People of the Kansas City area can be forgiven for wondering whether the Civil War actually ever ended.
To be sure, the decade-long conflict near the Missouri-Kansas border did finally burn itself out in 1865. Yet unlike other parts of America, where the war ended and soldiers marched back to homes hundreds of miles away, the combatants here largely stayed put, neighbors bound by a bloody history that shadowed them the rest of their days.
The hard feelings between modern-day partisans, however real or contrived, beg the question: Are Missourians and Kansans doomed by history to remain forever at odds?
The post-Civil War history of this area suggests not. A great many border war survivors reached the twilight of their lives eager to reconcile with wartime foes and leave old antagonisms buried in the past.
One reason: Business and civic leaders saw that reconciliation made good business sense. They feared that the area’s reputation for violence would scare away potential immigrants and investors. Convinced that there was nothing to be gained by dwelling upon the border’s dark past, boosters shifted public attention toward the area’s bright prospects.
“When I laid down my musket, I considered the war at an end,” said one former Confederate. “The past is behind us, our duty is to the future and as patriotic Americans we should turn our eyes in that direction.”
Passage of time helped. Wartime passions and grievances were often too raw in the decade after the war, but by the 1880s a spirit of grace drew together a growing number of Civil War veterans.
Touched by what Abraham Lincoln had once called the “better angels of our nature,” former combatants became central figures in the drama of postwar reconciliation.
Decoration Day, the observance we now call Memorial Day, provided the public stage for this poignant spectacle.
“The sight of Federal soldiers decorating with flowers the graves of Confederate dead, and vice versa, against whom they had fought so hard, was often witnessed,” reported one Harrisonville editor in 1889. “So great and sublime a thought was such forgiveness that it made our own petty trials sink into insignificance by comparison.”
This swelling chorus of reconciliation led to careful recall of history by local boosters. Wartime hardships and the difficult questions of slavery and secession often became taboo subjects, sure to offend partisans on either side.
To render a history that was accessible to Unionists and Confederates alike, proponents of reunion stripped the war of moral judgments. Neither North nor the South had been wrong, as it went, but both had proudly reunited under one flag, redeemed by the valor and sacrifice of honored veterans.
White citizens gladly celebrated the preservation of the Union but were largely silent about the war’s other central legacy, the emancipation of millions of African-American slaves. Black veterans in Kansas and Missouri typically were not invited to participate in Decoration Day programs.
Such oversights and exclusions bespoke the tragic failures of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed.
The proud defiance of some likewise tested the limits of reconciliation. The United Daughters of the Confederacy challenged the boosters’ retelling of the border war by publishing unvarnished accounts of wartime misery and jayhawker depredations.
“Isn’t this a part of the history of the Civil war?” asked Mrs. N.M. Harris. “Does any historian spare Quantrill?”
Guerrilla leader William Quantrill remained the border war’s most polarizing figure long past his 1865 death. Beginning in 1898, many of the men who rode with Quantrill, including Frank James and Cole Younger, gathered at Jackson County homesteads for a series of yearly reunions that laid bare some fierce differences.
Many Missourians rallied behind the Quantrill men, heralding their past efforts as protectors against hostile Kansans and federal occupiers.
The Kansas City World noted that the retired guerrillas had settled into lives of quiet respectability, becoming “as patriotic, home-loving and peaceable a set of men as could be found anywhere.”
The Quantrill men even invited Union veterans to participate in their late-summer picnics. No evidence suggests that the offer was ever accepted.
It was no coincidence that several reunions were scheduled on or near Aug. 21 — the anniversary of the Lawrence raid. News of these gatherings outraged Kansans, especially survivors of the 1863 slaughter.
Concluded George Martin: “The Quantrill reunions are the last wrigglings of the dying snake’s tail.”
Former guerrillas, however, were unrepentant for their part in the border war. Kit Dalton described the Lawrence massacre was “butchery of the bloodiest sort” but defended it as a “just punishment” for jayhawker provocations.
Later generations faced a choice between two broad memories of the border struggle.
The first, of the tenuous peace between the two states, can be easily lost amid the hysteria of the modern “Border War” sports rivalry.
The other, of stubborn divisions undiminished by time, comes to mind more easily.
Embers of hostility still smolder, fueling a Civil War that continues in memory if not in fact — often yielding more heat than light.