Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War

Marais des Cygnes Massacre, Kansas

Marais des Cygnes Massacre, Kansas

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.

John Brown 1859

John Brown 1859

The toll was only a foretaste of the suffering that the Civil War was to bring to both Kansas and Missouri. In these two states, the war was fought with the special ferocity that comes when kinsmen and close neighbors fall out. The five-year border conflict had brought the nation, month by month, inexorably 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, the majority 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 own internal struggles.

While the various political arguments that led to the war developed, the Missouri people at first 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 scourging the countryside, looting, and killing. Meanwhile, the Jayhawkers increased their presence in Missouri and their crimes became more ruthless.

Attempts by Missourians 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 with the intent to support the southern cause but, rather, in retaliation against the crimes that had been 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 then march on the arsenal.  However, the “Home Guard” of German troops led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, descended upon Camp Jackson from several directions.

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