Bleeding Kansas

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Bleeding Kansas (1854–58) refers to the violent civil disturbances in Kansas over the question of whether the territory would be slave or free.Slavery was prohibited in land north of 36°, 30′ under the Missouri Compromise. But in 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois put forward legislation to organize the Kansas‐Nebraska Territory. To gain support from southern senators, the bill repealed the Missouri Compromise and called for popular sovereignty to determine the question of slavery. After a bitter struggle, the act passed in 1854, prompting many northern Democrats to defect to the newly formed Republican Party, which opposed the extension of slavery.

The Kansas‐Nebraska Act injected the debate over slavery into western settlement. Emigrants quickly moved into Kansas—some primarily motivated to make the territory free, others to make it a slave state. By the end of 1855, there were two rival governments in Kansas. A pro‐slavery territorial legislature recognized by President Franklin Pierce's administration was fraudulently elected through the votes of border “ruffians” from Missouri. Free Soil settlers rejected this government, wrote a free state constitution, and established a rival government in Topeka.

The calm in Kansas was shattered in May 1856 by two events that began a small civil war. On 21 May, the Free Soil town of Lawrence was sacked by an armed pro‐slavery force. A few days later, the abolitionist John Brown and six followers executed five men along the Pottawatomie Creek in retaliation. May through October witnessed numerous skirmishes between armed bands of pro‐slavery and Free Soil men. The U.S. Army had two garrisons in Kansas, the First Cavalry Regiment at Fort Leavenworth and the Second Dragoons and sixth Infantry at Fort Riley.

The territorial governor tried to stem the violence and maintain peace by policing Kansas with federal troops. He had small detachments sent to assist civil officers and to disperse any unauthorized armed force. The worst of the violence ended in October 1856 as neither Free Soil nor pro‐slavery forces wanted to clash with the federal army. By early November, most federal troops had returned to Forts Leavenworth and Riley.

The governor's action to station federal troops across Kansas during the 1857 October elections for territory offices was the last extensive use of the army during the period of civil strife. Most of Kansas was at peace by the end of 1857, except for an area in the extreme southeast on the Missouri border. Between 1857 and 1861, small detachments of federal troops periodically went into this area for pacification purposes. One soldier was killed in action during the domestic disorder, which claimed about 200 civilian lives.

The civil conflict in Kansas was a product of the political fight over slavery. Federal troops were not used to decide a political question, but they were used by successive territorial governors to pacify the territory so that the political question of slavery in Kansas could finally be decided by peaceful, legal, and political means.
[See also Civil War: Causes.]


Allan Nevins , Ordeal of the Nation, Vol. 2: A House Dividing, 1852–1857, 1947.
Allan Nevins , The Emergence of Lincoln, Vol. 1: Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859, 1950.
Robert W. Coakley , The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1789–1878, 1988.
James M. McPherson , Battle Cry of Freedom, 1988.

Paul J. Morton

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"Bleeding Kansas" describes a conflict over slavery in the state of Kansas during the 1850s, immediately preceding the American Civil War (186165). The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created two new territories (Kansas and Nebraska). The U.S. Congress ruled that the question of slavery in each should be decided by popular sovereignty. Nebraska's population primarily consisted of people opposed to slavery, but settlers from both the North and the South settled Kansas. The territory became the scene of a showdown between the Free State advocates (who formed the Free State party to oppose slavery) and the pro-slavery contingent.

In 1855 territorial elections were held, and the vote was swung to the pro-slavery side. This was partly due to Missourians who crossed the border and cast votes in the neighboring territory. Slavery supporters soon dominated the Kansas legislature and passed laws favorable to their own interests. Tensions were heightened and violence broke out between the two sides. Most of the conflicts clustered around the border with Missouri, a state where slavery was legal. In one incident on May 24, 1856 ardent abolitionist John Brown (18001859) led an attack in which five pro-slavery men were brutally murdered in their sleep. The act was carried out in retribution for earlier killings of freemen at Lawrence, Kansas. Brown claimed his was a mission from God. Newspapers dubbed the series of violent conflicts "Bleeding Kansas," after they claimed more than 50 lives. The situation proved that the doctrine of popular sovereignty would not solve the nation's deep ideological differences.

In Kansas the Free State party eventually regained control of the territorial government and wrote a constitution abolishing slavery. Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861. By that time the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana had already seceded from the Union.

See also: Kansas, Slavery