Below is an excerpt from the introduction of the recently published book titled “Kansas’s War: The Civil War in Documents” written and edited by Pearl Ponce, assistant professor of history. The book is part of Ohio University Press’s “Civil War in the Great Interior” series.
In January 1861, Kansans were less concerned with the secession crisis than with finally having attained statehood. While Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency was “glorious,” it was not, the Leavenworth Conservative asserted, as “important and decisive” as Kansas’ admission; indeed, while many states had departed from the Union, the 34th state went far to “fill the gap.” These sentiments derived from Kansas’ singular experience before the American Civil War, for while many Americans were shocked by the aggressiveness of the “Slaveocracy,” Kansans were not as they were intimately acquainted with civil strife.
Kansas had distinguished itself as a violent, ideologically divided, drought-stricken, under-populated, indebted territory in the 1850s. Statehood had promised stability, but secession was a new threat, and, far into the interior, Kansas was nonetheless vulnerable. To its south was Indian Territory and the threat of an Indian-Confederate invasion. To the east was an uncertain, wavering Missouri whose secession would isolate Kansas from the rest of the Union. Yet with few men, fewer resources and mere weeks into statehood, Kansas responded ably to the crisis of the Union. After the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lincoln issued a call for militia to suppress the rebellion, and 650 Kansans responded. By the end of the conflict, Kansas had supplied the Union with 20,097 soldiers even though the 1860 census had found only 32,921 men of military age lived within its borders. Moreover, the state provided a diversity of troops, organizing three regiments of American Indians and leading the nation in enlisting African Americans. Ultimately, 8,498 of these men died in service to their country, a higher mortality rate than any other state in the Union.
Even for those fascinated by the American Civil War, interest in Kansas’ war experience often ends with how the territory inculcated John Brown, its most infamous export, but Kansas’ wartime history transcends the story of one abolitionist. “Kansas’ War: The Civil War in Documents” focuses on the state’s struggle to meet internal needs at a time when the federal government required an extraordinary commitment of men and resources to preserve the Union. These documents address the new state’s main preoccupations: the internal struggle for control of policy and patronage; border security worsened by skirmishes fought along the Kansas-Missouri border and by serious depredations committed by residents of both states; and issues of race, especially Kansas’ efforts to come to terms with its burgeoning African American population and American Indians’ claims to nearly one-fifth of the state’s land. They highlight Kansans’ understanding of the issues at stake in the American Civil War — issues that residents understood through the prism of their territorial struggles — while acknowledging that their state’s transition from peace to war was not as abrupt as that of their countrymen.
“Bleeding Kansas” had contributed directly to the pre-war political realignment and the rise of the Republican party as the territory wrestled with issues of slavery and liberty, the place of African Americans within civil life and the responsibilities of federal government. Since 1854, Kansans had directly struggled with questions that the entire nation would be forced to confront once the Confederate States of America was formed and war commenced. Yet despite having engaged such issues beforehand, the American Civil War deeply affected the state and this collection of primary source documents illuminates how contemporary Kansans understood their state’s transformation in the fires of war.
Pearl Ponce is an assistant professor of history. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org