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Was ‘Bleeding Kansas’ Really That Violent?

From 1854 to 1860, America’s newspaper headlines screamed bloody homicide. Sensationalist headlines learn: “Bleeding Kansas!” “Sack of Lawrence!” “Pottawatomie Massacre!” “Battle of Osawatomie!” “Marais De Cygnes Massacre!” “Much Blood Spilt!” “Murder and Cold-Blooded Assassination!” Purportedly they have been relaying information of an extremely bloody and lethal conflict of anti- and pro-slavery forces fought alongside the Kansas-Missouri border. 

No single occasion within the nation’s drift towards Southern secession and the armed battle that might inevitably observe paved the highway to struggle greater than the hyped-up strife that befell for six years from 1854-1860 in jap Kansas and western Missouri alongside the border between the state and the brand new territory.

A Media Myth?

Dramatic headlines would deepen the nation’s quickly growing North-South rift, dividing those that fervently opposed additional extension of what they realized was the nation’s “original sin”—the curse of slavery—and people who stubbornly supported sustaining African Americans in chattel bondage as each constitutionally authorized and important to clinging to their wealth, livelihood and lifestyle. No rational individual at present can argue towards the truth that slavery was an evil that needed to be eradicated from the United States, nor can anybody deny that pro-slavery forces have been preventing on the improper aspect of historical past. The responsibility of historians is to research, decide the historic information and precisely report these information—particularly, historians should not perpetuate myths. 

The overblown headlines, created and promoted by partisan newspaper reporting on either side, misrepresented what was truly taking place west of the Mississippi River alongside Kansas territory’s jap border. Newspapers championing either side of the deeply-entwined “slavery-states’ rights” concern crammed their papers with fabricated “atrocities” and overly-sanguine accounts of “pitched battles” by which casualties have been truly both miniscule in quantity or usually fully nonexistent.

This apparently horrific partisan battle pushed the nation into its bloodiest struggle greater than any pre-Civil War battle, however was merely a fabrication created by the burgeoning nationwide newspaper business and capitalized upon by the formidable new Republican political get together to assist it rally a nationwide voters to win the White House within the 1860 U.S. presidential election.

In 1856 John Brown and his sons murdered pro-slavery settlers utilizing swords.
(Library of Congress)

The historic irony of so-called “Bleeding Kansas” is that over 10 instances extra Americans have been murdered within the streets of San Francisco, California, in a single yr—1855—than have been ever killed for his or her political opinions through the 1854-1860 Border War. Simply put, “Bleeding Kansas” is an easily-disprovable albeit long-enduring fantasy. 

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was a patched-together compromise hammered out by Illinois Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas and then-President Franklin Pierce, a “northern Democrat” against Abolitionism however keen to compromise to dampen northern and southern firebrands. The act ostensibly promoted development of a transcontinental railroad and the accompanying financial advantage of opening hundreds of thousands of acres of land to new settlement.

However, it included the “popular sovereignty” idea (launched within the 1850 Compromise however as but untested), allowing Kansas and Nebraska territory settlers to determine by well-liked vote whether or not they would enter the Union as “free” or “slave” states. Well-meaning—however not well-considered—“popular sovereignty” basically made out of date earlier Congressional makes an attempt (1820 Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850) to alleviate rising North-South sectional tensions relating to slavery’s unfold. 

In hindsight, the 1854 act inevitably created the political circumstances in Kansas territory that, predictably, devolved into violence as pro- and anti-slavery factions clashed to affect the “popular sovereignty” vote’s final result relating to statehood. Although initially assumed that Nebraska would develop into a “free state” and Kansas would enter as a “slave” state, as soon as the Kansas-Nebraska Act handed all bets have been off. “Popular sovereignty” made Kansas territory a free-for-all for anti- and pro-slavery factions. Henceforth, whichever aspect of the slavery query needed to prevail in Kansas must combat for it.

Inevitably, violence erupted alongside the Kansas-Missouri border in 1854, and nationwide newspapers consciously and intentionally propelled what have been the truth is comparatively minor border clashes into a significant, nationwide political concern. The time period “Bleeding Kansas” itself initially appeared in 1856 in abolitionist editor Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune to falsely describe the battle as being certainly one of “innocent” Free-state settlers unjustly harassed by evil pro-slavery Missouri “Bushwhackers,” thereby intentionally stoking the fires of North-South sectional passions.

Newspapers Weigh In

Yet, the reality is that regardless of the amplified claims of partisan newspaper editors, neither aspect within the Border War held a monopoly on ruthlessness and violence in pursuit of their opposing political causes.  

Between 1840 and 1860, printed newspapers—every day, weekly, quarterly and periodically—underwent an explosion of total numbers and the quantity of copies printed yearly. While the U.S. inhabitants then rose 180%, newspaper numbers elevated 250% with complete annual printed copies increasing almost 500%. 

Propelling this phenomenon have been ground-breaking (labor-saving and cost-cutting) advances in printing expertise. Truly “industrial scale” printing resulted from the Fourdrinier paper-making machine (U.S. introduction in 1827), which created steady rolled paper in huge portions and the steam-powered, continuous-feed, rotary printing press (invented in 1843 by American Richard M. Hoe).

Newsman Horace Greeley hyped the Bleeding Kansas battle.
(Library of Congress)

No longer restricted by laboriously printing single sheets, numerous copies of a web page may very well be produced every day. By the 1850s, illustrations have been prominently featured, enhancing visible attraction, whereas elevated staffing (sometimes, 1-2 within the 1820-30s; 30 within the 1840s; and 100 by the 1850s in bigger papers) made it potential to fill extra pages with extra tales of nationwide, regional and native curiosity. Advances in railroad transportation sped distribution. Improved communications (telegraph) meant widespread “breaking news.” The ensuing “media blitz” was a newspaper revolution.

That period’s most influential newspaperman, New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley (editor from 1841-72), defined in 1851 how the phenomenon’s nationwide unfold mirrored the nation’s progress: “[T]he general rule…was for each town to have a newspaper, and, in the free states, each county of 20,000 or more usually had two papers—one for each [political] party. A county of 50,000 usually had five journals…and when a town reached 15,000 inhabitants…it usually had a daily paper and at 20,000 it had two.” 

Citizens at present would count on media sources to attempt diligently to current the information as easy information and permit the general public to attract its personal conclusions. However, within the mid-Nineteenth century, political partisanship in newspapers was the norm, not the exception. The “Bleeding Kansas” fantasy resulted from unashamedly biased newspaper reporting—every paper aggressively politically partisan and firmly dedicated to championing its favored aspect in that battle. Editors blatantly selected sides, some aligning with the brand new, anti-slavery Republican Party, whereas others backed the then pro-slavery Democratic Party. Partisan editors graphically described the “Border War” as a struggle of annihilation waged by pro- and anti-slavery factions to find out Kansas territory’s future statehood standing as a “free” or “slave” state. 

Exaggerated Casualties

Readers nationwide grew to become morbidly mesmerized by the “terrible casualties” reported and impatiently stood by to buy “hot off the press” papers recounting the most recent atrocities. Right was irrevocably on the aspect the competing newspaper editors supported, whereas the opposing aspect was accused of unimaginable acts of violence. 

These attention-getting headlines despatched circulation hovering. The atrocities described have been both exaggerated or fabricated to stoke the flames of political hatred and animosity. This “spin,” in up to date parlance, favored a selected trigger or political get together. A century-and-a-half in the past, political events and their media allies ignored the reality and outrageously manipulated information.

Editors profited by exaggerating the trans-Mississippi border battle. Both sides developed derogatory names for one another; anti-slavery newspapers condemned pro-slavery forces—primarily from Missouri—as “Border Ruffians,” “Bushwhackers” and “Pukes,” whereas the Kansas partisans have been often known as “Redlegs” and “Jayhawkers.” 

Abolitionists held a rally on the day of John Brown’s execution.
(Kansas Historical Society)

Created in 1854, the brand new Republican Party—shaped of former Whigs, Free Staters and anti-slavery activists—completed a shocking second in 1856 with its first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont. In the 1860 presidential election, the get together made most benefit of the headline-gathering Border War to increase its primarily regional voters into a celebration with widespread nationwide attraction. The new political get together was desperate to capitalize on the Border War to create a nationwide voter base to advertise the get together’s 1860 presidential ambitions. 

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed in 1854, 15 states (and three territories west of the Mississippi) nonetheless permitted slavery, whereas the abominable observe was unlawful in 17 states and 5 territories.

With the handwriting on the wall relating to slavery’s final survival, Southern states’ slave energy block was determined that Kansas develop into a slave state. Correspondingly, Northern anti-slavery forces, led by dedicated Abolitionists and anti-slavery activists, have been equally decided that Kansas develop into free.

A Rush On Kansas

Frantically, residents of Kansas territory’s neighboring slave state, Missouri, fearful {that a} “free state” Kansas on its western border, mixed with the established free states of Illinois on its jap border and Iowa on its northern border, would encompass the border slave state on three sides—changing into a runaway slave magnet—rushed “settlers” throughout Missouri’s western border into contiguous jap Kansas to “vote-pack” Kansas into the Union as a slave state. Although the statewide inhabitants of Missouri was then cut up between pro- and anti-slavery adherents, the pro-slavery faction firmly held state energy in Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City.

Adamantly against slavery, the Boston-based Abolitionist, New England Emigrant Aid Company—generously financed by rich northeastern businessmen reminiscent of Eli Thayer, Alexander H. Bullock and Edward Everett Hale—rapidly organized an anti-slavery settler motion. The Emigrant Aid Company funded the settlement of jap Kansas, quickly packing it with closely recruited, anti-slavery settlers, and well-armed them with quite a few Sharps .52-cal breech-loading rifles.

Both sides subsequently—not simply pro-slavery Missourians as is commonly claimed at present—raced to populate Kansas territory with their ideological followers. Both sides unconscionably “packed” Kansas with adherents who obediently “stuffed” poll bins with votes to manage the election. Anti- and pro-slavery adherents have been equally responsible of vote tampering, voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing and election malfeasance. 

Slave-holders, fearing that escaped enslaved individuals would flee to a “free” Kansas, unfold racist pamphlets.
(Kansas Historical Society)

The stage was thus set for a bitter combat for Kansas’ statehood standing: two well-armed opposing factions holding unwavering political positions confronted off in what, in keeping with the period’s terminology, was dubbed a “War to the Knife, and the Knife to the Hilt!” Yet the reality of the 1854-1860 “Bleeding Kansas” Border War is way totally different than what we settle for at present as “conventional wisdom.” 

How Bloody was the Struggle?

Conventional knowledge solely holds up till somebody truly does the mathematics. That somebody is historian Dale Watts in his ground-breaking article “How Bloody Was Bleeding Kansas?” printed within the Summer 1995 editionof Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains. Watts’ exhaustively-researched article found “Bleeding Kansas” produced solely a small fraction of the politically-motivated deaths of anti- and pro-slavery forces either side broadly claimed. 

Using historic paperwork and meticulously analyzing 1854-1860 demise information, Watts decided which deaths have been “political killings” (i.e., murders by a pro- or anti-slavery partisan due to the sufferer’s opposing political stance) or resulting from apolitical motivations (e.g., land disputes, private animosity, or frequent criminality, theft or homicides). Contemporary accounts almost at all times overestimated the battle’s deaths.

For instance, the Hoogland Claims Commission 1859 report outlandishly claimed “the number of lives sacrificed in Kansas during [1854-1855] probably exceeded rather than fell short of two hundred.” However, Watts’s analysis verified the casualty document typically confirmed by Robert W. Richmond’s 1974 conclusion that “approximately fifty persons died violently [for political reasons] during [Kansas’] territorial period [1854-1860].” 

During the battle fiery articles roused supporters to motion.
(Kansas Historical Society)

Watts’s impartial analysis revealed that of 157 documented violent deaths from 1854-1860 in Kansas territory, solely 56 have been attributed to the Kansas-Missouri political battle. For historic comparability, Watts famous that within the up to date “gold rush-era” California alone, a complete of 583 individuals died violently in 1855, and not less than 1,200 individuals have been murdered in San Francisco between 1850 and 1853. This violent demise comparability makes Kansas Territory appear virtually calm given its small variety of political killings recorded through the much-hyped Border War.

Single-digit Casualties 

Significantly, Watts exhibits that of these 56 murders, 30 have been “pro-slavery” advocates, together with the one lady slain, Sarah Carver, whose husband merely professed to be pro-slavery whereas there have been 24 anti-slavery proponents killed. One sufferer was an ostensibly impartial U.S. Army soldier whereas one was an officer whom either side tried to say. Moreover, some allegedly “bloody battles” (referred to as “wars” and “massacres” on the time) have been basically cold or resulted in single-digit casualties. For instance, within the June 1856 “Battle” of Black Jack not one individual was killed. 

No “Bleeding Kansas” engagement produced greater than 5 deaths. Anti-slavery radical John Brown and his sons killed 5 allegedly pro-slavery settlers throughout his infamous “Pottawatomie Massacre” from May 24-25, 1856 alongside Pottawatomie Creek. The attackers used broadswords to hack their neighbors to demise in retaliation for the almost cold “sack” of Lawrence three days prior. 

Even the inaptly-named May 21, 1856 “Sack of Lawrence” produced solely two casualties—one on all sides. This incident is to not be confused with the later Lawrence Massacre through the Civil War in August 1863 by Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill’s raid that killed over 160, principally civilians. The 1856 incident basically consisted of Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones main a power of about 800 residents to Lawrence to implement a authorized warrant, and the harm to property consisted of the razing of the Free State Hotel (then used as headquarters of Kansas’ anti-slavery forces) together with the residence of anti-slavery firebrand, Massachusetts-born Charles L. Robinson who was elected Kansas’ first state governor in 1861 and in 1862 grew to become the primary U.S. state governor—and solely Kansas governor—to be impeached. A single pro-slavery man was killed by being crushed in a collapsing constructing and a single anti-slavery man suffered a non-fatal damage. 

Watts’s analysis proves conclusively that “Bleeding Kansas” was a fantasy that grew from fabrications in biased newspapers and fueled by political events searching for to advertise partisan pursuits. Nearly 1,000,000 Americans would die making struggle on one another within the subsequent Civil War, which was largely precipitated by the 1854-1860 “Bleeding Kansas” Border War.

this text first appeared in navy historical past quarterly

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