In 1854, the United States was engaged in a great debate. At bottom, the debate was over slavery, and about its extension across the continent.

In 1854, the United States was engaged in a great debate. At bottom, the debate was over slavery, and about its extension across the continent.

It was a debate over whether men and women could be held as chattel, and ultimately about their very humanity. That debate took shape in violence. It was fought with guns and swords. And it was fought in and around Leavenworth.

In The Civil War in Kansas: Ten Years of Turmoil, Deb Bisel distills the years of "Bleeding Kansas" into a liqueur that can be hard to put down. Fortunately, you only need to sip it. One can read the book in a day, so it will only take half a weekend to digest. You can spend the rest of the weekend reflecting, and I'll bet you will.
Bleeding Kansas is the story of John Brown, of the young Buffalo Bill Cody, his father and his uncle. It is about William Clark Quantrill, J.E.B. Stewart, and William Tecumseh Sherman and a host of others. Ultimately, it is the story of the state of our nation during the mid-19th Century, played out on the Kansas prairie.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law in 1856 the stage was set for this drama to unfold. At the time, as Bisel notes, "It was a foregone conclusion that Kansas would be a slave state." The Kansas-Nebraska Act provided an apparently fair process for allowing the state's residents to decide the issue. Many of those residents were, however, from Missouri, and based their "residency" on claims staked in Kansas (many before the territory was officially open), while they often maintained their homes on the other side of the river.

Others gathered in Leavenworth, Lecompton and elsewhere along the eastern edge of the territory.
Abolitionists made the trek from New England (my own family among them, I should add) and put down roots, primarily in Lawrence and Topeka. Leavenworth represented a place where the two worlds collided. Elijah Cody was a slaveholding businessman in Weston, Mo. He encouraged his brother, Isaac, an abolitionist, to settle in Leavenworth.

A group of local proslavery advocates confronted Isaac one day in mid-September,1856, and ultimately Charles Dunn stabbed him twice with a Bowie knife. Ironically, Dunn worked for Elijah Cody – but not for long! Isaac survived, and his young son, William, later became the world-famous Buffalo Bill Cody.

Actions on both sides were over the top, of course, but that was the nature of the age. Just as today, there was no middle ground. Everything was black and white (no pun intended!), and you were considered either a brother or a traitor.

Another of the local abolitionist firebrands was Charles "Doc" Jennison. In the early summer of 1861, he led raids on western Missouri, initially with 100 Mound City Sharps Rifle Guards. They cut quite a swath, supposedly under the military authority in Kansas City – whose authority was quickly apprised of his antics and "escorted" him out of the state!

Jennison seemed somehow to accumulate slaves during his forays, and they followed him back to his home in Kansas.
His farm still stands outside Leavenworth – 4811 New Lawrence Road is the location, just a bit off to the east of 20th – as one of the last vestiges of the Civil War in Kansas left standing after more than 150 years.

If history really is a great pageant, many of its most memorable scenes were played out on the stage that is Kansas. Deb Bisel has written the script, and we are living on the stage. As we remember the sesquicentennial of the Civil War – and Bleeding Kansas – we should also look around us and appreciate the stage sets and scenery that are still here.

Robert L. Beardsley is the Cultural Resources Management, Planning & Development, Preservation Alliance of Leavenworth.