Marais des Cygnes massacre

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Marais des Cygnes massacre

The Marais des Cygnes massacre happened on May 19, 1858 near the town of Trading Post, Kansas.[1] It was the last violent episode in the period known as Bleeding Kansas.[1] Border Ruffians led by Charles Hamilton stopped in the small village of Trading Post in Lynn County, Kansas on their to West Point, Missouri. Hamilton had previously been driven from his land in Lynn County by free-staters and abolitionists.[2] He came back to seek revenge. They captured eleven free-state men, all of whom Hamilton had a grudge against.[3] The captives were marched into a nearby ravine where the Missourians opened fire on them.[3] The story got national attention in the press.[4] Eastern newspapers including the New York Times printed the story.[4] Anti-slavery groups called the victims martyrs.[4] In 1974, the site of the massacre was designated a National Historic Landmark.[5]

Background[change | change source]

In 1854, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act began a policy known as popular sovereignty in the United States.[6] It allowed settlers in the Kansas Territory to decide by popular vote whether Kansas would be admitted to the United States as a slave or free state.[6] This led activists from both sides of the issue to flood into Kansas trying to influence the outcome.[6] It led to a period of violence that continued into the American Civil War.[6]

In Lynn County, trouble between free-state and pro-slavery settlers began in about 1856.[7] This was when a large group of pro-slavery Southerners came through the area destroying property and capturing free-state settlers.[7] One of those who escaped the Southerners was James Montgomery. He became the leader of the free-state settlers in the area called Jayhawkers.[7] Various encounters between the two groups went on until 1857 when James H, Lane assembled a company of free-state men to harass the pro-slavery forces in Kansas and Western Missouri.[7] When Lane's company disbanded, James Montgomery took over.[7] He ordered the pro-slavery leaders out of the county. Many did leave and returned to Missouri. Charles A. Hamilton was one who left Kansas, but with bitter feelings.[7] Hamilton called a meeting together at Papinville, Missouri to get men for an invasion of Kansas.[7] It was decided they would eliminate the free-state settlers living in Lynn County.[7]

Site of the 1858 Marais des Cygnes Massacre, in Linn County, Kansas

The massacre[change | change source]

Hamilton's group of exiles plus about 17 Missourians rode back into Kansas.[8] They stopped at the village store and with guns drawn they disarmed the customers and tied their hands.[8] Hamilton took a list from his pocket and read out the names.[8] One by one the men on the list were taken from their cabins or fields.[8] The village blacksmith had resisted the ruffians with a shotgun and was not taken. The eleven they did capture were led to a gulch that drained into the Marais des Cygnes River. They were lined up in the gulch as if before a firing squad. One Missourian lowered his gun saying he would "have nothing to do with such a piece of business as this".[8] Hamilton then gave the order to fire. The eleven men fell to the ground. Then Hamilton dismounted and turned the bodies over with his boot. Any he found alive he shot in the head with his pistol.[8] Five of the men were killed and five were seriously wounded.[3] One escaped unharmed by pretending to be dead.[8] Other Missourians went through the pockets of the men presumed to all be dead. Finally, they all rode out in different directions so as to make it harder to trail them.[3]

Sarah Read, the wife of Reverend Samuel Read, one of those captured, quickly followed Hamilton's men on foot.[3] She found the victims and gave aid to those who were still alive.[3] Word of the massacre spread quickly and free-staters rushed to the village to help the wounded and bury the dead. Quickly Montgomery's Jayhawkers began trailing the gang but could not find them.[7] Meanwhile Sarah Read searched all night for her husband.[3] He had crawled off after being shot.[3] She discovered him the next morning, still alive. Called "Preacher Read" he survived the massacre.[3]

Aftermath[change | change source]

The atrocity got widespread attention in the North.[9] The murders were shown as an example of organized extermination by Missourians and Southerners.[9] The details of the murders were in every newspaper and were read in nearly every home.[9]

John Brown came to the village near the end of June.[3] In 1856, Brown had led a massacre of his own, the Pottawatomie massacre, against five pro-slavery men and boys.[10] He built a log blockhouse two stories high with a spring inside for water.[3] The blacksmith, Eli Snider, owned the land. He later sold it to Charles C. Hadsall, a friend of Brown's.[3] Brown and his men stayed in the fort until the end of summer. Then they left it to Hadsall to keep manned.[3]

Hamilton was never captured.[4] During the Civil war he served as a Colonel in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.[4] One, a Charles Matlock, was arrested for the crime but he later escaped.[4] Only one was brought to justice. William Griffith was arrested in 1863, tried for murder and on October 30, 1863 was hung.[4]

Whittier poem[change | change source]

The poet and abolitionist, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a poem about the massacre several months later and published it in the Atlantic Monthly:

A BLUSH as of roses

Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!

Back, steed of the prairies!
Sweet song-bird, fly back!
Wheel hither, bald vulture!
Gray wolf, call thy pack!
The foul human vultures
Have feasted and fled;
The wolves of the Border
Have crept from the dead.

From the hearths of their cabins,
The fields of their corn,
Unwarned and unweaponed,
The victims were torn,
The whirlwind of murder
Swooped up and swept on
To the low, reedy fen-lands,
The Marsh of the Swan.

With a vain plea for mercy
No stout knee was crooked;
In the mouths of the rifles
Right manly they looked.
How paled the May sunshine,
O Marais du Cygne!
On death for the strong life,
On red grass for green!

In the homes of their rearing,
Yet warm with their lives,
Ye wait the dead only,
Poor children and wives!
Put out the red forge-fire,
The smith shall not come;
Unyoke the brown oxen,
The ploughman lies dumb'.

Wind slow from the Swan's Marsh,
O dreary death-train,
With pressed lips as bloodless
As lips of the slain!
Kiss down the young eyelids,
Smooth down the gray hairs;
Let tears quench the curses
That burn through your prayers.

Strong men of the prairies,
Mourn hitter and wild!
Wail, desolate woman!
Weep, fatherless child!
But the grain of God springs up
From ashes beneath,
And the crown of his harvest
Is life out of death.

Not in vain on the dial
The shade moves along,
To point the great contrasts
Of right and of wrong:
Free homes and free altars,
Free prairie and flood, -
The reeds of the Swan's Marsh,
Whose bloom is of blood!

On the lintels of Kansas
That blood shall not dry
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset,
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow

The march of the day.[11]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Marais des Cygnes Massacre". Civil War on the Western Border. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  2. "Remembering the Marais des Cygnes Massacre". Fort Scott Tribune. 3 March 2008. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 "Marais des Cygnes Massacre site". kansaPedia. Kansas Historical Society. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 "The Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site". Civil War Muse. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  5. "Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site". There's No Place Like Kansas. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 "Bleeding Kansas". Fort Scott National Historic Site. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 "Marais des Cygnes massacre". Kansas Legends. Legends of America. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Jay Monaghan, Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865 (London: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 103–104
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 T. F. Robley, History of Bourbon County, Kansas: To the Close of 1865 (Fort Scott, KS: Press of the Monitor Book & printing Company, 1894), p. 111
  10. "John Brown and the Pottawatomie Killings". American Studies. University of Virginia. Retrieved 25 June 2016.
  11. ""Le Marais Du Cygne" - A poem by John Greenleaf Whittier". Civil War Muse. Retrieved 23 June 2016.

Other websites[change | change source]