REVIEW: War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861 (1998)

A book by Thomas Goodrich

Last year, I did a personal project in which I travelled to numerous historical sites around my area and tried to learn as much as I could. Considering the fact that I live near Kansas City, Missouri, many of these sites have to do with the likes of numerous partisan fighters, figures like The James Brothers, Bill Anderson, William Quantrill, and John Brown (just to name a few), so I suddenly became engrossed in the history of the nigh forgotten war that basically caused The American Civil War, as fought by these figures in an episode called “Bleeding Kansas”. My son and I visited places like The Battle of Blackjack Site, The Marais des Cygnes Massacre Site, and Fort Titus which feature prominently in this book at various times. Having this personal experience with these places was awesome whilst reading this book, as I felt a personal connection to almost every page as I read it – something that I don’t experience too often while reading a history book. In my honest opinion, this has been the best book I’ve read on “Bleeding Kansas”, and it’s not even close – it’s not a perfect book, which I will explain, but can teach a LOT no matter its flaws.

“Marching armies, cavalry raids, guerilla warfare, massacres, towns and farms in flames—the American Civil War, 1861-1865? No—Kansas, 1854-1861. Before there was Bull Run or Gettysburg, there was Black Jack and Osawatomie. Long before events at Fort Sumter ignited the War Between the States, men fought and died on the Prairies of Kansas over the incendiary issue of slavery. “War to the knife and knife to the hilt,” cried the Atchison Squatter Sovereign. “ Let the watchword be ‘Extermination, total and complete.’”
In 1854 a shooting war developed between proslavery men in Missouri and free-staters in Kansas over control of the territory. The prize was whether it would be a slave or free state when admitted to the Union, a question that could decide the balance of power in Washington. Told in the unforgettable words of the men and women involved, War to the Knife is an absorbing account of a bloody episode soon spread east, events in “Bleeding Kansas” have largely been forgotten. But as historian Thomas Goodrich reveals in this compelling saga, what America’s “first civil war” lacked in numbers it more than made up for in ferocity.”

Thomas Goodrich tackles the topic of this gruesome episode of history, set during the not-so antebellum period, in a way that makes this book almost impossible to put down at times. It’s written in an investigative journalist style that stays clear of being too much like a stuffy scholarly text. It’s a very accessible book that grabs the reader with a shocking hook in the first chapter and never really lets go.

The topic at hand is largely the history of one man – the notorious freedom fighter “Osawatomie” John Brown, a man that believed himself on a mission from God to purge America of slavery. Brown took something that many abolitionists, the people fighting against slavery, would passively write letters about and took actual action to the horror or delight of many depending on what “side” you were on. The book starts out with Brown’s execution, then backs up to see how we got to that point, including every ounce of blood sweat and tears shed along the way. Within this framework we also see figures such as Brown’s family, James Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, Charles Robinson, James Lane, David Rice Atchison, and numerous partisan leaders get their time to shine. Its an exhausting look at the conflict, and the author leaves almost no stone unturned.

The biggest issue I have with this book, and it is a BIG one, is the fact that when Thomas Goodrich shows his biases, he REALLY shows them. An example of this is his opinion that slavery in Missouri or Kansas was somehow objectively “not as bad” as it was in The Deep South. I find it hard, myself, to come to terms with the mere notion of varying degrees of somebody owning another person, so these passages were a tough pill to swallow. He elaborates that Missouri and Kansas slaves were purportedly “happy to be slaves” a couple of times, a troubling “Lost Cause” statement if I’ve ever seen one. His evidence for this claim comes from the selected letters and dairies of slaveholders who write about how contented the slaves were in their station in life, as well as firsthand accounts of things such as a slave cheering on the arrest of an abolitionist. I was not taken aback, just somewhat disappointed.

Honestly, the author’s use of these documents are always my biggest issue with authors ONLY using first-hand accounts when discussing widely politicized things such as this. Sure, the accounts you get may be firsthand, which is the goal of any researcher, but lack any sort of filter for whatever awful moral stance the era may have had. I saw this firsthand last year when reading a few books about the so-called “Mormon Wars” of Missouri at roughly this same time period. Many sources are vehemently anti-Mormon if they were from residents of Missouri, whereas the accounts of The Mormons, themselves, were the exact opposite. It would be easy to cherry-pick these snippets to create a skewed narrative, which is sadly what we see here. As a reader, I knew that the truth was largely somewhere in the middle.

Thankfully, these passages are small asides and are not the “meat” of the book, in most other cases he seems to be somewhat balanced even if his stance is basically “both sides had some real assholes”. I know some people that take exception to thinking of either side as more of a gray area than “the good guys” or “the bad guys” and that may sour them on this book. I mean, I respect the hell out of John Brown for what he accomplished and what he was trying to do with his crusade against slavery. That said, I have a tough time painting him as a pure hero because he did some heinous stuff, a fact that even weighed on the man himself. I feel like if that’s what you are looking for, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that is in no way critical of the abolitionist side of “Bleeding Kansas”. Most negative reviews I have seen are of this nature and I personally feel you cannot simply look for a book that reaffirms any sort of prejudices you may already have.

If you go into this with the mindset of knowing Thomas Goodrich has some of the same unpopular opinions that most Southern Civil War writers sadly share, and take the book for its meticulous retellings of the events that happened during the entirety of “Bleeding Kansas” you can still appreciate the lion’s share of the narrative. I’ve read some utterly worthless books on this topic, ones that basically were short books about John Brown that mentioned what happened in Kansas in passing. So far, I have yet to read anything that goes into this sort of detail on just about every aspect of those events (every election, every massacre, every raid etc.), and until I do I am holding that this is the foremost book on the topic despite it’s considerable flaws. If anyone has better options, I would be grateful for the recommendation. I would love to read more books like this from the author, but sadly I have a feeling his views on Reconstruction (a topic for some of his other work) are going to be vastly one-sided, and I’m not sure I want to do that to myself.

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