Skip to main content

To many, the battle of Fort Sumter in 1861 was the first battle of the Civil War. That is only true, however, by the strictest of interpretations. To my mind, the first battles of the Civil War were fought in Kansas beginning seven years earlier.

"Bleeding Kansas" was a term used to describe a period of conflict and bloodshed that took place in the Kansas Territory. For a much more in-depth look at the period, see History for Kossacks: Bleeding Kansas by Unitary Moonbat. My purpose for this diary is to provide more of a survey of the conflict. Consider this the introductory version if you will. Also see quarkstomper's diary John Brown: Action Abolitionist which explains Brown's involvement in the struggle.

Like the Civil War, the issues in Kansas were both complex and at the same time very simple. It boils down to the question of how the nation was going to expand. Would slavery be extended into newly acquired territory, or would it be relegated to a few states in the South? The hostilities in Kansas were about the same thing the Civil War was about, land and slavery.

Also, like the Civil War, the question of who was "right" and who was "wrong" is not so easy. Yes, the South wanted to extend slavery to the West but the opposing side was not purely motivated by abolitionist thought. Some of those who wanted to keep Kansas free of slavery were motivated by the desire to keep the new territories as white as possible.

The alliance between northern and southern states had been a fractious one from the founding of the nation. Compromises like the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 pushed the conflict further into the future. None were meant to solve the issue of slavery, they were merely stopgap measures meant to keep a fragile Union intact. Compromises were made until there was nothing left to negotiate. The result was the Civil War. The fighting in Kansas was a dark prelude to that war.


The Compromise of 1850 was necessitated by the acquisition of new territory resulting from what has been called the Mexican-American War. That war, like so many others was about the control of land. Both nations had fought long wars of independence from their European colonizers. Both nations had vast tracts of "unsettled" land. Mexico was left with few resources and deep political divisions after it gained its independence from Spain. The US held a technological advantage and was fueled by the concept of Manifest Destiny. War between the two nations was almost inevitable.

Texas joined the Union in 1845 and California was petitioning to join as well. The addition of states, and the creation of new ones, was generally governed by the Missouri Compromise. That is, for each free state that entered the Union, one slave state would be admitted as well. Missouri would be the only slave state above the 36º30' parallel, the border between Arkansas and Missouri.

In order to appease Southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 also included the Fugitive Slave Act. That infamous piece of legislation required all citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It denied those fugitives the right to a jury trial. Claims by slaveholders were made easier. The  brought the issue of slavery and its expansion into the public consciousness.

The Compromise of 1850 was meant to settle the issue of slavery for good. Many citizens felt the issue of slavery had been settled and that a terrible conflict had been avoided. For others, the issue was anything but decided. The Fugitive Slave Act galvanized the abolitionist movement and gained more supporters to the cause. While immediate conflict had been avoided, the essential questions had yet to be decided.


From PBS, James Horton, Benjemin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at The George Washington University

Land is very important to America. You know, people came to this New World because it offered them opportunity. And often in the 18th and the 19th century, opportunity meant land, a chance to be an independent landowner. For a white worker in New York City or Philadelphia, the possibility of being able to move to the west and be a an independent landowner was very, very important. And so one of the things you wanted to make sure is, there'd be enough land available. You didn't want that land taken up by slave holders and slaves.

You didn't want that land taken up by even free blacks. And so in many cases, white workers and the Republican Party, which grew out of the the sentiment to maintain the free territories, were very concerned upon about having these territories free of slavery. Because being free of slavery would also mean having a very small, insignificant black population.


Stephen Douglas shepherded the Kansas Nebraska Act through Congress in 1854. The Act repealed the provisions of the Missouri Compromise. In theory, any of the new territories could become slave states. The Act also split the Nebraska Territory into two states, Nebraska and Kansas.

Nebraska's stance on slavery was never in doubt, it was solidly northern, but the fate of Kansas was another matter. Basically, Douglas and the South figured that the new Kansas could be flooded with pro-slavery Southerners and thus maintain the free state-slave state balance. The theory of allowing the states to decide the slavery issue for themselves was called popular sovereignty. Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina referred to it as "squatter's sovereignty", a term quickly adopted by critics of the concept. it should be noted here, that those critics existed in the North as well as in the South.


Again from Professor Horton,

Kansas is an important staging ground for what some people argue is the first battles of the Civil War, because it is this battlefield on which the forces of anti-slavery and the forces of slavery meet. The "squatter's sovereignty" policy, which is advocated by Stephen A. Douglas, is a policy that says: We'll decide whether Kansas is going to be slave or free, when the people who settle in Kansas vote on this question. Well, then it becomes very important as to who settles in Kansas. And so from Missouri, the pro-slavery element are trying to get settlers who are favoring slavery, to move into Kansas. Meanwhile, from New York and New England, the anti-slavery element is trying to get people who favor anti-slavery to move into Kansas. Literally, the forces of slavery and the forces of anti-slavery meet in Kansas. And as a result, 1854, '55, '56, we have what is called "Bleeding Kansas." That is, the war between slavery and anti-slavery in the Kansas territory.

You do not necessarily have to want to see black people in Kansas in order for you to be opposed to the coming of slavery to Kansas. In fact, in many of the the midwestern states, there were real and important restrictions against the movement of free blacks into those states. Indiana outlawed free blacks in the state entirely. Ohio had very strong restrictions against free blacks moving into the state.


Kansas became the focal point of the national debate on slavery. Pro-slavery Southerners and abolitionist Northerners flooded the territory in advance of statehood. Kansas lay between Nebraska, solidly anti-slavery,to the north and Missouri, solidly pro-slavery to the east. A heady mix of politics, angry rhetoric, and firearms created a volatile mix in Kansas between 1854 and 1856. Most settlers, including thousands of Germans fleeing wars of revolution in Europe, merely wanted to homestead in peace. Unfortunately, Kansas had become the battleground where the issue of free state versus slave state was being fought.

From Unitary Moonbat's diary (he phrased it better than I ever could),

to the eyes of the average fire-breather on the southern street, the abolitionist moves toward Kansas had all the earmarks of a betrayal of trust.  They were supposed to get Kansas, in exchange for the abolitionists getting Nebraska.  To them, the influx of abolition-supporting settlers into Kansas represented a threat to their goal of maintaining sectional balance.  They recognized the stakes: If both Kansas and Nebraska voted for free soil, the North would have just the opening it needed to repeal the hated Fugitive Slave Law - then they'd probably start going after the institution of slavery itself.

In 1854, Eli Thayer organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company to send New Englanders to Kansas. Thayer sent his emigrants armed. Abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher furnished settlers with Sharps rifles, which came to be known as "Beecher's Bibles".

He (Henry W. Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. You might just as well. . . read the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows who follow Atchison and Stringfellow; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle.
-from the New York Tribune on February 8, 1856

The Atchison to whom the above article refers is Senator David Atchison of Missouri. Atchison was one of the leading voices in the Senate for repeal of the Missouri Compromise when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was winding its way though that body. Ben Stringfellow was Atchison's righthand in the state of Missouri. In 1855, Atchison led a group of 5,000 Missourians into Kansas to influence the territorial elections. With the help of these so-called "Border Ruffians", the pro-slavery side was able to appoint a territorial legislative body.

The "Bogus Legislature" enacted over 1,000 pages of legislation creating a full and functioning government. Among the things enacted were a system of county government, a territorial school system, a justice system and a method of financing the costs of government. But what this legislative body is best remembered for was the "Black Law". The Black Law enacted criminal sanctions for helping fugitive slaves or even speaking out against slavery.

-Raising a rebellion or insurrection among slaves, free negroes or mulattoes punishable by death.
-Aiding or assisting in any such rebellion or insurrection punishable by death.
-Resisting any officer attempting to arrest a slave punishable by two years at hard labor.
-Printing or publishing any book, pamphlet, etc. calculated to produce "dangerous disaffection" among slaves punishable by five years at hard labor.
-Speaking or writing that "persons have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory" punishable by two years at hard labor.
[1855 Statutes, Chapter 151]

The free staters rebelled against the body and its mandates. They named the territorial legislature the "Bogus Legislature" and created a competing, anti-slavery legislature in Topeka, site of the state capital today. Fighting continued between pro and anti-slavery factions and their legislatures. The sides leveled charges of fraud and illegitimacy at each other for several years. Eventually the fighting spilled over to individuals disputing land claims as each body tried to fill the state with homesteaders allied to their respective causes.

The feud attracted zealots on both sides of the issue. One example is John Brown. Brown and his five sons moved to Kansas in 1855 upon hearing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Brown was already a strident abolitionist. It did not take him long to find his way into the fighting.

On May 21, 1856, Missourians, under the command of Sheriff Samuel Jones, sacked the town of Lawrence. In retaliation for this attack, on May 24 Brown led a small force of free-state men against proslavery settlements on Pottawatomie Creek--five proslavery men were brutally murdered and hostilities merely escalated. A pitched battle was fought between Brown’s company and a proslavery force led by Henry Clay Pate at Black Jack (near Baldwin City, Douglas County) on June 2.

Open warfare finally culminated on August 30 with the battle of Osawatomie along the banks of the Marais des Cygnes River, where Old John Brown lost one of his sons, Frederick. Brown had played an active role in the hostilities that had plunged Kansas into bloody turmoil during the year of 1856.

The term "Bleeding Kansas" was coined by newspaperman Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune to describe the fighting to the rest of the nation. By the time hostilities died down and Kansans finally voted by a 2-1 margin to become a free state in 1859, 55 people had lost their lives. While it might not have been "brother against brother", the fighting in Kansas certainly involved countryman versus countryman. The events in Kansas were a bloody precursor to the Civil War that was brewing even as the hostilities in Kansas began to die down.


Again, from Professor Horton,

I think that a lot of what this question embodies is the notion of the future of America. Is the future of America going to be America as white man's country, or America as a country in which there are multiple races? One of the ways you can ensure that America is in the future white man's country is to make sure that the future of America (and everybody understood that the future of of America was was in the West; that America's future was to be found in the West), you wanted to make sure that the west was as white as possible, as free as possible from blacks, whether these blacks were slave or whether these blacks were free.

So that the Free Soil Movement, that is, the movement that the Republican Party ran its campaigns based on (part of their platform was that of free soil) meant not only keeping the territories free from slavery, but maintaining the territories for free white labor.

The ability to expand slavery into new territories was the driving issue behind the Civil War. That same issue was the driving force behind the events in Kansas following the Kansas Nebraska Act.

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 04:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by Show Me Kos and Community Spotlight.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site