The Civil War in America's Heartland

Largley Overlooked by Easter Civil War Enthusiasts, the War Between the States Actually Began on the Western Frontier

While it would be sacrilege to any Virginian or South Carolinian to hear it, the American Civil War actually started in the Midwest, along the line dividing the State of Missouri from the Kansas Territory. It happened in the 1850s when “Bleeding Kansas” became the slogan for the struggle over slavery on the Western frontier.

Many Kansans will tell you that the first armed clash of the Civil War was the Battle of Black Jack, where John Brown, a fierce opponent of slavery, let his militia against a proslavery force on June 2, 1856 and perpetrated further violence later in the year.

Hand -to-hand fighting at the battle’s climax.
photos courtesy of the Lone Jack Historical Society

Popular Sovereignty sounded like such a good idea. It has a democratic ring to it. But those words meant only trouble for the Kansas Territory in the 1850s, and they sparked a Civil War years before shots were fired at Fort Sumter.

The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act defined the borders of the new territories, opened them to settlement and allowed those new settlers to decide for themselves whether to form a free-state or pro-slavery government.

This “popular sovereignty” doctrine was corrupted in the first Kansas territorial election. Pro-slavery Missouri citizens crossed the border to vote, resulting in the election of a pro-slavery Territorial government. That, in turn, triggered great numbers of “Free Soilers” to flood into the territory from Northern states.

Creating a realistic look

Neighbors and towns were divided by the controversy. Radicals on both sides armed themselves, resulting in violence that spread throughout eastern Kansas and western Missouri.

Bleeding Kansas

Radical abolitionist John Brown, later of Harpers Ferry fame, entered the picture. Viewed by some as a freedom fighter and others as a terrorist, Brown and his close supporters added another layer of tension in May 1856. Reacting to the sacking of Lawrence and other incidents, Brown and his band killed five members of a pro-slavery family at Pottawatomie Creek.

The violence and political turmoil continued throughout the 1850s until Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state in January 1861.

But statehood didn’t settle the hard feelings in Kansas — or the violence. Guerrilla bands from both sides continued to terrorize the Kansas-Missouri border throughout the war. Lawrence, a free-state base in the 1850s, was burned and more than 150 men and boys were killed by a pro-Southern irregular force under William Quantrill in 1863.

Finally, one of the last battles west of the Mississippi was fought at Westport, signalling the last gasp of Confederate Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri Raid in 1864.

Missouri: The fault line cracks

The Civil War began early and nasty in Missouri. By the time the first guns were fired in Charleston SC, the state had endured for years a tough and brutal border war as Missouri residents battled over the status of statehood in Kansas.

Free soilers and pro-slavery men slid back and forth across the border as raid followed raid. The tumult gave cover for some on both sides to operate at the edge of lawlessness, bringing tension and panic to the region.

When it came time to decide whether Missouri would join the Confederacy, the fault lines between north and south ran deeply across the state.

Attempts to establish a pro-slavery Confederate state were broken up violently in St. Louis. Growing armies on both sides engaged in sharp battles throughout Missouri as families and towns split over the issue.

Wilson’s Creek, a Confederate victory near Springfield in August 1861, gave the nation one of its first tastes of large-scale fighting but settled nothing. Despite the win, Confederate military forces found they could not sustain themselves in the state. After the Battle of Pea Ridge in northern Arkansas (March 1862), a large Confederate army never again gained a serious foothold in the state.

But the fighting went on. Guerilla warfare raged in parts of the state, making names for “Bloody Bill” Anderson, William Quantrill, the James brothers and many more. Both sides committed atrocities.

To combat the lawlessness that was tying up Union troops, the Federal command in Missouri issued orders to arrest those giving aid and comfort to the guerillas. On Aug. 13, a Kansas City jail holding women and children arrested under that order collapsed, killing five women. The event is said to have led to Quantrill’s infamous, murderous raid on Lawrence, KS, which in turn led to Order No. 11, which virtually depopulated far-western Missouri.

In a last-ditch effort to win back the state, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price launched a major raid in the fall of 1864. It, like other Confederate attempts, failed.

Firing the field artillery is a crowd-pleaser

The war in Missouri left hard feelings on both sides — many of which exist to this day.

The war in Arkansas

After casting their lot with the Confederacy in 1861, the people of Arkansas were introduced to war early as the fight for Missouri spilled over their northern border. The Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862 pretty much settled the Missouri military question in the Union’s favor and put the rest of Arkansas in play.

The state’s rivers — the Arkansas and the Mississippi — later became the focus as combined army-navy Federal forces took Arkansas Post, and Union operations against Vicksburg were boosted with the Union occupation of Helena.

The state capital at Little Rock fell in September 1863, forcing the Confederate government of Arkansas to reorganize in Washington, AR.. Union forces based in Little Rock attempted to march farther south in the state, participating in the ill-fated Red River Campaign, but were ultimately unable to hold on there.

More than 750 military actions were recorded in Arkansas during the war. Many of the state’s parks are devoted to preserving some of the most important ones.

Tribes battle in Indian Territory

Civil War came early in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Disputes within the Cherokee Nation, which had been “removed” from the tribe’s Eastern land in the 1830s, fractured the tribe into warring factions well before 1860. Other tribes also were suffering from internal friction. Slavery was not an issue, however, since many prosperous Indian families on all sides of the disputes owned slaves.

Firing the field artillery is a crowd-pleaser

When the Civil War came to the rest of the country and the Southern states began seceding, the Confederate States of America exploited the fractures within the tribes and multiple broken promises of the Federal government, signing treaties with sympathetic Indian leaders. Others in the tribes cast their lot with the Union government.

Meanwhile, militias sympathetic to the Confederacy occupied frontier forts, putting much of the Territory under Southern influence.

Indians supporting the Confederacy organized under several leaders, including Stand Watie, leaving their home turf briefly to fight at Pea Ridge in Arkansas in early 1862.

Indian Territory quickly became a Confederate-controlled backwater as fighting heated up east of the Mississippi River. By mid-1863, though, Union soldiers had reoccupied Forts Gibson and Smith and resumed military operations. Raids on the forts’ supply lines bedeviled the Federals but the Union forces, augmented by black troops, hung on to their tenuous bases and continued raids of their own.

In July 1863, Union soldiers — black, white and Indian — marched out of Fort Gibson to attack a Confederate stronghold at Honey Springs on the Texas Road. The battle that resulted, July 17, 1863, was a decisive Union victory and was the end of any real organized Confederate military activity in the Territory.

Upcoming tours and battle re-enactments

by Leigh Elmore


The Battle of Kirksville
150th anniversary events, Aug. 3 - 5

The 150th anniversary observation of the Battle of Kirksville (Aug. 6, 1862) will be held at Rotary Park. On Friday, Aug. 3 events include a navigation rally, storytelling at Brashear Cemetery. Saturday, Aug. 4 events include a soldier’s drill, living histories, the battle re-enactment, a vintage baseball game, a memorial service, a Civil War Ball and nighttime cannon fire. Sunday, Aug. 5 events include a soldiers drill, church service, battle reenactment, the play “My American Cousin,” a living obituary of George Wall Smith. In addition, the Kirksville Arts Center will be open July 26 through Sept. 1 for the Civil War Traveling Exhibit. For more information including specific times and re-enactor and vendor registration packets, visit

Wilson’s Creek
151st anniversary Aug. 10, 2012

While the sesquicentennial re-enactment of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was held last year, there will be an anniversary program at the battlefield near Springfield. This was the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River, and the scene of the death of Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general killed in combat. The bloody Southern victory on Aug. 10, 1861, focused greater national attention on the war in Missouri. The nearly pristine landscape allows visitors to experience one of the best-preserved battlefields in the nation.

The First Battle of Independence
150th anniversary tours – Aug. 11, 2012

Four tours: 9 a.m., 11 a.m. 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and chuck wagon tour, 4:45 p.m.

All tours include a mule-drawn, covered wagon over the route taken by troops during the First Battle of Independence that took place on Aug. 11, 1862 as a precursor to the Battle of Lone Jack. See houses still marked with bullet holes from the battle; pass by the McCoy House where fleeing soldiers sought refuge (and broke out all the windows for a place from which to shoot); and a visit to the 1859 Jackson County Jail where the Union Provost Marshal was stationed during the battle. The last tour of the day, a chuck wagon tour, includes all of the above plus a barbecue meal provided by Independence’s Elena’s Fine Catering, and a concert of Civil War-era music by Pick & Hammer. Battlefield tours are $30/adult and $15/children; Chuck Wagon tour is $40/adult and $20/children. For more information, or to secure you seat in the wagon, visit

The Battle of Lone Jack,
150th anniversary re-enactment -- Aug, 18, - Aug 19

A major battle re-enactment is set for the historic Noel property where the Confederate commanders met the night before the battle (Aug. 15-16, 1862) to plan their attack. This will be the signature Civil War reenactment in Missouri this year. A candlelight tour of the camps is also planned. The re-enactment site will also include a civilian living history interpretive area. On the park grounds, of the Lone Jack Civil War Museum, the annual commemoration events will be in full swing, including parade, entertainment, craft and food booths and more. There will also be an honor guard and wreath laying ceremony at the Union and Confederate monuments in the Soldiers’ Cemetery, where the slain from the battle are still interred in trench graves.

Lone Jack is located 25 miles east of Kansas City on U.S. 50. For more details check the website


Civil War on the Western FrontierLawrence, ongoing through Aug. 21

Each year Lawrence remembers its Civil War history with tours, talks and more during the annual “Civil War on the Western Frontier” program. Of special note are the Aug. 17-18 tours commemorating the 1863 Quantrill Raid in Lawrence. Friday evening cemetery tour 8 p.m. (reservations 785-832-7920). Saturday walking tours 8:30 and 11 a.m. Concert 4 p.m. Most events meet at Watkins Museum, 1047 Massachusetts St., 785-841-4109.


Lamoni Civil War Days
Aug. 31-Sept. 2

Lamoni’s Civil War Days is the largest and best-known annual regional historical event in southern Iowa and northern Missouri and it presents a period-authentic, hands-on experience of life during the American Civil War era, both military and civilian. Civil War Days attracts living historians and re-enactors from throughout the Midwest, primarily from Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.

Civil War Days has three primary purposes. First, to respectfully acknowledge the sacrifices of our 19th century ancestors by bringing their stories back to life. Second, to provide a venue to the living historian and re-enactor communities for demonstrating their hobby. Finally, it helps to re-connect to our ancestors’ involvements during this pivotal period in American history.

Located on Interstate I-35 precisely at the Iowa-Missouri border, this event is easily accessed from Des Moines, Kansas City, and Omaha. The encampments, battlefield and event town square are nestled in a spacious lakeside setting in rural south central Iowa farm country one mile from Lamoni town center, two miles from both I-35 Iowa exit 4 and I-35 Missouri exit 114. Admission and parking are free.

For additional information visit the website: