Five Reasons “A Civil War is the Worst”

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Kansas City Public Library

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James H. Lane, a U.S. senator, brigadier general and jayhawker, angered Allen T. Ward with his inflammatory raids into Missouri. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Writing to his sister in the fall of 1861, Paola, Kansas, resident and store owner Allan T. Ward complained of the numerous worries sparked by the Civil War. Similar to many residents along the Missouri-Kansas border, Ward had suffered through years of “Bleeding Kansas” troubles before the war even began, and he noted that the start of the Civil War only made things worse. Ward summarized his frustrations, writing “we would have no cause of complaint if we could only have peace, but alas, war with all its horrors is upon us, and of all wars that ever a country was cursed with a civil war is the worst.”

In the well-written and unusually comprehensive letter, Ward recounted at least five issues troubling him and his family:

1. Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers

The escalating violence between the Unionist “jayhawkers” and the secessionist “bushwhackers” placed regular citizens in a perilous situation. Ward was caught between two sides and complained that with the secessionist invasion (presumably referencing General Sterling Price’s drive to the northern part of the state and the First Battle of Lexington), Unionists were forced to “fly for their lives; then in turn comes the union forces under Jim Lane and Montgomery, and all the Secessionists have to leave in a hurry or be shot down as so many wolves . . . .”

The jayhawkers particularly troubled Ward, who believed that in their quest to make Kansas a free state, the jayhawkers had initiated the cross-border violence some years before. As a store owner, Ward especially feared theft from jayhawkers who came into town and demanded food, shelter, and supplies, while justifying their demands by their affiliation with the Union cause. 

2. Plunder

Ward elaborated that jayhawkers would cross over the state line into Missouri and steal “Negro’s, horses, cattle, sheep, & hogs,” as well as clothing from women and children. Likewise Missourians would retaliate and do the same to Kansans. “And so it goes,” Ward wrote, “the parties are in no ways particular who they rob. The object is plunder . . . .” Ward accurately observed that men on both sides of the conflict enriched themselves through unscrupulous banditry.

3. Personal Feuds and Violence

Aside from wealth, a factor fueling the violence was the prevalence of personal feuds that could escalate to violence in the chaotic wartime environment. Ward summarized these feuds succinctly:

If a man has an enemy, all he has to do to get rid of him is to say to a [jayhawker] that he is a secessionist, or he sympathizes with the South, and the man is robbed of all he has and either driven off or hung; (I speak here of Kansas) and in parts of Missouri where the Secessionists have a majority the same holds good as to union men . . . .

As with theft, the tense political situation provided a convenient excuse for murder.

4. Economic Disruption

Underscoring the scale of the troubles, Ward described the economic stagnation that resulted from the war:

Business is entirely prostrate, we are doing nothing to make a living; no sale for goods, & if we could sell them we could not bring them here, the river blockaded, and the railroad torn up half the time: neither is there any encouragement to improve our farms, as we don’t know what hour it may all be destroyed.

5. Racial Tensions

Complicating matters further, besides the political divisions among whites, Ward showed resentment toward the victims of slavery. Evidently referring to General James H. Lane’s Sacking of Osceola, Missouri, Ward complained of the “flock of negro’s” released by Lane. Ward claimed that 300 of them passed through Kansas, and “at the rate he is sending his contrabands over here, in a very short time Kansas will have more darkies than Missouri.”

Ward’s resentment of African Americans embodied that of a large portion of Unionists and Kansans, who may have feared competition with slave labor and therefore opposed the expansion of slavery into the West, but who had no love of the black race.

Little to Allen T. Ward’s knowledge, he and his family would have to endure another three-and-a-half years of political strife, vindictive violence, plunder, and economic or social disruption before the end of the war.

Be sure to read the document transcription to learn more!

Additional Resources

Conduct additional research in the Allen T. Ward Papers at the Kansas Historical Society.

Neely, Jeremy. “‘A Most Cruel and Unjust War:’ The Guerrilla Struggle along the Missouri-Kansas Border.” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library.


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