In the more than 20 years I’ve been writing about the role Lawrence played in the Civil War, I’ve come across an intriguing phrase: Lawrence is where beliefs turned to blood.
In other words, lots of people were talking about abolishing slavery in the late 1850s, but Lawrence and eastern Kansas is where you came to shed blood over the matter.
I’ve always liked the phrase, but never fully understood the depth of it until a lady this summer dropped 150 letters on my desk. Those letters were from Edward and Sarah Fitch, a rather ordinary pioneer couple who took an extraordinary stand in the pre-Civil War days of Lawrence.
I read those letters provided to me by longtime Watkins Museum volunteer Carol Graham, and began working on a way to get them a larger audience. The result is “Postmarked: Bleeding Kansas,” a new book that tries to give readers an authentic account of the tension-filled times leading up to America’s Civil War.
The letters have me further convinced that Douglas County — or at least eastern Kansas — really is the “birthplace of the Civil War.” Edward Fitch, a devout young abolitionist who left the comforts of Massachusetts, spent many a day believing he was on the cusp of war.
“I must write a few lines as it may be the last time I ever have to write,” Edward wrote in a Dec. 8, 1855, letter to his parents in Massachusetts. “As you probably know before this time, we are in a state of siege. ... We have a number of forts throwed up which we mean to defend to the death. My station will be Hunts Fort. We have one cannon.”
The siege ended after two weeks, and Edward didn’t have to use the cannon. But he certainly did keep worrying. In fact, one of his most frequent requests in his letters home — other than for more money (some things never change in Lawrence) — was for his parents to send him a fine Navy Colt revolver. At one point, he asks for a thousand rounds of ammunition, too.
“We are bound to have a big fight and no mistake before we’re through here,” Edward wrote in a May 18, 1856, letter.
The letters also include more mundane matters of prairie living: How he would ride through prairie grass as tall as his horse’s shoulder; how he gave up farming to move to town to work in his father-in-law’s stationery store; and even pioneer oddities such as how he had captured a fine specimen of a squirrel and was keeping it as a pet.
The letters provide an authentic look at a number of facets of Lawrence life in the mid-1850s and early 1860s. But ultimately the letters are still important today because of the glimpse they give us of the “war before the War.” Long before the first shots at Fort Sumter, great fights were brewing here.
“We have had rather still times for this latitude,” Edward writes in a July 23, 1856, letter. “True, some two or three men have been shot at and killed here for going to Topeka to attend the meeting of the Free State Legislature, but such occurrences are so common here they hardly cause a remark.”
The history books may never officially mark Lawrence as the birthplace of the Civil War, but Edward’s account goes a long way in proving it to me. By July 1856, the greatest casualty of war already had consumed Douglas County — a callousness toward death.
Chad Lawhorn will participate in a reading of “Postmarked: Bleeding Kansas” at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at The Raven bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St. “Postmarked: Bleeding Kansas” is available locally at The Raven, The Watkins Museum and Hastings. It is available online in paperback and e-book versions at Amazon.