LAWRENCE – Mention the Civil War, and history buffs tend to think of Gettysburg, Bull Run or maybe Fort Sumter, but rarely of the terrorist and guerrilla attacks along the Kansas-Missouri border that characterized the war in the West.
“Yet in many ways, battles in the West decided the Civil War,” says Jonathan Earle, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.
Earle and his counterpart at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Diane Mutti Burke, have organized a national public conference on Border Wars from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12 at the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library.
As part of the nation’s Civil War sesquicentennial, 17 of the nation’s leading scholars on the Border Wars will discuss the issues and circumstances that shattered the Union during the Civil War.
Acting on their beliefs either against or in support of slavery, militants from Kansas Territory and Missouri were page-one news in The New York Times in 1856 – the height of Bleeding Kansas.
It was an exceptionally violent part of history leading to the Civil War that continues to have an impact more than 150 years later, Earle said. In fact, stories related to whether Kansas settlers would vote to become a free or slave state were national news for most of 1856.
Mutti Burke added: “It was on the Kansas-Missouri border that Americans first grappled with the problem of liberty and slavery face to face — some even shedding blood in the interest of their cause. An exploration of this most uncivil of wars also provides insight into the ways in which societies can be fragmented by ideology and ultimately rebuilt upon different lines.”
The conference focuses on slavery and the politics in Territorial Kansas; the sectional crisis and Civil War on the western border; and the Reconstruction Era, when both states allowed white supremacy and segregation to proliferate.
Michael Fellman, a pre-eminent Civil War scholar and an expert on the guerrilla warfare that characterized the Border Wars, will open the conference with a keynote speech: "I Came Not to Bring Peace, but a Sword: The Christian War God, and the War of All Against All on the Kansas-Missouri Border.” His talk begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, in the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library, central library, 14 W. 10th St.
Fellman’s speech title comes directly from the Bible, Matthew 10:34, a New Testament verse that seemed to justify murder and destruction by men on either side of the border.
“The warfare was on such a personal level,” Earle said. The guerrilla attacks in the 1850s on households and farmsteads along the Kansas and Missouri border by people who were neighbors shocked Americans, North and South, and left lasting marks on both states.
Even today bitterness flares on either side of the state line, most often at university athletic rivalries, but occasionally there can be bristling in academic circles. For example, when the Border Wars scholars met on the KU campus in April 2011 for a workshop to review their papers for November, Earle noted that it was unusual for some to attend the same conferences.
“Professor Mutti Burke and I sometimes feel like we’re officiating at a shotgun wedding,” Earle quipped.
The keynote address is scheduled at central library and most other sessions at the Plaza branch, 4801 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. The conference is free, but advance registration is requested. More information is online.
The Border Wars Conference organizers include the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library, UMKC’s Center for Regional Studies and history department, and KU’s history department. Co-sponsors are KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities, the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Trust, Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, the Bernardin Haskell Lecture Fund and KCPL.