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Missouri/Kansas - Importance of the West vs the East - Part I

Updated on October 14, 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.

Reynolds's Political Map of the United States 1856
Reynolds's Political Map of the United States 1856

I am sure that the majority of people with a passing interest in the American Civil War will look at this title and think I am mad. I mean, everyone knows of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Gettysburg, Stonewall Jackson, the March to the Sea, Fort Sumter, and Andersonville. But many have little, if any, knowledge of Thomas Ewing Jr., Nathaniel Lyon, Red Legs, Claiborne Fox Jackson, Order #11, Westport, James H. Lane or David Rice Atchison.

These individuals, events and places played a pivotal role in the beginning stages of the Civil War and continued to play out while the events in the east captured the headlines. This is not to say those people and events in the east were not important, but it does say a little about what is taught in our schools relating to the Civil War and the mindset of the American people over the years.

At the beginning of the Civil War, America's western border leading into the "frontier" was the western border of Missouri. Kansas was not yet a state, and that simple fact is critical in why the war began in the first place. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had set the northern most limit (parallel 36°30' north) that any future state (after Missouri) could exist and allow slavery. Missouri was only allowed because Maine was admitted at the same time, keeping the tedious balance in the House of Representatives equal between southern and northern sympathies. Then along came Kansas and Nebraska.

Nebraska was clearly poised to be a non-slavery state, but the the issue of Kansas came in and upsets the balance. It's above the Missouri Compromise line so anti-slavery people declared it must come in as a non-slave state, completely tilting the balance to the north's favor. The south obviously were not pleased. So Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, looking for a Presidential bid and wanting to placate both the north and south devises a plan to do just that. He introduces the Kansas-Nebraska Act which basically states that the Missouri Compromise is nullified, the people of Kansas will, by popular sovereignty, choose for themselves whether or not slavery will exist in Kansas or not. The powder keg was lit and about to blow sky high! The ramifications of this caused so much bloodshed in Kansas and Missouri that it was a war in and of itself.

How important is this for the Civil War? Huge, probably THE top reasons the war started. These events all happened from 1820-1854. It also in essence caused the split within the Whig and Democrats and gave rise to the Republican Party, all of which were instrumental in the Civil War. Then, in 1857, the Dred Scott vs Sanford case nullified permanently the Missouri Compromise and caused such a furor that the already divided nation now were decidedly split between two camps, north and south, and anyone in the middle was free game for bloodshed.

You also had events like the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 where John Brown and other abolitionists, hacked five pro-southern Kansas settlers to death with broadswords. You had Missouri "border-ruffians" who came across the border, most of the time drunk, and forced voters at polls to vote pro-southern and the end of a knife or gun. You had Jayhawkers and Red-Legs (pro-abolitionist thugs from Kansas) who equally butchered and attacked anyone even remotely presenting a pro-southern attitude or saying they were from Missouri. Even innocent bystanders, just wanting to carve out a simple life in the west found that their neutral stance caused them even more strife as they would be accosted by both sides, many times disguised as the other side to test their allegiance, and wound up dead simply trying to provide the right answer to their harassers.

If these items (which barely scratch the surface of the events that took place prior to 1861) were not enough there are the events that took place in Missouri and Kansas during the war.

In part two we'll look at these events, the people and the important role they played in the Civil War.


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