Revenge in Kansas, 1863

By Gilmore, Donald | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Revenge in Kansas, 1863


Gilmore, Donald, History Today


Donald Gilmore tells the story of a raid and its bloody aftermath in the |No Man's land' of the American Civil War.

The records of civil wars are sometimes little more than a victor's exclusive version of the truth. Once defeated, the vanquished invariably become vulnerable to the comprehensive distortions of historians of the winning side. With the passage of time, however, these onesided histories are subjected to more detailed scrutiny by later generations of sceptical historians.

In the case of the American Civil War, however, even 137 years after the event, misinterpretations still persist. One of these is the popular notion that the Missouri guerrillas who fought on the Western border during the war and forced the Union Army to divert significant manpower and materiel away from the main battle were merely thugs and brigands (or as the Northern press of their day called them, |Pukes' and |white trash'). Another interpretation, one much closer to the truth but far less influential, recognises the guerillas as patriots to their cause, men of bravery and conviction, who were brutally oppressed, victimised, and systematically exterminated by Federal troops and their paramilitary auxiliaries. Indeed, the campaign against the guerrillas had become so intense by 1863 that they retaliated against their enemies by mounting a perilous raid into the heartland of well-protected Kansas.

The raid on Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21st, 1863, by Missouri guerrillas led by William Clarke Quantrill was an event that had long been building. Since 1854, the border between Kansas and Missouri had been the scene of continuous turmoil and bloodshed. With the passage in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the fate of Kansas - whether it was to be a slave state or free - was state or free - was made a point of contention between pro-slavery forces in Missouri and Abolitionists in Kansas and the nation.

In July 1854, a party of settlers sponsored by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society left Boston and settled its tents on the site of Lawrence, Kansas. On the occasion of their departure, John Greenleaf Whittier penned a hymn ominously heralding their intentions: |We go to test the truth of God/Against the hand of man'. Armed wih lofty self-righteousness and state of-the-art weapons (boxes of shiny new Sharps rifles), these Abolitionists were viewed by pro-slavery Missourians as an aggressive and growing anti-slavery threat in Kansas.

When territorial elections were held in Kansas in 1854 and 1855, Missourians (referred to as|Border Ruffians' by Northern sympathisers) stormed across the state line branishing Bowie knives and Colt revolvers and in an ugly manner stuffed Kansas ballot boxes with pro-slavery votes. But by thus dominating the elections in Kansas, The Misourians incited Abolitionists in the East into even more insistent anti-slavery efforts.

As a growing horde of Abolitionists streamed into Kansas from the East, Lawrence, with its leadership of radical ideologues, became the soul and focal point of anti-slavery agitation in the West. This agitation often went beyond rhetoric Abolitionist-sponsored raids into Missouri to free slaves. With a population of 100,000 slaves with a value of $350 million in 1854, the Missourians recognised inthe Abolitionists a serious threat to their personal property -- especially in the border counties fronting Kansas, where two-thirds of Missouri slaves in the hempand tobacco-growing regions. To address this challenge, on May 21st, 1856, a large force of Missourians led by Marshall Israel P. Donaldson, Sherrif Samuel J. Jones, and former president of the US Senate, David Rice Atchison, descended on Lawrence with fixed bayonets and cannon and peremptorily shelled the Free State Hotel (an Abolitionist fortress), demolished the Kansas Free State printing presses, and thoroughly looted and despoiled the town. A few days later, in revenge, John Brown and his Abolitionist followers hacked to death five pro-slavery men is eastern Kansas in the Pottawatomie Massacre. …

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