Before the start of the Civil War, the name “jayhawkers” applied to bands of robbers, associated with the Kansas Free-Stater cause, who rustled livestock and stole property on both sides of the state line. During this period, a jayhawker could be a hero or a villain, depending on individual circumstances or one’s opinion on the issue of slavery in Kansas Territory. By the time the war ended, however, the term “jayhawkers” became synonymous with Union troops led by abolitionists from Kansas, and "jayhawking" became the generic term for armies plundering and looting from civilian populations nationwide.
Led by strident abolitionists, including Charles R. Jennison and James Montgomery, Free-State men formed vigilante units to protect themselves against the depredations of proslavery forces during the time of “Bleeding Kansas.” Free-State politician James H. Lane addressed his forces as jayhawkers when he led the defense of Lawrence during the so-called Wakarusa War, in which Free-State forces clashed with their proslavery counterparts, the “border ruffians,” in the fall of 1855.
When the Civil War began, these vigilante units mustered into the federal army and became formally recognized Union regiments calling themselves “Jayhawkers.” Some men who enlisted in the jayhawker outfits were sincere abolitionists, some were devout Unionist and brave soldiers defending their homeland, and others were bullies and thieves who took advantage of the chaos of war. Many who served in these jayhawker brigades and regiments had old scores to settle with proslavery Missourians from the days of Bleeding Kansas.
These troops overstepped their bounds of authority and became notorious for robbing, plundering, and burning the farms of proslavery and Southern migrant families along the border.
In the summer of 1861, operating under orders from the Union command in St. Louis to protect the border area from Confederate General Sterling Price, jayhawker regiments led by James H. Lane, Charles R. Jennison, and James Montgomery began a short reign of terror in western Missouri. By liberally interpreting their orders to reestablish law and order, these troops overstepped their bounds of authority and became notorious for robbing, plundering, and burning the farms of proslavery and Southern migrant families along the border. Most self-professed jayhawkers considered all Missourians, including the civilian population, to be the enemy and paid little attention to citizens’ loyalty to the Union or slaveholding status.
In September 1861, James H. Lane led the Third and Fourth Kansas Volunteer Infantry and the Fifth Kansas Cavalry on a raid of Osceola, Missouri. They left a $1 million swath of damaged and stolen property, freed the town’s enslaved people, and stole everything from horses and wagons to home furnishings and personal items. They got drunk, insulted the local citizenry, court-martialed, and then summarily executed nine citizens. The jayhawkers returned to Kansas with everything they could carry and followed by hundreds of emancipated slaves. On their way out, they burned the frontier town, which was one of the largest in the border region.
Perhaps most mortifying to the proslavery citizens of the border counties was the appearance of an armed and mounted company of African-Americans, emancipated slaves, in Union blue uniforms.
Charles R. Jennison led the “Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawkers,” also known as the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, into Jackson County, where they sustained themselves by looting and stealing from Missourians, indiscriminate of their loyalty to the Union or opinions on slavery. In the county seat of Independence, they gathered the adult men into the town square and, at bayonet point, forced them to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union. Perhaps most mortifying to the proslavery citizens of the border counties was the appearance of an armed and mounted company of African-Americans, emancipated slaves, in Union blue uniforms who served in Jennison’s regiment of Kansans.
From jayhawkers to Jayhawks: The 1890 University of Kansas football team was known as the “Jayhawkers,” but later the university shortened its sports name to simply “Jayhawks.” By the 1910s, the Jayhawk had become synonomous with a mythical bird; nonetheless, the historical connections are undeniable.
In just a few months the jayhawker units serving under Lane, Montgomery, and Jennison gained a reputation for murder, theft, and terror that inadvertently drove many Missourians into the service of the pro-Confederate “bushwhackers” or the Confederate Army itself. Missouri’s famed artist and ardent Unionist George Caleb Bingham commented, “If Jennison were hung, General Sterling Price would lose the best recruiting agent he ever had.” When news of the activities of these Kansas troops reached the Union high command in St. Louis, the jayhawkers were ordered out of the area and into service in other theaters of the war, where they sometimes served with distinction and sometimes ran afoul of the Union command by continuing their predacious jayhawking ways.
Some jayhawker units returned to the area to thwart General Price’s 1864 Missouri invasion and fought bravely at the Battle of Westport. Eventually, the hard-line tactics against the civilian population and its economic infrastructure, as practiced by the jayhawkers on their forays into Missouri, were adopted by Union General Tecumseh Sherman’s troops as they marched through Georgia toward Savannah. And much like Sherman’s famous military maneuver, the jayhawker raids into Missouri would leave bitter memories that would last for generations.
Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Neely, Jeremy. The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. Columbia London: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.