Bushwhackers and Bandits

By Lucas Bernard

Border wars are often the most vicious of conflicts. Living close to a line of political demarcation gives one the perfect excuse to dress up a personal grudge in the finery of patriotic duty. It is much simpler to settle a neighborly dispute with a gun than with a lawyer. This phenomenon has no better American example than the series of conflicts along the Kansas and Missouri border in the middle of the 19th century. The Kansas-Missouri conflict was the opener to America’s headlining geographic dispute, the Civil War.

In the years leading up to our seminal disagreement, the political balance of America was a can kicked constantly down the road for the next group of poor bastards to deal with. As we expanded westward and formed new states, would they be slave or free? The tenuous equilibrium of these opposing visions of America dominated national politics. The Kansas-Nebraska act ended the uneasy peace of more than 30 years that the Missouri Compromise afforded. With this law, it was now up to the citizens of a new state to determine their status, not Congress. This concept of “popular sovereignty” fueled partisan migration to the new territories in the effort to fortify their respective bloc’s political power. Effectively, a bunch of people who vehemently disagreed on politics moved within a day’s ride from each other in a time where life was cheap and the idea of law and order was largely a construction of who had the most guns.

On the free state side, no actor was as infamous as John Brown. He was a religious firebrand whose hatred of slavery was only matched by his virility and inability to maintain gainful employment. He moved to Kansas with a wagon full of guns and sons. Soon after his arrival, a pro-slavery posse sacked the town of Lawrence, destroying two abolitionist newspapers and a hotel. This enraged Brown, and he plotted revenge. One night, in a company consisting of some of his sons and others, he snuck into a small pro-slavery settlement north of Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas. They proceeded to pull five men from their beds and hack them to death with broadswords in front of their families. This event typified the series of bloody confrontations between settlers that defined the events as “Bleeding Kansas.” 

John Brown became a media darling of New England radical abolitionists, who flocked to his fiery speeches and shelled out money to fund his crusade. His inflated ego and generous donors eventually led him to stage a raid against the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Having drafted a new Constitution, he intended on arming slaves and leading them on a march of violent and retributive liberation throughout the South. This time, he ran out of sons and did not have enough guns. He was captured by a force of US Marines led by a young Col. Robert E. Lee. Tried and sentenced to hang, his last words were a harbinger of things to come: “I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

Not to be outdone, the pro-slavery forces had their own infamous personalities. Jesse James was born to a pro-slavery family in an area of Missouri known as “Little Dixie.” On the outbreak of the war, his family’s involvement in Confederate guerrilla actions led to a Union militia raiding the family farm and torturing one of his brothers. His older brother Frank eluded capture and joined up with another notorious Bushwhacker, William C. Quantrill. It was believed Frank took part in Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, a retaliatory attack for Unionist raids on pro-slavery homesteads. Over 150 civilians were massacred in the streets. Soon after, Frank joined a group led by Fletch Taylor, where 16-year-old Jesse joined them. A shotgun blast took Fletch’s arm, so the James brothers joined Bloody Bill Anderson. The group attacked a train carrying unarmed Union soldiers, killing a score and scalping them. They then ambushed a pursuing Union force, killing all who attempted to surrender. The brothers’ notoriety led a local federal unit to compel the James family to leave Missouri, and the brothers split paths. The whirlwind of violence the James brothers brought with them settled for a time. 

After the war, Reconstruction loomed over Missouri. Republican political domination ensured Bushwhackers would continue to fight the only way they knew how. For them the war hadn’t ended, the tactics only changed. The gang took to robbing banks to fund their campaigns as well as to hamper Reconstruction. Jesse James rose to fame as a Robin Hood figure to some, and a violent outlaw to others. As his luck began to run out, Jesse was betrayed by a man with whom he was laying low. The governor of Missouri offered a substantial reward for his capture. In order to secure this princely sum and to mark his name down in the pages of American history, Robert Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head while he was adjusting a picture frame.

The border wars in the western territories bred a particular type of man. He was a political partisan of a most literal and vicious type. As always, the line between guerrilla and bandit was ambiguous. One changed from beloved hero to hated villain depending on what town they were in. Unlike the war that followed, there was no attempt at order or gentlemanly conduct between combatants. It was war to the tooth, with each killing doing little more than ensuring another. In their fights there were no winners, and any survival was often temporary. They died as they lived, violently. 

From the FE Films Archive

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