A small two-story wooden building, a grassy meadow, a quiet park, a wooded valley between hills; these spots today are relatively unassuming and even banal at first appearance, but there was a time when these places in rural Kansas were the center of national attention. I visited several major sites related to an important part of the foundation of Kansas, a great ‘battle’ of values that determined whether Kansas would enter the United States as a free state or a slave state. This conflict, known as Bleeding Kansas, was a central fault line in the late 1850s as the United States stood on the brink of total civil war.
I first went to the place where the conflict itself began, Lecompton. Today, Lecompton is a small town situated between the larger cities of Lawrence and Topeka. While its population may be small, Lecompton’s impact on the state and its early history is probably as great as any large city. The community was once the territorial capitol and for a time was a center of pro-slavery agitation. Today, there are a few major historic sites in the city that reveal the dramatic history swirling around it.
Constitution Hall State Historic Site in Lecompton.
Where it all began
Constitution Hall State Historic Site is an unassuming two-story white building that seems perfectly normal on the outside, but it holds within it an extraordinary history. Besides being the oldest wooden building in the state, this small building was at the center of an attempt by pro-slavery settlers to seize control of Kansas and its destiny. In the Fall of 1857, a majority pro-slavery Constitutional Convention met and wrote a constitution that protected slavery within Kansas. It then went to the voters of the state to ratify the document, with the election then being boycotted by anti-slavery groups in the territory. Thanks to the boycott and Missourians illegally voting, the Constitution was ratified, even as the population was largely anti-slavery.
When the United States Congress met in the winter of 1858, the Lecompton Constitution became the prime issue on their agenda. At that time, the Senate was perfectly split between free states and slave states, and the admission of Kansas would determine the political balance in the country. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery Congressmen harshly bickered and condemned each other over their beliefs surrounding the Lecompton Constitution. On February 20, 1858, there was even a fight that broke out on the House floor that only stopped when one representative pulled off the wig of another, which caused everyone in the House to erupt into laughter.
A picture depicting the fight that erupted on the House floor over Lecompton.
Ultimately, the Lecompton Constitution was rejected by the United States House of Representatives in a narrow vote, 120 to 112, due to the fraudulent nature of the referendum that approved it. In a deal between the U.S. House and Senate, the two houses agreed to ratify the Constitution if it was approved in a truly democratic referendum. The second referendum in August 1858 resulted in the Lecompton Constitution being soundly defeated by the voters in Kansas. Following this, an anti-slavery Constitution was approved by voters in October.
Paul Bahnmeier, president of the Lecompton Historical Society, iterated to me how important Kansas was to the rest of the nation in the late 1850s. Its admission was the key political issue of the day, and in its early days the entire fight over slavery in the country was centralized around Kansas. Today, this legacy is reflected across Lecompton with the Territorial Capitol Museum and Constitution Hall State Historic Site holding a wide variety of exhibits detailing every bit of this critical event.
Actress portrays the political battle over slavery in Lecompton
Prelude to War
It was not just in the halls of Congress or in the legislature that the battle over slavery was fought in Kansas. Blood was split across the state over it for nearly a decade. While official numbers are hard to establish, there were probably around 100 to 200 deaths in the state in the leadup to the Civil War. Anti-slavery and pro-slavery partisans fought each other, and for most of the later 1850s and into the 1860s Kansas was in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare.
Sacking of Lawrence
One of the first and greatest of these battles was the 1856 sacking of Lawrence. As settlers began to move into the state, many of the towns varied in their alignment, with some being staunchly anti-slavery and others being pro-slavery. The bulk of the population was anti-slavery, though pro-slavery settlers often found themselves backed up by “border ruffians”, Missourians who crossed the border and fought for slavery. It was this group of people who illegally voted for the Lecompton Constitution and the initial pro-slavery legislature.
Lawrence was a center of anti-slavery activity and refused to accept the legitimacy of the pro-slavery government in Lecompton. Tensions between the city and pro-slavery forces finally boiled over and on May 21, 1856, the city was attacked by militias led by the Lecompton-aligned Sheriff Samuel J. Jones. Much of it was burned to the ground and an anti-slavery newspaper press was also destroyed during the raid. This would not be the final time Lawrence faced devastation and in 1863, Lawrence was again devastated, this time by a Confederate-aligned raiding party. Over a hundred people were killed in the 1863 raid, far more than the relatively bloodless 1856 raid.
Depiction of the ruins of Lawrence after the 1856 sacking of the city.
At the head of this battle for freedom were the anti-slavery warriors, with perhaps the most famous partisan being John Brown. Brown came to Kansas in 1855 and was one of the many abolitionists who came to the territory hoping to establish it as a free state. Brown was a radical abolitionist, and he was not afraid to use violence to fight slavery. In fact, he believed violence was a moral necessity. On the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and his sons captured five pro-slavery settlers in the state and killed them with broadswords.
This attack led by Brown was revenge on pro-slavery partisans for the sacking of Lawrence. Following this, violence in the state escalated and Brown was involved in several other major militia battles in the state. One of the largest was fought right in Brown’s home village of Osawatomie. On August 30, 1856, a group of between 250 to 400 pro-slavery militiamen defeated Brown and sacked the small village. Brown himself escaped the raid and continued the fight against slavery across Kansas.
Today, the site of this battle is a little park in Osawatomie, named after John Brown. A cabin he used as a safe house is preserved in a small museum at the top of a hill in the park. There the story of John Brown is told in full, and his dramatic life radiates through the old walls of the cabin.
The John Brown Museum in Osawatomie.
Marais des Cygnes
After the bloody summer of 1856, the most intense portion of Bleeding Kansas was over, though raids, counterraids, murders, and battles still occurred throughout the next few years. One of the worst actions occurred just north of present-day Pleasanton in an isolated ravine, the Marais des Cygnes Massacre. On May 19, 1858, a group of around 30 pro-slavery militiamen led 11 free staters into a ravine near the Missouri Border with the intent of executing all of them. After firing on them, 5 were killed, 5 were wounded, and one escaped unwounded by hiding among the bodies of the dead. This massacre inflamed the tensions of the nation, and the five dead men became martyrs for the anti-slavery cause.
My tour of Bleeding Kansas sites brought me to the site of the massacre. Tucked away in hills northeast of Pleasanton, the site is a lonely place isolated from the wider world. It is not hard to find, and wayfinding signs easily guide visitors to the site. As I drove into the historic site, there were a series of signs recounting the story of the massacre with them all along the road leading to the main monument. It’s a peaceful place, well-kept and simple in design. As I went deeper into the site; however, a certain eeriness came over me. Perhaps it was just the knowledge of what happened there or maybe it was the isolation. With this, I recommend traveling to the site with someone else and not going alone as I did.
A memorial to the fallen at the Marais des Cygnes Massacre state historic site.
Civil War in Kansas
Most historians will put the end of Bleeding Kansas at around 1859, with the free-staters defeating the slavers and ratifying a constitution that banned slavery in the territory. Kansas was finally admitted to the Union in 1861, just as the Civil War was about to fully erupt. Despite this, violence continued in Kansas into the 1860s, though now it was an additional front to the national war against slavery. As mentioned before, Lawrence was sacked and destroyed in a pro-Confederate raid, but Kansas was also the site of a major cavalry battle in 1864.
By the Fall of 1864, the war was going terribly for the Confederacy. The Union controlled the Mississippi River, Tennessee had fallen, General Sherman had taken Atlanta, and Petersburg was under siege. With the Confederate war effort falling apart, one former governor of Missouri, General Sterling Price, attempted to conquer the state and open a new western theater of the war. This campaign, simply called Price’s Missouri Expedition, was a total failure.
Price failed to take St. Louis or Jefferson City and his forces faced an especially disastrous defeat at Westport, outside Kansas City. Following this, Price’s remaining army retreated through Kansas with a goal of reaching Ft. Scott. Price’s 7,000 (down from an initial 12,000) troops met 2,500 Union troops and they were solidly defeated within half an hour. Over 1,200 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured while the Union suffered only around 100 casualties. It was the largest battle of the Civil War fought in Kansas. Following this defeat, Price continued retreating where he faced several other defeats. By the time he made it to friendly Texan territory, he had just 3,000 troops left.
Display describing the defeat of the Confederates at Mine Creek.
Mine Creek Battlefield
Today the battlefield is preserved in the form of the Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site. There are three main trials visitors can access, with a battlefield trail and a creek trail detailing the major moments of the battle. When I visited, I trekked down the battlefield and the creek trail and was impressed by the importance of what occurred here. Beyond this, the land it was on was very beautiful, and I found the nature on the grounds to be just as interesting as the history. The museum on the grounds is quite small, but it’s home to quite a few artifacts recovered from the battle site, along with uniforms from the war. A major theme of the battle was the general material and logistical superiority of the Union troops at Mines Creek, and this reality shines out in the museum.
Each of these sites played an important role in the foundation of the state (and the country) and what it was to become. They are certainly places everyone should visit to learn more about the struggle for freedom on American soil. But remember, these aren’t the only historic sites in Kansas. Make sure to plan your next history buff road trip here.
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