The Civil War in Kansas City
My high school textbook that showed Missouri in blue? Well, consider:
- Across Jackson County, Missouri, only 6 percent of voters chose Lincoln in the 1860 presidential vote. It is not that the region was overrun with proslavery forces – most residents owned no slaves. Yet for businessmen such as Van Horn, Lincoln’s rise and the threat of war chilled hopes that railroads, trade, and westward expansion would favor Kansas City’s prospects. Van Horn’s vote and Missouri’s electoral votes instead went to candidate Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois Democratic senator who had promoted the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act in hopes of clearing a path for the development of the Transcontinental Railroad.
- A week after cannons fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, signaling the start of the Civil War, 200 armed and mounted secessionists seized the federal arsenal at Liberty, just to the northeast of Kansas City in Clay County, Missouri. They occupied the place for a week and stole three or four cannons, between 1,000 and 1,500 muskets, and 419 cavalry sabers. A seemingly incredulous Nathaniel Grant, in charge of the arms depot, wrote to a federal ordnance chief in Washington: “The Union feeling had been so strong in Missouri, and particularly this county, that I had no apprehension that the post would be disturbed.” However, Grant continued, news dispatches from other states “produced much excitement among the people,” which resulted in “secession flags raised in almost every town during the past week.”
- Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson urged the legislature to join the Confederacy, but his plans were foiled when Union troops captured Jefferson City and other major communities. The state’s secessionist officials fled with armed forces for the southwest part of the state and continued a government in exile, and the Confederacy actually accepted the admission of Missouri and represented the state with an extra star to represent Missouri on its various flags. Other politicians argued that their slaveholding rights would be better protected by remaining in the Union, and for a time they were correct, as President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in seceded states, mostly outside of Union control. In addition, runaways to places such as Illinois or the Underground Railroad port of Quindaro, in present-day Kansas City, Kansas, might, after all, be returned.
- Early in the war, at least one Confederate flag shot up in Kansas City. Federal forces from Leavenworth, Kansas moved in at Mayor Van Horn’s request and occupied the town for the war’s duration. Van Horn would oversee a U.S. battalion of Volunteer Reserves from Camp Union at Broadway and 9th Street. On the fort’s grounds, the foundation of developer Kersey Coates’s planned hotel stretched idle until hostilities ceased.
All around Camp Union, “the cannon was constantly repeating the signals of alarm given by the pickets stationed on the outskirts of the city; the heart of every inhabitant quickened by the sound,” wrote the Coates’ daughter, Laura, in her memoirs. She recalled townsfolk gathered to see a rebel “spy” hanged from a scaffold, and how later, spooked children hurried past his grave near a ravine.
The First Baptist Church held together, unlike other congregations in town that split along pro- and antislavery lines. But the First Baptist’s bonds were so fragile that Pastor Jonathan Fuller, a Union man, had to closely monitor the choir’s selection of hymns so as not to offend Southern loyalties.
Near today’s gleaming Sprint Center, the tenuous strands of community ripped apart on August 13, 1863. A makeshift Union prison there collapsed on top of the female Southern-siding kin of Missouri guerrillas. Among the five women who perished was the sister of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson. He was one of the so-called bushwhackers, referring to bands of Missourians stalking the countryside for the rebel cause. Southern loyalists believed the jail collapse to be no accident: the Yankees, and Ewing specifically because he happened to own the building, killed those women.
Several days later, hundreds galloped west to Lawrence with Anderson and their guerrilla leader, Quantrill, to eradicate the Union town of its male population. The massacre prompted General Ewing, headquartered in Kansas City, to issue his infamous General Order No. 11, evicting the rural bulk of four Missouri border counties of their entire populations in an ultimately effective but persistently controversial attempt to remove sources of shelter and comfort for the guerrillas. Kansas City and other urban areas were exempted, and some of the refugees were able to move in, provided they swore loyalty to the Union, but the rural areas of Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon Counties would long be known as the “Burnt District.”
Border War events would soon serve as an exclamation point to the South’s defeat in the Western theater. In the fall of 1864, armies clashed in a final Confederate campaign to capture Missouri and spoil Lincoln’s reelection. In his “Missouri Expedition,” Major General Sterling Price lost at least 1,000 men in an ill-conceived assault on Pilot Knob, found Union defenses too strong to proceed to St. Louis or Jefferson City, and then in October led his troops west and north to Independence and Kansas City.
At Byram’s Ford over the Big Blue River, and in prior skirmishes at the Little Blue River, Lexington, and Independence, the rebel troops found some traction in pushing back the Union forces under overall command of Major Generals Samuel R. Curtis and James G. Blunt. But then the federals retreated to a rural expanse near present-day Loose Park and virtually surrounded Price’s Army of Missouri.
Imagine a landscape of brush, crops, snaking ravines, and abandoned armaments where some of Kansas City's finest homes now stand.
And this is where the mind’s eye really goes wild. Imagine a landscape of brush, crops, snaking ravines, and abandoned armaments where some of Kansas City’s finest homes now stand. There, at the Battle of Westport, the Union delivered a fatal blow to Price’s army. “What now is the Country Club Plaza was peppered with cannon balls,” a soldier named W.S. Shepherd recalled decades later.
The rebels retreated south and lost again – their supply wagons stuck on the muddy banks of Mine Creek, Kansas. Meanwhile, the Northern states re-elected Lincoln and waited for the American Civil War to grind to an end.
It did end, less than six months after Price’s army backed out of Westport.
Kansas City’s Postwar Miracle
With cannons across the country falling silent, Van Horn’s newspaper declared in April 1865, “we have held on as a community.” But little else about Kansas City’s condition at war’s end was worth celebrating.
The once starry-eyed City of Kansas staggered out of the conflict star-crossed. Though no official census was taken at mid-decade, contemporary scholars suspect the population was back down to 3,000 – a third less than the tally of 1860. Nearly all of the businesses had changed hands, turned belly up, or were shut down by Union troops.
Publisher and ex-mayor Van Horn headed to Washington, D.C. that year to begin serving the first of three terms as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. His wife, Adela, stayed back, writing him letters bemoaning the “horrid” state of the town that he was still trumpeting as a future metropolis.
“Mud about a foot deep” outside their home, she wrote, “and no prospect of clearing up.” She later relayed the tragic news of “Doc,” a physician friend shot on his way to a house call. In one especially dreary letter, she told her husband: “This [place] would be a desert to me without your love.”
Civic desperation, a lucky location, and the critical timing of two industries poised for peacetime growth—railroads and meatpacking—would spin Kansas City’s fortunes around within a few fateful years.
Local plans to bridge the Missouri River and hammer down a rail spur going north had collected dust during the fighting, as had other railroad projects around the region.
Van Horn emerged the craftiest of boosters. Together with fellow Northerner Kersey Coates and local dealmakers of Southern persuasion, Van Horn was perched in the right place—the United States Congress—when railroad investors in Boston were ready to gamble on Kansas City. In short, our “horrid” town’s elite was happy to set aside dueling wartime passions to make some serious wealth in peacetime. They locked arms and convinced out-of-town railroad interests to finance the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Bridge, or simply “Hannibal Bridge.” In 1886 Van Horn sped through Congress the authorizing bill, and Kansas City’s luck soared after its completion in 1869.
The prewar census of 1860: 4,418 people. The 1870 census: 32,260. This count is thought to be inflated, but the sentiment was accurate. By 1890, when cattle carried by rail were butchered in the West Bottoms, some 133,000 people called Kansas City home. Civic leaders who emphasized the “City of the Future,” as they called it, could dismiss as birth pains the horrific beginnings of their budding metropolis. Yet the state line would forever divide.
Books that continue to fly from regional presses have not yet agreed on whose suffering was justified or whose plundering was most crazed. As summed up to me by Grady Atwater of the John Brown Museum in Osawatomie, Kansas: “Both sides were equally monstrous.” He said this inside a cabin where some of Brown’s zealous abolitionists, responsible for a massacre at Pottawatomi Creek and numerous other killings, had met.
The museum that Atwater maintains is mesmerizing and worth a visit – yet my first visit was not made until a quarter of a century after I arrived in Kansas City. I blame that, partly, on my high-school textbooks, which placed Brown at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, but not in Kansas. I also confess to being lackadaisical in challenging the conventions that set the Civil War in the East – not here in the middle of the nation. Today, my advice to anyone who is starting from scratch to understand the passions that culminated in that epic, horrific struggle? Begin by learning what happened in the Kansas City area. It’s as good of a microcosm of the war as any around.
Everyone needs a place to start. And for me, the learning began not out of a fascination for the Civil War or the lawless frontier, and not even out of interest in the history of our divisive state line.
Rather, I was curious about a fellow newspaper man, Van Horn.
“I am again a loser,” he wrote to his parents in 1855 upon leaving for Kansas City from Ohio, where his previous paper collapsed.
Damned if that Yankee didn’t save Kansas City.
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.