Carney, Thomas

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Thomas Carney's efforts to protect the state of Kansas and support the war effort during his tenure earned him the sobriquet: “The War Governor.” Photograph courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Biographical Information:

  • Date of birth: August 20, 1824
  • Place of birth: Delaware County, Ohio
  • Claim to fame: Governor of Kansas, 1863-1865; Mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas, 1865
  • Political affiliations: Republican Party
  • Date of death: July 28, 1888
  • Place of death: Leavenworth, Kansas
  • Cause of death: Apoplexy
  • Final resting place: Mount Muncie Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas

Thomas Carney, the second governor of Kansas, was a pivotal player in political maneuverings during the early weeks and months of Kansas statehood and served the state as its second governor during the last tumultuous years of the Civil War. His efforts to protect the state of Kansas and support the war effort during his tenure earned him the sobriquet: “The War Governor.”

Thomas Carney was born in Ohio on August 20, 1824. His father, James Carney, died when Thomas was four years old. Thomas continued to live with his mother and three siblings, helping to work his father’s farm until he was 19 years old. During this time he attended the small rural schools in the area. While his desire was to study law, his financial situation did not allow it, so instead, he left home and in 1844 gained a position in a dry goods store in Columbus, Ohio. In 1852 he became a partner in the mercantile firm of Carney, Swift & Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio. Carney’s last business move was to Leavenworth, Kansas, where, in 1858, he opened a wholesale grocery with a partner, Thomas C. Stevens. By the time Carney became governor in 1863, the business had expanded to include two large warehouses, a large store, and more than $500,000 annual gross revenue.

Famine had visited the plains in the previous years and people had not yet recovered. At the same time, ruffians gathered on the border and raided the homes and towns of the Free-State settlers.

Carney married Rebecca Ann Canady on November 13, 1861, at Kenton, Ohio, and together they had five children. That same year he was elected to the second Kansas State Legislature. Almost immediately he became embroiled in the internal problems facing the new state. Money was needed to fund normal expenses and, according to the first governor, Charles Robinson, “. . . not a dollar was found in the treasury, nor a gun or pound of ammunition in its armory.” Famine had visited the plains in the previous years and people had not yet recovered. At the same time, ruffians gathered on the border and raided the homes and towns of the Free-State settlers. Surrounded on all four borders by hostile proslavery forces or potentially hostile Native Americans, Kansas needed money for many things, including arming itself.

On January 12, 1863, at age 38 Carney replaced Robinson as governor and inherited the problems of his predecessor. Carney worked to establish the infrastructure Kansas needed to advance itself from a territorial federal dependent to one on equal footing with other states in the Union. He was pivotal in helping establish the state university at Lawrence, Kansas (the University of Kansas); a state prison in Leavenworth; an agricultural college in Manhattan, Kansas (present-day Kansas State University); and a school for the deaf in Wyandotte. Simultaneously, he worked to establish the state’s good credit and, as G. Raymond Gaeddert writes in The Birth of Kansas, “in 1862 Thomas Carney intervened to save the State from financial disgrace by advancing it $25,000 from his own purse.”

Antislavery jayhawkers and proslavery raiders moved back and forth across the state line, inflicting terror on residents of both Kansas and Missouri.

Yet while he labored to build Kansas’s infrastructure and reputation, the cross-border violence that had earned his state the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” continued to escalate. Antislavery jayhawkers and proslavery raiders moved back and forth across the state line, inflicting terror on residents of both Kansas and Missouri, destroying homes and crops while seeking vengeance for past acts by the other faction. To protect the border families in Kansas, Carney recruited a militia of 150 volunteers to patrol the Missouri-Kansas border and prevent looting. Again, evidence suggests that Governor Carney paid for the militia out of his own pocket, laying out in excess of $10,000.

The vigilance of the militia diminished the cross-border raids to the extent that it appeared it was no longer needed, so it was disbanded in early August 1863. This turned out to be a mistake in judgment, as just a few days later, in the pre-dawn of August 21, 1863, Quantrill’s Raiders crossed the border from Missouri into Kansas, burned the city of Lawrence and the ammunition depot, and killed between 160 and 190 men and boys. Governor Carney, in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the state militia, issued General Order No. 1, calling all eligible men in Kansas to report for militia service and citing the “horrors of the Lawrence massacre” as justification. At the same time, General Thomas Ewing issued the infamous General Order No.11, which evicted thousands of Missouri families from their homes along the Missouri-Kansas border.

Like his predecessor, Robinson (who once faced an impeachment hearing for a questionable financial scheme involving state bonds), Carney became embroiled in accusations of malfeasance. While he still held the office of Governor, for example, the State Legislature elected him United States Senator. After much uproar in the press, Carney resigned the position in April 1864. After leaving the governor’s office in 1865, he was the Republican candidate for U.S. senator but was defeated by James M. Harvey. He returned to Leavenworth, where he served as mayor from 1865 to 1866. As mayor, Carney turned his attention to banking and railroads, both of which were important and lucrative enterprises that shaped Kansas development for years to come.

Thomas Carney died of apoplexy on July 28, 1888, in Leavenworth, Kansas. Rebecca Carney died in 1894. They are buried in the Mount Muncie Cemetery, in Leavenworth.

Suggested Reading: 

Boughton, Joseph S. The Lawrence Massacre by a Band of Missouri Ruffians Under Quantrell. Lawrence: J.S. Broughton Publisher, 1863.

Castel, Albert E. Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Gaeddert, Gustave Raymond. Birth of Kansas. Lawrence: Kansas State Historical Society, 1940. Also available electronically: Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Cite this page: 
Keating, Deborah. "Carney, Thomas" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Dec, 16, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/carney-thomas

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