Civil War one fifty

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War & the Missouri-Kansas border region's unique place in the bloody four-year conflict.

The Kansas City Star
A mural in the Missouri Capitol depicts the Battle of Westport.

Did we really learn?

The Kansas City Star

The state line pitted, literally, neighbor against neighbor — in savage ways back then and, some said, destructive ways even now.

At his inauguration, the eloquent but embattled president from Illinois spoke hopefully of the “mystic chords of memory” keeping Americans united.

Those chords now keep the Civil War echoing, 150 years after he, Abe Lincoln, watched it erupt.

Beginning with the Tuesday sesquicentennial of Southern cannons firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., a nation divided by some of the same arguments — about federal reach versus states’ rights, about old economy versus new, about race and religion — embarks on a four-year observance of a war that rewrote most everything.

The real flashpoint predates Fort Sumter by several years, however.

And it burst in a place neither North nor South, but here — where slavery’s western trajectory hit a dead end.

On the Missouri-Kansas line.

Placards hype the “Border War” that rages still, metaphorically, at sporting events between the universities of Missouri and Kansas. But history is less cute. Nowhere else were the war’s hostilities more tightly coiled and personal.

“East Coast historians tell you the war started in Fort Sumter and ended at Appomattox,” said Terry McConnell of Independence as a recent meeting of the Civil War Round Table of Western Missouri came to a close.

“Uh-uh. It started right here in 1855, and it hasn’t ended.”

The state line pitted neighbor against neighbor — in savage ways back then and destructive ways even now.

The bad blood only started with the question of slaveholding, which had been legal across Missouri since its statehood in 1821. Ultimately the violence would be fueled less by ideals of equality (some “free-soilers” in Kansas, in fact, argued for keeping black people out) than by vengeance and vicious one-upmanship.

Long before the U.S. wars of the 2000s, boyish-looking irregulars, bushwhackers and Red Legs — today we call them terrorists or death squads — lurked outside Kansas City.

Missourians, whether hostile or not to the Union that governed them, endured federal occupation and fiery pre-emptive strikes. At the John Brown Museum in Osawatomie, Kan., curator Grady Atwater described that landscape in the most contemporary of ways:

“This was the Iraq or Afghanistan of its day.”

Loss of a generation

Each major anniversary of the Civil War sparks a new conversation about our direction as a nation.

Each observance forms its own narrative about memory, reconciliation and the reasons for which 620,000 citizens would die. Proportional to the size of the maturing country, the body count would approach 6 million Americans today, or the entire population of modern-day Missouri.

About as many American troops would be killed in all other wars combined.

“Given the loss of a whole generation, the amazing thing is that 150 years later the country is together at all,” said cultural historian Robert Thompson at Syracuse University.

“Maybe not happily, but together.”

Much and little has changed. This sesquicentennial arrives with an African-American in the Oval Office. His election came earlier than anyone would have guessed during the civil-rights push of the 1960s.

In that decade, you may have observed the war’s 100th anniversary. Some planning events were held at segregated hotels, making it difficult for African-Americans to attend.

Fifty years later: On issues well beyond racial equality — health care, illegal immigration, globalization, labor unions, federal spending — America sees a cleaving of opinions as deep as at any time since the 1960s.

“Those were the days when politicians from both parties supported the struggle for civil rights. Now they struggle to be civil,” said activist Julian Bond, the grandson of a slave.

These days Mike Huckabee, who is considering another GOP run at the presidency, equates the furor over slavery to the abortion debate, both involving “the sanctity of human life” and strained constitutional interpretations.

Democrats and Republicans argue endlessly over federal income taxes — first devised by Congress to fund the Civil War.

Others bristle at globalization and unbridled change. Just as the South in the 1860s sensed an encroachment of new industries and political power from the North, many today argue that America’s glory years are behind us.

Today, said University of Central Missouri historian Delia Gillis, students have heard so much about “states’ rights” in their lifetimes, even the young adults of color argue the war had more to do with sovereignty than slavery.

“Narratives of what this war was about all take on a certain bias,” Gillis said. “The South has been very successful having their version represented.”

Especially in the South, observances of the last few months have called attention to a house yet divided:

•In December, a “secession ball” in Charleston, S.C., attracted partiers in antebellum garb to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that state’s withdrawal from the Union. Outside the dance, more than 100 protested what they interpreted as “a celebration of slavery” and a backward-looking “confederacy of the mind.”

•Last month, a group calling itself the Texas Nationalist Movement rallied at the state Capitol to push a resolution that would allow Texans to vote this November on separating from the United States. Though Republican Gov. Rick Perry uttered the word “secession” soon after President Barack Obama’s election, he said he only advocated states being allowed to break from Social Security and other federal mandates.

•Mississippians are arguing over commemorative license plates — including a design for 2014 honoring a Confederate general who later served as grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“In many ways, the Civil War still lingers,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “Most of the states in the Confederacy are what we call the red states. They’re the most conservative states in the Union. …

“What was done with guns and bayonets is done today with tongues. The red-hot rhetoric in Washington, according to the old-timers here, is worse than it’s ever been.”

That’s saying quite a bit. In maybe the most famous congressional outburst ever — ruder, even, than a representative shouting “You lie” during a presidential address — an earlier South Carolinian, Rep. Preston Brooks, used a cane to bludgeon Sen. Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, on the Senate floor.

That was in 1856, as emigrants from both Northern and Southern states streamed into the Kansas territory to swing its destiny.

Within five years, the Civil War was on.

The slavery question

It got complicated, this war on the border. But a lot boiled down to divisions we recognize today.

One side claims to be righteous, the other gets its back up. One plays dirty, the other gets dirtier.

The Missourians were here first, by 40 years. Many came from Southern states and brought their slaves along.

After Congress in 1854 allowed the slavery question in the Kansas territory to be decided by its voters, many abolitionists swooped in to claim land and impose their will on the West.

Similarly, Missourians, cast as “border ruffians” and “pukes” by the newcomers from the East, poured across the border to stuff ballot boxes with pro-slavery votes and to intimidate Kansans.

Kansas abolitionist Charles B. Stearns wrote: “When I deal with men made in God’s image, I will never shoot them; but these pro-slavery Missourians are demons from the bottomless pit and may be shot with impunity.”

None was more willing to do that than old John Brown — a white evangelical from New York who arrived in Kansas territory girding to die for the cause.

In May 1856, Brown and several others, including his sons, dragged five pro-slavery men — though none actually owned slaves — out of their homes near a Kansas creek called Pottawatomie. They used sabers to hack at their victims. Then the elder Brown deposited a bullet in the head of each. God’s work, he believed.

Missourians along the border sent 250 men into the abolitionist stronghold of Osawatomie to burn the town down. In the fight, they killed one of Brown’s sons.

So what started as an ideological split turned personal, with looting and killings back and forth.

In time the pillagers from “Bleeding Kansas” would adopt the name Jayhawkers — derived, some believe, from a fictional bird as nasty as a blue jay and hungry as a hawk.

During the coming remembrances, local politicians had best be careful what they say.

At a performance last summer by the Kansas City Symphony in the Flint Hills, the then-governor of Kansas, Mark Parkinson, riled Missourians in the crowd with his quips about William Quantrill’s 1863 sacking of Lawrence.

A letter writer to The Kansas City Star demanded an apology: “Isn’t unity along our borders, today and tomorrow, what we’re all striving to achieve?”

It’s more of a striving never to forget, judging by attractions that dot the region.

On the Kansas side, middle-school kids in KU Jayhawk jackets sit in on lectures in Lecompton, where in 1855, pro-slavery forces penned the territory’s first constitution before anti-slavery arrivals drafted their own. The historical society distributes to schools game cards to play “Bleeding Kansas Bingo,” featuring images of Brown and fierce U.S. Sen. James Lane.

In Missouri, the birthplace of the bushwhacker James boys is a Kearney draw. Puppets in Independence dramatize the Border War, Harrisonville recently erected a monument to the “Burnt District,” and rebel flags flap from graves in Osceola, a town wiped out by Lane and the Kansans.

“There still are people who are diehards either way,” said Janet Weaver of the Gen. Sterling Price Museum in Keytesville, Mo., dedicated to the memory of the ex-governor and rebel officer who tried more than once to release the Union’s tenuous grip on Missouri.

Some are offended that re-enactors in blue and gray would even wish to clash again in Missouri this year for the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. (During that first year of the war, 40 percent of casualties nationwide and 40 percent of the battles happened in Missouri.)

But to ignore the war — “the fiery crucible,” in historian William Hesseltine’s words, “in which the old nation was melted down and out of which modern America was poured” — is to forget how our fiercest differences can bring our nation to annihilation’s brink.

“If we haven’t learned from the Civil War yet,” said Terry Ramsey, curator of the popular Bushwhacker Museum in Nevada, Mo., “it’s time we do.”

Union Gen. John B. Sanborn recalled in 1886: “If there is anything of value to a future age to be learned … it is that there exists in the breasts of the people of educated and Christian communities wild and ferocious passions.”

He learned it serving near the Missouri-Kansas border.

“I think the bitterness on the border had to do with people not playing by rules,” said Gary Nodler, an ex-legislator in southwest Missouri. “The scar tissue is deeper than what’s left after a conventional war.”

General Order No. 11

Tom Rafiner’s obsession is typical.

Retired from the insurance line, Rafiner, of Parkville, wanted to devote some time to genealogy. He learned that a couple of ancestors lived in Cass County when the war began, but the records seemed to have vanished, 1,700 households erased from memory.

So began Rafiner’s six-year fixation on an episode he never learned in history class: General Order No. 11, issued in 1863 by Union Gen. Thomas Ewing in Kansas City, reduced to ash the homes and livelihoods of thousands of residents of Cass and three other counties on Missouri’s western edge.

The eradication happened in response to Quantrill’s raid, in which perhaps 200 Lawrence men and boys were slaughtered — by far the bloodiest act of domestic terrorism until Timothy McVeigh bombed an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Rural Missourians along the western border, suspected of feeding and sheltering the guerrillas, were given 15 days to gather up belongings and scram. Much of their livestock was stolen and several of their towns were torched by Kansas marauders. Order No. 11 just finished off what was left.

The devastation was immortalized in a painting by Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, whose hatred of Ewing was intense.

The hostility lingers for many longtime families of Cass, rural Jackson, Bates and part of Vernon counties.

“I spoke with a man in Lone Jack who said he knew which family assassinated his great-grandfather,” said Rafiner, whose research led to a book about Cass County’s loss, “Caught Between Three Fires.”

“He tells me, ‘And I know where they live.’ Not lived, but where they still live. …

“I heard another man say he doesn’t even drive into Kansas,” Rafiner said. “Jeesh, it’s been 150 years!”

Writers and homegrown historians sense a different vibe when giving Civil War lectures in the Sunflower State.

“In Lawrence, they know all about Quantrill, but they really don’t know about Order 11,” said Judy Billings of the city’s tourism bureau. “Yes, Kansans bled. But so did Missourians.”

In Jackson County, Union troops pillaged the home of Solomon and Harriet Louisa Young, grandparents to Harry Truman. In 1906, his grandmother won a $3,800 settlement from the U.S. government to cover property looted or destroyed.

She never forgot. Recalling how he proudly wore his new Missouri National Guard uniform into her home, Truman later wrote: “She said, ‘Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.’

“I didn’t.”

A national heritage area

Twelve years ago, Billings, of Lawrence, and about a dozen other Kansans — plus a lone Missourian from the Bushwhacker Museum — gathered to brainstorm ways to promote the 150th anniversary of the 1854 establishment of the Kansas territory.

Their focus was Bleeding Kansas — the name they’d propose to Congress in seeking a special designation as a national heritage area.

Then-congressman Jim Talent wanted 12 Missouri counties thrown into the heritage area. Ike Skelton, the former congressman to the state’s 4th District, would approve the measure only if the name “Bleeding Kansas” was dropped.

Back in Lawrence, heated meetings drove some Kansans off the planning committee.

Finally, organizers agreed on the boundaries and mission of “Freedom’s Frontier.”

The heritage area encompasses 41 counties. Its management plan is to establish the region as “a testing ground for debates concerning rights, freedom and their meaning in the American democracy.”

Billings: “Interconnectedness is definitely our goal.”

As Civil War observances roll out, the question remains whether visitors care much about “interconnectedness.” Many would rather stick to their own points of view about who, in all the bloodletting, was good and who was bad, said Atwater at the John Brown Museum.

“People from Europe who visit us pretty much consider Brown a hero,” Atwater said.

Americans, he said, tend to have their minds set when they walk in the door, and many will argue that Brown was an 1850s version of Osama bin Laden, a bloodthirsty villain driven by religious extremism.

“Both sides,” the curator said, “were equally monstrous.”

Round table-go-round

Any year, sesquicentennial or otherwise, dozens of shows and discussions are open to Civil War buffs on either side of the border.

“I will not stand for this nation to be torn asunder!” cried a Johnson County, Mo., computer programmer-turned-actor before crumpling from gunshot wounds beneath the wooden chandeliers of the old courthouse in Warrensburg.

There, a cast of about 20 recently performed “Murder in the Courthouse” on the anniversary of a politically charged killing during a February 1861 election.

In the audience sat Jim Beckner of Raymore.

A longtime buff with a white beard and gentle manner, Beckner will attest to being “very unusual” in that he happily crisscrosses the state line to absorb varying ideologies.

Three nights after watching the play in central Missouri — where a secessionist on stage declared, “Every Kansan that walks on two legs can go to the devil” — Beckner was dining with the enemy, mostly Kansans in Prairie Village, for a meeting of the Civil War Round Table of Kansas City.

Founded in 1958, it was the area’s premier round table before some members seceded a generation ago to form a Missouri-based group.

The breakaway Round Table of Western Missouri now meets in eastern Independence. President Mike Calvert said he was inclined to “side more with the Confederate story,” at least as it treats the border war.

Social considerations, too, factored into the split. Missourians grew weary of the trip to a Kansas suburb to spend $25 for a country-club meal.

By contrast, a recent meeting of Calvert’s group had members tossing their coats on a billiards table and munching on home-baked brownies for an episode of Ken Burns’ PBS series of the Civil War.

Yet another splinter group convenes monthly on Independence Square. And 20 miles due south, the Cass County Civil War Round Table has been meeting for about a decade.

Beckner involves himself in all. For more than 30 years he also has been a re-enactor at mock battles.

“We’ve always had trouble in Missouri getting people to wear the blue. They’re all rebel-minded,” he said. “We’d have 40 to 45 Confederate cavalry men versus 10 or 12 on the Union side. It was ridiculous.”

For his part, Beckner has a closet stuffed with uniforms both gray and blue. The Missouri Humanities Council, which last year honored him for community achievement, called Beckner “the go-to guy for all things Civil War.”

Acknowledging that the Mo-Kan divide still exists, Billings of Freedom’s Frontier said: “We shouldn’t be talking just two perspectives, but every perspective you can think of.”

African-American, Native American, rural and urban, all of the family histories, “basically, the development of a nation,” she said. “It’s about respecting them all.”

Toward that aim, give credit to Bates County, Mo. A few years ago its citizens — 97 percent white, a third older than 50 — unveiled a memorial outside the county courthouse in Butler, once burned by the Yankees.

Look at the uniform — it’s of an unidentified Union soldier, from Kansas.

Look closer. He’s black.

The statue recognizes a little-known watershed of our nation’s history. Outside of town at a place known as Island Mound, America’s first black uniformed infantrymen fought for their country. And won.

Modern-day border war

When the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, Confederate and Union veterans shook hands on hallowed ground.

Similar gestures of reconciliation took place here.

“I’m proud to say that now my warmest friends are those who wore the blue, some of whom I met on the battlefield,” wrote Columbus C. Blankenbecker, who fought with Price at Wilson’s Creek.

The two states did not waste time finding something on which to agree: Making money beat fighting.

In Kansas City, business and political leaders of Southern and Northern persuasion buried their differences to court railroad interests. The city rebounded mightily after the Hannibal Bridge became the first permanent span of the Missouri River.

Southern folk, however, gravitated to neighborhoods east of Main, on streets named for trees. Northerners preferred Quality Hill.

A Protestant populism bonded rural reaches straddling the border, and Carrie Nation — reared in a slaveholding family in Belton — teamed with Kansas women to smash saloons.

Kansas, for decades, would be a dry state. But Missouri would be wet.

Kansas would be Republican. Missouri, for decades, would be Democrat.

Kansas regarded itself a land of freedom, as thousands of black “Exodusters” answered the call of “Ho for Kansas!” The state’s high schools and public universities — unlike Missouri’s — were racially integrated, allowing the aspiring botanist George Washington Carver, born to slavery in Missouri, to earn a diploma in Minneapolis, Kan.

Though blacks never exceeded 8 percent of the Kansas population, the state wielded a “symbolic power” well into the 20th century as a “testing ground” for equal rights, wrote University of Kansas historian Kim Warren in her 2010 book, “Quest for Citizenship: African and Native American Education in Kansas.”

Before that testing ground would extend to fights over abortion and evolution, Kansas would be ground zero in the schooling of black children.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education found that separation itself violated the rights of minority children.

What followed? In Kansas City, the Missouri-Kansas border erupted again. White families east of it crossed over in droves to attend white schools. And deeds in many of the new Kansas subdivisions for years kept people of color out.

You know the rest. The once-rural outback of Johnson County, Kan. — largely developed by J.C. Nichols, an Olathe native and University of Kansas graduate — bleeds the Missouri side of families, business and tax dollars to this day.

Last month, Missourians and Kansans converged where a Union jail collapsed in 1863, killing five Missouri women of bushwhacker families.

Now the place is the Sprint Center; the occasion the Big 12 basketball tourney. Black-clad Mizzou fans swarming a restaurant knew the talking points in their rivalry with the Jayhawks.

“They seem to think they’re superior,” said Justin Scheidt of Lee’s Summit.

Where Kansas fans gathered to the north, a financial planner scoffed: “In basketball, we’ve got a pretty good history, don’t we?”

Civil enough. But also a bit spooky, since his name was John Brown.