BALDWIN CITY, Kansas — Fireflies beckon to each other in the darkness accentuated by the trees and the rural countryside. But rough-spoken men break the fairy-tale cheer with threats that reek of hatred — hatred of each other and what the others stand for.
These men are on the frontier of the still young United States — indeed, their looming confrontation is based on whether the barely settled swath of rolling prairie and forest known as the Kansas Territory should be admitted to the Union as a state where slavery is legal or is forbidden.
And tomorrow at daybreak, these men will stage what many historians consider the true first battle of the Civil War — almost 5 years before the Confederates will fire on Fort Sumter, more than 1,150 miles back east.
History a few miles away
This re-enactment, along with others plus museums and an active Army base, recount not just the tortured history of what became known as “bleeding Kansas” but also the state’s role in the challenging creation of the frontier in the mid-19th century. A driving trip of less than 150 miles reveals a rich vein of America’s history. But few sites are as dramatic as the Battle of Blackjack Springs, just a few miles from quiet Baldwin City.
The re-enactors include those angry men and one woman — now a sorrowful widow and grieving mother victimized by the blood lust along the Kansas-Missouri border. They re-create events before and during a three-hour firefight on the grassy hillsides split by a creek along the Santa Fe Trail.
The re-enactment is held on the anniversary of that battle on June 2, 1856, when an estimated 75 Missourians ultimately would surrender to about 25 Kansans led by John Brown, an Easterner who would become a lightning rod for abolitionists.
On the night before the re-enactment, visitors sit on hay bales on the site of the actual three-hour battle, to hear Brown — cradling a rifle, his eyes blazing — decry the “abomination” that is slavery.
He recounts the history of thousands of pro-slavery Missourians moving across the Missouri River into Kansas, where fewer thousands of anti-slavery Easterners and Northerners had already settled.
Battling the Jayhawks
Many arrived just to take part in the vote that would decide Kansas’ status. Many of the Missourians terrorized the settlers — called Jayhawks, after an imaginary combination of those two birds — robbing and beating them.
The raiders also set fire to the town of Lawrence, a hotbed of abolitionists. Five townspeople were killed.
Brown, leading a group that included some of the five sons who had preceded him into Kansas, crossed into Missouri. On May 26, 1856, the group committed what is known as the Pottawatamie (cq) Massacre, using swords and pistols to slaughter five farmers.
The showdown at Blackjack Springs abut a week later was to avenge the massacre, but Brown’s vastly outnumbered forces were victorious. Oddly, no one was killed in the firefight before the Missouri force, led by a deputy U.S. marshal, surrendered.
For the annual re-enactment just yards from the actual battlefield, Brown briefly summarizes the reasons for the fight. Then for about 20 minutes, a few dozen re-enactors including some on horseback have at each other, firing their rifles and pistols.
When it’s time for the surrender, firebrand John Brown (enactor Kerry Altenbernd (cq) tells the crowd: “Everyone heard of Blackjack — it was civil war!”
Later, Altenbernd, the law librarian for Douglas County (site of Blackjack Springs and Lawrence), tells me in a surprisingly soft voice, “I feel I understand Brown. He was dedicated, not crazy” — addressing a concept most people have when they hear of the massacre.
“There were 4-million of his brothers and sisters in bondage, and he couldn’t free them.”
Different play, different troupe
Another set of folks offers their version of the history that led to the nickname “bleeding Kansas” in the tiny town of Lecompton, briefly the territory’s first capital and just 30 miles from Baldwin City.
A repertoire troupe of about 30 takes turns portraying Brown, as well as the sheriff who torched Lawrence, the Pottawatomie widow and several more historic figures, in a play written 17 years ago by a resident.
Their preferred venue is in the main hall of a former college building, now the Lane Museum. There, the re-enactors send visitors into either side of the main aisle and encourage them to shout out huzzahs or boo the actors, depending on whether the visitors are sitting on the Missouri or the “Free State” side. This group, which also bought or made their costumes and props, performs up to 50 times a year, often for school groups around the state.
On the road west
Less than an hour’s drive southeast, in Olathe, more of Kanssas’ history — without the emphasis on the bloodshed — is recounted by costumed docents at the Mahaffie (cq) Stage Coach (two words cq) Stop and Farm. Occupying original and recreated buildings, plus a 4-year-old museum, the story of America’s westward growth is told through artifacts — from a child’s plate to farm implements to a Colt revolver – and reproductions and a timeline mural that begins in 1845. That’s 12 years before James Beattie (cq) Mahaffie arrived in Olathe with his wife and five children and created a 600-acre farm along the Santa Fe Trail.
That wagon path was used by Midwesterners as the trade route when Mexico won its freedom from Spain. It went from Missouri’s Mississippi River towns to what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Uncle Beattie” Mahaffie first built his stone farmhouse, which still stands, and operated an inn and then a stop for stagecoaches. His wife and daughters would feed 75 to 100 passengers daily — the coaches rolled 24 hours a day between 1865 and 1869.
Owned by the city of Olathe and covering 11 of the original 600 acres, the attraction includes a blacksmith shop, livestock barn for oxen and horses that pull the reproduction stagecoach that carries visitors around the buildings. In the farmhouse, they can watch a docent cook using authentic kitchen equipment and even try their hands at churning butter.
But 30 years before the Mahaffies arrived, the federal government needed to protect the traffic along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails and the early settlers from attacks by Native Americans. The government erected a series of forts about 100 miles apart along the frontier, and one of them is the oldest, continuously operating, military base west of the Mississippi. It has a familiar name: Leavenworth.
Touring an Army base
Laid out on the tree-covered bluffs high above the Missouri River, Fort Leavenworth opened in May 1827 and as usually happened, a village grew up nearby.
It wasn’t long before a 14-year-old from the village named William Cody began working for a freight shipper, riding along the trails to help protect the wagons and to provide the drovers with fresh meat. His prowess with a rifle earned him a nickname he cherished: Buffalo Bill.
Nowadays, visitors to Fort Leavenworth are passed through a security checkpoint and can follow a self-guided tour of the base, a handsome facility of red brick buildings that date back a century but are also are as new as the 21st century.
Immediately after the Civil War, newly freed blacks comprised about a fifth of the U.S. Army, By 1867, Leavenworth was home to one of the regiments of African-American cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers. When he was commander of Leavenworth in the early 1990s, Gen. Colin Powell had erected two handsome statues commemorating those units.
Visitors learn that the famed Leavenworth prison now has both military and civilian components. Prohibition-era gangsters such as Machine Gun Kelly were imprisoned here. So was Robert Stroud, a murderer who gained fame because he kept birds in his cell, Thus he was later — but incorrectly — referred to as the Birdman of Alcatraz, where he did serve time.
While the prison buildings are not open to the public, the base does hold the Frontier Army Museum, which traces America’s growth even before there was a United States. Among the artifacts are a1763 French musket, surveyors’ tools from the late 18th century and on to the 20rh century — including a biplane like those used to chase Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916-17.
Among the extraordinary pieces on display: a Medal of Honor awarded in 1875, and a paymaster’s ledger showing that in 1881, the highest paid non-commissioned officers were chief musicians, who earned $228 total for a five-year enlistment.