Road to War

Although labeled the Trans-Mississippi, the area of active operations during the Civil War (Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, the Indian Territory, Louisiana, and Texas) was geographically and culturally diverse. Cities as far apart as St. Louis and New Orleans shared large ethnic populations, particularly German and Irish, in a metropolitan environment, while the western counties of Missouri and Arkansas, together with most regions of Kansas and Texas, exhibited frontier characteristics. In the Indian Territory, the Five Nations (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Choctaw) pressed against the tribes of the Great Plains. By 1860, large scale immigration from Europe was reshaping Missouri, which was increasingly tied by railroads to the Northern economy. The majority of settlers in Kansas had come from the Midwest or New England. Elsewhere, the white population generally shared a Southern heritage. The most important uniting factor was slavery, either its presence or the question of its expansion.

The Trans-Mississippi was home to 19% of the South’s 3.9 million slaves. In Louisiana, African Americans labored on large sugar cane and cotton plantations. Cotton was also important in Texas and Arkansas, although the plantations were smaller. In Missouri the main slave labor crop was hemp, and few slaveholders owned more than five slaves. Slavery was also legal in the Indian Territory, but numbers were small. For the African Americans in bondage, the system was equally inhumane, regardless of circumstances. By 1860, the question of their future was splitting the nation.

With slavery legal when it was first French and then a Spanish colony, Louisiana entered the Union as a slave state in 1812 without debate, but Missouri’s petition in 1819 for statehood with slavery sparked a debate over the “peculiar institution” in the Louisiana Purchase area. Under the Compromise of 1820, Missouri entered as a slave state, balanced by Maine’s entry as a free state. A line at 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude (Missouri’s southern boundary) divided the territory, with slavery allowed south of it, and prohibited north of it outside Missouri. But in 1854 the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. Promoted by Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas as part of his scheme for a trans-continental railroad, it created two new territories, open to the possibility of slavery under the concept of “popular sovereignty.” Allowing residents to decide either for or against slavery sparked a rush to settle Kansas.

In addition to New England settlers sponsored by abolitionist organizations, immigrants moving to Kansas from the Midwest largely for economic reasons shared a general desire for Kansas to become a free state. Missouri slaveholders feared the creation of a possible refuge for runaway slaves and resented interference in what they consider to be the natural flow of slavery westward from existing areas. In the absence of laws defining residency, Missourians crossed into Kansas in large numbers, casting enough ballots to ensure that the first legislature in the Kansas Territory favored slavery. Outraged by the voter fraud, “Free Staters” set up a rival government. This was unsuccessful, but they eventually prevailed by sheer numbers, wresting control of the legislature from proslavery advocates despite continued voter fraud.

These political struggles occurred amid so much violence that eastern newspapers labeled the territory “Bleeding Kansas.” Political disputes offered opportunities for unscrupulous men to profit. Kansas “Jayhawkers” descended upon Missouri’s western counties, liberating slaves but also stealing horses and looting property. Missouri “Border Ruffians” raided Kansas in turn. By some estimates as many as 300 people were killed between 1854 and 1860. Some incidents were particularly notorious. On May 21, 1856, a force of some 800 “Slave Staters” sacked the town of Lawrence, a center of Free State sentiment. Although no lives were lost at Lawrence, abolitionist Jon Brown led a retaliatory attack, killing five proslavery settlers near Pottawatome Creek a few days afterwards. Two years later, on May 19, 1858, Missourians led by Charles Hamilton captured eleven Free Staters and opened fire on them in a ravine near the Marais de Cygnes Creek. Five were killed. Civil authorities, aided by the U.S. Army, eventually brought order to Kansas, which entered the Union as a free state in January 1861. But by that time, civil war loomed over the nation.

The secession crisis of 1860-1861 impacted resident of the Trans-Mississippi differently. In November 1860 the Republican Party candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency on a platform pledging to prevent slavery from spreading beyond its existing boundaries. Between December 20, 1860, and February 1, 1861, seven states (including Louisiana and Texas) left the union. In secession ordinances, accompanying documents of explanation, newspaper editorials, and speech after speech, Southern leaders explicitly cited the preservation of slavery as the reason for withdrawing. On February 22, they created the Confederate States of America.

Residents throughout the upper Trans-Mississippi were divided in sentiment and passions ran high. War nearly broke out when local militia groups seized the federal arsenal in Little Rock, Arkansas, on February 8, 1861. In March, Missourians elected to a statewide convention to consider the crisis adamantly rejected secession, but some warned that they would change their stance if Lincoln’s administration attempted to coerce the seceded states. Then on April 12 Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Lincoln called for 75,000 state militia to suppress what he labeled a domestic insurrection, and within a month four more states, including Arkansas, left the union.

During the 1860 election the majority of Missourians had avoided extremes, rejecting both Republican Abraham Lincoln and the Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, favoring instead the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Many Missourians hoped the state might maintain a neutral stance. The issues and choices were complex, for they now involved more than the future of slavery. There was state rights and the legality of secession. There was the preservation of the union versus coercion. And there was the fear that taking any stance would rip not only he state, but communities and families apart. Support for the Confederacy, either overtly or conditionally, was strongest where the presence of slavery was greatest, in the Missouri River valley (later knick-named “Little Dixie”) and the southeastern eastern boot heel region. It was also strong along the Missouri-Kansas border, were resentments lingered. Most residents of the Ozarks were firmly for the Union, as was the German population in St. Louis. Missouri’s largely urban Irish population was split. St. Louis was also home to one half of Missouri’s 3,572 free African Americans. Segregated by strongly held social customs, they watched as the political system that excluded them threatened to collapse.