Review: Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era
by Nicole Etcheson

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas (January 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0700612874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0700612871

BleedingKansasContestedLibertyInTheCivilWarEra“Bleeding Kansas”, 150 years after the event this phrase still causes strong feelings.  Very few are neutral on Kansas even now.  In trying to solve the question of slavery expanding into the territories, Congress left it to the settlers allowing Congress to maintain a fragile peace on the national level.  On the Kansas Missouri border, this policy caused the Civil War come early and stay late.  Popular Sovereignty pictured peaceful elections decided by local voters in a spirit of good fellowship and respect.  Popular Sovereignty was stuffing the ballot box, intimidation, murder and small battles between “settlers” imported by both sides.  Immigrant Aid Societies, Breecher’s Bibles, Red Legs and Jayhawkers all entered our vocabulary.  Jim Lane and John Brown become national figures.  William Quantrill, Cole Younger and Frank James all start their travels in Kansas.  While we have names and strong feelings on “Bleeding Kansas” or “The Troubles” as Missourians called this time, most of us do not have a good grasp of the events.

Nicole Etcheson fills this void.  She manages to keep national politics, regional responses, local politics and the fighting in perspective without overwhelming the reader.  With her sure narration, we walk the halls of Congress, sit in meetings at the White House, raise money for immigrant aid, ride with John Brown or just try to get a crop in.  Along the way, she refuses to take side!  The author uses each side’s ideas and justifications for their actions without moralizing or condemning.  This gives us a real insight into the thinking of Missourians crossing the border to vote in elections.  While helping us to understand the actions of the New Englanders that contributed thousands of dollars to resettle “free soil” families while buying rifles.  Neither side is completely right or wrong.  Anti-slavery farmers are no less raciest than slave owners nor are they more likely to aid runaway slaves.  This history of several political movements, a failing national policy, a shooting war and political double-dealing upsetting even by contemporary standards.  A strong story line is the change in racial attitudes of the free soil movement.  They move from a standard raciest set of laws to a state that almost welcomed Black settlers.

The book is never boring and all of the threads are easy to follow.  A very enjoyable read, informative and leaves us with a balanced understanding of Bleeding Kansas.  While detailed, the author manages to keep moving and never bogs down on a single point.  The portraits of the participants, while often unflattering, are always honest.  The illustrations are well chosen and in the right place.  The footnotes are informative and have a page reference making them easy to find.  The bibliography is excellent with more books on the subject than I would ever wish to read.


This is a book that all students of the Civil War need to read and is a required read for those interested in the Trans-Mississippi.

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