By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Baxter Springs residents are dusting off the frequently overlooked story of the massacre of almost 100 Union soldiers by William Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas in 1863.
It’s time for the event to get more attention in history books, said local historian Larry O’Neal, who hopes bringing the battle to life through a three-day encampment and hands-on activities later this year will restore the massacre to its proper place in history.
“As a lifelong resident, it bothers me that it is missing,” he said, referring to history’s treatment of the battle.
O’Neal is helping to coordinate an observation in October for the 150th anniversary of the battle, and he expects it could draw as many as 10,000 visitors. Organizing for the event and others related to it has begun.
The battle wasn’t intentional, but rather the result of a chance meeting between Union soldiers and Quantrill’s guerrillas.
Union Maj. Gen. James Blunt and his wagon train of about 100 soldiers and supplies were headed south from Fort Scott to relocate their headquarters at Fort Smith, Ark. They were following a well-used military road that roughly followed modern-day U.S. Highway 69.
Quantrill and his approximately 300 men, who became infamous for their burning and killing spree in August of that year in Lawrence, were headed south to Texas for the winter when they came upon Fort Blair, near modern-day Baxter Springs. The fort had been in existence only a few months.
“It was a strategic location, because it was a day and a half from Fort Scott and two days from Fort Gibson, Okla.,” O’Neal said. “It was a temporary structure, built near timber and water. An outpost, really.”
The primitive fort had a garrison of about 25 cavalry soldiers and 65 to 70 infantry troops. The 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry defended the fort valiantly, although its soldiers were greatly outnumbered.
“That particular group is noteworthy, too, because it — along with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry — was mustered out of Fort Scott before President Abraham Lincoln authorized the use of colored troops in the Civil War,” O’Neal said.
Quantrill divided his men to surround the Union outpost, and the guerrilla leader and his band stumbled upon Blunt and his men, who were unaware of the presence of the guerrilla force.
The men in the fort, with a lone howitzer, held back the rest of the attackers.
But Blunt’s men, caught off guard until it was too later, were slaughtered, including the band members and James O’Neill, a newspaper correspondent. Blunt himself escaped.
“Quantrill’s men executed them as they tried to surrender,” O’Neal said of the Union soldiers, “including the drummer boy, whom they set on fire.”
A living history encampment will be held Oct. 4-6 at the re-creation of Fort Blair at Sixth Street and Military Avenue, a block north of the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum.
A Baxter Springs Historical Society committee, headed up by O’Neal and Phyllis Abbott, a 28-year veteran theater teacher, has been meeting for nearly two years to plan the event. The group’s members include the museum staff, historians and re-enactors.
Events will include living history interpreters dressed in period clothing who will demonstrate musketry, drills and cannon firing, and will interact with visitors. Experts also will present programs on 19th century skills, including soap making, weaving and blacksmithing, along with wartime medicine and the Underground Railroad. There also will be programs for children
Plans call for a dance class to be offered this summer for couples who want to learn to waltz and quadrille so they can fully participate in an evening ball, O’Neal said. Linda Kennedy, who heads up the museum, said many area residents have selected patterns for period clothing that they’ll be working on in anticipation of the ball and for a women’s tea being planned in a local historic home.
Abbott said she will be working with Kennedy and O’Neal to reconfigure a collection of Civil War artifacts and displays describing the battle and the events leading up to it.
“We want this to be the best it can be for everyone who is coming,” she said.
“Voices from the Grave” is planned for historic Baxter Cemetery. Groups will be bused there to hear interpreters who will assume the roles of the Union soldiers who are buried and memorialized there.
From August through October, Civil War artist Dan Woodward will display nearly 50 pieces of work, including an original created especially for the occasion, at the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum.
In addition, the Baxter Springs Historical Society has been awarded a grant from the National Park Service to provide funding for a film company to produce a documentary, “The Battle and Massacre of Baxter Springs.” It will be shot in the area using local residents as actors. The film will be released in June.
“At some venues I’ve been to that have observed a 150th anniversary, like Wilson’s Creek, there have been 20,000 spectators and participants,” O’Neal said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we draw in a lot of people. I hope so. It’s important.”
End of the fort
UNION SUPPORTERS called the battle at Fort Blair a “massacre” — characteristic of the vicious warfare along the Kansas-Missouri border. After the attack in October 1863, Fort Blair was temporarily reinforced, but by the end of the year the Union Army had pulled its troops back to Fort Scott, which was better fortified. First, though, U.S. forces demolished Fort Blair and took away everything usable to prevent the fort from being used by the enemy, according to historical records.