Bleeding Kansas 1854–1861
Sometimes referred to in history
as Bloody Kansas or the Border War, it was a sequence of violent events which involved Free-Staters (anti-slavery)
and pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" in Kansas Territory and the western frontier towns of the state of Missouri. It transpired between 1854 and 1861, and attempted to influence whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free
or slave state. The term "Bleeding Kansas" was coined by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.
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. But the feeling of relief
that spread throughout the country would prove to be the calm before the storm.
The years of 1854-1861 were a turbulent time in Kansas Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the territorial boundaries of Kansas and Nebraska and opened the
land to legal settlement; it allowed the residents of thee territories to decide by popular vote whether their state would
be free or slave. This concept of self-determination was known as popular sovereignty.
Rival territorial governments, election fraud, and squabbles over
land claims all contributed to the violence of this era.
Three distinct political groups occupied Kansas: pro-slavers, free-staters
and abolitionists. Violence commenced immediately between these opposing factions and continued until Kansas entered the Union
as a free state on January 29, 1861. The era became forever known as "Bleeding Kansas".
Murder and Mayhem
During "Bleeding Kansas", murder,
mayhem, destruction and psychological warfare became a code of conduct in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri. Well-known
examples of this violence include the massacre in May 1856 at Pottawatomie Creek where John Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery advocates.
Locally, trouble began in the summer of 1856 when a group of about 30 pro-slavery
settlers from South Carolina arrived in Bourbon County. It was suspected that they were sponsored by the Southern Emigrant
Aid Society and were members of the Dark Lantern Societies. These societies terrorized free-state settlers and attempted to
drive them from Kansas.
A Town Divided
Fort Scott and the surrounding
area were not immune from the violence. The division of the opposing factions was clearly visible at the site of the "old
fort." The military had abandoned Fort Scott in 1853. Two years later, the buildings were sold at a public auction and the
former fort immediately became the nucleus of a rapidly growing town.
Two of the buildings became hotels. One, a former officer's quarters, was
opened as the Fort Scott or Free State Hotel. Located right across the parade ground was the Western or Pro-Slavery Hotel,
a former infantry barracks. The residents of Fort Scott were predominately pro-slavers, while free-staters and abolitionists
dominated the surrounding countryside. Radicals of each faction terrorized the town throughout the "Bleeding Kansas" era.
1858: A Most Violent Year
By 1858, trouble had
intensified in southeast Kansas. Radical elements from other theaters of the conflict were now converging on this area. James
Montgomery became a leader of free state forces and was involved in several violent incidents.
In April of 1858, Montgomery and his men fought U.S. troops stationed at
Fort Scott in the battle of Paint Creek. One soldier was killed in this encounter.
In May of 1858, Montgomery and his men repelled pro-slavery forces from
Linn County. In retaliation, eleven free-staters were pulled out of their homes, taken to a ravine and shot down. This incident,
known as the Marais des Cygnes Massacre was rumored to have been plotted in the Western Hotel.
On June 5, 1858, Montgomery and his raiders tried to burn down the Western
Hotel. Several shots were fired into the hotel and surrounding homes, but the hotel was saved.
This violence demanded the governor's attention. On June 15, 1858, he
held a meeting at the Western Hotel in order to settle political unrest. While this meeting nearly progressed into a riot,
it was successful. Peace and tranquility reigned for a brief five-month period.
Montgomery and his raiders struck again in December of 1858 when he rescued
Benjamin Rice, a free-stater. Rice had been arrested for murder and was imprisoned in the Fort Scott Hotel. Montgomery claimed
that he was jailed illegally, so he arrived at Fort Scott to free him.
In the struggle following Rice's rescue, former Deputy Marshal
John Little, a pro-slavery advocate, fired shots into the ranks of the free-staters. Little peered out of a window of his
father's store (the former post headquarters) to observe the effects of the shooting. His movement was noted by a free-stater
who shot and killed him. Little's fiancÚ, Gene Campbell, wrote Montgomery a letter reprimanding him and saying that he was
a "minister of the devil, and a very superior one too..."
"Bleeding Kansas" was part of the political firestorm that occurred throughout
the United States prior to the American Civil War. The anti-slavery forces prevailed as Kansas entered into the Union as a free
state on January 29, 1861. See also: Border State Civil War History, Missouri Civil War History, and Kansas Civil War History.
One well-known Border Ruffian, Joseph Orville Shelby, later became a renowned Confederate general. He was friends with
Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers, and even William Clarke Quantrill and Quantrill's Raiders. Ironically, in his latter years, "Jo" Shelby served as a loyal and competent
United States Marshal.
(Sources and related reading below.)
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.
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.
Recommended Reading: Bleeding
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
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.
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: Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Description: The long agony" was
over: Kansas, as of January 29, 1861, was a state--it had "moved to America." In Leavenworth, Lawrence,
Topeka, and other towns Kansans celebrated the "glorious news"
of the coming of statehood in a "fury of excitement." Cannons boomed, cheering crowds gathered on the street corners, a judge
and a militia general stood on their heads, and the saloons were scenes of inebriated revelry. Continued below…
So begins Albert Castel's classic
history of Kansas during the Civil War. Long recognized as a key study on the war in the trans-Mississippi
West, Civil War Kansas describes the political, military,
social, and economic events of the state's first four years. Castel contributes to a better understanding of the Civil War
in this region through a realistic presentation and analysis of the Kansas-Missouri border conflict, the operations of the
Missouri guerrillas under Quantrill, and the Union and Confederate military campaigns in
Missouri, Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and Kansas itself.
Recommended Reading: Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Hardcover). Description: During
the Civil War, the western front was the scene of some of that conflict’s bloodiest and most barbaric encounters as
Union raiders and Confederate guerrillas pursued each other from farm to farm with equal disregard for civilian casualties.
Historical accounts of these events overwhelmingly favor the victorious Union standpoint, characterizing the Southern fighters
as wanton, unprincipled savages. But in fact, as the author, himself a descendant of Union soldiers, discovered, the bushwhackers’
violent reactions were understandable, given the reign of terror they endured as a result of Lincoln’s total war in
the West. Continued below…
In reexamining many of the long-held
historical assumptions about this period, Gilmore discusses President Lincoln’s utmost desire to keep Missouri in the Union by any and all means. As early as 1858, Kansan and Union troops carried out unbridled confiscation
or destruction of Missouri private property, until the state
became known as "the burnt region." These outrages escalated to include martial law throughout Missouri and finally the infamous General Orders Number 11 of September 1863 in which Union
General Thomas Ewing, Federal commander of the region, ordered the deportation of the entire population of the border counties.
It is no wonder that, faced with the loss of their farms and their livelihoods, Missourians struck back with equal force.
Recommended Reading: The Devil Knows How To Ride: The True Story
Of William Clarke Quantrill And His Confederate Raiders. Description: William Clarke Quantrill was quite possibly the
most dangerous man to fight in the Civil War. The leader of an almost psychopathic band of guerrilla warriors, Quantrill participated
as a Confederate in a deadly border war between Southern sympathizers in Missouri and the Unionist Jayhawkers of Kansas. He
was largely responsible for the 1863 massacre of nearly 200 unresisting men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, as well as dozens
of other brutal acts that today would be called terrorism. Among the notorious men who rode with him were Frank and Jesse
James, whose postwar crime careers are briefly reviewed. Continued below...
Edward E. Leslie provides an objective treatment of his controversial subject, and readers will appreciate
his ability to tell a good story--including the one about why Quantrill's bones currently rest in three different states and
why a forensically correct wax reconstruction of his head can be found in the refrigerator of an Ohio historical society.
Sources: Fort Scott National Historic Site; National Park Service; PBS Online;
United States Marshal Service; National Archives; Library of Congress; and Official Records of the Union and Confederate
This page offers study material for Bleeding Kansas History and also answers
the following questions: What were the causes of Bleeding Kansas? What caused Bleeding Kansas? Definition of Bleeding Kansas,
Origin of Bleeding Kansas and first usage of the term, Bleeding Kansas summary, Kansas Nebraska Act facts, Kansas Jayhawkers
details, Kansas Nebraska proposal, Kansas Territory history, Border Ruffians: A History.