|Part of the prelude to the American Civil War|
Union states Union territories not permitting slavery Union territories permitting slavery Bleeding Kansas, entered Union Confederate states
Antonio Benincasa †
|Casualties and losses|
|unknown, 100 or fewer (30–40 killed)||unknown, 80 or fewer (20–30 killed)|
Bleeding Kansas, Bloody Kansas or the Border War was a series of violent political confrontations in the United States involving anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery "Border Ruffian" elements, that took place in the Kansas Territory and the neighboring towns of the state of Missouri between 1854 and 1861. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for the "popular sovereignty"—that is, the decision about slavery was to be made by the settlers (rather than outsiders). It would be decided by votes—or more exactly which side had more votes counted by officials. At the heart of the conflict was the question of whether Kansas would allow or outlaw slavery, and thus enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Proslavery forces said every settler had the right to bring his own property, including slaves, into the territory. Antislavery "free soil" forces said the rich slaveowners would buy up all the good farmland and work them with black slaves, leaving little or no opportunity for non-slaveowners. As such, Bleeding Kansas was a proxy war between antislavery forces in the North and proslavery forces from the South over the issue of slavery in the United States. The term "Bleeding Kansas" was coined by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune; the events it encompasses directly presaged the American Civil War, as well as the future relationship between Kansas and Missouri.
By the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress kept a tenuous balance of political power between North and South. In May 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act created from unorganized Indian lands the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This permitted residency by U.S. citizens, who were to determine their state's slavery status and seek admission to the Union. Immigrants supporting both sides of the question arrived in Kansas to establish residency and gain the right to vote. However, Kansas Territory officials were appointed (1854) by the pro-slavery administration of President Franklin Pierce (in office 1853-1857), and thousands of non-resident pro slavery Missourians entered Kansas with the goal of winning elections. They captured Territorial elections, sometimes by fraud and intimidation. In response, Northern abolitionists elements flooded Kansas with free-state men. Antislavery Kansas residents wrote the first Kansas constitution (1855) and elected the Free State legislature in Topeka; this stood in opposition to the pro-slavery government in Lecompton. The two Territorial governments increased as well as symbolized the strife of Bleeding Kansas.
Meeting of North and South
Among the first emigrants to Kansas Territory were citizens of slave states, notably neighboring Missouri, who came to secure the expansion of slavery. Pro-slavery forces settled towns including Leavenworth and Atchison. At the same time, citizens of the North, many aided by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, moved to Kansas to make it a free state and settled towns including Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan.
It was rumored in the south that thousands of northerners were arriving in Kansas. In November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as "Border Ruffians", mostly from Missouri and believing the rumors, poured into the Kansas Territory and swayed a delegate election to Congress. This was discovered when fewer than half the ballots were cast by qualified Kansas voters. In one location by example, about 20 of the roughly 600 voters were residents of the Kansas Territory. Kansas had approximately 1,500 qualified voters while over 6,000 votes were cast. Most significantly, these voters, often called Border Ruffians, repeated their influx on March 30, 1855 for election of the first Territorial legislature and again won the vote in favor of slavery. To help countermand the voting fraud, by the summer of 1855 around 1,200 New England Yankees had emigrated to Kansas Territory. The abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher armed many of them with Sharps rifles, which, it is alleged, became known as "Beecher's Bibles" for their shipment in wooden crates so labeled.
The fraudulently elected pro slavery territorial legislature nevertheless convened in Pawnee on July 2, 1855, but after one week adjourned to the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri border, where it passed laws favorable to slavery. In August 1855, antislavery residents met to formally reject the pro slavery laws. This led to the election of Free State delegates, the writing of the Topeka Constitution. In a message to Congress on January 24, 1856, President Franklin Pierce declared the Free-State Topeka government insurrectionist in its stand against pro slavery Territorial officials.
In October 1855, John Brown came to Kansas Territory to fight slavery. On November 21, 1855 the so-called "Wakarusa War" began when a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler. The war had one fatality, when the free stater Thomas Barber was shot and killed near Lawrence on December 6. On May 21, 1856, Missourians invaded Lawrence and burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices, and ransacked homes and stores.
In May 1856 Republican Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called "The Crime against Kansas") Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, calling him a pimp for slavery. The next day Butler's relative, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.
The violence continued to escalate. Ohio abolitionist Brown lead his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group, seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection to take place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with financial support from Boston abolitionists.
The pro slavery Territorial government, serving under President Pierce, had been relocated to Lecompton. In April 1856, a Congressional committee arrived there to investigate voting fraud. The committee found the elections improperly elected by non-residents. President Pierce refused recognition of its findings and continued to authorize the pro slavery legislature, which the Free State people called the "Bogus Legislature."
On the Fourth of July in 1856, proclamations of President Pierce led to nearly 500 U.S. Army troops arriving in Topeka from Ft. Leavenworth and Ft. Riley. With their cannons pointed at Constitution Hall, and the long fuses lit, Colonel E.V. Sumner ordered the dispersal of the Free State Legislature.
In August 1856, thousands of pro slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. That same month, Brown and several of his followers engaged 400 pro slavery soldiers in the "Battle of Osawatomie". The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed the Kansas Territory, and a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, took office and managed to prevail upon both sides for peace. This was followed by a fragile peace broken by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years. The last major outbreak of violence was touched off by the Marais des Cygnes massacre in 1858, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 56 people died in Bleeding Kansas by the time the violence ended in 1859. Following the commencement of the American Civil War in 1861, additional guerrilla violence erupted on the border between Kansas and Missouri.
A major confrontation of the Bleeding Kansas era was in the writing of constitutions that would govern the state of Kansas. The first of four such documents was the 1855 Topeka Constitution, written by antislavery forces unified under the Free State Party. This was the basis for the Free State Territorial government that resisted the illegitimate, but federally authorized government elected by non-resident, and thus unqualified Missourians.
In 1857, the second constitutional convention drafted the "Lecompton Constitution", a pro-slavery document. The Lecompton Constitution was promoted by President James Buchanan. Congress instead ordered another election, which was boycotted by pro-slavery forces. Anti-slavery forces defeated the document. Between these two votes, a third document, the Leavenworth Constitution, was written and passed by Free State delegates.
The Wyandotte Constitution drafted in 1859 represented the Free State view of the future of Kansas. It was approved by a 2–1 margin of the electorate. With southern states still in control of the Senate, Kansas awaited admission to the Union until January 29, 1861.
In 2006, federal legislation defined a new "Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area" (FFNHA) and was approved by Congress. A task of the heritage area is to interpret Bleeding Kansas stories, which are also called stories of the Missouri/Kansas border war. A theme of the heritage area is the enduring struggle for freedom. FFNHA includes 41 counties, 29 of which are in eastern Kansas and 12 in western Missouri.
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Bad Blood, the Border War that Triggered the Civil War a documentary DVD (ISBN 0-9777261-4-2)
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- NEEAC. History of the New-England Emigrant Aid Company. Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1862.
- PBS article on Bleeding Kansas.
- Territorial Kansas Online: A Virtual Repository for Kansas Territorial History.
- Online Exhibit – Willing to Die for Freedom, Kansas Historical Society