A few years ago, I was having dinner with a Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area representative, talking about—what else?—the Civil War in Kansas and Missouri.
Freedom’s Frontier includes eastern Kansas and western Missouri counties that played a major part in the bloody Border War and later in the Civil War. We were dining in Lawrence, Kansas, where William Clarke Quantrill and his Confederate guerrillas had murdered between 150 and 200 men and boys and left the town in ruins. But like a phoenix, Lawrence rose from the ashes.
“Lawrence recovered,” I was told. “But a lot of those towns in Missouri, they did not. There’s a whole different vibe, a different feeling, when you go to some of those sites in Missouri.”
Those words resonate as I stand at the Osceola Monument—an obelisk set atop bricks resembling the Confederate battle jack—in a cemetery in Osceola, Missouri.
Osceola was a thriving town of 2,000 to 2,500 citizens when Jim Lane’s Kansas Jayhawkers, a militant abolitionist brigade, arrived on September 23, 1861, executing nine men on the town square. When the Jayhawkers rode out, “Osceola was a heap of smoldering ruins.”
The town never recovered. When I venture into downtown, I find mostly buildings with boarded windows. The town’s population was fewer than 200 after Lane’s raid. Today, the population is under 1,000. It is a depressing place to visit.
While the United States revisits the Civil War with sesquicentennial remembrances back East, that bloody struggle seems far from over in parts of Missouri.
In 2011, the Osceola Board of Aldermen passed a resolution asking the University of Kansas to drop its “Jayhawk” mascot and condemned the “celebration of this murderous gang of terrorists by an institution of ‘higher education,’ in such a brazen and malicious manner.”
Of course, this story has two sides. In 2008, when novelist Max McCoy’s I, Quantrill was published, the Lawrence Journal-World opined, “Why waste time trying to generate sympathy for Quantrill’s outlawry and bloodlust by suggesting they were at least partially a byproduct of a strained relationship with his mother. How did Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Attila the Hun get along with their mothers?”
No doubt about it. Following the Border/Civil Wars is going to make for one interesting trip.
John Brown’s Kansas
Perhaps the best place to start is in Osawatomie, Kansas, settled by abolitionists in 1854. John Brown made the cabin of his half-sister, Florella, and her husband, the Reverend Samuel Adair, his home base. After John Brown’s crew killed five pro-slavers along Pottawatomie Creek, Missourians retaliated on August 30, 1856, when John Reid’s Bushwhackers attacked the town. Brown escaped, but the Missouri boys looted Osawatomie and left it ablaze.
You can visit the Adair cabin, which was moved in 1912 to John Brown Memorial Park. The park’s John Brown Museum offers an excellent look at Brown and the Border and Civil Wars.
From Osawatomie, head south to Fort Scott, which preserves the heritage and look of the fort founded in 1842. The Army abandoned the post in 1853, and the buildings became part of the town. A former officers’ quarters became a hotel nicknamed the “Free State” Hotel. Across the square, pro-slavery men turned an infantry barracks into the Western Hotel, their headquarters. When the Civil War broke out, the Union Army returned. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry were sworn in here and would become the first black regiment to fight Confederates (in 1862, at Island Mound, now a state historic site near Butler, Missouri).
Down the road, the Baxter Springs Heritage Center & Museum includes the story of the Battle of Baxter Springs. In 1863, from their dirt-and-log Fort Blair, Union troops—mostly black—held off Quantrill’s men. The Bushwhackers left, but they had other Union victories under their belt. One Union force they had surprised wasn’t as lucky as those at Fort Blair—more than 100 Unionists were killed.
For the other side of the story, I’m off to Missouri.
Missouri in Flames
In the town of Nevada (pronounced ne-VAY-da), I visit the Bushwhacker Museum. In May 1863, Union militia gave residents 20 minutes to save what they could, then burned the town. One building spared was the sandstone jail, which still stands with its restored cells, jailer’s home and office, and is operated by the museum.
Lane’s men, on the other hand, did not give anyone a chance to save anything when he torched Osceola in September 1861. With only bad memories of this time lingering in Osceola, I head to St. Louis for a pick-me-up.
Unionist St. Louis
The Civil War in the West wasn’t just Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers. Battlefields at Wilson’s Creek near Springfield and Lexington reveal the “regular” war. So does St. Louis.
The 1905 Post Exchange at Jefferson Barracks has been turned into the Missouri Civil War Museum. And Missouri has need of a Civil War museum. Only Virginia and Tennessee saw more Civil War battles and skirmishes than Missouri. Before the war, Ulysses S. Grant married Julia Dent in 1848. On Dent family land given as a wedding present, Grant built the couple’s “Hardscrabble” cabin, now displayed at Grant’s Farm. The Union general’s two-story White Haven (his home from 1854-59) is run by the National Park Service in St. Louis County. Union Gen. William T. Sherman is buried in the historic Calvary Cemetery.
Yet Missouri was a state divided during the Civil War. Proof is found at the Johnson County Historic Courthouse Museum in Warrensburg. Local legend has it that the Confederate Francis Cockrell’s brigade and Emory Foster’s Union boys took turns drilling on the same parade ground.
Western Missouri, however, was the site of much bloodshed. I stop at Lone Jack Civil War Battlefield, Museum and Soldiers’ Cemetery, which revisits the August 1862 battle.
“…Lone Jack was one of the hardest fights of the war,” one Rebel fighter noted. “That night there were 136 dead and 550 wounded on the battlefield.”
That soldier (okay, guerrilla) was Cole Younger, remembered more for robbing banks and trains after the war with Frank and Jesse James. But like the James boys, his legend began during the Civil War, so I drive to Lee’s Summit and visit Cole’s grave.
Cole called Lawrence a “day of butchery,” but the raid had serious repercussions on Missourians. Four days after the raid, Union Gen. Thomas Ewing issued Order No. 11, which, coupled with his previous Order No. 10, effectively kicked Southern sympathizers out of Jackson, Cass, Bates and part of Vernon Counties. This region would be known as the Burnt District, and that story is well told at Burnt District Museum & Archives in Harrisonville.
Needing another pick-me-up, I’m off to Kansas City. Sure, the battles and history there were bloody, but K.C.-style barbecue can lift anyone’s spirits.
A driving tour of the 1864 Battle of Westport—among the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi—begins across the street from Kelly’s Westport Inn. More than 30,000 men fought here on October 23, with Samuel R. Curtis’s Union troops routing Sterling Price’s Rebels.
Kansas City was also the site of a makeshift jail housing women prisoners (most of them guilty of only being related to guerrillas). On August 14, 1863, the jail collapsed, killing several women, including “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s sister. That tragedy sent Quantrill to Lawrence for revenge.
So I’m back in Kansas.
The Lawrence Raid
A self-guided tour map of Quantrill’s raid can be found at the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau. By most accounts, Quantrill arrived on August 21 with roughly 400 men. They murdered, looted and burned. It wasn’t the first time Lawrence had been sacked. Sheriff Sam Jones’s pro-slavery forces burned the city in 1856, but Quantrill was the villain most reviled by the townspeople. Visit the Watkins Community Museum of History for a better understanding of the town’s storied history (and John Brown).
You will find plenty more Border War/Civil War history in Kansas. In Lecompton, the Territorial Capital Museum details how close Kansas came to being admitted into the Union as a slave state. The pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was drafted here in 1857, but was defeated by eight votes in the House of Representatives. Lecompton was out as state capital, Kansas was out as a slave state and the building wasn’t completed until 1882.
In Edgerton, you will find it worth your time to visit the one-room Lanesfield School, even though it wasn’t established until 1869. The state historic site not only gives visitors a taste of school days, but also information about Lanesfield’s namesake, Jim Lane.
Back on the Missouri side of things, pay your respects (or not) to the James boys in Kearney at the Jesse James Farm & Museum. The James boys never did stop fighting the Civil War; they trained their fury on the banks, trains and stagecoaches they robbed.
By late 1864, the war was ending, and guerrillas were on borrowed time. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, who led the Centralia Massacre (capturing and executing 24 unarmed Union soldiers, then killing more than 100 in an ensuing battle), was killed on October 26, 1864. His grave is at the Pioneer Cemetery in Richmond.
Quantrill was killed in 1865 in Kentucky, but part of him is buried in Higginsville. So my last stop takes me to the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site.
Realizing that some Confederate veterans needed help, the Daughters of the Confederacy and other organizations began raising funds, and in April 1891, Julius Bamberg became the first of more than 1,600 Confederate veterans, wives, children and widows to be admitted into the Confederate Soldiers Home of Missouri, which operated for almost 60 years.
This place has a feel-good vibe. It’s peaceful. And after visiting Osceola and Nevada and Lawrence and Lone Jack, I am glad to have a peaceful, easy feeling.
Johnny D. Boggs recommends never shouting “Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk!” in Missouri or wearing a University of Missouri T-shirt in Kansas.