Historians work to make Black Jack a prominent Civil War landmark

Here’s an interesting bit of American Civil War trivia: What many consider the first battle in the bloodiest war in the nation’s history – the Battle of Black Jack near Baldwin City – didn’t claim a single life.

That battle, a small skirmish between bands of pro- and anti-slavery men, occurred about five years before what many textbooks and historians refer to as the first official event in the Civil War at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861.

But for a group of interested observers, local residents and a growing number of historians, the Civil War started on June 2, 1856, on a small patch of land 3 miles east of Baldwin City.

“This is where the Civil War started, as far as I’m concerned,” said Kerry Altenbernd, a tour guide at the battleground site on the battle’s 151st anniversary Saturday. “It is an important site … you’re standing on sacred ground.”

It was that land where famous Civil War icon John Brown, noted for his anti-slavery zeal and propensity toward violence to get his point across, led an abolitionist militia to raid a group of pro-slavery men.

Many shots were fired and a few people were severely wounded before the pro-slavery militia surrendered to Brown and his band of abolitionists after a three-hour fracas.

But the public at-large, and even people who grew up near the battle site, aren’t aware of the battle’s significance.

“Historical amnesia has been a big problem,” Altenbernd said.

That’s become motivation for a group of local historians and other interested observers to try to get the word out about the site and make it a more prominent landmark in Civil War lore.

Mike Hadl, a Lawrence man and member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, said the next four years are critical in promoting the importance of the Battle of Black Jack.

Once 2011 rolls around, Hadl said, much of the Civil War attention will shift toward the 150th anniversaries of larger battles in the eastern parts of the country when major fighting began in 1861.

“We got four more years to really get people interested in this area,” said Hadl, three of whose great-great-grandparents were Union soldiers. “We’ve got it right here; it doesn’t get any better than John Brown. John Brown was here.”

The site is part of the Bleeding Kansas Heritage Area, a collection of counties in Kansas and Missouri that expects to make the region a chapter, rather than a footnote, in Civil War history.

“With this designation we’re a part of the Park Service as a National Heritage Area,” said Judy Billings, a senior vice president of the Lawrence Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.