Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border edited by Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke. University Press of Kansas, 2013. Paper. ISBN: 0700619291. $19.95.
July 2013 brought massive sesquicentennial crowds to Gettysburg. A quarter of a million visitors descended on Adams County, Pennsylvania, to walk the battlefield’s hallowed grounds, attend a plethora of talks later broadcast on C-SPAN, and revisit the traditional “battles and leaders” Civil War they knew best. A month later, another observance, the 150th anniversary of the Lawrence Massacre, brought with it the knotty problem of how best to remember a different Civil War – a less glamorous one stained with fire and atrocity. In addition to the standard litany of speeches, museum exhibits, and tours, several participants turned to Twitter on the anniversary to follow William Quantrill’s bloody raid in real time. The tweets that followed ranged from the tragically appropriate – including a roll call of the dead – to the inane. One participant identified herself as the cornfield where Jim Lane hid out in his nightshirt during the attack. “Go get them General!” Jim Lane’s Corn tweeted. “We’re all swaying behind you.” Another tweeter portraying a horse argued with a modern Frank James. “Back in Missouri we shoot mad horses!” the faux James exclaimed to the Kansas steed, who angrily replied, “Who DON’T you shoot in Missouri?”
While tweeting horses and cornfields are new on the scene, the cruel Kansas-Missouri border war has long come overlaid with a bizarre veneer of spectacle that dwarfs even the wax museums, ghost tours, and Barnum-esque hoopla of Gettysburg. Post-war newspaper editors, nineteenth century dime novelists, and Hollywood drew more on the mythical adventures of Robin Hood than the reality of a vicious insurgency to enshrine Quantrill, Frank James, his brother Jesse, and later the mythical Josey Wales in a national pantheon of rugged heroes. John Brown notably fared worse; in popular culture, his uncomfortable association with issues of slavery and freedom usually consigned him to role of madman. Historians were hardly immune to the tendency to depict the border war as a grand adventure story. It took the late Michael Fellman’s monumental Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (1989) to reset the stage. The war Fellman described was brutal and senseless, opening a window into a part of the national psyche that Americans preferred to be hidden from sight. Fellman’s trailblazing revisionism touched off a wave of Civil War guerrilla historiography that a quarter of a century later shows no signs of abating. The organizers of two conferences in 2011, one held in Lawrence and the other in Kansas City, not surprisingly invited Fellman to keynote. That address – his last published work – as well as fourteen additional and revised papers comprise the present volume, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri.
While it is often difficult to identify the thesis of an anthology, contributor cooperation and skillful editing in this case easily combine to make the main point clear. Whereas historians usually have treated the two states in isolation, the contributors again and again establish that the counties along the Kansas-Missouri border comprised a single region with both a common past and cultural similarities that residents became increasingly loath to admit. Within that context, the chapters by-and-large align in one of three parts. One deals with the antebellum period, when Border Ruffians and Bleeding Kansas helped to drive the sectional crisis. As Kristen K. Epps and Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel both demonstrate, shared Upper South origins and racial views within the border region early on at least promised a degree of harmony. Jonathan Earle, Nicole Etcheson, and Pearl T. Ponce meanwhile relate in various ways how newcomers and eastern politicians – including Abraham Lincoln – helped to undermine that shared foundation with a political and sectional superstructure that drove deep cracks.
The war years followed. In a significant chapter, Tony R. Mullins depicts Jayhawker success and federal weakness in Missouri’s failed and forgotten Southwest Expedition of 1860, which he posits as a precursor of tactical things to come. Christopher Phillips focuses on how wartime occupation, loyalty oaths, and other harsh federal policies drove white Missouri Unionists, secessionists, and neutrals farther apart while stimulating apparent disloyalty and Southern identity among all but the most fervent Unionists. African Americans experienced the war differently, of course, as Diane Mutti Burke makes clear in a chapter on the demise of slavery in Missouri. Closing the wartime section is one of the two essays that previously appeared in print, Joseph M. Beilein, Jr.’s innovative exploration of guerrillas’ colorful shirts and what they said about insurgents’ alternate versions of masculinity.
One of the great strengths of Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri is that it does not end at this point. Indeed, the five final chapters – the strongest part of the volume – are concerned with Reconstruction and beyond. Aaron Astor, John W. McKerley, and Brent M. S. Campney all skillfully confront aspects of recurrent racism in the post-war region, together suggesting that Kansas’s free state antislavery legacy was often more rhetorical than substantive. White Kansans and Missourians did not reconcile entirely, however, as Jeremy Neely’s consideration of the often controversial reunions of Quantrill’s raiders establishes. Jennifer L. Weber closes out the volume with an insightful consideration of how clever marketing and slipshod reporting in the 1990s retroactively transformed the Kansas University-University of Missouri sports rivalry into a modern “Border War,” allegedly ordained in the 1860s and complete with t-shirts in Missouri black and gold that depict a burning Lawrence and the familiar stadium taunt “Scoreboard.”
Readers seeking standard, blow-by-blow histories of Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War in the region will be better served by works written by historians Nicole Etcheson, Gunja SenGupta, and, of course, Michael Fellman. This is not a narrative for the uninitiated. Those already familiar with the basics, however, will profit greatly from this lively, always interesting volume. Dedicated to Michael Fellman after his untimely demise, it offers a worthy if unofficial and unintended festschrift to his continuing legacy – even as it helps to introduce a new generation of significant scholars working on the middle border.
Kenneth W. Noe is Alumni Professor and Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. He is most recently the editor of The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama.