American Civil War - Bleeding Kansas

Summer 2005: I am starting my final year of study, after which I will obtain my Certificate in Photography at the Photographic Center Northwest. I am preparing and gathering material for my thesis project, which will involve photographing historic sites throughout the United States. Problem: I don’t have enough material for a good edit. Solution? Panic! 

As it happens, I am talking to my far-away friend Michele who has been trying to convince me to come out for a visit, when I say “Okay, I’ll come and visit if you have something wonderfully historic for me to see in Lawrence, Kansas.” I laugh heartily because clearly nothing of significance could have ever happened in Lawrence, Kansas. WRONG!  And this is what I mean when I talk about this process leading to new and amazing discoveries.

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

For one to understand the state of Kansas and its significance within the vast scope of the Civil War, we need to go back to the 1850s.  Americans are beginning to see the potential wealth that is west of the Mississippi, with its fertile land ready for farming and ranching. It has become a popular place to settle. And as more and more settlers move into this new territory, the proverbial elephant in the room grows larger and larger. The subject: slavery. The question: will Kansas become a slave state or a free state? 

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

In 1854 Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act is the brainchild of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.  It is written for purely political gain, to open up lands to the west and to undo the Missouri Compromise (the act created in 1820 which stated that lands north of a certain latitude were to be free of slavery except within the state of Missouri itself). The act also contains the stipulation that settlers in those territories will themselves decide if slavery will be allowed within their borders. So the Kansas-Nebraska Act is debated and amended and finally passes with the thinking that Nebraska will become a free state (as it is mostly being settled by Midwesterners who hail from other free states), whereas Kansas will be designated a slave state (since it is mostly being settled by Southerners). Unfortunately, someone forgets to inform the people of Kansas. Enter the Jayhawkers, the anti-slavery champions, and the Bushwhackers (aka the Border Ruffians), the pro-slavery advocates. 

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

The Jayhawkers, who are mostly from northern states like Massachusetts and Vermont, seize on this new opportunity and immigrate to Lawrence, Kansas, a town founded by Northerners and named after Amos A. Lawrence, a promoter of the Emigrant Aid Society.  Lawrence will be the center for the anti-slavery movement in Kansas. But this little bastion for liberal minded anti-slavery folks also becomes the focus for the angry Bushwhackers.

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

On November 21, 1855 a Free-Stater is shot by a pro-slavery settler, which leads to the kerfuffle known as the Wakarusa War. Violent reprisals from both sides essentially come to a head when 1,500 armed men surrounded the town of Lawrence and an attack seemed imminent, but a peace treaty comes first and no attack is made. And then a year later, in 1856, a motley crew of 700 armed Bushwhackers successfully raid Lawrence and burn down the Free State Hotel (rebuilt by Colonel Eldridge the following year) and smash the presses of the anti-slavery newspapers. The fact that Lawrence is an important stop on the Underground Railroad also makes it a prime target for the pro-slavery activists. And it is here that the term “Bleeding Kansas” comes into popular use, due to the violent and hostile environment created by the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces.

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

It is a nail biter: Which way will the voters in Kansas lean? It takes four years and four attempts at writing a constitution before a bill is able to pass. Finally, President James Buchanan signs the bill into law and in 1861 Kansas joins the Union as the 34th state and as a free state. This is yet another factor which adds fuel to the impending War Between the States. And Kansas, now being a free state, sends 19 regiments and four batteries to defend the Union. But as in most battles, the fighting doesn’t stop when the battle ends. Many in the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces just won’t let it rest.  Notably, one William Clarke Quantrill. 

One would be hard-pressed to examine any man’s early years and then predict with any certainty the path that the man eventually takes. Quantrill is no exception.  Born and raised in the free state of Ohio, William Clarke Quantrill is against slavery and decides to become a schoolteacher. But like many things in life, it doesn’t work out the way he had planned. He could not make the money he thought he would make as a schoolteacher. He then becomes a teamster and meets a number of pro-slavery Southerners who must have had some rather compelling arguments, because he not only turns into a staunch Southern supporter, but he also discovers that being a thief pays much better than any legitimate career.  

At the start of the war, Quantrill manages to gather a merry band of thieves who perpetrate violent raids on the Union forces. Being labeled an outlaw by the Union seems to be a good thing because he is soon promoted to the position of Captain in the Confederate Army. 

In the early morning of August 21, 1863, William Quantrill and his men execute a planned and precise attack on the pro-Union stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Some 400 men enter the town of Lawrence around 5:00 a.m. and in four short hours leave the town looking like a funeral pyre. All but five residential homes are burned to the ground. Businesses are ransacked and destroyed; men and boys are murdered, leaving behind countless widows and children. In all, this town of 3,000 loses approximately 150 souls.

Cemetery Lawrence KS 2005

I was shocked to find a website actually called “The William Clarke Quantrill Society.” It’s an “appreciation” society replete with memberships, reunions and newsletters.  Seriously? A man leads a merry band of thieves, destroys a town, slaughters 150 men and is considered a hero?  

Cemetery Lawrence KS 2005

As the website states: “One must always remember that history is written by the winners.”  I guess they are suggesting that there are two sides to this story and my guess is that the anti-slavery advocates of the time did not exactly walk away from this battle without blood on their hands. But at the end of the day I truly believe there is only one right side of this fight and I am forever thankful to those who are writing this part of history. 



NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.