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Bleeding Kansas and the Missouri/Kansas Border War

Updated on September 17, 2015
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in history. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry, illustrating John Brown and the clash of forces in Bleeding Kansas
Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry, illustrating John Brown and the clash of forces in Bleeding Kansas

Bad Blood

The beginnings of the American Civil War have roots much deeper than the shots fired on Ft Sumter on April 12, 1861. Tensions between the north and the south can be traced back to the signing of the United States Constitution and the threat of secession became heated during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson with John C. Calhoun and the nullification crisis in South Carolina in 1832. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 would ultimately be the catalyst for violent and bloody fighting in Missouri and the Kansas Territory by introducing the concept of "popular sovereignty" into an already volatile nation. This concept of popular sovereignty allowed the citizens of the territories to choose their own destiny in regards to slavery. As people rushed in from the north to stake claims in the name of freeing new land from slavery, Missourians with southern sympathies began to also migrate into Kansas. With tensions already high and now a mixture of hatreds poured together, the violence along the Kansas-Missouri border became deadly.This fighting would not be between soldiers of warring armies, but between abolitionists and pro-slavery followers, between the citizens of small towns, between neighbors and even between families. Out of this turmoil would arise men who would use non-standard combat tactics that would not only fuel the fire of civil war but would leave a legacy and divide whose effects are still felt to this day.

Slavery in the United States by the 1840’s had become a highly divisive and political topic. The Missouri Compromise enacted in 1820 had kept the balance of slave and free states in check but was nothing more than a pacifier for both factions. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted and as the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were vying for statehood the issue of slavery again arose. It was assumed that Nebraska would enter the Union as a free state but the fate of Kansas was not so clear-cut, even though it resided above the parallel 36 30’ north set by the Missouri Compromise as the northern boundary to allow slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act would ultimately render the Missouri Compromise obsolete.

Missouri's Civil War

With the fate of Kansas hanging in the unknown, abolitionists from the east would begin their influx into the Kansas Territory to ensure that their position against slavery would see Kansas enter the Union as a free state. The New England Emigrant Aid Company was created by Eli Thayer in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and was used as a vehicle for the abolitionists to send settlers (known as “free staters”) into Kansas, occupy plots of land, and thereby ensure when their votes were cast as residents of the territory that popular sovereignty would sway the balance towards the free staters.

Missourians would also begin to migrate across the border, but their intentions were not to occupy the land, but to stuff the ballot boxes with pro-slavery votes and to intimidate those who voted otherwise. They had good reason for this beyond the balance of slave and free states. Missouri was situated between Illinois and Iowa and soon Kansas, with Illinois and Iowa both being free states. If Kansas were to enter as a free state, Missourians feared they would be surrounded on three sides by free soil and a potential haven for runaway slaves existed. This posed a problem for the slave owners in that it had the potential for a huge loss of property and their income.

The border between the Kansas Territory and Missouri and the fighting that went on there has often been overlooked by those studying the Civil War, mostly because the battles that occurred did not use conventional warfare and armies pitted against each other. However, the fighting there was a brutal, if not more brutal, than many of the coming battles in the east, and the majority of these fights were personal. John Brown came to Kansas with his abolitionist ideals which ultimately lead to violent, bloody murder with broadswords in Potawatomie Kansas. William "Blood Bill" Anderson, who was born in Missouri and grew up in Kansas, became one the most infamous bushwhackers in the entire Civil War, by using his hatred to murder Union troops and even scalp his victims. Kansas Jayhawkers (with men such as James Henry Lane and Charles Jennison) and Redlegs (formed and commanded by George Henry Holt, John Brown's lawyer during his trial) were just as brutal and seditious as any bushwhacker, and enacted their deeds under the guise of serving the Union and ridding the nation of slavery. General Thomas Ewing, brother-in-law to General William Tecumseh Sherman, issued General Order No. 11 which forcibly depopulated four Missouri counties and the point of a gun by vengeance seeking Kansan Redlegs in service with the Union army.

With both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery factions firmly trenched in their beliefs and goals, tensions rose, and what once was a battle of words soon erupted into physical and deadly violence. What must be stated is that neither side were innocent of bloodshed and that both the free staters and the pro-slavery supporters inflicted equal amounts of intimidation and cold blooded murder. “Bleeding Kansas” as it would be called would show that Missourian’s bled equally as much as their Kansan counterparts. The actions of these men would become a vicious circle that as one heinous act was committed another would be committed as vengeance.

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