From the series Living with Guns, published in Archipelago Vol. 6, No. 3:

The Fight for Kansas

Mary-Sherman Willis


Among my family’s books and letters are some first-person accounts of the Kansas-Missouri Border War, a prelude to the Civil War, writ small and concentrated. Published here for the first time, are letters from the scene in Kansas in May, 1856, by my great-great-grandmother Cecilia Stewart Sherman, when the violence flashed into what she herself called a “civil war.” Along with the letters, the two-volume biography of her husband, John Sherman, William Tecumseh’s younger brother and my great-great-grandfather, includes his account of events. Cecilia’s urgent descriptions are balanced by John’s more reflective voice — he was writing almost forty years after the events and knew exactly where they led.

Taken together they are extraordinarily revealing about an American buildup to war. One hundred-and-figty years ago, Kansas was contested territory, the fight a mixture of doctrine and greed, fueled by widespread gun-ownership and by ineffective law enforcement. Until then the Kansas Territory had been the pass-through route to the Golden West or south to Mexico. The Territory itself belonged to the Otoes, Ioways, and Missouria; the Kickapoos, the Kaskaskias, Peorias, Shawnees, Delawares, Wyandottes, Chipewas, Osages, and Pottawatomies — Native American tribes already in decline, their names left as markers. Settlers kept to the trails etched into the prairies, the Santa Fe Trail heading south, or the California Trail through the Donner Pass on the way to the riches beyond. They rarely stopped to stay; the open space oppressed them. They felt vulnerable.

But that trend changed in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which meant the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that strictly limited the number of new slave states to be admitted to the Union. Now, the Act determined that each new state could decide on slavery for itself, by popular vote. It also included the Fugitive Slave Act, which implied that no state was free, because a slave was always a slave, even in a state where slavery was banned.

The formal issues during the Border Wars were slavery and the rights of states, but informally, the conflict was all about property. Missouri, which had been a prosperous slave state since 1821, determined to see to it that its new neighbor to the west would, likewise, be a slave state. Missouri slave property — human beings — was at stake, valued then at $150 million. With no clear guidance from distant Washington, people took matters into their own hands. Missourians and Southern sympathizers moved into the Territory to create a pro-slavery presence, while abolitionist settlers from New England and Illinois and Ohio took the long trip West to keep Kansas soil slave-free.

Back in Washington, Southern and Northern interests wrestling for control of the Congress saw Kansas as a proving ground for or against slavery. Democrats represented the South and the expansion of its peculiar institution. On the opposing side, the Republican Party rose from the ashes of the Whig Party in 1854. Its platform was to end slavery and to keep the Union whole. The fight would become violent even within the Capitol. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a founder of the Republican party, was beaten unconscious with a cane on the Senate floor in May of 1856 by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina for besmirching the name of Brook’s uncle, another South Carolina congressman, in an anti-slavery speech. Afterwards, Brooks triumphantly brandished his cane throughout the South, while Sumner’s bloody shirt was paraded throughout New England.

Continued on Archipelago

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