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Kansas and the Centennial of the Civil War

Spring 1965 (Vol. 31, No. 1), pages 62-66;
Transcribed by Debbie Wassemiller; HTML composition by Tod Roberts;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets refer to endnotes for this text.

During the past four years the nation has been observing the centennial of the Civil War. From the firing on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, until Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, nearly half a million men lost their lives in this bitter struggle which divided the nation and in many cases divided families as well.

Kansas, admitted to the union on January 29, 1861, was less than three months old when the war broke out. Fewer than 30,000 Kansas men were of military age, but 20,000 served in the Union armies. About 8,500 were casualties, and mortality rate is said to have been the highest of any Union state.

Believing it important that the lessons of this fratricidal strife should not be forgotten, a national Civil War Centennial Commission was appointed with headquarters in Washington, D. C., and similar groups were named on the state and local level. In Kansas a Civil War Centennial Commission was established by the legislature of 1963, which directed that the governor appoint five members to draw up specific plans for observing the centennial and to co-operate with the national commission and with local organizations. The Kansas commission consisted of Fred W. Brinkerhoff, Pittsburg, chairman; Alan W. Farley, Kansas City, vice-chairman; Mrs Frank Haucke, Council Grove, secretary; Robert E. Galvin, Fort Scott; and Charles C. Rankin, Lawrence. Four, incidentally, are long-time members of the Historical Society. Mr. Brinkerhoff and Mr. Farley are directors and past presidents, and Mr. Farley is chairman of the executive committee. Mr. Rankin is a member of the Society's board of directors. Mrs. Haucke has been a member and enthusiastic supporter of the Society for many years.

In 1963 the commission co-operated with the Lawrence committee in an observance of the Quantrill raid on Lawrence, August 21, 1863. A luncheon was held at the Hotel Eldridge at which Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr., executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, was the principal speaker.[1] The commission also co-operated with the Baxter Springs committee in making arrangements for a commemoration at that city of the Baxter Springs massacre of October 6, 1863 at which Dr. Dudley T. Cornish, professor of history at Kansas State College of Pittsburg, gave the address. [2]

The commission's work culminated in 1964, when it assisted the Linn county committee in planning an observance of the Battle of Mine Creek which occurred October 26, 1864, about two miles south of Pleasanton. This was the climax of the war in Kansas, and was the largest and most important Civil War battle fought in the state, with about 25,000 men involved. It was the final blow to Gen. Sterling Price's dream of conquering Missouri for the Confederacy and seizing Fort Scott and its military stores. Price was routed and his broken armies were harried through southern Missouri and into Arkansas until they found safety across the Arkansas river. Thus ended the most serious Confederate threat to Kansas.

The ceremony on the centennial of the battle, held in a new roadside park on the site of the battlefield, was attended by Gov. John Anderson, Jr., of Kansas, and Gov. John Dalton of Missouri, as well as, other dignitaries from both states. An important part of the program was the unveiling of two bronze plaques mounted on granite monuments, which were purchased by the commission and installed by the State Highway Commission to honor the commanders of the opposing forces.

Principal speaker of the day was Dr. Robertson, who made his second visit to Kansas to participate in the program. The text of his address follows:

THE TWO-SIDED WAR

Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr.

Every war has two distinct sides: The heroic and the horrible. Wars make heroes, but wars also kill them. Unfortunately we tend too often to remember the deeds of the living and to belittle the sacrifices of the dead.

The American Civil War is a tragic case in point, for it was in many respects our most two-sided struggle. As an example: one of the most oft-quoted passages to emerge from that war came from the pen of celebrated poet and novelist Theodore Winthrop. At the outset of the war Winthrop joined the 7th New York infantry; and as his regiment one balmy spring night in 1861 crossed the Potomac and advanced into Virginia, Winthrop wrote a moving description of the moon's twinkling reflection on the river, of long lines of marching soldiers, of white tents blanketing the fields in the mist of early dawn.

Here Winthrop's poetical writings stop, for the 30-year-old poet-turned-soldier was killed at Big Bethel in an engagement as blundering as it was senseless. In typical fashion, we remember Winthrop's stirring march; we forget his needless death.

We recall too the great battle of Gettysburg, and we swell with pride at the dash of Kilpatrick's cavalry, the magnanimity of Pickett's charge, the indomitable stand at the critical hour of Hancock's superb II corps. Those were stirring events; they both capture and heighten the imagination.

But what of the 43,000 casualties of that three-day battle? Why have we neglected the slain - or, even worse, the wounded: the mutilated who were piled into wagons, jolted over archaic roads, with no relief for such anguished cries as: "My God! Why can't I die?" Oh Lord! Will no one have mercy and kill me?"

For Gettysburg, we rely too much on Federal Maj. Frank Haskell's dramatic narrative of action, when the true insight of that engagement actually lies in Confederate Gen. John Imboden's account of escorting the crowded ambulance wagons back to Virginia.

Again, in remembrances the realistic succumbs to the idealistic. In the minds of many, the Civil War was excitement without expense, color minus casualty, ardor uncontaminated by anguish.

This imbalance exists because we American take valor for granted. Bravery is an inherent characteristic of American history. The point we miss, however, is that while it is easy and glorious to recount the heroism of countless men in battle, it is impossible and to gloomy to try and describe even one soldier dying from a filth-infested wound. Yet the Civil War relegated thousands to this latter class.

No participant of that terrible struggle made a more truthful remark than Confederate novelist John Esten Cooke: "The living were brave and noble, but the dead were the bravest of all."

Similarly, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War has fallen victim to a two-sided approach. On the one side is the glamorous, as evidenced by sentimental novels and pseudo-scholarly studies, expensive pageants, unnecessary battle re-enactments and illustrious but little-needed statues. Too often the centennial has been a convenient playground for adolescents of all ages.

Then, on the other hand is the reverential, as illustrated by concrete publications, the preservation of manuscripts, a serious study of the war and its legacies, earnest attempts at a better understanding of this national watershed and national tragedy, and host of well-planned, solemn, and commendable programs such as this. The centennial of the Civil War, to the credit of all concerned, has generated a reawakening of interest in local history. Were this not so, we would not be here assembled for the purpose of recalling one fleeting moment in the grand epoch of the "American Dream."

The basic facts regarding the Battle of Mine Creek are too well-known locally for me, an invited intruder, to recount them in detail. The conflict lasted no more than half an hour. Two Union cavalry brigades charged the Confederate position; and "for a time," wrote Col. Charles W. Blair of the 14th Kansas cavalry, "the fire was incessant and terrific. Both lines seemed like walls of adamant -- one could not advance; the other would not recede. The crash of musketry, the scream of shell, the hissing sound of canister and balls, mingled with the shouts of the soldiers and the cries of the wounded . . . formed a scene more easily remembered than described."

A veteran Federal officer, Col. F. W. Benteen, wrote more succinctly that it was "a fierce hand-to-hand fight, one that surpassed anything for the time it lasted (that) I have ever witnessed."

The battle ended as uproariously as it began. The Federal assault became so ferocious that the Confederates suddenly bolted to the rear "in utter and indescribable confusion" (according to their commander, Gen. Sterling Price). Left behind were 300 Southerners dead or wounded and 900 Confederates who surrendered on the field.

Ft. Scott declared a national landmark, 25 Oct 1964

 At a luncheon in Fort Scott on Sunday, October 25, 1964, preceding the ceremonies at the Mine Creek battlefield, Ray H. Mattison of the National Park Service presented to Mayor A. P. Parks of Fort Scott a certificate designating Old Fort Scott as a Registered National Historic Landmark. Shown above at the speakers' table are (l. to r.) Mayor Parks, Gov. John M. Dalton of Missouri, F. W. Brinkerhoff of Pittsburg, chairman of the Kansas Civil War Centennial Commission, Mr. Mattison, and Rep Joe Skubitz, congressman from the Fifth district.

Below, Gov. John Anderson, Jr., and Governor Dalton take a salute before reviewing the guard of honor at the battlefield.

Kansas Gov. John Anderson and Missouri Gov. John Dalton review honor guard, 25 Oct 1964

Battle of Mine Creek centennial observance, 25 Oct 1964

Part of the crowd at the Battle of Mine Creek centennial observance. At the speaker's stand is F. W. Brinkerhoff. Gov. John Anderson, Jr., is seated in the front row at the left of the podium. To the right of the podium is Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr., executive director of the U. S. Civil War Centennial Commission, who delivered the principal address at the ceremony. Photographs courtesy the Kansas State Highway Commission.

The 3rd Iowa cavalry gained laurels by seizing two high-ranking Confederates.

One was Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke, a Missouri-born West Pointer, hero of Shiloh and Prairie Grove, and the man who killed Gen. L. M. Walker in one of those senseless duels characteristic of proud men and the times. Marmaduke was the last man appointed major general in the armies of the Confederacy, and he received his promotion while incarcerated in the military prison at Fort Warren, Boston harbor. This gallant soldier died in 1887, while serving as governor of Neighboring Missouri.

The other Confederate leader of note captured here was Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell, a native of Danville, Va., a West Point graduate, and one of the designers of the Confederate battleflag. After the war he served four terms as mayor of Dallas, Tex., and in addition became vice-president of the Southern Pacific railway (from whose profits rose the Huntington Library and the campus of Stanford University).

No one can ever say that Iowa troops did not shoot for quality; and no doubt the 3rd Iowa cavalry singling out Marmaduke and Cabell for special attention gave rise to the now-popular slogan: "It's what's up front that counts."

But on a more serious note, one post-battle incident should be mentioned as evidence of the heated emotions present on both sides at the time. Federal Colonel John F. Philips reported capturing a number of Confederate soldiers who were dressed in confiscated blue uniforms. Disregarding the probability that the ill-equipped Southern troops had nothing else to wear, Federal officials ordered the men executed as spies. The sentences were duly carried out - to the living shame of all concerned. This action substantiates anew that here, along the Kansas-Missouri border, was the conflict of the 1860's a civil war at its worst.

With the retrospect of 100 years, several conclusions might be made of Mine Creek and its impact on the nation.

Certainly it was not a big battle - comparable to such engagements of the Civil War as Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga; and regardless of the results, the struggle fought here in the outlying region of eastern Kansas could not have altered appreciably either the length or the eventual outcome of the war. But to Kansans, and in a lesser degree to Missourians, the Battle of Mine Creek should have deep significance.

Here was fought the largest battle in Kansas' stormy but stellar history. Here Price's designs to wrench Kansas and Missouri from the Union vanished in the dust that marked his retreat from Mine Creek to Arkansas. Here the great Missouri raid of 1864 ended in unrationalized failure. Here, for both Kansas and Missouri, was born the new Union about which Lincoln dreamed and for which he died.

And for the loved ones of those, blue and gray, who fell in the fields near this stream, Mine Creek has a magnitude of grief, an import of sorrow, that transcends the 6,220 other engagements of that civil war. Heartache is not measured by the size of the heartbreaker. For countless mothers, wives and sweethearts, Mine Creek was the shattering end of the Civil War, the crashing down of the curtain over their hopes and anxieties. Here - for both those who gave and those who suffered therefrom - Mine Creek became as solemn and as eternal as Bull Run or Shiloh.

That is why we remember the battle; that is why its fields are hallowed; that is why the flowing waters of Mine Creek are symbolic of a nation's tears.

Many centuries ago, an Eastern potentate ordered his soldiers to search every corner of his kingdom and to bring to him the three wisest men in existence. When at last the three sages stood before the throne, the said to them: "No one must be more learned than I. Therefore, I command you to crate for me one phrase, one saying, that will describe all the world and all of life."

The wise men spent weeks in deep meditation. Finally, they presented to the king what they believed to be the all-inclusive statement of life: "And this too shall pass away."

On the surface, this motto might seem to apply to everything in the universe. But it is not so. If fails to have applicability to certain intangibles that outlive the ages - the intangibles of man's never-ending quest for freedom, his inherent struggle for liberty, his eternal hope for equality. Such ideals cannot pass away, for they are the basic emotions placed in each of us by our Creator. So long as we continue to believe that we are truly made in the image of God, freedom, liberty, and equality are everlasting.

These were ideals for which Northerners and Southerners struggled here a century ago. The battle of Mine Creek, and even the civil war of which it was a part, were but passing moments in the ever-moving stream of history. Weighed against all the events of mankind stretching over thousands of years, this one battle and this one war might appear relatively insignificant. So might they be saved for the motivations behind them.

The Northerner in blue, and the Southerner in gray, who grappled here in deadly combat were fighting for American ideals as each envisioned them. One was seeking a revision of an old independence; the other hoped to obtain a new independence. Yet both were in essence fighting for freedom, liberty, love of country, and the desire to make tomorrow a little better for the children than today was for the parents. Both were struggling - and willing to die = for what each considered the betterment of himself and his neighbor.

It was inevitable that one would triumph and the other would fail. But from the heroism of the victor and the valor of the vanquished was fused a new union that grew, prospered, and remains today the hope of the world.

Therefore, we Americans of North and South can take increased devotion from the bloody conflict at Mine Creek. From the small see of human tragedy planted here ultimately blossomed the stately tree of national unity. The hatreds of a century ago that exploded and ran part of their jagged course here eventually matured into the brotherhood that has safely carried our country through four international wars. Since 1865 the common patriotism manifested by Northerner and Southerner alike has been inexorable proof that the wounds of the Civil War were not too deep for healing, that our nation and the ideals which it exemplifies live in burning majesty. The Civil War was the accelerator, not the deterrent, of that transformation.

The universal turmoils of today are such that evangelical Americans cry out: "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget, lest we forget." But with the prideful cognizance of our heritage, and with renewed confidence in our future, we can confidently refute the three wise men. We can point with reassurance to modern America -- to the devotion that has made it, to the determination that sustains it; and we can -- as we must -- proclaim to the overcast skies: "No! By the grace of God, this too shall not pass away."

Notes

1. Dr. Robertson's address, The Sack of Lawrence: What Price Glory? (Lawrence, The World Company, 1963), was published by the Lawrence committee in cooperation with the state centennial commission, the University of Kansas and the Douglas County Historical Society.
2. The talk by Professor Cornish was reported at length in the Baxter Springs Citizen, October 7, 1963.