The war that spread to Fort Sumter in April 1861 and Bull Run in Virginia that July was, in many ways, a Western war.
Violence had first erupted in the West when territories ripe for statehood provoked the question: Slave state or free?
A war that would divide the young country over the next four years would first be won in the West. It was later won in the East, by Western generals employing a total-war philosophy learned on the frontier.
And one of the American Civil War’s greatest heroes would be the country’s first Western president. Abraham Lincoln was the first commander-in-chief born in a state that wasn’t one of the original 13 colonies.
Indeed, Kansas was bleeding long before an island in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., became part of the national consciousness.
In 1856, pro-slavery raiders sacked the anti-slavery center in Lawrence, Kan. In retaliation, John Brown killed five pro-slavery men nearby.
The violence escalated as hostilities erupted nationwide. Armed bands on both sides – the pro-Union Jayhawkers in Kansas and pro-slavery Bushwhackers in Missouri – saw in the war’s outbreak a license for their actions.
In 1863, William Clarke Quantrill also sacked Lawrence, killing nearly 200 people. This time, retribution would be harsh and have the weight of the federal government.
Union Gen. Thomas Ewing issued Order No. 11 – clearing Missouri counties along the Kansas border of everyone and everything. That put 20,000 people to flight, writes historian Thomas Goodrich.
He quotes one refugee, Frances Twyman, who described “women walking with their babies in their arms, packs on their backs and four or five children following after them, some crying for bread, some crying to be taken back to their homes.”
But there were no homes.
The order left a burned-over country devoid of anything but brick chimneys. A Kansas officer bragged that his squad burned 110 houses, writes Goodrich, who described Order No. 11 as “perhaps the harshest act of the U.S. government against its own people in American history.”
Twyman described a war widow, an ill infant in her arms. She sought the shade of a tree, where she rested as her baby died, while the column of refugees remained indifferent. “The crowd surged on, women and children dragging their weary limbs through the dust and heat,” he said.
Violence unfolding in the West foretold one thing: What those Western generals would bring East would be severe. Historian James McPherson writes that Ewing, a brother-in-law of William Tecumseh Sherman, “had learned what Sherman was learning – this was a war between peoples, not between armies.”
And the American people – from those living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to those in Sherman’s eventual path in Georgia – would suffer mightily. Quick Fact: ‘Crime Against Kansas’
In 1856, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a Philippic titled, “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he condemned efforts by armed Missourians to cross the border and hijack Kansas elections. “It is the rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery,” Sumner said.