Civil war raged along the Kansas-Missouri border for nearly a decade in the mid-nineteenth century. The struggle over the fate of slavery in Kansas Territory erupted into partisan bloodshed in 1856. The rising number of fugitive slaves and tensions fueled by vengeful irregular violence swept across the border and threatened to push the leaders of Missouri and Kansas toward open warfare. The start of the national Civil War in 1861 brought even greater devastation, wrought less by the scattered battles between Union and Confederate armies than the widespread guerrilla war that raged through 1865, destroying several communities and displacing thousands of families.
In the 1830s Missouri’s western border had been part of a “permanent Indian frontier,” beyond which lived the patchwork of Native Americans displaced from states east of the Mississippi River. The subsequent era of Manifest Destiny deepened Missourians’ keen interest in the adjacent territories. A flourishing trade with Santa Fe and nearby Native Americans stimulated the growth of Missouri towns like Westport (now part of Kansas City), which became a jumping-off point for migrants bound for Oregon or California. The enormous expansion of US territory following its war with Mexico revived the difficult question of slavery’s future in the West. A fragile political compromise applied the principle of “squatter sovereignty” to the new territories of Utah and New Mexico, where voters—and not Congress—would decide the legality of slavery.
By then the bitter debate over slavery’s future also fractured the Democratic Party in Missouri. In January 1849, Claiborne Fox Jackson introduced in the Missouri General Assembly a set of resolutions penned by his fellow Democrat, William Barclay Napton, a justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. The Jackson-Napton resolutions chastised “the spirit of anti-slavery fanaticism” in the North and asserted that Congress lacked the authority to legislate against slavery in the territories. The mere suggestion to repeal the 1821 compromise on slavery that had secured Missouri statehood signaled a political sea change. Thomas Hart Benton, one of Missouri’s original US senators, bitterly condemned the resolutions and soon lost his Senate seat for such apostasy.
Repeal of the Missouri Compromise finally came with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The bill, sponsored by Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas, proposed to eliminate the ban upon slavery in territories north of latitude 36°30′ and to vest local residents with the power to decide the future of slavery for themselves. The beguiling simplicity of “popular sovereignty” found strong support among Missourians who believed that the people, rather than Washington, should determine their own laws and institutions.
Although Southern Democrats rallied behind Douglas’s bill, abolitionists and free-soilers denounced it as the work of a “slave power” conspiracy that had betrayed a generation-old sectional compact. The issue, observers understood, was not only the political rights of men in Kansas but also across the whole West. “Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave states,” announced New York senator William Seward, leader of a new and energized Republican Party. “Since there is no escaping your challenge, we accept it in the name of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers, as it is in right.” Although there was little doubt that antislavery voters would prevail in Nebraska Territory, the outcome of the competition for Kansas was far less certain.
In the contest to populate Kansas Territory, geographic proximity gave an early advantage to Missourians, most of whom favored the extension of slavery. By the time Franklin Pierce, the nation's president, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law on May 30, 1854, many squatters had slipped across the state line to claim attractive homesteads in anticipation of future land sales. The physical landscape posed only a modest obstacle to their ambition. Above the big bend of the Missouri River, the broad and meandering channel hardly resembled the fast-moving, channelized stream of the present day. Below the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw Rivers, the invisible line separating Kansas and Missouri sliced imperceptibly across a rolling tallgrass prairie.
Most of the proslavery migrants to Kansas came directly from Missouri, and many of them arrived with enslaved people. Antislavery settlers migrated to Kansas as well. By 1860, the largest number of free-soil settlers in Kansas had emigrated from the western states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. A great many of them opposed slavery out of economic self-interest and a fear that a slave society degraded the labor of small white farmers like themselves. Although much smaller in number, the New England abolitionists who arrived in the mid-1850s attracted far more attention for their outspoken denunciations of slavery and radical views of racial tolerance.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company was the most famous outfit to organize in support of migrants who did not own slaves. Among the organization’s wealthiest investors was Amos Lawrence, a Massachusetts philanthropist and the namesake of the Kansas town that soon welcomed the largest population of abolitionists. The increasing number of NEEAC migrants passing by steamboat from St. Louis to Kansas City provoked alarm among proslavery Missourians. Noting that emigrant aid companies provided their settlers with arms, critics worried that these newcomers aimed to attack slavery on both sides of the border. More than two hundred anxious Missouri slaveholders gathered in the rivertown of Lexington to voice their anger at this antislavery menace. Missourians’ enslaved property, the assembly declared, was “not merely unsafe but valueless, if Kansas is made the abode of an army of hired fanatics, recruited, transported, armed and paid for the special and sole purpose of abolitionising Kansas and Missouri.” Missouri’s US senator David Rice Atchison of Platte County concluded that in the face of such zealotry, “We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang.” Recalling the violent expulsion of Latter-Day Saints from Missouri in 1838, he warned darkly, “We intend to ‘Mormanise’ the Abolitionists.”
The first elections in Kansas Territory, which proslavery candidates won by extraordinary margins, sharpened the acrimony. More than 2,800 voters participated in the November 1854 election to choose the territorial delegate to the US Congress; J. W. Whitfield, the winning candidate and a recent arrival from Jackson County, Missouri, received 2,258 votes. In early 1855 a territorial census revealed there were 2,905 eligible voters in Kansas, but on March 30, when voters gathered to choose representatives for the territorial legislature, they cast 6,307 votes, with five out of every six ballots going to proslavery candidates.
Outraged free-soil settlers attributed these results to fraud and violent intimidation. Thousands of votes, they insisted, came from Missourians who slipped across the border just to elect a proslavery regime before returning home that same day. Among the body of armed Missourians who came to vote on March 29 were Atchison and Claiborne Fox Jackson. Andrew Reeder, the first of several men appointed to the nearly impossible task of ruling as territorial governor, certified most of the results but ordered special elections in the districts affected by the most egregious fraud. Free-soil candidates won those contests, only to have them voided by the new proslavery majority in the territorial legislature.
That legislature, established in the town of Lecompton, overplayed its hand in many ways. After adopting the slave code of Missouri, the proslavery faction implemented a sweeping program that aimed to marginalize antislavery settlers. Aiding runaway slaves became a capital crime; circulating antislavery publications was punishable by five years in prison. Citizens who refused to swear oaths in support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act or the federal fugitive slave law could lose the right to vote. In turn, the free-soil Kansans who scorned this “bogus legislature” formed a rival territorial government of their own at Topeka.
Months of political instability yielded to partisan violence in late 1855. A land dispute that resulted in the death of an Ohio emigrant quickly escalated into a tense standoff in which thousands of men mobilized into proslavery and free-soil militias that converged upon Lawrence, near the Wakarusa River. Among their number were perhaps a thousand Missourians, some from as far away as Boonville. The limited skirmishing of this so-called Wakarusa War never devolved into the bloodbath that observers feared, but it led to the death of another free-state man and foreshadowed even greater calamities to come.
On May 21, 1856—one day after South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks bludgeoned Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the US Senate for making a speech attacking the “slave power” and arguing for Kansas’s admission to the Union as a free state—a mob of proslavery “border ruffians” attacked Lawrence. Weeks before, proslavery sheriff Sam Jones had been shot trying to arrest a free-state man. Now joined by the Missourians of the Platte County Rifles and other militia groups, Jones returned to the town with more than seven hundred men. Under the sheriff’s direction, the mob arrested the town’s leaders, destroyed the presses of two abolitionist newspapers, and burned the Free-State Hotel before most of its members dispersed and retreated back across the state line.
Abolitionist John Brown arrived in the West convinced that action, rather than mere rhetoric or political agitation, was necessary to make Kansas a free state. The “sack of Lawrence” was the catalyst that kindled his righteous fury into violent retribution. On the night of May 24, Brown led a band of men to Pottawatomie Creek, where they wrested five proslavery settlers from their cabins and murdered them in the timber near Dutch Henry Crossing. Free-soil and proslavery Kansans alike denounced the Pottawatomie massacre, but no faction, US Army commander, or political leader proved able to quell the years of retaliatory violence that it sparked.
The summer of 1856 marked the high point of the movement to make Kansas a slave state. With the Lecompton administration providing legal cover, proslavery partisans harassed free-soil neighbors with impunity and unleashed a campaign of arson, robbery, and intimidation that drove many antislavery residents from the territory. A band of several hundred men, led by Missourian John Reid, attacked the village of Osawatomie, understood to be the base of Brown’s support. They failed to apprehend the radical abolitionist, who eventually managed to flee Kansas, but succeeded in razing the town and killing one of his adult sons.
The partisan tide shifted after 1857. After a surge of Northern immigrants, the free-soil majority of Kansas residents called into question the legitimacy of the proslavery government. President James Buchanan and Southern Democrats failed three times to secure Senate ratification of the proslavery Lecompton constitution. By 1858, the triumph of the free-state movement effectively settled the political question about the fate of slavery in Kansas (although statehood would have to wait until 1861).
In the northeast Kansas counties along the Missouri River, greater political stability brought an end to years of irregular violence. To the south, however, the violence of “Bleeding Kansas” continued unabated. Free-soil partisans like James Montgomery and James Lane proved eager to exact revenge upon proslavery tormentors. The campaign of intimidation carried out by these “jayhawkers,” so named for a propensity to steal from their neighbors, drove many Missouri emigrants to return to their former homes. As before, a violent escalation provoked a brutal backlash. On May 19, 1858, some two dozen proslavery men rode from Missouri under the lead of Charles Hamilton, who had recently been driven from his Kansas claim. The proslavery band seized eleven free-soil settlers from their Linn County, Kansas, cabins and marched them to a wooded ravine north of the Marais des Cygnes River. Ordering their captives into a line, Hamilton’s men opened fire. Five men died instantly, and nearly all of the killers eluded arrest as they raced back to Missouri.
Following the Marais des Cygnes murders, free-soil guerrillas clamored for an invasion of Missouri to hunt down the murderers and punish those who aided them. Even the Kansas neighborhoods that surrounded the federal garrison at Fort Scott, which had long been a point of relative security, became the target of jayhawker harassment. Territorial governor James Denver tried to broker a truce by offering amnesty to partisans on all sides, but to little avail.
Across the Missouri border, communities braced for reprisals. Citizens of the border counties organized local militias. Several petitioned Missouri governor Robert Stewart for aid. A plea from Bates County described the litany of abuses inflicted by marauding Kansans. “They have threatened us. They have invaded our state,” said those at a June 5 gathering. “They robbed, plundered, destroyed the property and insulted peaceable citizens. They have chased and shot at men who were tending to their own business.” When Gustavus Parsons, adjutant general of the Missouri state militia, visited the border region, he found that broad stretches of country had been nearly depopulated. To restore order, J. F. Snyder, another observer from the state militia, urged the governor to dispatch professional soldiers rather than rely upon local militias that were “too much influenced by self interest, prejudice, or revenge.” Despite such pleas, Stewart was reluctant to move so aggressively, fearing that he might provoke a war with Kansas Territory. Denver likewise worried that a hasty mobilization could further weaken his efforts to find peace in southeast Kansas. Both governors thus ordered their respective militias to refrain from crossing the state line.
Such caution hardly calmed the situation. Along the open border, now a flashpoint between freedom and slavery, the struggle over fugitive slaves gained new intensity. John Brown returned to Kansas in December 1858 and led raids upon several farms in western Missouri. His December 20 raid liberated ten people and killed one slave owner. A Kansas posse freed a similar number just ten days later. Missouri slavers feared that such raids were the “abolitionising” that the Lexington resolutions predicted, but the next year brought only rumors of further jayhawker attacks.
In the days after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, Kansans unleashed a renewed assault against slavery and its defenders along the Missouri line. A jayhawker gang organized by Charles Jennison lynched Samuel Scott, a wealthy former sheriff from Missouri. Free-state vigilantes seized bounty hunter Russell Hinds, who had claimed a twenty-five-dollar reward for returning a fugitive to bondage, and hanged him in the wooded bottoms of Mine Creek. A note stuck in Hinds’s pocket said he had been killed for “kidnapping negroes.” James Montgomery denied any involvement in the Hinds murder, but a Fort Scott newspaper reported his bold intentions for the coming months: “We are determined that slaves shall never be retaken in Kansas. We intend to operate against South-west Missouri as soon as we clear out all opposition in the Territory.”
The recent killings and rumors of Montgomery’s planned attack renewed citizen calls for protection from the Missouri governor. Stewart, now in the final weeks of his lame-duck administration, dispatched a brigade of state militia under Daniel Frost to the Kansas border. The Southwest Expedition spent barely a week along the state line before concluding that no invasion was imminent. Upon returning to St. Louis, the men who apparently repelled the jayhawker threat were celebrated as heroes.
By the time that Confederate artillery attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the people along the Kansas-Missouri border had endured five years of partisan violence. This prelude to the American Civil War, a catalyst in the nation’s spiral toward disunion, killed fewer than two hundred people, a figure that would pale in comparison to the national bloodletting to follow.
When President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to put down the Confederate rebellion, Kansans generally rallied with enthusiasm. The reactions in Missouri—ever a border state—varied widely. Most Missouri voters favored a course of moderation in the 1860 election and hoped to preserve both the federal constitution and the rights of slaveholders. A rare exception was Vernon County, site of John Brown’s recent raids, where disunionist candidates prevailed. Missouri organized a convention in early 1861 to address the question of secession, and its delegates, most of whom owned slaves, nevertheless voted overwhelmingly to keep the state within the Union. Yet the loyalties of a significant number of Missourians, including the newly elected governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, lay with the Confederate slave states. Over time, a growing frustration with the Union’s policies, especially the emancipation of African American slaves, led many more to shift their sympathies toward the South.
The counties within a day’s ride of the Kansas-Missouri border saw several conventional battles during the first year of the war. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, fought in southwest Missouri on August 10, was one of the war’s two biggest engagements of 1861, and although it, like smaller clashes at Dry Wood Creek and Lexington, resulted in rebel victory, the sense of Confederate momentum was short-lived. Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862 effectively squelched the prospect that organized Confederate forces might retake Missouri from federal troops. The Union army’s tenuous control of Missouri, however, did not extend far beyond the major rivers and railroads or the garrisons scattered along those vital corridors.
Across much of the state’s interior, a ferocious guerrilla war blazed between scattered Union troops, jayhawkers, and a rising number of pro-Confederate “bushwhackers.” Raids on both sides of the state line increased in number and audacity. On September 9, 1861, the “South Kansas Jay-Hawkers,” a brigade organized and led by Jennison and Lane, carried out the kind of devastating invasion that Missourians had long feared. Determined to “play hell with Missouri,” Lane’s jayhawkers plundered the farms of suspected rebels (and unoffending Unionists) throughout the Osage valley. After burning the towns of Butler and Harrisonville, the Kansans captured and executed at least five Confederate prisoners at Morristown. The raid climaxed on October 9, when Lane’s army destroyed the town of Osceola, site of a rebel arsenal and home of the secessionist senator Waldo P. Johnson, and killed as many as ten rebel sympathizers. By the time Lane’s men returned to Kansas, their wagons heavy with plunder, they had also helped liberate hundreds of enslaved Missourians.
Lane’s invasion angered Union commanders, who feared that such wanton destruction would make Missouri even more difficult to pacify. General Henry Halleck wrote, “The course pursued by those under Lane and Jennison has turned against us many thousands who were formerly Union men. A few more such raids . . . will make this State as unanimous against us as in Eastern Virginia.”
Union soldiers struggled to engage and defeat Missouri guerrillas who relied upon stealth, familiarity with the surrounding environment, and the support of local households. Small cavalry patrols managed to capture or kill a few guerrillas, but the US Army generally had too few men and resources to defeat an enemy that seemed to be both everywhere and nowhere. Union officers compensated by authorizing a policy of no quarter against confirmed guerrillas, ordering the execution of men caught destroying railroads, bridges, or telegraph wires. Officials imposed tax assessments to compensate for the widespread damage that bushwhackers caused. Unsure where many Missourians’ true sympathies lay, Union leaders also required that citizens swear oaths of loyalty to the United States.
General Thomas Ewing, appointed to lead the Union army’s District of the Border in 1863, concluded that the guerrillas could not be defeated without eliminating the vital support that they received from family members and neighbors. Civilian sympathizers, he observed, were the lifeblood of the guerrilla effort, as they supplied bushwhackers with food, shelter, fresh horses, and military intelligence. In the summer of 1863, Ewing called for the arrest and banishment of female kin of the most notorious guerrillas. Before soldiers had fully implemented that measure, a makeshift Kansas City jail housing several of the arrested women collapsed, killing four and injuring several others.
The jail collapse sparked the most devastating episode of the entire border war. On August 21, 1863, William Quantrill led a vengeful guerrilla band of some four hundred men, perhaps the largest such party of the entire Civil War, in a dawn raid upon Lawrence. Quantrill’s raiders murdered at least 170 men and boys and razed much of the town before racing more than forty miles back to Missouri, losing only one of their men. Furious Kansans blamed Ewing for failing to detect or stop the bushwhackers and began to clamor for a retaliatory attack on a Missouri town. Four days after the Lawrence massacre, Ewing issued a sweeping antiguerrilla policy. Aimed at eliminating the guerrillas’ supply line and forestalling Kansans’ deadly retribution, General Order Number 11 authorized the Union army to eject the residents of Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon Counties. Missourians who could prove their Union loyalties would be allowed to remain near one of four Union posts; all others—a population of perhaps ten thousand people—would be expelled within a fortnight. As Southern sympathizers scattered to the wind, marauding troops and outlaws plundered their farms, and the resulting prairie fires consumed the abandoned countryside. Observers soon described the empty border counties as the “Burnt District.” Thousands of exiles would return after the war, but many others would not.
The lines between combatants and civilians, like those that separated the home from the battlefield, were among the border war’s many casualties. Critics debated the effectiveness of Order Number 11 long after the war. Missourians could not help but point out that its author, Ewing, was a Kansas lawyer. Missouri Unionist George Caleb Bingham immortalized the measure’s harsh application in a well-known painting. The order did not end the guerrilla war, but rather shunted the bushwhackers out of the depopulated region and into central Missouri, where they committed atrocities at Centralia and Emma in 1864.
The deepening chaos also hastened the collapse of slavery. Many of the enslaved Missourians who seized their chance for freedom by escaping to Kansas were quick to enlist in the Union army. Some of the men joined the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, which became the first regiment of African American soldiers to see combat in the Civil War, skirmishing with pro-Confederate guerrillas on October 29, 1862, at Island Mound in Bates County.
Sterling Price’s failed Confederate invasion in late 1864, punctuated by decisive defeats near the border at Westport and Mine Creek, marked the end of conventional fighting on the Kansas-Missouri line. No such moment of finality came to mark the end of the border’s long guerrilla war. Nationally, the significance of the peace that came in 1865 was clear: Union victory secured the preservation of the United States and the death of slavery. Yet on the western border, where civil war had burned so long and hot, the embers of that conflict smoldered for uncertain days and weeks.
Epps, Kristen. Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017.
Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Neely, Jeremy. The Border between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
Parrish, William E. David Rice Atchison of Missouri: Border Politician. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1961.
Phillips, Christopher. Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
Whites, LeeAnn. “Forty Shirts and a Wagonload of Wheat: Women, the Domestic Supply Line, and the Civil War on the Western Border.” Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 1 (March 2011): 56–78.
Published June 24, 2020; Last updated June 29, 2020
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