On what Kerry Altenbernd calls sacred ground, the beginnings of the U.S. Civil War can be relived.
Just southeast of Baldwin City, tucked in what has become a groomed meadow, Altenbernd led a group of about 20 people through the historic site of the 1856 Battle of Black Jack, a fight between free-state and pro-slavery forces.
"This was the place where the Civil War began; the fight, the actual war against slavery began right here," Altenbernd, a Black Jack Battlefield Trustee member, said. "And that's an extremely important thing."
The tour, put on by the trust, was held to mark the 152nd anniversary of the battle.
Along the Santa Fe Trail on the dawn of June 2, 1856, abolitionist John Brown led his small group of men into an attack on the camp of Henry Clay Pate's militia.
After three hours of fighting, Pate's men were forced to surrender. According to some historians and Brown's own accounts, the battle was the territory's first armed conflict and the nation's first fight against slavery.
"The Civil War and all of its aftermath was a seminal event in the United States," Altenbernd said. "That's when people stopped talking about themselves as citizens of Virginia, or Maine, and after the war they were citizens of America."
Altenbernd, a third-generation Douglas Countian, has always appreciated local and national history, especially Civil War history.
"It's just in my blood, I guess," he said.
Preserving the battlefield is just as important to Altenbernd and the other 20 or so members of the trust. To them, the site serves as a reminder of the country's past and shouldn't be forgotten.
"If you lose the places that things happen, you lose the history," he said. "People can read it in a book and they might remember it, but if they are on the site, they feel it and they smell it; it becomes part of them and they never forget it."
In 2003, Friends of the Black Jack Battlefield and the Lawrence Preservation Alliance prevented the land from becoming a residential development. The next year, the Friends group became the trust, gaining full ownership of the property, and continued to improve the land.
The trust recruited help from the Westar Energy Green Team, which helped build a bridge and signs at the site.
Pete Crabtree, of Topeka, was involved in the bridge building. Before that he didn't know about the site or the battle, so he decided to return for the tour, he said.
"I think it's really neat that they are just trying to keep this piece of history going," he said. "Our history, to me, is eventually going to lead our future, and if we forget what our history was, what it took to get here, we are going to be taken advantage of. The next generations won't realize what the people did for them; we need that."
Dawn at Black Jack
On the anniversary of the battle, Monday, people can visit the Black Jack Battlefield at the time the fight began. Bring a flashlight and arrive between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. for "Dawn at Black Jack."
The site is just east of Baldwin City and south of U.S. Highway 56 near the intersection of E. 2000 Road and North 175, adjacent to the Robert Hall Pearson Park.
The event is free.