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Bleeding Kansas and African American fighting units during the civil war



To the Stars through Difficulty


John Doyle was the first on their list. They shot him in the forehead with a revolver, late in the evening of May 24. Then, using their sharp-edged swords, they hacked Doyle's two sons to pieces. Next, the group of seven went to the home of Allen Wilkinson, ordered him outside, and then slaughtered him with a sword. They murdered William Sherman last, down by the Pottawatomie Creek, in the early hours of the following morning.


The US Trek is not just about history!

In our society, people who commit these kinds of crimes are punished. Sometimes they are given the death penalty. Often, they are sentenced to multiple life-sentences and forced to spend the rest of their lives in jail. In this case, the man who masterminded the massacre was memorialized with a statue.

The Trekkers pose with John Brown

His name was John Brown, and the year was 1856. He and six other men, including four of his sons, acted in the name of the abolitionist cause. They murdered five men who had declared themselves to be proslavery. Allen Wilkinson didn't own any slaves. Neither did William Sherman. In fact, none of the men killed between the late night and early morning of May 24 and 25, 1856, were slave owners. But because they had registered as proslavery voters in the territory of Kansas, they became part of a larger struggle that ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

During the 1850s, events such as the Pottawatomie Massacre I've just described created such a hotbed of violence in Kansas that the territory became known as "Bleeding Kansas." In fact, some historians might argue that the first battles of the Civil War were actually fought on Kansas soil.

Let me explain: in 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise to settle the debate over slavery in the Louisiana Purchase area. The plan maintained the balance of power between free and slave states, at least temporarily, by admitting Maine into the Union as a free state and authorizing Missouri to form a state constitution. Later, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, and the US was made up of 24 states - 12 free states and 12 slave states. The Missouri Compromise also banned slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri, at the 36° 30,-latitude line.

After the Missouri Compromise, states were evenly split between free and slave ones
This compromise did not last. The issue of slavery came up again in 1850, after the US-Mexican War. Again, the question was, "Should the area the US gained from Mexico accept slavery or not?" (By the way, are you all detecting a pattern here? As the US expands, the same problems keep coming up again and again. What might have happened if the country had just decided to stay its original size? Hmmm…). As part of the Compromise of 1850, California entered the Union as a free state, while New Mexico and Utah were left to decide the issue for themselves. A few other laws were passed, including the Fugitive Slave Law, which angered many Northerners and made the situation even worse.

A Valiant Effort to End Slavery...

28.8 56.6 DSL

(Video Help)

Then came the bombshell. In 1854, Senator Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill in Congress called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, mainly because he wanted to make sure the Transcontinental Railroad passed through Chicago and not New Orleans or St. Louis. This bill opened the region west of Missouri for settlement and had a provision in it for "popular sovereignty" in Kansas and Nebraska, which stated that all questions of slavery in the new territories had to be decided by the settlers rather than by Congress. But wait a second! Kansas and Nebraska lay north of the Missouri boundary. And - remember - in 1820, the Missouri Compromise had declared that all land north of the 36-degrees, 30-latitude line would be free. Senator Douglas conveniently ignored this in order to win support of the Southern congressmen, and with the help of President Pierce, the Kansas-Nebraska bill became a law.

Er...is this 1850s looking guy missing something?
NO WAY! That's like if your teacher gives you an "A" on all your homework and exams, but fails you for the class. It's like if your best friend was supposed to pick you up to take you to the movies and never shows up. It's like if your school announces that students can wear sneakers, but sends you to detention when you show up sporting your Nikes. In other words, it's not fair!!

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 is a prime example of politicians selling out to benefit themselves. It made slavery legally possible in a vast new area, even though that area had been promised as free. It made many abolitionists, including John Brown, angry. And it led to much violence and bloodshed, years before the Civil War officially started.

So, in essence, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed settlers themselves to decide the fate of slavery in the new territories. Guess what happened next? Abolitionists and proslavery activists from all over the country moved to Kansas, so they could vote on the issue. That same year, abolitionists from Boston started the "New England Emigrant Aid Company" to assist in moving people out west. In the span of a few short months, Kansas had become a cause!

Upon final passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Congress, Senator Seward (a northerner) proclaimed, "Come on then, Gentlemen of the slave states; since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it on behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers, as it is in the right."

As Northerners moved to Kansas, they settled in Lawrence, a town less than 50 miles west of the Missouri border. Lawrence became known as "Yankee Town" because it was mainly populated by Yankees intent on making Kansas a free state. The Missourians, however, had other plans. They were as determined as the Yankees, but they wanted to make Kansas a slave state. Bands of them, known as "Ruffians," started to cross the border to intimidate the abolitionists. They rode with arms, rigged local elections and attacked Lawrence several times.

Daphne checks out present-day Lawrence
One of these attacks occurred on May 21, 1856. Over 400 Ruffians invaded Lawrence, destroying the Free State Hotel and two newspaper presses, and burning and looting the town. How do you think residents of Lawrence felt? Can you even imagine the hatred each side was feeling toward the other? Actually, we know how John Brown and his men felt. Three days later, they went on to kill William Sherman and four other men in retaliation for the attack on Lawrence.

Alex and Steph visit the site of the Pottawatomie Massacre

Although in my mind, no killing is ever justified, it's hard to make a clear indictment on John Brown. He and others felt betrayed by their country and its politicians. They acted out of frustration for a system that protected the very institution they worked so hard to abolish - slavery.

Steph and Daph did much of their research in St. Louis, and then got to go up the famous Arch!

Every story has at least two sides. Some people may feel John Brown escalated the violence and generated as much hatred as sympathy. Others may think he was a brave man who fought - and gave his life - for a cause. Still others could point to abolitionists who worked just as hard against slavery, without having to resort to violence. Indeed, even after John Brown left Kansas, abolitionists, who had moved to Lawrence and the rest of the territory, continued to fight for the creation of a free state. They endured another siege of their city, more skirmishes with the Ruffians, and more violence, until, on January 29, 1861, the citizens of Kansas entered the Union as a free state with the motto "Ad Astra Per Aspera" - To the Stars through Difficulty.

Three months later, the Civil War began.

What role do you think the events in Kansas played in starting the war? How might things have been different if the Kansas-Nebraska Act hadn't passed Congress? As I traveled through Kansas, I kept asking myself, "What if…?" After reading this article, I hope you do too.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Dred Scott: "a simple man who wanted to be free"
Rebecca - Friendly letters, wine and more at the start of a civil war?
Neda - Mozart vs. Jay-Z and other reasons people go to war
Daphne - Abraham Lincoln: A log cabin boy wonder!
MAD - Police brutality: when the law is NOT on your side