Bleeding Kansas : The Kansas Missouri Border War

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Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas History
Kansas Missouri Border War

Bleeding Kansas
1854–1861
 

The Compromise of 1850 brought relative calm to the nation. Though most blacks and abolitionists strongly opposed the Compromise, the majority of Americans embraced it, believing that it offered a final, workable solution to the slavery question. Most importantly, it saved the Union from the terrible split that many had feared. People were all too ready to leave the slavery controversy behind them and move on. But the feeling of relief that spread throughout the country would prove to be the calm before the storm.

On December 14, 1853, Augustus C. Dodge of Iowa introduced a bill in the Senate. The bill proposed organizing the Nebraska territory, which also included an area that would become the state of Kansas. His bill was referred to the Committee of the Territories, which was chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.
Douglas had entered politics early and had advanced quickly; at 21 he was Illinois State’s attorney, and by age 35 he was a U.S. Senator. He strongly endorsed the idea of popular sovereignty, which allowed the settlers in a territory to decide for themselves whether or not to have slavery. Douglas was also a fervent advocate of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States had the God-given right and obligation to take over as much land as possible and to spread its "civilizing" influence. And he was not alone. A Philadelphia newspaper expounded Manifest Destiny when it proclaimed the United States to be a nation rightfully bound on the "East by sunrise, West by sunset, North by the Arctic Expedition, and South as far as we darn please."

To fulfill its Manifest Destiny, especially following the discovery of gold in California, America was making plans to build a transcontinental railroad from east to west. The big question was where to locate the eastern terminal -- to the north, in Chicago, or to the south, in St. Louis. Douglas was firmly committed to ensuring that the terminal would be in Chicago, but he knew that it could not be unless the Nebraska Territory was organized.

Organization of Nebraska would require the removal of the territory's Native Americans, for Douglas regarded the Indians as savages, and saw their reservations as "barriers of barbarism." In his view, Manifest Destiny required the removal of those who stood in the way of American, Christian progress, and the Native American presence was a minor obstacle to his plans. But there was another, larger problem.

In order to get the votes he needed, Douglas had to please Southerners. He therefore bowed to Southern wishes and proposed a bill for organizing Nebraska-Kansas which stated that the slavery question would be decided by popular sovereignty. He assumed that settlers there would never choose slavery, but did not anticipate the vehemence of the Northern response. This bill, if made into law, would repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which said that slavery could not extend above the 36' 30" line. It would open the North to slavery. Northerners were outraged; Southerners were overjoyed.

Douglas was stubborn. Ignoring the anger of his own party, he sought and received President Pierce's approval and pushed his bill through both houses of Congress. The bill became law on May 30, 1854, and is commonly referred to as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Nebraska was so far north that its future as a free state was never in question. But Kansas bordered the slave state of Missouri. In an era that would come to be known as "Bleeding Kansas," the territory would become a battleground over the slavery question.

The reaction from the North was immediate. Eli Thayer organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which sent settlers to Kansas to secure it as a free territory. By the summer of 1855, approximately 1,200 New Englanders had made the journey to the new territory, armed to fight for freedom. The abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher furnished settlers with Sharps rifles, which came to be known as "Beecher's Bibles."

Rumors had spread through the South that 20,000 Northerners were descending on Kansas, and in November 1854, thousands of armed Southerners, mostly from Missouri, poured over the line to vote for a proslavery congressional delegate. Only half the ballots were cast by registered voters, and at one location, only 20 of over 600 voters were legal residents. The proslavery forces won the election.

On March 30, 1855, another election was held to choose members of the territorial legislature. The Missourians, or "
Border Ruffians," as they were called, again poured over the line. This time, they swelled the numbers from 2,905 registered voters to 6,307 actual ballots cast. Only 791 voted against slavery.

The new state legislature enacted what Northerners called the "Bogus Laws," which incorporated the Missouri slave code. These laws leveled severe penalties against anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding; those who assisted fugitives would be put to death or sentenced to ten years hard labor. (Statutes of Kansas) The Northerners were outraged, and set up their own Free State legislature at Topeka. Now there were two governments established in Kansas, each outlawing the other. President Pierce only recognized the proslavery legislature.

Most settlers who had come to Kansas from both the North and the South only wanted to homestead in peace. They were not interested in the conflict over slavery, but they found themselves in the midst of a battleground. Violence erupted throughout the territory. Southerners were driven by the rhetoric of leaders such as David Atchison, a Missouri senator. Atchison proclaimed the Northerners to be "negro thieves" and "abolitionist tyrants." He encouraged Missourians to defend their institution "with the bayonet and with blood" and, if necessary, "to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district."

The Northerners, however, were not all abolitionists as Atchison claimed. In fact, abolitionists were in the minority. Most of the Free State settlers were part of a movement called “Free Soil,” which demanded free territory for free white people. They hated slavery, but not out of concern for the slaves themselves. They hated it because plantations took over the land and prevented white working people from having their own homesteads. They hated it because it brought large numbers of black people wherever it went. The Free Staters voted 1,287 to 453 to outlaw black people, slave or free, from Kansas. Their territory would be white.

As the two factions struggled for control of the territory, tensions increased. In 1856 the proslavery territorial capital was moved to Lecompton, a town only 12 miles from Lawrence, a Free State stronghold. In April of that year a three-man congressional investigating committee arrived in Lecompton to look into the Kansas troubles. The majority report of the committee found the elections to be fraudulent, and said that the Free State government represented the will of the majority. The federal government refused to follow its recommendations, however, and continued to recognize the proslavery legislature as the legitimate government of Kansas.

There had been several attacks during this time, primarily of proslavery against Free State men. People were tarred and feathered, kidnapped, killed. But now the violence escalated. On May 21, 1856, a group of proslavery men entered Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores. In retaliation, the fiery abolitionist John Brown led a group of men on an attack at Pottawatomie Creek. The group, which included four of Brown's sons, dragged five proslavery men from their homes and “hacked them to death.”

The violence had now escalated, and the confrontations continued. John Brown reappeared in Osawatomie to “join in its fight.” Violence also erupted in Congress itself. The abolitionist senator Charles Sumner delivered a fiery speech called "The Crime Against Kansas," in which he accused proslavery senators, particularly Atchison and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, of [cavorting with the] "harlot, Slavery." In retaliation, Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, attacked Sumner at his Senate desk and beat him senseless with a cane.

In September of 1856, a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, arrived in Kansas and began to restore order. The last major outbreak of violence was the Marais des Cynges massacre, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 55 people died in "Bleeding Kansas."

Several attempts were made to draft a constitution which Kansas could use to apply for statehood. Some versions were proslavery, others Free State. Finally, a fourth convention met at Wyandotte in July 1859, and adopted a Free State constitution. Kansas applied for admittance to the Union. However, the proslavery forces in the Senate strongly opposed its Free State status, and stalled its admission. Only in 1861, after the Confederate states seceded, did the constitution gain approval and Kansas become a state. See also:
Missouri Civil War History and Kansas Civil War History.

Credit: PBS online

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 proslavery 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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Related Reading:
 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (Simon & Schuster) (February 5, 2008) (Hardcover). Description: In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party. Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to becoming the greatest chief executive in American history. What carried this one-term congressman from obscurity to fame was the campaign he mounted for the United States Senate against the country's most formidable politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in the summer and fall of 1858. Lincoln challenged Douglas directly in one of his greatest speeches -- "A house divided against itself cannot stand" -- and confronted Douglas on the questions of slavery and the inviolability of the Union in seven fierce debates. As this brilliant narrative by the prize-winning Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo dramatizes, Lincoln would emerge a predominant national figure, the leader of his party, the man who would bear the burden of the national confrontation. Continued below... 

Of course, the great issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery. Douglas was the champion of "popular sovereignty," of letting states and territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. Lincoln drew a moral line, arguing that slavery was a violation both of natural law and of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. No majority could ever make slavery right, he argued. Lincoln lost that Senate race to Douglas, though he came close to toppling the "Little Giant," whom almost everyone thought was unbeatable. Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas brings alive their debates and this whole year of campaigns and underscores their centrality in the greatest conflict in American history. The encounters between Lincoln and Douglas engage a key question in American political life: What is democracy's purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order? These were the real questions in 1858 that led to the Civil War. They remain questions for Americans today.

 

Recommended Reading: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Paperback), by David M. Potter. Review: Professor Potter treats an incredibly complicated and misinterpreted time period with unparalleled objectivity and insight. Potter masterfully explains the climatic events that led to Southern secession – a greatly divided nation – and the Civil War: the social, political and ideological conflicts; culture; American expansionism, sectionalism and popular sovereignty; economic and tariff systems; and slavery. In other words, Potter places under the microscope the root causes and origins of the Civil War. He conveys the subjects in easy to understand language to edify the reader's understanding (it's not like reading some dry old history book). Delving beyond surface meanings and interpretations, this book analyzes not only the history, but the historiography of the time period as well. Continued below…

Professor Potter rejects the historian's tendency to review the period with all the benefits of hindsight. He simply traces the events, allowing the reader a step-by-step walk through time, the various views, and contemplates the interpretations of contemporaries and other historians. Potter then moves forward with his analysis. The Impending Crisis is the absolute gold-standard of historical writing… This simply is the book by which, not only other antebellum era books, but all history books should be judged.

 

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.

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