Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War

John Brown 1859

John Brown 1859

The toll was only a foretaste of the Civil War’s suffering to both Kansas and Missouri. In these two states, the war was fought with the particular ferocity that comes when relatives and close neighbors fall out. The five-year border conflict had brought the nation, month by month, inevitably to the brink of Civil War. This brutal and bloody struggle between Free-State and pro-slavery factions in Kansas Territory served both as a warning and a chilling prelude for the controversy that soon would engulf the entire country. Before long, the entire nation would know its dreadful fate when, in April 1861, the Civil War began.

Though Kansas had suffered terribly in the years preceding the Civil War and would continue to be a battleground for partisan bands on both sides, the war would extol an appalling price for Missouri. While Missouri was officially a Union state, never declaring to join the Confederacy, most of its population was pro-slavery. This resulted in a state of war within its own borders between the U.S. Army and Missouri citizens. Because of this, the State of Missouri never officially joined the Civil War due to its internal struggles.

While the various political arguments that led to the war developed, the Missouri people tried to maintain neutrality. As, one by one, the southern states seceded, Missouri and Arkansas held to the Union. Finally, their position became impossible when President Lincoln ordered Missouri and Arkansas to raise a quota of men to help force the rebel states back in line. Unwilling to fight old friends, neighbors, and families, both states refused, with Arkansas seceding May 6, 1861. Missouri was now faced with a difficult choice. Hamilton R. Gamble, future provisional Governor, had to say of the situation, “Our sympathies are with the South, but our best interests are with the North.”

Confederate Flag

Confederate Flag

Just six days after the President’s call for troops, Confederate sympathizers seized the federal arsenal at Liberty, Missouri, on April 20, 1861.

With the official declaration of the Civil War, anti-Union Missourians, who had formerly been content to terrorize abolitionists in Kansas, now extended their operations into their native state, raiding pro-Union towns, ambushing Army columns and generally scouring the countryside, looting, and killing. Meanwhile, the Jayhawkers increased their presence in Missouri, and their crimes became more ruthless.

Missourians’ attempts to get the government to control the destruction went unheeded, and many Missourians joined Partisan Groups, secretly pledging their loyalty to the Confederacy but retaining their civilian status. They aided the Confederacy in supplying them with food, shelter, clothing, and revealing troop movements. The joining of the Partisan group was not always intended to support the southern cause but, instead, in retaliation against the crimes committed against them by the Federals. The Missouri Partisan Rangers formed their own army to fight the Union troops, supporting the Confederacy because they shared the same enemy, but not necessarily the same cause.

The next internal battle in Missouri occurred on May 10, 1861, in St. Louis, which became known as the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” Missouri’s pro-southern governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, attempted to force secession with a secret plan to obtain control of the guns and ammunition stored at the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis. He ordered the State Guard to meet at Camp Jackson, planning to march on the arsenal. However, the “Home Guard” of German troops led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon descended upon Camp Jackson from several directions.

St Louis Arsenal

Camp Jackson Massacre

Lyon demanded unconditional surrender, which he received. His force, numbering 7,000 men, marched its prisoners through the city while hostile crowds shouted insults and threw rocks. The troops fired several volleys into the crowd, whose members then drew their weapons and returned the fire.

When it was said and done, twenty-eight lay dead or wounded in the streets. A baby, two innocent men, and many other innocent bystanders were wounded in the melee. For the next month, St. Louis continued to be subject to chaos and sporadic violent outbreaks.

Yet another skirmish between Missouri State and Federal forces occurred at the Battle of Boonville on June 17, 1861, when Captain Lyon intended to put down Jacksons’ State Guard. As the guard retreated towards Boonville, Lyon embarked on steamboats, transported his men below Boonville, marched to the town, and engaged the enemy. In a short fight, Lyon dispersed the Confederates and occupied Boonville. This early victory established Union control of the Missouri River and helped douse attempts to place Missouri in the Confederacy.

In the summer of 1861, Kansas Senator James H. Lane returned to his home state to command “Lane’s Brigade.” Supposedly composed of Kansas infantry and cavalry, the force was more akin to a ruthless band of Jayhawkers wearing United States uniforms. As he rampaged through Missouri, his antics would earn him the nickname of the “Grim Chieftain” for the death and destruction he brought on the people of Missouri.

General James H. Lane

General James H. Lane

In September of 1861, Lane’s Brigade descended on Osceola, Missouri. When Lane’s troops found a cache of Confederate military supplies in the town, Lane decided to wipe Osceola from the map.

First, Osceola was stripped of its valuable goods, which were loaded into wagons taken from the townspeople. Then, nine citizens were given a farcical trial and shot. Finally, Lane’s men brought their frenzy of pillaging and murder to a close-by, burning the entire town. The settlement suffered more than $1,000,000 worth of damage, including that belonging to pro-Union citizens.

In 1862, Quantrill began his infamous raiding career in western Missouri and then across the border into Kansas by plundering Olathe, Spring Hill, and Shawnee. His raids gained the attention of other desperados. By 1863, Quantrill recruited others who joined his company, including “Bloody” Bill Anderson and Frank and Jesse James.

William Clarke Quantrill was the most infamous of the leaders of the Missouri partisan units. A daring and ruthless man, Quantrill directed his men in a series of raids along the KansasMissouri border. Many military men on both sides condemned his brutal tactics, and one Confederate general even threatened to arrest him and all of his men.

William Clarke Quantrill, an Ohio native, had joined the Confederate forces several years prior but was unhappy with their reluctance in aggressively prosecuting Union troops. Therefore, the young man took it upon himself to take a more forceful course with his own-guerilla warfare.

Independence, Missouri

Independence, Missouri

On August 11, 1862, Colonel J.T. Hughes’s Confederate forces, including William Quantrill, attacked IndependenceMissouri, at dawn. They drove through the town to the Union Army camp, capturing, killing, and scattering the Yankees.

During the melee, Colonel Hughes was killed, but the Confederates took Independence, which led to a Confederate dominance in the Kansas City area for a short time. Quantrill’s role in the capture of Independence led to his being commissioned as a captain in the Confederate Army.

On August 15, 1862, Union Major Emory S. Foster led an 800-man combined force from Lexington to Lone Jack. Upon reaching the Lone Jack area, he discovered 1,600 Rebels under Colonel J.T. Coffee and attacked them about 9:00 pm, dispersing the Confederate forces.

Early the next morning, the rebels counter-attacked with a 3,000 man force. After a five-hour battle, Foster and Coffee both lay dead, and the Union forces retreated. Though resulting in a Confederate victory, the Lone Jack Battle was one of the bloodiest fought on Missouri soil, leaving 200 men dead, dying, or wounded and multiple homes and businesses in ashes.

Quantrill's Raiders sacking a town

Quantrill’s Raiders sacking a town

On October 17, 1862, Quantrill and his band moved to attack Shawnee, Kansas. As they neared their destination, they came upon a Federal supply train, where they captured twelve unarmed men. Later these 12 drivers and Union escorts would be found dead, all but one shot in the head. Quantrill and his men attacked the town, killing several men and burning the settlement to the ground.

In May 1863, Quantrill and his band moved to the Osage River banks on the Missouri-Kansas border. Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr. from Kansas, who commanded the district border, was unhappy with Quantrill’s presence.

To destroy the guerrillas’ support base, Union troops began to arrest Kansas City area women in July 1863, who were providing support for the Bushwhackers or suspected of gathering information on the partisans’ behalf. The Border Ruffians’ known relatives, including family members of “Bloody Bill” Anderson and the Younger Brothers, were of particular interest to the Federal Troops. Detaining them in several buildings throughout the Kansas City area, women and children were detained until they could be transported out of the area and tried. Overcrowded and infested with rats and vermin of all kinds, the women and children in these buildings suffered inexplicably.

One such dilapidated three-story building in downtown Kansas City was in deplorable condition, with a weak foundation and plaster constantly falling from the walls and ceilings. Though signs that it was unstable were noted, such as large cracks in the walls and ceilings and large amounts of mortar dust on the floor, the signs were ignored. On August 13, 1863, the building collapsed, killing five women and injuring dozens of others.

Among the killed and injured in the collapse were women who were close relatives of prominent Confederate guerrillas. Those killed in the collapse included Josephine Anderson, sister of “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Susan Crawford Vandever and Armenia Crawford Selvey, Cole Younger’s cousins, Charity McCorkle Kerr, wife to Quantrillian member Nathan Kerr, and a woman named Mrs. Wilson. Many others were injured and scarred. Caroline Younger, sister to Cole and James Younger, would die two years later due to her injuries. Another Anderson sister was crippled for life when both of her legs were broken in the incident.

When news of the collapse reached the families of the dead and injured, they went wild. Soon, crowds gathered around the ruins as the dead and wounded were carried off, shouting “Murder!” at the Union forces. Just four days later, on August 18, 1863, General Ewing issued General Order Number 10, which “officially” stated that any person – man, woman, or child, who was directly involved with aiding a band of guerrillas would be jailed.

Later, Quantrill and his men would claim that the building was deliberately weakened, giving them ammunition for the infamous attack on Lawrence that was about to come.

Lawrence was a town long hated by Quantrill and his men. Home of the demagogic anti-slavery Senator, Jim Lane, was also a stronghold of the Red Legs, Union guerrillas who had sacked much of western Missouri. An attack on this citadel of abolition would bring revenge for any wrongs that the Southerners had suffered, real or imagined.

Lawrence, Kansas Raid during the Bleeding Kansas Affair

The Lawrence, Kansas Raid, illustrated in Harper’s Weekly, September 1863.

Early on the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill, along with his murderous force of about 400, descended on the still sleeping town of Lawrence. Incensed by the Free-State headquarters town, Quantrill set out to revenge against the Jayhawker community. In this carefully orchestrated early morning raid, he and his band, in four terrible hours, turned the town into a bloody and blazing inferno unparalleled in its brutality.

Quantrill and his bushwhacker mob of raiders began their reign of terror at 5:00 am, looting and burning as they went, bent on destruction of the town, then less than 3,000 residents. They had killed approximately 180 men and boys by the time it was over and left Lawrence nothing more than smoldering ruins.

In response to the Lawrence Massacre, Union Brigadier General Thomas Ewing signed General Order No. 11 on August 25, 1863, which required all persons living more than one mile from Independence, Hickman’s Mill, Pleasant Hill, and Kansas City to leave their farms unless they took an oath of loyalty to the Union. The cities that were excluded were already under Union control. This order included Cass, Jackson, Bates, and portions of Vernon Counties. Some did take the oath, but many others fled to other areas, never to return. The Union Army burned the remaining homes, buildings, and crops, and the entire area became known as “No Mans Land.”

Jackson County Evacuation

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

By denying Quantrill and his guerillas the support of the populace, the Union hoped to force them out in the open where they could be destroyed. The enforcement of Order No. 11 resulted in terrible hardships for the people of Jackson County. Many Union and Southern families alike were killed in the ensuing melee.

By October, Quantrill and his men were riding south towards Texas to spend the winter. His men attacked a column of Union cavalry and wagons along the way near Baxter Springs, Kansas. Then they captured nearby Fort Blair, commanded by Union Major General James Blunt. Blunt escaped to nearby Fort Scott, but more than 80 of his soldiers (60 were black) were captured and massacred. Blunt was relieved of command as a result. Later, a drunken Quantrill boasted that he had accomplished in one day what Confederate Colonel Jo Shelby and Major General John Marmaduke had failed for years to do — beat Blunt.

Upon his arrival in Texas, Quantrill reported at Bonham on October 26, 1863, to General Henry E. McCulloch. Quantrill and his men were ordered to help round up the increasing number of deserters and conscription-dodgers in North Texas. The band captured a few but killed even more, after which McCulloch pulled them off this duty. The General then sent them to track down retreating Comanche from a recent raid on the northwest frontier, which they did without success.

During this time, Quantrill’s behavior had become too bizarre for many of his men, and he was beginning to lose control over them. Some wanted to join the regular Confederate army. Anderson’s quarrels with Quantrill led him to form a fierce band of his own, including Frank James and his 16-year-old brother, Jesse James. During their winter in Texas, “Bloody Bill” Anderson took his group and began to terrorize the area. Texas residents became targets for so many raids and acts of violence with two such groups in the neighborhood that regular Confederate forces had to be assigned to protect residents from the irregular Confederate forces’ activities.

Finally, General McCulloch determined to rid North Texas of Quantrill’s influence, and on March 28, 1864, Quantrill was arrested on the charge of ordering the murder of a Confederate Major. However, Quantrill escaped, returning to his camp near Sherman, Texas, pursued by over 300 state and Confederate troops. His band then crossed the Red River into Indian Territory, where they re-supplied from Confederate stores and started the journey back to Missouri.

Soon, his guerrilla band began to break up into several smaller units. His vicious lieutenant, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, known for wearing a necklace of Yankee scalps into battle, would continue with his band to terrorize the state of Missouri. As Quantrill’s authority over his followers disintegrated, they elected George Todd, a former lieutenant to Quantrill, to lead them.

"Bloody Bill" Anderson

“Bloody Bill” Anderson

Anderson’s greatest fame came from a massacre and battle with Union soldiers at Centralia, Missouri, when on September 27, 1864, he led a band of about seventy men into the town. Wearing Confederate uniforms, the ruffians showed no mercy to the Centralia residents as they systematically raided homes and stores, raped and murdered. In their final act of wanton destruction, the entire town was reduced to a burning ruin.

After the Centralia Massacre, a Union detachment chased the fleeing guerrillas, who turned on them, killing 114 of their pursuers. On October 11, Anderson’s Bushwhackers sacked Boonville while their leader joined Quantrill to capture Glasgow. Todd, riding with Jo Shelby’s cavalry division, was killed in battle near Independence on October 21, 1864, and Anderson fell five days later in a skirmish near Orrick.

In mid-September of 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price made a last-gasp raid across the state, hoping to capture Missouri for the South. The Civil War had raged for nearly 3 1/2 years, and Price, a former Missouri governor, had been actively engaged throughout. Leading pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard troops at the Battles of Lexington, Wilson’s Creek, and Pea Ridge, Price was a favorite of his troops and was affectionately known as “Old Pap.”

Forced to bypass St. Louis because of its overwhelming Federal strength, Price’s troops struggled past Hermann, Boonville, Glasgow, Lexington, and Independence, filling his ranks along the way with fresh volunteers in preparation for an invasion of Westport (now part of Kansas City.) On October 23, 1864, his troops suffered the worst Confederate defeat in Missouri at Westport, which allowed the Union to gain control of the state finally. Westport was the last major Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River.

Exhausted, the fleeing wagon train retired south down the state line. However, hot on the Price trail was Union General Samuel R. Curtis.

After crossing into Kansas, Price and his weary troops camped near a trading post on the night of October 24. The next day the Rebels, stalled by their wagons crossing the ford, had formed a line on the north side of Mine Creek. The Federals, although outnumbered, commenced the attack as additional troops arrived during the fight.

Colonel Sterling Price

Colonel Sterling Price

They soon surrounded the Confederates, resulting in the capture of about 600 men and two generals – Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke and Brigadier General William L. Cabell. Having lost these many men, Price’s army was doomed. Retreat to friendly territory was the only recourse.

Meanwhile, to regain his prestige, Quantrill concocted a plan to lead a company of men to Washington and assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. He assembled a group of raiders in Lafayette County, Missouri, in November and December 1864 with the idea of completing this task. However, Union troops’ strength east of the Mississippi River convinced him that his plan could not succeed. Quantrill turned back and resumed his typical pattern of raiding.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered at Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War. However, while peace was brought to the rest of the land, the violence in these two states would continue for years to come.

Fearing capture and execution, Quantrill and his men headed east. In May 1865, a Unionist irregular force surprised his group near Taylorsville, Kentucky, and in the ensuing battle, Quantrill was shot through the spine. He died at the military prison at Louisville, Kentucky, on June 6, 1865.

Conquered Banner of the Confederacy

Conquered Banner of the Confederacy. Click for prints & products.

The divided state of Missouri suffered the third-largest number of engagements during the war at 1,162. Only Virginia and Tennessee had more. 40,000 Missourians joined the Confederate ranks, while nearly three times that number joined the Union Army. When it was over, Missouri lost 27,000 of its brave sons.

Kansas contributed 20,097 men to the Union Army, a remarkable record since the population included less than 30,000 men of military age. Furthermore, Kansas suffered the highest mortality rate of any Union states. Of the black troops in the Union army, 2,080 were credited to Kansas, though the 1860 census listed fewer than 300 blacks of military age in the state; most of them came from Arkansas and Missouri.

Having tasted the excitement of gunplay, members of the guerrilla bands were in no mood to lay down their arms meekly and become model citizens. Their resolve to continue their outlaw ways was strengthened by knowing that surrender meant the hangman’s noose. Men like Jesse and Frank James and the Younger Brothers merely shifted their field of endeavor from the political to the financial. Continuing to apply their hit-and-run tactics, bank robberies and train holdups now became endemic, effectively beginning the advent of the Wild Wild West and its many outlaws.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2022.

Author’s Notes:

What an interesting piece of history to explore! Did you know that most historians believe that the Civil War began as a result of what has become known as “Bleeding Kansas?” When the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the Kansas Territory to be settled and eventually become a state, many people fervently believed that by the state becoming a “Free-State,” the tides could be turned in the ongoing issue between pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists.

Another interesting point was that we received varying stories when visiting Kansas and Missouri sites while researching this article. When we visited the Mine Creek Civil War Battlefield in Kansas, we were told that the hostilities between Missouri and Kansas still exist today, albeit to a much lesser degree. Though Legends of America is based in Missouri, we are not native to the area and were surprised to hear this. However, when we began to research this fascinating story, we found evident disparities. The sentiments of the Civil War generation have been passed down for well over a century.

For instance, when doing an internet search, you will get a very different story when searching for “Bleeding Kansas” than you will get if you search on “Missouri Civil War .” Many of the available books are no different. Though most lean toward the Kansas side of the conflict due to its anti-slavery sentiment, Missouri cannot be ignored in its contribution to history and its heavy losses during the Civil War. Officially, a Union State, Missouri, was internally divided between its pro-slavery sentiments and its obligation as a Union State. Never officially entering the Civil War, Missouri fought its own internal battles between the Federal Officers and its State Forces.

Bleeding Kansas Fight

Jayhawkers and Bushwackers fight it out over Kansas becoming a Free-State or a pro-slavery state.

Even when we visit Kansas and Missouri’s historical sites, we got a different impression in the “telling.” Kansas sites will focus on the great battle of Mine Creek, where the Union Forces won the skirmish against the Confederates at immense odds; the Lawrence Massacre by Quantrill’s Raiders, or, upon John Brown, the fanatic abolitionist, and his actions to defeat the Missouri Bushwhackers.

In Missouri, we heard the stories of the burning of Osceola by Lane’s Kansas Brigade, the attack upon the Missouri building that killed many innocent women and children, and the forcible evacuation of Kansas City area counties that displaced many Missourians and turned the area into a desolate “No Mans Land.”

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of Kansas, updated February 2022.

Also See:

The Civil War

Civil War Battles By State

Lawrence, Kansas – From Ashes to Immortality

Osceola, Missouri – Surviving All Odds


Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.
Cutler, William; History of the State of Kansas, A.T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.
The Kansas Collection
Kansas Memory
Kansas State Historical Society
National Park Service
Territorial Kansas