The Civil War didn’t officially start until 1861, but Kansas was fighting its own battles long before that. Lawrence’s history is rich with Civil War conflicts, both abstract and physical.
“All of the conflict began to play out out here, where it was very much a frontier, and law and order was very light. You had this long unmarked border,” said Katie Armitage, local historian.
The tension built, and historians say people lived with the threat of terrorism. Here are some events that shaped the period.
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July 28, 1854 — Group of New Englanders arrive in Kansas and soon found Lawrence
A group of men from the New England Immigrant Aid Society arrived in Kansas. They came to the area largely because the Kansas-Nebraska Act made land available. The act also gave settlers the right to choose if their settlements would be pro-slavery or not.
Aug. 14, 1855 — Free-staters gather in Lawrence for a convention
Lecompton’s legislature was the legal body in the state, but it was pro-slavery, so Lawrence became the gathering place for those against slavery.
“It was known as the free state capital,” said John Jewell, administrative assistant at Watkins Community Museum of History. “At the time, if you were talking to the Missourians, it was known that way. That’s why the hotel was called the Free State Fortress.”
May 21, 1856 — Sheriff Jones and pro-slavery forces sack Lawrence
Douglas County Sheriff Sam Jones rode into Lawrence with a band of pro-slavery men after the Lecompton Constitution declared the Free State Hotel and two newspapers public nuisances. Jones, who was originally from Missouri, sacked the town, destroying the hotel and dumping the newspapers’ presses into the Kansas River.
“It was really important for Lawrence,” said Judy Billings, executive director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. “It was the first sack of Lawrence. They burned the town.”
This sacking incited John Brown to violence to defend abolitionists’ causes.
May 24, 1856 — Pottawatomie Massacre
John Brown went with four of his sons and a few other anti-slavery men to the area near Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County. He drug five people he thought to be pro-slavery out of their homes and killed them.
“He for sure had those people who thought he was doing right,” Jewell said. “He thought slavery couldn’t be ended peacefully. It had to be violence. It had to be forced,” Jewell said.
June 2, 1856 — Battle of Black Jack
The battle took place near present-day Baldwin City, and John Brown led the attack on pro-slavery forces there.
“I like to say the prelude to the Civil War happened here,” Armitage said. “They weren’t Confederate and Union at that point. It was people pro- and anti-slavery who lined up and shot at each other.”
Jan. 12, 1857 — Pro-slavery legislature meets in Lecompton
The Democratic Party was formed in Kansas at this meeting as a pro-slavery party.
“The Republican Party came with Lincoln and that whole stance,” Jewell said.
At this meeting, representatives developed their pro-slavery constitution.
March 1857 — Dred Scott Case decided by Supreme Court
The Dred Scott Case announced that blacks, freed or not, could not become U.S. citizens and also allowed slavery in all new territories by declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
“All those decisions back East, as far as slavery, played a part in what people were thinking here,” Jewell said. “The communications with the settlers here, especially the New Englanders, was good.”
Many would write back and forth with their family and friends in the East. Their letters were often shared, keeping Easterners up-to-date on the fights being fought in Kansas.
“Kansas was, at that point in time, a real focal point as to what was happening,” Jewell said. “So to speak, it was a test case for the how popular sovereignty would work.”
Dec. 2, 1859 — John Brown hanged
John Brown, who had earned a reputation as a violent enforcer of anti-slavery beliefs, was hanged for his raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia. He had spent much of his time prior to Harpers Ferry in Kansas, defending abolitionist beliefs with violence.
Jan. 29, 1861 — Kansas becomes a state
Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, about a month after South Carolina voted to secede.
April 12, 1861 — Civil War declared
By the time the Civil War was declared, people in Kansas had already been dealing with tension and hostility for nine years.
“Lawrence people were very engaged in the Union cause in April 1861,” Armitage said.
Aug. 21, 1863 — Quantrill’s Raid
The raid led by William Quantrill of Missouri killed one-fifth of Lawrence’s male population in one day. Almost all of the business district on Massachusetts Street was destroyed, and 75 percent of the residences were as well.
“When we talk about Bleeding Kansas, that’s what we’re talking about,” Jewell said. “Terrorism was alive and well in Kansas at the time.”
Lawrence was nine years young, and many of the able-bodied men and boys weren’t in town because they were fighting for the Union. The carnage inflicted on Lawrence that day has not been easily forgotten.
“Any time a very horrific event happens in a place, it is something that is remembered,” Armitage said.
April 9, 1865 — Civil War ends
General Robert E. Lee surrendered on this day. More than 600,000 Americans died during the war.