Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—which permitted Kansas to allow or reject the institution of slavery by popular sovereignty—a destructive and sometimes bloody border war between Kansas and Missouri partisans raged for six years.
In 1860, about 80 percent of Missouri’s population was made up of first or second generation immigrants from other Southern and Border States, but only 13 percent of Missouri households owned slaves. Except for St. Louis, a city of 160,000, where new German immigrants made up a considerable portion of the population, Missouri was solidly Conservative and Democrat in its political leanings. Lincoln ran fourth in the 1860 presidential election, capturing only 10 percent of the vote.
On April 15, 1861, following the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, President Lincoln called for troops from each state to put down Southern secession. Such military coercion of their fellow states by the federal government was repugnant to Southern thinking. Missouri’s Governor Claiborne Jackson immediately rejected Lincoln’s request:
“Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman and diabolical and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry out any such unholy crusade.”
Lincoln at first envisioned that the Southern “rebellion” would be quickly put down for lack of sufficient public support in the seceded states. This proved to be a significant miscalculation. No crowds welcomed the Union invaders. Union officers in the field soon realized that they were fighting not only the Confederate Army but a whole people. The President’s champion for aggressive total warfare, General William Tecumseh Sherman, put it bluntly:
“This war differs from other wars, in this particular. We are not fighting armies but a hostile people and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”
The Union occupiers of Missouri laid on all manner of decrees and fines persecuting any family suspected of Southern sympathies. These included double taxation and property confiscation with little opportunity to appeal. Every able bodied man was commanded to enroll in loyal Union militia. Federal Order 19 forbade any citizen of Missouri not a member of loyal militia to own a gun for any reason. Loyalty oaths often had to be accompanied by huge performance bonds. All freedom of the press and speech not loyal to the Union cause meant arrest and jail without due process. Twenty-two newspapers were shut down. Extortion, corruption, and arbitrary and vengeful justice were common. Missouri men commissioned in the Confederate Army were declared outlaws subject to immediate execution. The wives and daughters of many Confederate Partisans were jailed for aiding and abetting the rebellion. Nevertheless, Missouri Partisan cavalry quickly grew to 60 companies totaling about 4,000 men. They turned out to be extraordinarily successful in tying down 60,000 Union troops in Missouri that were badly needed elsewhere. In the course of the war, Confederate and Missouri Partisan units fought more than 1,000 engagements in Missouri.
In November 1861, the Seventh Kansas Cavalry (nicknamed “Jayhawkers”) under the command of Union Col. Charles Dennison raided the town of Independence, Missouri and removed everything of value in wagons to their headquarters in Lawrence, Kansas. In January 1862, Jayhawker cavalry burned 87 buildings and 170 homes and murdered nine local residents in Dayton, Cass and Johnson counties in Missouri. That summer, wanton destruction and murder of civilians and Missouri partisan prisoners became commonplace. Union Brigadier General James H. Lane, also a radical abolitionist Republican U.S. Senator from Kansas, stated:
“We believe in a war of extermination. I want to see every foot of ground in Jackson, Cass and Bates counties burned over—everything laid waste.”
Osceola, Missouri was a picturesque town of 3,000 before Lane’s Jayhawker cavalry sacked and burned it on September 23, 1861. All but three of 800 buildings were left in ashes. Nine civilian men were rounded up, taken to the town square and executed. Most of the rest of the men were away in Confederate service or riding with various Missouri Partisan units. Lane’s men left with 150 wagons of loot, forming a caravan more than a mile long. The plunder included 350 horses, 400 head of cattle and 200 slaves. The slaves were sent to work on Kansas farms for whatever food they could scrounge during their labor. Osceola’s women and children were left to fend for themselves. At the end of the war only 183 people lived in Osceola.
In 1862, three mass executions of a total of 36 civilian hostages and prisoners of war occurred in Missouri. The most famous of these was the Palmyra Massacre on October 18, 1862 in which ten civilian and Partisan hostages were executed by firing squad in retaliation for the disappearance of a single Union informer. Despite some public outrage, six weeks later Lincoln promoted the Union officer in charge, Col. John McNeil, to brigadier general.
On August 13, 1863, five of ten young girls, held in an old Kansas City, Missouri building used as a prison for the wives, sisters, and daughters of known Missouri Partisans were killed when the building collapsed. There was evidence of willful negligence, endangerment and mistreatment of the girls. One sister of Missouri Partisan leader William B. Anderson was killed and another, chained to an iron ball, was severely injured and disfigured
On August 21, in retaliation for these Union atrocities and the Kansas City “tragedy,” Missouri Partisan Colonel William Quantrill led a raid of 400 Partisan Ranger cavalry on Lawrence, Kansas, the headquarters of the Kansas Jayhawkers. Northern newspapers in the East called this a massacre, but there were no women or children harmed. Quantrill was a brilliant and detailed planner and strongly opposed to warfare against innocent civilians. Quantrill’s men had a list of men to be gunned down for their actions in Missouri. His men burned most of the downtown business area and killed 148 men, including many resisting local militia and about 20 new Union army recruits. The Lawrence Raid retains a prominent place in U.S. history, but the deeds of Unionists like Senator Jim Lane have been buried to protect the myth of a righteous Union cause. By comparison, Lane and his lieutenants inflicted far more destruction of lives and property in Missouri than did Quantrill at Lawrence.
On August 25, Union Brigadier General Thomas Ewing responded by signing General Order Number 11. This has been called the harshest measure ever taken by an American government against civilians. General Order 11 called for the forced evacuation of all civilians from most of four counties in West Central Missouri within 15 days. It also required all grain and hay in the district to be turned over to the Union Army. All remaining hay, grain and crops in the area were to be destroyed. Those who could prove their loyalty to the Union would be given receipts for their crops. The order affected about 20,000 people in Jackson, Bates and Cass counties and part of Vernon County. It was backed by Ewing’s commander, Major General John M. Schofield and the highest levels of the Lincoln Government as a measure to suppress civilian support for pro-Southern guerilla activity against Union troops in Missouri. The Kansas City Western Journal of Commerce estimated that about nine-tenths of the people of Jackson, Cass and Bates counties were pro-Southern and actively engaged in supplying and aiding Confederate guerillas.
General Order Number 11 would have been severe enough in itself, but the lawless Jayhawker and “Redleg” cavalry units under Senator/Brigadier General Jim Lane in Kansas swarmed into Western Missouri to make the most of an opportunity for burning and looting homes and preying upon defenseless wagon trains to rob and murder. Many wagons of household valuables were redirected to Lawrence, leaving their former owners with nothing. There were numerous instances of Missouri men being shot trying to defend their wagons and families. Quantrill’s men were successful, however, in taking a heavy toll of Jayhawkers and Redlegs and scaring others off.
Northern propaganda during and after the war was designed to justify the Union cause and to discredit the Confederate cause. Discrediting Quantrill was essential to defeating Partisan guerilla warfare against Union forces. The truth about Quantrill is that he was highly ethical, extraordinarily intelligent, and a gifted and enlightened leader. Yet in regard to Quantrill and his Missouri Partisan Rangers, no lie in the pursuit of Federal victory was too big, too vicious, or too far from the truth.