Tag Archives: Civil War

Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site, home of one of the least-known battles of the Civil War

The most fascinating thing about the Battle of Mine Creek is how little your average Kansan knows about it. It was one of the most important cavalry battles of the Civil War. It marked the end of the South’s last major campaign west of the Mississippi River.

Ask Kansans to rattle off important Kansas people or Kansas events connected to the Civil War, the list will probably be limited to William Quantrill, John Brown, the Lawrence Massacre, James Lane, and Bloody Bill Anderson.

Yet if you ask them about the day that brought nearly 10,000 men to a Kansas field and left more than 600 of them dead or wounded, they’ll probably look at you in bewilderment.

Welcome to the Battle of Mine Creek.

Here is a simplified version of events:

By late 1864, the War Between the States was shifting in favor of the Union. Fearful that the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln would lead to the South’s defeat, they CSA decided that if they could recapture a Union state and seat a Confederate governor, they might be able to change the outcome of the election and the war.

When most people think of border war states, they think of Kansas. But by the time the Civil War was underway, Kansas had pretty much settled on being a Union anti-slavery state, even if all of it’s residents didn’t agree. Missouri, on the other hand, was much more on the fence. Many of the pro-slavery people who fled from the sometimes-dangerously enthusiastic Kansas abolitionists ended up in Missouri, and though Missouri technically fought for the Union, many of its citizens owned slaves and sympathized with the Southern cause.

Enter Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.

In an effort to gain control of Missouri, Price was given this to-do list:

  • Conquer St. Louis, the most abolitionist of Missouri cities.
  • If that’s not possible, take over Jefferson City, and while there, seat a new governor.
  • If that’s not possible, smack down the areas around Kansas City.
  • If all that fails, destroy as much of Kansas as possible on the return trip.

While he was on his march across Missouri, he was to accumulate additional men and commandeer supplies. So began what was to be known as Price’s Raid.

By the middle of October, things were not going too well for Price’s men. St. Louis was too heavily fortified, as was Jefferson City. So they continued marching west, successfully adding men to the ranks and filling wagons with supplies, weapons, and ammunition. When the reached what now the Kansas City metro area, they were forced into retreat at what would be called the Gettysburg of the West: the Battle of Westport.

Missouri was lost, but Price and his men still had one item on the list they could accomplish: do damage to Kansas.

The Kansans, though, were ready. In October, the governor called the Kansas militia into service, and Gen. Samuel Curtis declared the state was under martial law. The Union was in hot pursuit of Price.

Meanwhile, Price and his men was storming through Kansas along the road to Fort Scott. That’s when the weather and geography sealed their fate. Heavy rains had filled the Marais des Cygnes River and Mine Creek. The ground was soft and muddy and both waterways were hard to cross. The men on foot could have managed, but the problem was the wagons and horses. By that time, Price’s men had amassed a fortune in ammunition, weapons, and other supplies, enough to form an entire wagon train–a slow-moving, frequently-stuck-in-the-mud wagon train. Price and many of his men rode ahead, but the wagons and the men guarding them found themselves in the bottom of a ravine trying to cross a swollen creek at a small rocky ford when the Union men caught up with them.

A view from the rocky ford in Mine Creek. Slowed down by heavy wagons sinking in the mud, Price's men were trapped when the Union cavalry arrived.

A view from the rocky ford in Mine Creek. Slowed down by heavy wagons sinking in the mud, Price’s men were trapped when the Union cavalry arrived.

In a field that rarely saw humans moving through it, about 10,000 men clashed with cannons, swords, rifles, and guns on October 25, 1864. The Confederates outnumbered the Union men nearly three to one, but the Northerners had higher ground and better weapons on their side, and by the time it was over, nearly 1,200 of Price’s men would be wounded, captured, or killed. The women from the nearby farm houses were tasked with caring for the injured and dying men. The dead were piled into a ravine and buried, and the smell of death lingered long after the battle was over.

Looking south at the Mine Creek Battlefield site. The land has been returned to native prairie, recreating how it would have appeared to men who fought there in 1864.

Looking south at the Mine Creek Battlefield site. The land has been returned to native prairie, recreating how it would have appeared to men who fought there in 1864.

It was an amazing defeat. Soon after, those very wagons were set ablaze so that they couldn’t be confiscated by the Union or further hold back the retreating men.

What amazes me about the Battle of Mine Creek is the fact that all we know about it is what was recounted in the letters and journals of the men who were there. The battle didn’t even have a proper name, because it didn’t happen in a town; it happened in a field with only a few farmhouses in the area. There were no reporters or photographers nearby. Yet it ended Price’s efforts to destroy Kansas.

Fortunately for us, the battlefield isn’t in an area where it was paved over and planted with houses before anyone realized they’d destroyed a piece of history. The Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site has preserved the land (even though their original land acquisition turned out to be west of the actual battlefield). The land has been returned to native prairie, making it look and feel much more like it would have 150 years ago. Mowed paths walk you through the battlefield, and kiosks highlight important elements of the battle. You can see for yourself where Price’s men found themselves trapped trying to cross the rocky ford on Mine Creek.

Get oriented at the historic site's museum, where you can watch a video detailing the history of the battle, see evidence of the battle recovered by archeologists, and study maps of the battlefield.

Get oriented at the historic site’s museum, where you can watch a video detailing the history of the battle, see evidence of the battle recovered by archeologists, and study maps of the battlefield.

But before you tackle the battlefield, I recommend visiting the museum itself. The 45-minute video, which originally aired on the History Channel, will orient you to the finer points of the battle (much of which I glossed over here). Artifacts collected by archeologists are thoughtfully interpreted and displayed. One of our favorite objects was a binder explaining the archeological process that helped determine the actual location of the Fort Scott road and the battlefield. Give yourself at least 90 minutes at the museum to really take in the information and ask questions.

Mine Creek Battlefield Sharps Carbine Bullets

One display shows the various types of ammunition found by archeologists on the site of the Battle of Mine Creek.

Then hit the trails, which are easy enough to follow (it’s pretty easy to see a trail when the grass is six feet tall on either side of a mowed path). Amazingly, we only confused ourselves when we tried to follow the trail map, which did not accurately represent the trails. If you go before a hard freeze, douse yourself in bug spray.

Well-maintained trails through the grasses and woody area by the creek are dotted with kiosks that tell the story of the Battle of Mine Creek. Bug spray is a good idea if you visit during the spring, summer, or fall before a hard freeze.

Well-maintained trails through the grasses and woody area by the creek are dotted with kiosks that tell the story of the Battle of Mine Creek. Bug spray is a good idea if you visit during the spring, summer, or fall before a hard freeze.

The battlefield land is quiet, save for the sound of insects and the wind blowing through the grasses and trees. It is easy to forget the present day, and as you look north up the hill from the creek, you can lose yourself in the moment and imagine what it must have been like for those Confederate soldiers, who were trapped by their wagons, as they watched the Union soldiers ride over the hill.

***

The battlefield trails and interpretive kiosks are open all year long from dawn to dusk. However, the museum is only open from April through October. If you’re traveling far to visit, consider spend the entire day in the area and visit the Marais des Cygnes Massacre Site  and the town and cemetery of Trading Post for a more complete understanding of how the area was repeatedly assaulted in the times leading up to and including the Civil War.

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Exploring Fort Scott, Kansas

Novelist E. E. Burke found her inspiration for her Steam! Romance and Rails historical romantic suspense series in Fort Scott, Kansas. To celebrate the launch of Passion’s Prize and Her Bodyguard, she gave away a two-night stay at the amazing Lyons Twin Mansions in historic Fort Scott. I never win anything big, so I was giddy when she e-mailed me to tell me that I was the lucky winner.

So Jim and I packed our bags and headed to Fort Scott a few weekends ago, where we got to stay in one of a pair of elegant twin mansions on National Street. Built by wealthy New York bankers during the 1870s, the mansions were never lived in by their owners, who moved East after their prospects nosedived. Today, both homes are owned by members of the Lyons family, and Ms. Pat is the ultimate B&B hostess. The rooms are airy and comfortable and the house is true to its roots without being overly fussy.

Usually when we’re traveling, we tend to eat on the cheap. But Ms. Pat suggested we head to Crooner’s Lounge, a surprisingly nice little restaurant tucked in next to the historic Liberty Theatre. It’s only open three nights a week and their menu varies night to night, making it a nice place to go out for both locals and the tourists.

Crooner's Lounge was the perfect place for a nice dinner.

Crooner’s Lounge was the perfect place for a nice dinner. Chalkboards on the walls list the night’s menu.

What I love about Fort Scott is that the town understands that their history is one of their greatest assets, and they go out of their way to make it accessible. We headed for the visitor’s center and took a Trolley Tour of the town. Even though Jim and I love exploring towns on our own, I recommend Fort Scott’s Trolley Tour. It’s a great way to see most of the town and our tour guide taught us a lot of local history. For example, Fort Scott once had three big brick factories, which is why everywhere you go in Fort Scott, you see locally made bricks in the streets and sidewalks.

Fort Scott was once home to three brick factories.

Fort Scott was once home to three brick factories.

Next, we visited the Fort Scott National Historic Site. When I think of early Kansas history and westward expansion, I tend to think of Kansas during the years leading up to the Civil War. But Fort Scott’s roots are much older than that. Established in 1842, Fort Scott was one of a line of forts that was supposed to protect the boundary between white settlement and the lands designated for Native Americans. This was important at a time when the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail were both bringing non-Native Americans across that boundary.

Fort Scott National Historic Site, as seen from the parade ground.

Fort Scott National Historic Site, as seen from the parade ground.

The Fort was originally home to infantry soldiers and dragoons. After the U.S. gained large sections of land once belonging to Mexico, the government’s attitude toward land use changed dramatically and, in 1853, the Fort was abandoned. Two years later, the buildings were sold at auction.

The Fort’s story didn’t end there, though. Being only a few miles west of the Missouri-Kansas border, Fort Scott became an important strategic location during the Civil War. Injured soldiers were hospitalized there, and many of the old buildings were put back into use. Once the war was over, the buildings fell into private hands. Many were destroyed or nearly destroyed during the subsequent decades. During the 1950s, concerned citizens and historians worked together to restore still-existing buildings and reconstruct buildings no longer standing in order to recreate the 1840s version of Fort Scott.

The fort is a treasure. The site does a wonderful job telling the story of what life was life for soldiers in what would have been the edge of the western U.S. boundary during the 1840s. A short video at the Visitor Center gives a great introduction to the fort’s history.

Many of the surviving buildings were in use for years after the military left the fort. One of the Officers’ Quarters was a private family home from 1855 through 1958. Instead of restoring it to a particular time period, the National Park Service chose to use what’s known as the Wilson/Goodlander Home as an opportunity to show how the building transitioned over the decades by peeling back the layers. Literally.

The Wilson/Goodlander Home, once part of the Officers' Quarters at Fort Scott, is used to showcase decades of alterations made to the historic building. Here a cutaway shows visitors the original location of a fireplace and a floor cutout for a furnace.

The Wilson/Goodlander Home, once part of the Officers’ Quarters at Fort Scott, is used to showcase decades of alterations made to the historic building. Here a cutaway shows visitors the original location of a fireplace and a floor cutout for a furnace.

After our trip to the fort, we visited Fort Scott National Cemetery. Originally called National Cemetery No. 1, the cemetery, which was originally a Presbyterian Graveyard, is one of the original fourteen national cemeteries. After it was officially designated a national cemetery in 1862, the remains of soldiers and prisoners originally interred at the old cemetery west of the fort were moved to the new site southeast of town.

Fort Scott National Cemetery, also known as National Cemetery No. 1.

Fort Scott National Cemetery, also known as National Cemetery No. 1.

The cemetery is the final resting place of the remains of more than 50,000 veterans. The stone wall surrounding the grounds was built in 1873. I was especially moved by the graves of 13 Confederate Soldiers who died as prisoners of war and the mass burials of World War II crew members who could not be individually identified in the days before DNA testing. It is a solemn and beautiful place, with little to disturb it beyond the occasional cries of crows and hawks overhead.

On our final afternoon in Fort Scott, we hit downtown on foot. Despite losing an entire city block during a terrible fire in 2003, downtown Fort Scott is beautiful and very much alive. We wandered in and out of antique stores and walked around the last remaining lunette, or block house, preserved between downtown and the Fort Scott National Historic Site. Several block houses were erected in 1863 as part of the effort to guard the large quantities of supplies stored at Fort Scott during the Civil War.

Finally, we traveled to the outskirts of town to visit the local civilian cemeteries. Thanks to early settlement and early railroad lines, the citizens of Fort Scott had access to finer materials and the cemeteries reflect that. Evergreen Cemetery is a large burial ground with many mausoleums and ornate headstones. Across the road is Pine Lawn, a Jewish Cemetery.

An entire weekend was not enough time to see everything in Fort Scott, which has become one of our favorite historic Kansas towns. It will be worth revisiting again. We’re especially grateful to E.E. Burke and Ms. Pat at Lyons Twin Mansions for making this trip an extra special one.

Sunday Snapshots: Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground

A few weeks ago, Jim and I drove out to Osawatomie to check out the town and drive past the grounds of the historic state hospital. I find the hospital’s origins fascinating; according to Lowell Gish’s Reform at Osawatomie State Hospital: Treatment of the Mentally Ill 1866-1970, the hospital came to be at a time when a Quaker ideal–that there is goodness and light in all of us, no matter what–drove treatment providers to see mental asylums as places to care for people instead of incarcerate them.

Most Kansans are familiar with the story of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence in 1863. Not as many people realize that Osawatomie was also in the thick of it. As an antislavery stronghold with connections to John Brown and Samuel Adair, Osawatomie citizens were attacked numerous times. In 1856, proslavery bands destroyed much of the town.

To honor both Lawrence and Osawatomie, the 1863 Kansas Legislature voted to reward the two towns. Lawrence would become the official home of the state’s university, and Osawatomie would become the home of the state mental asylum. The “Kansas State Hospital for the Insane in Ossawattomie [sic]” would come to be in a time when many damaged men were returning from the Civil War.

During the next century, thousands of mentally ill patients would find their way to what would become known as Osawatomie State Hospital. Many would live out their lives there. Some would have no family to claim them after they died.

A view of the cemetery from the southwest corner.

A view of the cemetery from the southwest corner.

The hospital’s burial ground lacks an official sign or entrance found at even the smallest abandoned country cemeteries in Kansas. A sign reading “Historic Memorial Site” is the only indication of it’s importance.

numbered graves

Although the cemetery is maintained, there is something tremendously sad and lonely about this particular burial ground. The graves are numbered 1 through 346 and were assigned in the order that they were occupied, with the last burials occurring in the 1950s. Only two stones have been replaced by family members who wanted or were able to honor their loved ones.

The grave of Clyde Nelson, a father, is one of only two stones bearing a name instead of a number.

The grave of Clyde Nelson, a father, is marked with a homemade stone.

The grave of Minnie Devine, a granny, is one of only two markers bearing a name instead of a number.

The grave of Minnie Devine, a granny, is one of only two markers bearing a name instead of a number.

The other markers belong to those who have been forgotten.

Grave 34

Grave number 34.

Reading a name on a tombstone is a powerful thing. You acknowledge the interred’s existence. The stones at the Osawatomie State Hospital’s burial ground tell us nothing beyond the order in which the patients were interred. It is a testament to how lost and forgotten some of our mentally ill can be.  And that is why this cemetery is worth visiting.  Bring a tissue.

Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground, facing southwest.

Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground, facing southwest.

Sunday Snapshots: Two Historic Lawrence Cemeteries

A year ago, we picked up a copy of Ronda Hassig’s The Abduction of Jacob Rote: A Civil War Tragedy, a smart and accessible historical novel written from the perspective of Jacob Rote, a young boy who was kidnapped by Quantrill’s men and forced to lead them into Lawrence (it’s based on a true story). Written for middle schoolers, it’s a quick and easy introduction to the tragic events that would later be known as Quantrill’s Raid and the Lawrence Massacre.

With Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence on our minds, we grabbed a free copy of Historic Cemeteries Tour of Lawrence at the Lawrence Visitor’s Center and started exploring how this tragic event shaped the way Lawrence buried its dead. The guide covers five cemeteries: Davis Cemetery, Pioneer Cemetery, Haskell Children’s Cemetery, Memorial Park Cemetery, and Oak Hill Cemetery. We explored two with strong connections to the Lawrence Massacre: Pioneer Cemetery and Oak Hill Cemetery.

Pioneer Cemetery

Pioneer Cemetery July 1 2013

Established in 1854, Pioneer Cemetery is a typical early town settlement cemetery. Originally known as Oread Cemetery, it is the final resting place for some of Lawrence’s earliest settlers and several deaths connected to the battles over slavery.

Pioneer Cemetery Plaque July 1 2013Thomas W. Barber, an abolitionist from Ohio who was murdered by pro-slavery supporters, is buried there, and the chilling poem that commemorates his death is engraved in two large stone tablets.

Pioneer Cemetery Thomas W Barber monument and poem

Thomas W. Barber Memorial.

Several Civil War Soldiers form the 13th Wisconsin Cavalry who died of typhoid fever are buried there, as well.

Pioneer Cemetery Soldiers

Civil War Soldiers.

Originally, most of the 180 men and boys killed during Quantrill’s Raid were buried here (including 70 in a mass grave), but most of the remains were reburied at Oak Hill Cemetery. Four markers of Lawrence Massacre victims are still visible.

Today, the land is reserved for University of Kansas faculty and staff members, whose cremains are marked by highly personalized ground markers.  It is a simple yet moving cemetery, and it’s hard not to imagine the trauma the community must have endured burying so many of their men and boys here, only to move them to Oak Hill Cemetery later on.

Oak Hill Cemetery

Part of Section 2 at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Part of Section 2 at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Established in 1865, Oak Hill Cemetery was created in response to the mayor’s plea for a cemetery that was closer to town (Pioneer Cemetery was out in the country back then and difficult to maintain).

Professionally landscaped as a garden cemetery, Oak Hill also served to memorialize the victims of Quantrill’s Raid. Although some Raid victims are buried individually, most were reinterred in a mass grave behind a large monument commemorating them.

Obelisk monuments are common for cemeteries of this era, and Oak Hill has one of the largest collections of intact obelisks I’ve seen in Kansas.

One of the largest collections of intact obelisks in Kansas.

One of the largest collections of intact obelisks in Kansas.

The cemetery is also home to some famous Kansans. U.S. Senator James H. Lane (1814-1866), architect John H. Haskell (1832-1907), President Abraham’s Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher (1816-1889), and basketball coach Dr. F. C. “Phog” Allen (1885-1974) are all buried here. Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White called Oak Hill Cemetery “the Kansas Arlington.”

Usher mausoleum.

Usher mausoleum.

This large cemetery is home to numerous artistic monuments, including a receiving vault. The cemetery includes statues, tree stump monuments, family mausoleums, and other personal and amazing expressions of grief and remembrance. A vast cemetery with thousands of burials, you could easily walk through this cemetery every day for a year and not see every single grave.

More about Quantrill’s Raid and the Lawrence Massacre

The city of Lawrence and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area have numerous events planned during the next several weeks to commemorate this important moment in Kansas/Missouri history. Visity 1863 Lawrence and the Freedom’s Frontier websites for more information.

Sunday Snapshot: Black Jack Battlefield Nature Trail

Just a few feet from the Santa Fe Trail (and only a few miles from my home) is one of Kansas’ newest additions to the National Register of Historic Places: Black Jack Battlefield. The Battle of Black Jack is considered by some to be one of the earliest battles of the American Civil War.  In 1856, John Brown attacked a group of Pro-Slavery men led by Henry Pate, who had taken prisoners in retaliation for John Brown’s attack on Pottawatomie Creek, which was in retaliation for an earlier attack on Lawrence, Kansas. (Franklin and Douglas counties were not peaceful places to live in during the 1850s.)

Today, the battlefield has been preserved. Visitors can take a guided tour or watch reenactments. You can also visit the nature trail from dawn to dusk at no cost. The nature trail is beautiful and will offer new blossoms as the seasons pass.

Sunday Snapshot: Veteran’s Day Parade in Ottawa, Kansas

Sunday Snapshot: Haunted historic Lecompton city jail?

A few months ago, Jim and I toured the historic sites of LeCompton, a Kansas town best known for being an early territorial capital of Kansas and proslavery (or, at least, not opposed to slavery, as nearby Lawrence was). Behind Constitution Hall is the city jail, which was built in 1893 and is currently in the backyard of a private residence (though it is open to the public).

The jail is a very small building with almost no light. We shot many photos. One in particular gave us pause.

“It has to be dust,” Jim said.

“Do you see any dust in other pictures?” I flipped through the other photos we shot of the doorway to jail small enough to make some people claustrophobic.

“Huh,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said.

So, in honor of Halloween and my personal fascination for the paranormal, I present my pause-inducing photograph of the entrance to the historic Lecompton city jail. I’m also including other photographs of the jail, all shot within less than ten minutes of each other. All of the photographs were shot using the digital camera in my smartphone, which was set on the daylight setting. They have not been altered in any way. The photos were shot in August in the middle of a hot, dry afternoon.

What do you think is going on in this picture? Let’s discuss.

The photo that made me look twice. What is that mist in the door?

Other photographs: