The Burnt District – Western Missouri's scorched Civil War legacy

by Jan Biles

Union Brigadier Gen. Thomas Ewing had to face a harsh reality on Aug. 22, 1863.
The day before William Quantrill and his band of nearly 400 bushwhackers from slave-holding Missouri had sacked Lawrence, a free-state stronghold. Quantrill and his men burned nearly all of the town's businesses and murdered 180 men and boys.

Detail of George Caleb Bingham's painting, "Order No. 11".

Ewing, commander of the District of the Border headquartered in Kansas City, realized the Union Army was unable to control the Missouri guerrillas, known for their strike-and-run tactics and ability to disappear into the Missouri countryside, where Southern sympathizers often provided them with food, clothing, horses and shelter.

"They're almost like dust in the wind," Don Peters, executive director of the Cass County Historical Society in Harrisonville, MO, said of the raiders.

If the Union Army was to ever control Missouri, Ewing knew the bushwhackers had to be squashed in a fashion that was both drastic and dramatic. Quantrill's raid on Lawrence handed the brigadier general a reason to retaliate.

On Aug. 25, 1863, Ewing issued General Order No. 11 — a controversial edict that removed every person in Jackson, Cass, Bates and northern Vernon counties in Missouri from their homes and then set fire to their farmsteads and crop fields.

"It was called the Burnt District because it was just a ravaged land," Peters said. The charred remains of houses and barns marred the landscape for years to come.

'The enemy in charge'

General Thomas Ewing during the Civil War (photo by Brady Photographic Co.)

Ewing took command of the District of the Border, which included Kansas and eight Missouri counties — Jackson, Cass, Bates, northern Vernon, Lafayette, Johnson, Henry and St. Clair — on June 26, 1863.

The state of the district at that time? Complete chaos.
Not only were Union officials unable to control the Missouri guerrillas, but they also couldn't rein in the Jayhawkers, their Kansas counterparts. The bad blood between the Southern sympathizers and the free-staters during the Bleeding Kansas days continued into the Civil War with intensified hatred and bitterness.

"Neither side was without fault," said Ralph Monaco, a Kansas City-area attorney and author of Scattered to the Four Winds: General Order No. 11 and Martial Law in Jackson County Missouri, 1863."

Missourians were outraged that Ewing was appointed commander of the district: As a member of the Leavenworth Constitutional Convention, he helped Kansas enter the Union as a free state in 1861 and was elected as its first chief justice. He resigned from the judgeship in 1862 to enter the military, commanding a regiment that fought bushwhackers in Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma.

"They put the enemy in charge," Monaco said, adding Ewing also was the brother-in-law of William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union Army general who would become known for the capture and burning of Atlanta in September 1864.

Not everyone in the Missouri border counties, however, was a Southern sympathizer or bushwhacker supporter. Some residents were loyal to the Union and federal government; others held no allegiance and were only concerned about protecting their farmsteads from the opposing armies that crisscrossed their land.

Missourians learned to be cautious when asked which side they favored during the war.
"A knock on the door would bring the heart to the mouth of anyone," Monaco said. "Being asked where your sympathies were could bring death."

Ewing knew shortly after his appointment that he had to get a hold on the district. On Aug. 18 — 22 days after taking command and three days before Quantrill's raid on Lawrence — he issued General Orders No. 9 and 10.

Order No. 9 allowed the slaves of Southern sympathizers who had sought refuge at military stations to enter the Union Army or be escorted to Kansas or Union-controlled Missouri towns.
Order No. 10 permitted the arrest of any man who aided the Missouri guerrillas; the exile of women and children known to associate with guerrillas; and the banishment of individuals who had taken up arms against the federal government and then surrendered.

The orders laid the groundwork for Ewing's most brutal action."He was already ready to issue Order No. 11," Monaco said.

Exile and destruction

Peters said the requirements laid out by General Order No. 11 were simply stated:
All residents in Jackson, Cass, Bates and northern Vernon counties were required to leave their homes within 15 days. Excluded from the order were those living within one mile of Independence, Hickman's Mills, Pleasant Hill and Harrisonville, which were Union-controlled military posts.

Those proving their loyalty to the Union, with witnesses vouching for them, would get a certificate that allowed them to travel to a military station in the district or any part of Kansas, except its eastern border. Those who couldn't prove their loyalty would be removed from the district.
All grain and hay found in the fields or under shelters before Sept. 9 would be confiscated and taken to military stations. Grain and hay found after Sept. 9 would be destroyed.

The Rice-Tremonti Home in Raytown, owned by southern slaveholder Elihu Coffee Rice during the Civil War, escaped destruction under General Order Number 11 for reasons unknown to history. (photo by Leigh Elmore)

At the time of the order, most of the district's men between the ages of 18 and 40 had left their homes to fight in the war. Remaining were old men, women and children. Many of them heard about Order No. 11 for the first time when Union troops arrived at their doorsteps.

"The women and children took the brunt of this," Peters said.
Families were given 15 minutes to gather a horse and whatever possessions they could carry or put into a cart or wagon before they were exiled from the district.
"There are many accounts of people burying silverware, jewelry and even mattresses thinking they could come back and get them later," Monaco said.

After confiscating whatever supplies and livestock they needed, the Union troops burned nearly every farmstead and field in the 3½-county area. Scorched ground could be seen for miles. Pigs and other farm animals roamed the area foraging for food.

"The reason they did it was because it was easy," Peters said of the evacuation and destruction.
About 2,800 farms were contained in the 2,200-square-mile Burnt District. A few homes were purposefully spared by the fire-starters, perhaps because the owners were known to be Union loyalists or aided federal troops in the past. No one really knows the reason they survived.
"That's one of the questions we have," Peters said.

The aftermath

While Ewing believed Order No. 11 was a strong and necessary military move Jonathan Earle, dean of the 1Honors College at Louisiana State University and co-author of Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border, said the edict ended up being counterproductive and having unintended consequences.

Instead of getting rid of the bushwhackers, it pushed them into central Missouri or farther south, where they continued their strike-and-runs.

"It made the average Missourian very, very anti-Union," said Earle, former director of the University Honors Program at The University of Kansas and former associate director of the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence. "It had a lasting economic effect. It had repercussions that would last a decade."

The Burnt District Monument in Harrisonville, MO is a memorial erected to the thousands of people whose homes were burned to the ground in the area that was de-populated after enforcement of General Order No. 11. Union soldiers and Kansas "Red Legs" torched many houses; others were lost in unattended grass fires. Only the stone chimneys remained. They became known at "Jennison's tombstones," after Jayhawker Charles "Doc" Jennison. (photo courtesy the Burnt District Museum)

In 1860 about 400,000 people lived in the district; after Order No. 11, the population was nearly zero. Exiled Missourians had to be granted special permission to return to the charred land where their homes once stood. While some county records were salvaged, documents at the Bates County Courthouse were destroyed.

"The county had no official business for three years. Everything just froze," said Peggy Buhr, director of the Bates County Museum in Butler, MO. "When people returned, they owed three years of back taxes, even though the land had grown over and lots of rattlesnakes and Mother Nature had reclaimed the area. Only about 30 percent of the people came back."

Land that wasn't reclaimed was purchased in large part by land speculators banking on a revival as railroads extended west and the area's coal deposits were mined. 

Rough time in history

General Order No. 11 would come back to haunt Ewing, mainly in the form of a protest painting by George Caleb Bingham that was showcased during Ewing's failed run for governor of Ohio in 1880. Bingham, who was Missouri state treasurer, wanted Ewing to rescind Order No. 11 and vowed to make Ewing "infamous with pen and brush" after he was rebuked.

The painting, which some researchers contend didn't accurately depict what happened in the Burnt District, was used as a propaganda tool against Ewing.

"People who saw the painting thought the order was a nefarious one," Earle said. "I won't go as far as to say Bingham's painting cost him the election."

Ewing went on to become a two-term U.S. congressman from Ohio and attorney for physician

Samuel Mudd and two conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Monaco points to Order No. 11 as an example of government overreach.

"During times of crisis, during times of terror, the federal government will expand its authority and compromise the rights of its citizens," he said, citing Japanese internment camps during World War II and door-to-door searches after the Boston marathon bombing in April 2013. "Was Order No. 11 a tyrant's act against the civil liberties of individuals, or was it an act of military necessity that demanded action?"

Earle said the bitterness over Order No. 11 can be seen today in efforts to keep the Confederate flag flying and the lingering embrace of "the idea of a lost cause."

While historians study and debate General Order No. 11, discussions about the Burnt District often are absent in classrooms. Perhaps it is a war atrocity people would rather forget or deny.

"My hypothesis is it was a rough time in our history because it focused on civilians, and people don't want to talk about it," Peters said. "It's an unfavorable realism of war."



The politics of art - George Caleb Bingham and 'Order No. 11'

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham began work on "Civil War: as realized in the Desolation of Border Counties of Missouri during the operation of 'General Order No. 11,' issued by Brigadier General Ewing, from his Head Quarters, Kansas City, August 25, 1863" (1865–1870). Commonly known as 'Order No. 11', the painting was Bingham's last major work, intended both as a political tract illustrating the evils of martial law and as a weapon in his personal vendetta against General Ewing.

"The sputtering vitriol of Bingham's title is reflected in the painting," states Pamela Toler, arts and culture editor for the MHQ website. "The flowing line and carefully observed characters that marked his earlier work are gone. As one critic describes it, Bingham seems to have painted the work with a clenched fist."

"Also unlike his earlier paintings, in which character types are more important than narrative, 'Order No. 11' tells a melodramatic story, complete with theatrical lighting and overacting," Toler maintains.

The canvas is divided into two sections. A tightly packed pyramid of figures dominates the left side. A young man has been shot by a Union soldier, who is holstering his gun. The victim's wife weeps over his body. Above them, spotlighted by the contrast of light and shadow, the young man's white-haired father protests the actions of the Union soldiers while his daughter and grandson attempt to restrain him. The victim's mother has fainted into the arms of a black slave.

Another daughter begs the soldiers for mercy. Behind this vignette, figures that Bingham described as "the myrmidons of Kansas aided by their criminal allies in Federal uniform" load rugs and furniture looted from the house into waiting carts.

The father's outthrust arm directs a viewer's eye to the right side of the canvas, where a line of faceless refugees drives away with the few possessions they've been able to save. A convenient signpost tells us they are headed toward Lexington, in central Missouri. Behind them, a caravan of soldiers with heavily laden carts heads in the opposite direction toward Kansas and a horizon marked by columns of smoke from burning farms.

Bingham painted two versions of 'Order No. 11.' He sent one to Philadelphia for engraving and traveled with the other, taking orders for prints and speaking against the punitive measures of Reconstruction. Sales were disappointing. To Bingham's shock, newspaper editors, ministers, and art critics lambasted the painting for denigrating the victorious Union troops and sympathizing with the South. The attacks were so virulent and persistent that Bingham defended himself in a pamphlet titled "An Address to the Public vindicating a work of art illustrative of the federal military policy in Missouri during the late Civil War". Claiming that he had "enlisted art as the most efficient handmaid of history," Bingham declared that he was exhibiting the painting "in the interest of civil liberty as opposed to lawless military domination."

In the last years of his life, Bingham used the painting in a personal, and unsuccessful campaign to keep Ewing out of public office. "In fact, 'Order No. 11' did more damage to Bingham's reputation as an artist than to Ewing's political career," Toler said. (Ewing served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.)

"When Bingham died in 1879, his earlier scenes of frontier life had long since disappeared from public view into private collections. The art world of the time judged Bingham's oeuvre on the infamous Order No. 11, which was well known for all the wrong reasons," Toler said. As a result, she notes, Bingham's art was largely forgotten until the 1930s, when the rise of Regionalist painters such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood created a new interest in rural American subjects – "and Bingham was recognized once more as the American master he had been before getting caught up in the searing politics of the day."


Missouri's Burnt District

Missouri's Burnt District contained the border counties of Jackson, Cass, and Bates as well as a small northern section of Vernon County. Order No. 11 was issued Aug. 25, 1863. Civilians were given 15 days to leave. By Oct. 1, 1863 the entire district, outside of military stations, had been destroyed. It remained so until 1865.

Bates County:  No towns or villages survived
Cass County:  Only Harrisonville & Pleasant Hill, (military stations) survived
Jackson County:  Only Kansas City, Independence, & Westport, (military stations) remained.

Between 1865 and 1870 the population exploded from a few thousand to over 90,000 as northern immigrants flooded and repopulated the district. By 1870, only about one in seven of the Burnt District residents had any personal knowledge of the events.

Information provided by Tom Rafiner, author of Cinders and Silence: A Chronicle of Missouri's Burnt District 1854-1870.

Jan Biles is a niche editor for the Topeka Capital Journal, where this article first appeared.

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