Civil War Kansas


A Brief Review of Albert Castel’s
Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind

“If the crows could not fly over the valleys of the Shenandoah without carrying rations, the buzzards of the prairies had no need of haversacks.”
– Confederate Major John N. Edwards of General Sterling Price’s passage through southern Kansas

Originally written more than fifty years ago as a doctoral dissertation, and then republished in 1997 by the University of Kansas Press, Albert Castel’s Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind remains a vital and engaging text on an aspect of America’s great internecine conflict most often passed over in silence. Such disparate outstanding experts on the Civil War as Allan Nevins, James McPherson and David Herbert Donald have offered substantive praise for the work, and with good reason. Nevins once characterized it as “the best book we have on the Civil War in Kansas,” while McPherson described it as “a classic in the genre.” And more than many books of its vintage, it has aged remarkably well. It is, of course, more of a traditionally political and military history than contemporary conventions might mandate of academia, but then of course the compelling events of the time were largely military and political. Nor does Castel wholly ignore the economic and social aspects of the conflict. Despite the intervening years since it initial release, Castel’s Civil War Kansas continues to reward the interested reader.

Two brief excerpts:

The People of Civil War Kansas

“The circumstances accompanying the settlement of Kansas during the 11850s had given its population a reputation for violence and lawlessness and had created the still-persistent myth that they were stern New England puritans who had gone to Kansas to preserve it from slavery. The truth of the matter was that the ‘troubles’ in Kansas had been greatly exaggerated, mainly by young Eastern newspaper correspondents engaged in the manufacture of Republican political propaganda and of their own careers. And as for Kansans being of New England origin, census figures were available for anyone to see that most of them came, not from that section, but from Ohio, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, and Iowa, in that order. Obviously, if the reigning spirit of Kansas was puritan, it was puritanism which came by way of the Great Lakes, not direct from Massachusetts Bay.

“Nor did the settlers of Kansas go there simply to wage a holy war against slavery. ‘We came to Kansas,’ said one of them afterwards, ‘to better our conditions, incidentally expecting to make it a free state.’ But even this confession of motivation probably holds true only for the more idealistic upper stratum of the immigrants. The bulk of the thousands who poured into Kansas between 1854 and 1860 were driven by sheer land hunger and little or nothing else. Yet in actuality there was little or no difference between coming to Kansas in quest of free land and coming to make it a land of the free. The average settler, whether Northern or Southern, regarded slavery as an economic curse to the small white farmer and believed that only by making Kansas a Free State could he protect and improve his socioeconomic status.

“Another facet of the reputation of Kansans, closely linked to that of their supposed puritan New England origin, was that they were a Bible-toting, hymn-singing lot, deeply steeped in the somber hues of evangelistic Calvinism. This too, however, seems to be largely a myth, deriving mainly from the political propagandists who constantly contrasted the pious Free State Kansans to the whisky-swilling, tobacco-spitting ‘Border Ruffians’ of Missouri.”

Kansas Abolitionism

“One of the by-products of the propaganda that accompanied the Kansas territorial struggle was the myth that the typical Kansan of the period was a zealous abolitionist. Northern orators such as Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips and radical journalists such as William Phillips, Richard Josiah Hinton, and William P. Tomlinson portrayed the Free State settlers as embattled crusaders fighting to prevent the ‘conquest of Kansas’ by the wicked and repulsive myrmidons of the ‘Slave Power.’ Southern spokesmen, on the other hand, fulminated about ‘abolitionist hordes’ pouring into Kansas to deprive slaveholders of their rights and to secure a base for further onslaughts on the institutions of the South. The putative exploits of John Brown in Kansas, and especially his Harper’s Ferry raid, fired the public imagination and caused people, when they thought of Kansas, to think of ‘Pottawatomie’ Brown, and vice versa. In fact, even to this day Brown is popularly identified with Kansas, as is so magnificently demonstrated by John Steuart Curry’s famous mural in the capitol at Topeka.

“Actuality, however, differed considerably from myth. As mentioned previously, very few of those who settled in Kansas during the fifties did so for idealistic antislavery reasons. Even Brown probably came to Kansas originally for no higher purpose than acquiring some land. The Free State men, wrote one of them, were ‘not against slavery in the abstract,’ and hundreds of them had a ‘deadly terror of being termed “abolitionist”’ and were ‘frightened by the mere mention of that mysterious specter, “negro equality.”’ In general, Kansans at the time of the Civil War were as much anti-Negro as they were antislavery, and they were probably in large measure antislavery because they were anti-Negro; that is, they feared the social and economic consequences of the introduction of Negro slave labor into the state.

“In one important respect, however, Kansas deserved its reputation for extremism on the slavery question. Without exception its major political and governmental leaders were abolitionists.”

John Steuart Curry's John Brown Mural in the Kansas Capitol

John Steuart Curry's John Brown Mural in the Kansas Capitol

Published in: on April 25, 2009 at 10:18 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] a postscript to our review of Albert Castel’s Civil War Kansas, here’s another brief excerpt from the book on . . […]

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