Day 497: Dust (And Bloodshed) In The Wind

originally published May 11, 2013

To say the Civil War is the twisted, green corn chip in the snack bag of American history would be as much an understatement as it is a weird metaphor. It’s not often that you see so many people fight so vehemently for the right to deny other human beings their rights. History has proven the South to have been in the wrong, and the ramifications of their wrongness is still being felt today. Fortunately for all of us, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J have almost finished fixing racism for good. But that’s a story for another day.

As gruesome as the Civil War was, the bloodshed and despicable violence did not begin with the trumpet-blast of southern secession in 1861. Those dirty days of the 1850’s were the grizzly drumroll before the cacophonous crash cymbal of gore and bloodshed. The northern states and southern states knew where they stood – one was adamant that under no circumstances should one human being claim possession over another. The other… meh. They weren’t so choosy about what they deemed to be a ‘grey area’ of morality.

But America was puffing its chest westward, and new, mostly rectangular states were vying for a seat at the nation’s table. The abolitionist and pro-slavery states were also looking for a little extra support among these newcomers. Newcomers like Missouri, Nebraska, and the place that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas.

It all started with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was an attempt by Congress to balance out slave states and non-slave states. Missouri was allowed in as a slave state because Maine had been added as a free state. Then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 nullified the idea of compromise by suggesting that the next new territories put it to a vote, let the people – well, the white people – decide whether or not they wanted slavery to be legal. Nebraska never got around to processing an official yay or nay position on the matter. But in Kansas, shit turned ugly.

It was crucial for both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery states to push for their side to win in these new territories. The Senate was split almost evenly at the time, and nobody wanted the other guys to gain an advantage.

Pro-slavery settlements began popping up near the Missouri River, at Leavenworth and Atchison. Anti-slavery settlements were fuelled by abolitionists swooping into new towns like Topeka and Lawrence. With people came guns, and both sides were ready to fight for their side of the cause. In the summer of 1855 the votes were cast on the issue. And this is where things got weird.

Less than half the ballots collected came from registered voters. There were only 1500 registered voters in Kansas at the time (and not all of them voted), yet over 6000 votes were collected, thanks in part to the ‘Border Ruffians’ who had surged across the river from Missouri to have their say, whether they were supposed to or not. The pro-slavery forces notched a tidy – albeit crooked – victory.

The new legislature set up camp at the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri River. Around that time, a group of free-state folks passed the Topeka Constitution, setting up their own government. Officially, US President Franklin Pierce only recognized the pro-slavery government, claiming the other to be made up of revolutionaries who refused to accept the official vote. In a sense he was right, so long as you ignore the fact that the vote itself was completely rigged.

The violence began to percolate in Kansas, as a couple of anti-slavery settlers were killed by Border Ruffians. But that was nothing compared to what went down in Washington.

On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democrat Senator from South Carolina, lost his shit on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, right in the middle of the Senate chamber. Sumner had had the nerve to use some ‘insulting’ language in a speech that denounced Southerners’ roles in the pro-slavery violence in Kansas. Brooks’ solution was to thwack Sumner with his cane.

We’re not talking a swift slap of wood on skull here. After Sumner stumbled, blood pouring into his eyes as he was about to fall unconscious, Brooks kept at it, beating on Sumner’s cranium until his cane broke. Some tried to help, but Congressman Laurence Keitt held them back with his pistol, shouting, “Let them be!”

Brooks resigned from the Senate in July. He was found guilty of assault, but served no jail time. Sumner’s injuries were so severe, he didn’t return to his position in the Senate for three years. Yes, this really happened. Suddenly today’s partisan politics don’t seem so ugly.

President Pierce chose his side of the Kansas fight and stuck with it. When a congressional investigation committee reported that the vote had been as crooked as a three-legged horse, Pierce paid the report no mind. Instead he sent in federal troops to break up a meeting of the anti-slavery shadow government in Topeka.

In August, thousands of pro-slavery troops suited up and marched into the territory. These were armed men, willing to die in order to defend the right to own people. This still blows my mind. Anyway, abolitionist John Brown and about forty men faced off against around 300 pro-slavery troops in the Battle of Osawatomie. Brown’s son was shot, but his side inflicted a fair bit of damage before they had to withdraw. The pro-slavery forces, who weren’t looking to liberate the town, only to kill, burn and loot, were aiming for Topeka where they aimed to cut off the anti-slavery forces at the head.

In 1857, the ‘official’ government drafted the Lecompton Constitution, a basis for Kansas’s statehood, complete with the pro-slavery bias that the guys in charge were hoping for. Anti-slavery forces boycotted the ratification vote, because it stood against everything they believed in, and didn’t allow them the option to vote against slavery. New president James Buchanan accepted this, but Congress did not. They wanted another election.

This time, the pro-slavery forces boycotted the election. They’d already won, why should they put themselves through another vote? That wasn’t smart. This election was being watched by Congress, and when the anti-slavery side won, they claimed the official victory. They put together the abolitionist Wyandotte Constitution in 1859, which passed through the electorate with a 2-to-1 margin of victory, and Kansas became an official American state – an anti-slavery state – in 1861.

It’s hard to imagine that a nation so fundamentally rooted in the concept of ‘freedom’ faced so much internal conflict over the simple decision to allow freedom for everyone inside its borders. In total, 56 people died in the guerilla warfare in the area, which died out two years before the Civil War got things rolling again and racked up the real casualties.

If only they’d had Brad Paisley to set them all straight back then.

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