Life at the Edge of the War

8th Kansas Volunteer Infantry

On the Missouri-Kansas border, the official outbreak of the Civil War merely resurrected the savage conflict over “Bleeding Kansas”  that had paused only briefly a year or two before.  As in other parts of the West, the two regular armies had few troops to spare for remote border struggles.  The inhabitants were left to settle their own accounts.

Thomas Goodrich, author of Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865, describes the results. The prewar conflicts had left a residue of hatred that sometimes descended into inhuman savagery. Combatants on each side saw themselves as God’s chosen avengers, and the other side, women and children included, as less than human, children of evil whose sufferings and even lives were irrelevant.  Anti-slavery “jayhawkers” took merciless revenge on the pro-slavery Missouri settlers who had tried to steal their state, while one jayhawker wrote home about “blessing the world with a Christian civilization.” Pro-slavery “bushwhackers” retaliated with grisly massacres such as William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, in which 200 men and boys were murdered in cold blood.

Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, August 21 1863

The loot from Missouri’s burned towns and pillaged farms was hauled off in conveys, sometimes many miles long, to be sold on the streets of border towns like Leavenworth.  Wherever the jayhawkers appeared, Missouri slaves left with them, sometimes bringing the family goods, wagons, and horses of their former owners. Lawrence and Leavenworth were particularly popular destinations.  Kansans, many of them formerly hostile to escaping slaves, were now—for a very brief period—proud to assist them.

In Kansas, the towns were safer than the undefended countryside.  Leavenworth, where Martha Bettis Cooper and her son Drew Bettis had settled just before the war, was protected by the presence of a Union army.  But even in the  towns everyone went armed, and the inhabitants slept fully clothed, with loaded guns by their beds. Though Leavenworth was spared the carnage that afflicted the surrounding countryside, the backwash of the war filled its streets, bringing with it all the debris of the disintegrating society on the other side of the border. The household goods of plundered farms were sold in the streets, where thieves, gamblers and prostitutes plied their trades. Bodies of animals and men were sometimes left lying in the streets for days. Union soldiers themselves were among the worst offenders; military discipline had collapsed, and drunkenness, theft, and assaults on civilians were commonplace.

Nevertheless, attempts were made to carry on an imitation of normal life.  Even as Union General Ewing was avenging Quantrill’s raid with the infamous Order 11, which forced 20,000 civilian to evacuate the Missouri border area on two weeks’ notice, often without  provisions of any kind, Leavenworth was hosting the Kansas State Fair. The border towns were visited by circuses, jugglers, and ventriloquists. In Leavenworth there was even a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the well-known actor John Wilkes Booth. And with its large population of newly free African-Americans, Leavenworth County supplied more recruits for the Union Army than any other county in Kansas.

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