Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War

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 Southern honor, and was subsequently reelected by his constituency.

John Brown Painting

John Brown Painting

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 proslavery 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. John Brown, along with forty other men 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. Four wagon loads of dead and wounded were brought into Boonville, Missouri when the invading army returned.

In September of 1856, a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, arrived in Kansas  and began to restore order. However, his tenure was to be a short one as, when, 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 with the result that the constitution was overwhelmingly approved.

William Quantrill

William Quantrill

1857 was also the year that saw William Clarke Quantrill’s arrival upon the scene. The former Ohio school teacher moved to Kansas  and took up farming for a time. However, he quickly honed his violent nature by living with thieves and murderers, committing several brutal murders during this time. The next year he would rode West with a wagon train, 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.

On May 19, 1858 an armed action took place that 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, along with about 30 followers, was returning to Missouri when they captured eleven Free State men near the Marais des Cygnes 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 and 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 was soon chronicled by abolitionist writer John Greenleaf Whittier 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.

Finally, in July, 1859, after several attempts were made to draft a constitution, for which Kansas could use to apply for statehood, a Free-State constitution was adopted. The constitution, which totally 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 the question of statehood for the territory became a national issue and figured into the 1860 Republican party platform.

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

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 was to culminate in the raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. However, once John Brown and his followers had captured the arsenal, they found themselves 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.

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, one of the U.S. Senators.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *