Foreword on the Civil War in Kansas City

An essay by ,
The Kansas City Star

I wasn’t all that stupid when, at age 25, I came to Kansas City to work for The Star. Really, I had nailed near-perfect scores in American history back in the 11th grade, although I think the textbooks misguided me.

Those color-coded maps of the states’ allegiances during the Civil War showed both Missouri and Kansas as blue. They were on the same side, no? Confederate gray covered the region south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where the fighting, I thought, first erupted – in 1861 of course. Nowhere had I read that the hostilities started several years earlier here on the Missouri-Kansas border, with fledgling Kansas City caught in the crossfire.

Upon arriving in 1986 as a native Iowan, I knew one thing about Kansas City area history, and that was Harry Truman. My father and I had visited the presidential library en route to Royals games in the 1970s. Somewhere I would read that parts of the well-traveled Truman Road were once named after a fellow newspaper man and mayor of Kansas City during the Civil War, Robert Van Horn. Truman himself expressed regret at the street’s renaming, as it erased from the local map an early town booster who had lived to age 91 and ranked among the most game-changing Kansas Citians of all time.

Divisions Still

Beyond my interest in learning more about Van Horn, I was struck early on by what seemed to be bad blood between Missouri and Kansas. College rivalries between neighboring states – fine. But I had come from a bi-state community, the Quad-Cities straddling Iowa and Illinois, and the biases there were positively quaint by comparison. I do not recall anyone refusing to cross the state line to shop at a mall, hunt for a home or send a kid to college, as more than a few do around here.

The cannon standing in Kansas City's Loose Park marks the spot where Confederate Major General Sterling Price commanded his army in the decisive 1864 Battle of Westport. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Then again, I was not sure what “Bleeding Kansas” meant or why a cannon stood in Kansas City’s Loose Park. I later learned that the cannon marks the spot where Confederate Major General Sterling Price commanded his Army of Missouri in the decisive 1864 Battle of Westport, sometimes called the “Gettysburg of the West.”

Hearing of the Battles of Westport, Lexington, Lone Jack, and Mine Creek, I once presumed these were measly affairs that resulted, perhaps, from Confederate troops taking a wrong turn in Arkansas.

A fuller yet infinitely complex story would emerge from wondering: Why did Little Dixie battle flags still flap in some Missouri cemeteries? What on earth was a jayhawker? Or a bushwhacker? The name “Quantrill,” for some Missourians, evoked a legacy almost equal to that of the raging abolitionist John Brown on the Kansas side.

A group of history buffs known as the Civil War Round Table of Kansas City—which hosted former President Truman at its first downtown banquet in the 1950s—began to splinter in the 1980s, not long after electing to move its monthly dinners to a country club in the Kansas suburbs. Enthusiasts on the Missouri side broke to hold meetings of a less formal, Southern flavor in Independence.

From reporting on the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I was informed that Timothy McVeigh’s crime might not have been what news outlets then called the deadliest act of terror on American soil. Local historians pointed to something ghastly that visited Lawrence, Kansas in 1863. Between 160 and 190 men and teenaged boys died at the hands of Missouri guerrillas on horseback, led by William Clarke Quantrill, a one-time schoolteacher turned vigilante. I was among the Kansas Citians who lined up at theaters to watch “Ride with the Devil,” film director Ang Lee’s 1999 movie that included a depiction of the massacre.

General Order No. 11, issued by General Thomas Ewing from his headquarters in today's River Market area, forced rural Missourians on the Western Border out of their homes.

For generations, the Union’s response to Quantrill’s assault would go unmentioned in many formal accounts of Civil War history: General Order No. 11, issued by General Thomas Ewing from his headquarters in today’s River Market area, forced rural Missourians on the Western Border out of their homes. They left behind the “Burnt District,” characterized by towns torched and livestock taken by Kansas marauders.

About a decade ago, the embers of regional animus glowed once more. Kansans seeking to promote the 150th anniversary of the 1854 establishment of Kansas Territory asked Congress to grant the eastern third of the state special designation as a national heritage area, to be labeled “Bleeding Kansas.” Congressmen from Missouri disapproved; they wanted the name changed and demanded their counties not be left out. Heated meetings produced a national heritage area called “Freedom’s Frontier,” spanning 41 counties in both states. It is billed as “a testing ground for debates concerning rights, freedom, and their meaning in the American democracy.”

The history behind all of this speaks to divisions that persist in the Kansas City area. Any athletic matchup between the Missouri Tigers and the Kansas Jayhawks has long been hyped a “Border War,” even if the national broadcasters covering the games often do not know why.

Upstart Kansas City

Westport Landing in 1855. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

It is hard to fathom how the Town of Kansas—originally founded in 1838, incorporated in 1850, and later to be officially renamed “Kansas City” in 1889—made it through the mayhem. After all, the community of about 2,500 was still in its infancy when tensions erupted over slavery’s future.

Under a system of “popular sovereignty,” the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 empowered settlers in those territories to choose for themselves whether or not to expand slavery west of Missouri. The law reneged on the earlier Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in the Western territories north of the 36°30' north parallel. Outraged abolitionists in the East saw but one course of action: to hurry west and stake claims in Kansas.

For settlers headed to Kansas or further west along the California, Santa Fe, or Oregon Trails, the westernmost railroad only extended to St. Joseph. Many settlers traveled from there on the Missouri River and arrived at the Town of Kansas, or “Westport’s Landing” at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, where the founders of the future Kansas City hoped to benefit from traffic heading west.

Passers-through quickly noted that the more established outfitting village of Westport, to the south, was a “hot bed” of proslavery types, where at times “no Free State man was safe in passing,” as one visitor wrote. About two-thirds of the households of western Missouri in the 1850s had members originating from slaveholding states. But in the summer of 1854, hundreds of antislavery stalwarts of the New England Emigrant Aid Company began to flock in, including future town builders such as Kersey Coates. Eventually, thousands would venture into Kansas Territory to settle, if only for a few months, and then cast their ballots for freedom.

Missourians crossed over to stake claims, too, and enough were armed to seize polling places, interfere with Free-Staters’ votes, and illegally cast their own ballots in March 1855 to establish what the antislavery side called the “Bogus Legislature.” The ruffians organized in communities we know today as fun places to meet friends: In Parkville in 1855, they tossed the press of an antislavery newspaper, the Industrial Luminary, into the Missouri River. From Westport, they hauled cannons into the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence and blew down the Free State Hotel in 1856.

In the center of the chaos sat upstart Kansas City. Its population ticked toward 4,500 in the late 1850s despite the bleeding in Kansas and the stealing out of Missouri. Town officials of Northern and Southern backgrounds welcomed more than 700 steamboats unloading at the levee in 1857. One newcomer was Theodore Case, a future postmaster who would recall a gully town replete with “red shirts, bowie knives and pistols openly worn at the girdle.”

Early Kansas City builders cut streets through the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Local businesses just wanted to make a buck. Kansas City mayors would toggle between Democrat (whether pro- or antislavery) and Republican. Mayor John Johnson held office just 35 days before giving in to his wife’s urging that they flee the danger in 1855.

Far more successful was Robert Van Horn, a transplant from Ohio who established the Western Journal of Commerce and by 1860 became the town’s leading publisher. Unrelenting in his boosterism, Van Horn’s paper lamented that border parties “have concluded to go to war to settle their difficulties by bloodshed. (But) we wish to remind them that they can buy powder and lead of (local) merchants at St. Louis prices, and other military supplies much cheaper.”

Kansas Territory eventually quieted. Enough Free-State supporters settled—alongside apolitical arrivals just wanting to set up ranches or shops—to fend off interference from Missouri ruffians. But by 1861, with the start of the Civil War, hostilities would erupt as never before. Six Southern states had already seceded by the time President-elect Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington, ceremoniously hoisted the new U.S. flag that included the star of Kansas, our 34th state.

Suggested Reading: 

The Kansas City Star. "Civil War! Inside the Conflict that Forever Divided Kansas and Missouri." 2011.

Miller, Patricia Cleary. Westport, Missouri's Port of Many Returns. Kansas City, MO: Lowell Press, 1983.

Montgomery, Rick and Shirl Kasper. Kansas City: An American Story. Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999.

Neely, Jeremy. The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. Columbia London: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Cite this page: 
Montgomery, Rick. "Foreword on the Civil War in Kansas City" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Sep, 21, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/essay/foreword-civil-war-kansas-city

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