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Civil War Round Table of Kansas City

True Tales of the Tenth Kansas Infantry

The Joys of Jayhawking: Words from the Perpetrator’s Mouths

By Howard Mann

Much has been written by defenders of Missouri guerilla bushwhackers vilifying Kansas jayhawkers. Less has been written by proponents of Kansas raiders in modern times, although a great deal of southern leaning research was generated by slanted writings by Kansas historians. One recent objective history, Michael Fellman’s book, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, attempted to look into the background of the chaotic war on civilians and soldiers alike in Missouri. More research in this area should be conducted for root cause analysis as the effectiveness of guerilla warfare and “terrorist” activities is becoming very real in the twenty-first century.

One method is to look for close to first hand accounts as a process to limit bias or to maintain bias within the period context. Much like the contention of William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III, authors of Wilson’s Creek, the reflections of men during this period are also a reflection of their greater community, whether in Kansas or Missouri. This would limit research to period newspapers, letters and diaries for comments referring to bushwhacking or jayhawking.

The decision to limit the research to jayhawking is two-fold. First, there is a great deal more information published on Missouri guerilla warfare and bushwhacking. A significant amount of the publications of Missouri guerilla warfare does describe individual reactions to Yankee strategy and warfare conducted as jayhawkers. This information is frequently presented from the point of view of the victim or the Missouri guerilla and does not present the perception of warfare from the northern point of view. In many instances the information is presented as an outrage or justification for similar atrocities performed by marauding bands of partisan Missourians.

Secondly, jayhawking is not as well defined as bushwhacking. Using a “who started it first” approach to history will not present the practice of jayhawking in the light of the men who did the jayhawking. The desire to present jayhawking would be interesting in the first person and could highlight why Kansas soldiers felt that their actions were justified.

Pat Devlin, a local denizen of Bourbon County is credited with coining the term “Jayhawking.” Michael Fellman laid out a more practical definition in his book, Inside War:

If indiscipline, extortion, and casual freebooting were Union army practices throughout the state, the war on Missouri civilians was policy for Kansas regiments stationed in the border counties of western Missouri. Kansas troops had special accounts to settle with Missourians, dating from the days of “Bloody Kansas” the nasty border war of 1855-56. Certain regiments, notably the Seventh, “Jennison’s Jayhawkers,” were delighted at the opportunity to settle old scores. They asserted quite openly that Missourians should be punished for their secessionist, slaveholding sins, and they plundered, burned, freed slaves, and murdered with especial zeal. The counties they attacked tended to be strongly secessionist, as well as full of people who from the days of the border war had their own wrongs to right with Kansas and with those Missourians who might welcome such Union forces.

“Jayhawkers” was the term applied to the Kansas raiders, and “jayhawking” became a term widely applied to free-form foraging by Union troops in the state and eventually nationwide. [1]

This definition may be subdivided into several motivations behind jayhawking, retribution and revenge, foraging and starvation, military strategy and criminal behavior. One additional aspect of jayhawking was the question of was this behavior ever punished and, if so, to what severity?

1. Retribution and Revenge

Contrary to setting excuses for jayhawking, there are many references to aspects of retribution and revenge for acts, perceived or real, perpetrated by the Missouri population or the Missouri State Guard. Numerous officers of Lane’s Brigade experienced first hand the violence of the Kansas border troubles from 1856 through 1860. Their long-reaching memory left little forgiveness for the invasions of Missouri Ruffians including the 1856 George W. Clarke raid through Linn County and Charles Hamelton’s Marais de Cygnes Massacre in 1858. Henry E. Palmer, a member of Lane’s Brigade, related a particularly poignant story.

After Osceola we camped at West Point, Mo., on the Kansas line. I was on duty as sergeant of the guard on picket nearly a mile from the main camp. It had been raining all night – a cold, drizzly October rain. At ten A.M. we saw a woman approaching from down the dreary, uninhabited roadway. She was on foot and was carrying a baby hugged to her breast, with four little children also walking – two boys and two girls, the oldest a girl of seven years. All were in their nightclothes and all wet to the skin; children crying and suffering with cold and hunger. We soldiers quickly shed our coats to shelter them from the storm and gave them our dog-tent by the rail camp fire. The babe was dead. I sent for a wagon and soon we had them in camp. The mother died from this exposure within thirty-six hours. The four children were sent to four different homes by friendly officers and soldiers.

The story told by the woman before her death revealed the fact that her husband had, as a member of the Missouri legislature of ’60 and ’61, bitterly fought the secession scheme. He was a rich man – owned 500 acres of improved land, fine house, barn and other outbuildings, and owned several slaves, yet he loved the flag and was for the Union. In January, 1861, he freed his slaves, and then his neighbors damned him as a “black abolitionist.” They finally, in July, 1861, drove him from his home. The Union army was the only safe resort; so he joined Montgomery’s Kansas regiment, and was, on this October day, 110 miles south of West Point. Bushwhackers had at divers times robbed his home until every head of stock had been driven away save a yolk of old, worn -out oxen. His wife with one old, black aunty had remained at the persecuted home, and during her confinement, in August, no friends came to see her, only the old slave woman, who would not accept her freedom, being left to help her. On this cold, dreary October night the bushwhackers came for their last damnable raid, burst in the doors suddenly, drove her and her children out into the storm, and set fire to the house, barn and other outbuildings. The burning home gave generous heat until morning, when the old colored woman yoked the oxen to an old wagon, filled the box with straw, loaded in the children, and started for Kansas. Within four miles of our camp a band of bushwhacking fiends rode out of the brush and asked: “Where are you going?” Answer: “To Kansas.” “Go on, and give our compliments to your husband.” With this reply they shot the oxen and rode away, leaving a helpless mother and five children, near no habitation, to walk in the rain and mud to our camp. When the soldier husband and father heard the news, only four survivors of his once happy family were left, and they in four different homes widely separated. Did he thirst for revenge? [2]

James Henry Lane (Library of Congress)

Henry E. Palmer (Battle of Westport Museum)

The viciousness of early clashes with the Missouri State Guard created a horrible scenario of murder. In the Cass County Democrat, June 10, 1926 a description of the battle of Morristown, Missouri noted:

... taken prisoner Rutherford Hook, Robert Hamilton, Mr. Davis, Mr. Sublett and two other men whose names we did not know were captured and taken about a mile west of town and made to dig their graves, after which all but Davis and Hook were shot and buried in the graves they had dug. Hook and Davis were released, probably on account of their youth. [3]

Henry E. Palmer, of Lane’s Brigade, also saw the executions but attributed them to retribution. He writes

…and only a few weeks later in a fierce little battle at Morristown, Mo., where I learned by first lesson of the horrors of what was then called the “border war.” In a charge upon the rebels commanded by Gen. James S. Rains, Col. Hampton P. Johnson, a gallant officer of the Fifth Kansas cavalry, was killed. We won the fight and captured several Confederates, seven of whom were called before a drumhead court-martial and sentenced to death. Their graves were dug and they were compelled to kneel down by the edge of the grave, when they were blindfolded, and shot by a regularly detailed file of soldiers; the graves were then filled up and we marched away. It was a sickening evidence that we were fighting under the black flag. This execution was in retaliation for the murder, only a few days previous, of seven men of our command. [4]

Lieutenant Joseph H. Trego, Third Kansas, a cavalry company, saw a certain justice in jayhawking:

It does me good to use the luxuries of these fellows that have always been the enemies of Anti-slavery men particularly in Mound City and vicinity. Just think of it, [James] Montgomery is using every thing for himself and men that belonged to his persecutors, except what they cou[l]d carry away with them. [5]

James Montgomery (History of the State of Kansas by Cutler)

During the consolidation of Fremont’s forces in Springfield, Missouri in the late fall of 1861; Lane’s Brigade saw first-hand offenses by the Missouri State Guard. Lieutenant Henry Miles Moore, Fifth Kansas Cavalry, met the pro-Union Smith family:

They (rebels) have ruined all the union men in this section. Gen Thom Harris of Hannibal, Mo., with his command camped at old Rev Obadiah, 10 miles from here last week. Smith’s a Missionary Baptist & a strong union man. They destroyed everything he had, killed his stock in his door yard, etc. & Gen Harris be shit the bed he slept in & either wiped his back sides with the bed clothes or daubed his fingers in it & wiped them on the bed…. a miserable brute, Harris must be. [6]

More retaliation was seen as just when other rebels were identified as murderers of Kansas men. First Sergeant Luther Thrasher, Third Kansas confided to his diary:

In an hour we swept through Potosoi, a little village (one l if you please) in Linn Co. near the line. Twas here or near here that a horrible murder was perpetrated last night and which we are now off to avenge. A band of Mo. ruffians came out from Butler, called an old man out from his house and deliberately shot him down without any provocation whatever…. Double damnation on their heads. [7]

2. Foraging and Starvation

Another aspect of jayhawking was similar to soldiers, north and south, all over. The Brigade was outfitted at a minimum and food and transportation required supplement.  During forays into Missouri, [James H.] Lane’s men often perceived supporters of the Union as being abused and suppressed.

Lieutenant Moore noted:

Our boys press what we need for transportation, mules, horses, wagons, etc. confiscating Secesh property & paying Union men for theirs. A great many Negroe Slaves are nightly running away from their masters & joining the Brigade. I fear wrong means are sometimes used to obtain these slaves by some members of the Brigade. [8]

Sergeant Thrasher focused on feeding the marching infantry soldiers:

I shot 2 porkers, fine fat fellows and another of our boys assisted a corpulent Gobler to cease to be, while a third levied to the tune of ½ doz on the nearest poultry yard. While congratulating ourselves on our success in replenishing our larder and indulging in visions of fat living for the next night, another Jayhawker awaited with beaming countenance and more genius and good taste than the rest, precipitated himself in our midst actually groaning beneath his load of honey, aye honey. You may be sure he was duly appreciated and heartily cheered. [9]

Lieutenant Trego foraged in the desolate country between Carthage, Missouri and Fort Scott:

This was a rough trip having no tents or wagons but laying right down in the big grass wet dew and eating when we could find something to eat. One morning we pulled up some potatoes and roasted them for breakfast. Some of the boys had broiled chicken. I tried the hind leg of a hen that was pulled off of about twenty eggs that were nearly ready to hatch. It didn’t eat very well because it wasn’t warmed quite thro. [10]

3. Military Strategy

Jayhawking was also seen as being officially sponsored by commanding officers and communicated throughout the commands as official policy. While not totally absent from the armies of the east, sanctioned looting and burning was not widespread until [Maj. Gen. William T.] Sherman’s celebrated March through Georgia in 1864. Lane’s men supported this perceived policy although some decried the results.

Captain James S. Williams, Lieutenant Trego’s commanding officer, led a raid on Ball’s Mill to break up assembling Missouri State Guards:

“We made another trip down the Osage to Ball’s Mill, came near having a fight, the rebels, numbering three hundred to our one hundred and forty, placed themselves in attitude for fight but a few shots of shell thrown among them to burst, caused them to speedily decamp. We suffered no damage except that Capt Williams had his horse shot under him. That old stamping ground of the rebels Ball’s Mill was burned together with a fine covered bridge over the Little Osage. [11]

Lane’s Brigade were vilified most often for the burning of Osceola, Missouri on September 20, 1861 while following in the wake of  [Maj. Gen. Sterling] Price’s Missouri State Guard as they invested Lexington. Lieutenant Trego noted:

All who were fit for duty, five days ago, went to Osceola. They returned yesterday, having had a little brush with the enemy, scattered them, took the town, obtained all the horses, mules, wagons and niggers; loaded the wagons with valuables from the numerous well supplied stores, and then set fire to the infernal town. It was burned to the ground. [12]

Sterling Price (Library of Congress)

Lieutenant Trego claimed he was not present being occupied at camp:

I remained in camp to meet Simp and Ellwood and deliver to them some contraband property taken at Morristown and which the Captain and myself drew after appraisement. I sent up a better buggy than the one Lyman got, for which I pay Gov. $35. I send to-day a lot of Merinos, velvet, barred muslins, calicos, shoes &c most of which is to be distributed among those who are unable to buy. There are about a dozen plaid shawls of various sizes. [13]

Lieutenant Moore, Fifth Kansas Cavalry, passed through Osceola on October 20, 1861, one month to the day after being burned to the ground by Lane’s Brigade:

It was terrible but it was deemed a military necessity else all this immense stores of goods would fall into the hands of the enemy & be used by them in aid of the rebellion… I regret that so many private homes were destroyed & question an immense sacrifice of property, but such is the fate of war. [14]

Sergeant Luther Thrasher, Third Kansas, participated in a foray to Butler then Pappinsville, Missouri to clean out rebel bushwhackers.  Butler was known as a haven for rebel insurgents:

Having duly replenished the inner man, the order to burn the town was issued. The soldiers were allowed to secure what property they needed from the deserted buildings before the fire was communicated to the buildings. The houses which were inhabited were spared. When the fire burst forth from 20 buildings simultaneously the scene was fearfully grand. Tis a painful necessity to thus sacrifice thousands of dollars worth of property almost instantly, but such is war. [15]

Lieutenant Moore also noted when suspected southern supporters were hoarding goods as northern supporters went without:

Parson Fisher preached today in camp & afterwards went to Ritchies house, the owner of the mill & found a lot of goods secreted. They were distributed among the needy union people about here. [16]

In December 1861 Lieutenant Moore reflected on the recent burning of Butler and Papinsville, Missouri by Lane’s Brigade as a military stratagem:

It was done by Col. [James] Montgomery’s order. This was a bold move in the face of Price’s Army at Osceola. They returned with a great no. of union families, who are fleeing the country. Also a good deal of stock. [17]

4. Criminal Behavior

Despite the motivations to plunder the Missourians, there are frequent references to jayhawking as criminal practice. By the end of 1861, Lane’s Brigade would convene a general court martial against fifteen soldiers for criminal behavior in winter camp in Kansas. The presiding justice would be Lieutenant Henry Miles Moore of Leavenworth. While the effectiveness of the proceedings was diluted by the lack of executive support, several officers would resign. During the same period additional pressure caused Brigadier General James H. Lane to make several public statements admonishing jayhawking without his orders.

Before he joined Lane’s Brigade, Henry Miles Moore experienced Kansas jayhawking in his home town:

The Conservative contains an article today, slightly treasonable, I should say. It justifies the late Jayhawking in this city. Says it was right & defies the law & officers generally. [18]

One description of Lane’s Brigade provided a very unfavorable depiction:

They were nearly naked, and minus shoes and hats in many cases. They were not armed, but a number of them had hams of meat on their backs, which they no doubt had stolen from some man’s meat house on the road. These are the kind of men that Lane’s Brigade is to be composed of – thieves, cut-throats, and midnight robbers. [19]

During the fall of 1861, Moore observed one Third Kansas cavalryman committing a crime: 

I caused a man from Capt Williams Co. to be arrested this P.M. for robbing a poor widdow’s (sic) house. I hope to God he will be hung. [20]

5. Punishment

Some serious and not-so-serious efforts were made to curtail jayhawking. Either because of the effectiveness of the practice, the extension of acceptance by the officers on one hand with an official denial by officers on the other, or the continuance of what motivated Kansas soldiers made jayhawking a practice that would define Kansas in the Civil War.

Prior to the battle of Wilson’s Creek, Major [Samuel D.] Sturgis earned eternal enmity with his Kansas contingent at Clinton, Missouri on July 4, 1861: 

… members of the First Kansas “robbed or plundered all, or nearly so, the farmers within a circle of five miles from the camp” (Clinton, Missouri, July 4, 1861) “eight to ten men from Captain Walker’s Scott’s Guards were caught, Sturgis held them under guard… the miscreants were receiving fifty lashes apiece while tied across a gun carriage… the flogging was done with a large black snake whip, giving each from forty-five to seventy-five lashes, the blood flowing halfway to their knees. [21]

Samuel D. Sturgis (Library of Congress)

Even Lane, Kansas’ Grim Chieftain, paid political homage to halting his brigade’s reputation for plunder. Lieutenant Moore noted in November 1861: “The Gen has issued an order forbidding all jayhawking in future without an order from headquarters.” [22]

The first winter of the war saw Lane’s Brigade attempting to deal with acts conducted since the formation of the brigade:

On January 20, 1862, for example, at Fort Defiance, Kansas, the army court-martialed many men and officers of the Third and Fifth Kansas Cavalry regiments. Fifteen enlisted men were convicted of stealing horses, mules, buggies, and revolvers. They were fined, had their pay stopped for sixty days, and reduced in rank. In his own defense at his court-martial, Private Micajar Sawyer testified, “I stole the horse because they all said we would get no pay… I thought I must obey my officers whatever they told me to do.” Several officers were cashiered, including Captain John D. Stewart, the object of a petition called for his dismissal by sixty soldiers who reported that he had regularly collected and sold confiscated property and that he was frequently drunk on duty. Concerning one incident involving another officer on the night of November 20, 1861, one soldier was asked, “Did you consider Capt. [Eli] Snider in a proper condition to take charge of the squad of skirmishers that night?” The soldier replied, “I did not ….” He was so much under the influence of liquor that he made a fool of himself and his squad. [23]

One soldier surmised why jayhawking was not punished.

Montgomery never countenanced plundering, though much of it was done by his men, and he realized that to restrain them would lose to him their services. But he did think it perfectly legitimate to live off the enemy when their depredations made it necessary to oust them. [24]

The Northern armies of the east and western theatres of operation soon followed suit to Lane’s practices. Some in the spirit of abolitionism, some as retribution, some for foraging as Union armies penetrated further south and away from logistical support, and some, as exemplified by General William T. Sherman, as the strategy that would end the war.

William T. Sherman (Library of Congress)


  1. Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri in the American Civil War, pages 34 – 35.
  2. Palmer, Henry E. “The Black-Flag Character of War on the Border.”, Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume IX, pages 457 – 458.
  3. Freeman at 100. Pages 6 – 7.
  4. “The Black-Flag Character of War”, page 456
  5. “Letters of Joseph H. Trego, 1857-1864”, Kansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 36, 1951. page 293.
  6. H. Miles Moore Diary, Beineke Manuscript Collection, Yale University Library. Entry of October 25, 1861.
  7. Luther Thrasher Diary, Tenth Kansas Letter Book, National Archives, entry of Dec. 12, 1861, Tuesday.
  8. H. Miles Moore Diary, entry Oct. 15, 1861.
  9. Luther Thrasher Diary, entry “Dec. 12, 1861, Tuesday.
  10. “Letters of Joseph H. Trego, 1857-1864”, page 291.
  11. “Letters of Joseph H. Trego, 1857-1864”, page 292.
  12. “Letters of Joseph H. Trego, 1857-1864”, page 295
  13. “Letters of Joseph H. Trego, 1857-1864”, page 295
  14. H. Miles Moore Diary, October 20, 1861
  15. Luther Thrasher Diary, entry of Dec. 12, 1861, Tuesday.
  16. H. Miles Moore Diary, October 25, 1861
  17. H. Miles Moore Diary, December 15, 1861
  18. H. Miles Moore Diary, September 15, 1861
  19. Goodrich, Thomas. Black Flag: Guerilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861 – 1865. page 16.
  20. H. Miles Moore Diary, October 20, 1861.
  21. Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher III, Richard W. Wilson’s Creek, page 70 – 71.
  22. H. Miles Moore Diary, November 21, 1861
  23. Fellman, Michael. Inside War, pages 157 - 159.
  24. “Historic Linn: It’s First Settlement”, Kansas Historical Collections, Vol. XVI, 1923 – 1925. Kansas State Historical Society. Page 629.

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