question was drafted to favor the pro-slavery group. Free-State men refused to participate in the election because the constitution was overwhelmingly approved.

William Quantrill

William Quantrill

1857 was also the year that William Clarke Quantrill arrived upon the scene. The former Ohio schoolteacher moved to Kansas and took up farming. However, he quickly honed his violent nature by living with thieves and murderers, committing several brutal murders during this time. He rode West with a wagon train the following year, supporting himself through gambling. Later he would return, taking an active part in the bloody battle between Kansas and Missouri.

Despite the dubious validity of the Lecompton Constitution, President James Buchanan recommended, in 1858, that Congress accept it and approve statehood for the territory. Instead, Congress returned it for another territorial vote, moving the nation closer to war.

Marais des Cygnes Massacre, Kansas

Marais des Cygnes Massacre, Kansas

On May 19, 1858, an armed action would shock the nation and become known as the Marais des Cygne Massacre. After a raid through Kansas, where several unarmed Free Staters were killed, Georgia native Charles Hamelton, and about 30 followers, returned to Missouri when they captured eleven Free State men near the Marais des Cygnes River on the Kansas-Missouri border. Many of these captives, some of which were former neighbors of Hamelton’s, expected no harm to come from him. However, the Bushwhackers herded the captives into a ravine, shot them, left them for dead, and returned to Missouri.

Of the eleven Free Staters, five of the men died, five were wounded, and one, who had feigned death to escape injury, would crawl from the ravine to tell his tale to the nation. Baptist minister Reverend Benjamin L. Read immediately began to spread the word of the massacre, which abolitionist writer John Greenleaf Whittier soon chronicled in a poem that appeared in the September 1858 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. As Whittier had intended, the story further inflamed abolitionist sentiment. The last verse of the poem read:

On the lintels of Kansas
that blood shall not dry;
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow
The march of the day.

Constitutional Convention, Topeka, Kansas, Frank Leslies Illistrated Newspaper, 1855

Constitutional Convention, Topeka, Kansas, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1855

Finally, in July 1859, after several attempts were made to draft a constitution, which Kansas could use to apply for statehood, a Free-State constitution was adopted. The constitution, which forbade slavery, was accepted by Congress; however, the pro-slavery forces in the Senate strongly opposed Kansas’ Free-State status and stalled its admission. The Kansas conflict and statehood question became a national issue and figured into the 1860 Republican party platform.

After such bloody encounters as Pottawatomie Creek, John Brown returned east and began to amass arms, making battle plans in earnest for a full-fledged invasion of the South. This plan culminated in the raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. However, once John Brown and his followers had captured the arsenal, they were trapped. They were then captured and turned over to state authorities.

John Brown was found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged in Charles Town, West Virginia, on December 2, 1859

In 1860, Charles R. “Doc” Jennison, leader of a Jayhawker band, headed a posse that hanged two Missourians caught trying to return fugitive slaves to their masters.

“God sees it; I have only a short time to live–only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause, there will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done for.

– John Brown to his son, as they watched Osawatomie burn, on August 30, 1856

On January 29, 1861, Kansas was finally admitted to the Union as a Free-State. Her struggle over the still unsettled slavery issue came at a terrible cost and provided a last ominous warning of the peril that awaited the nation. Topeka became the state capital with Charles Robinson as the first governor and James H. Lane, an active Free-Stater and U.S. Senator.