Fans of University of Kansas sports may find their mascot - the Jayhawk - to be cute. Many may not know the background of the jayhawk; if they did, they might not think of the mascot in such precious terms. (The same holds true for the University of Oklahoma’s mascot: “Sooners” refers to people who surreptitiously went to and claimed land in Oklahoma before the land run was authorized to begin.)
“Jayhawkers” opposed slavery and wanted Kansas to be a free state. Against them stood the “bushwhackers” – most from the slave state of Missouri - who wanted slavery in Kansas. Many jayhawkers had moved to Kansas in order to oppose slavery. All-out war broke out between these groups, both intent on creating a constitution and government for Kansas, both equally determined that it enter the union as a free state on the one hand or a slave state on the other. Many were killed and many others lost their property as jayhawkers crossed into Missouri and bushwhackers crossed from Missouri into Kansas during what became known as the Bleeding Kansas War. Then came the Civil War, and the two sides continued their guerrilla warfare.
This book by Bryce Benedict relates the history of James Henry Lane, one of the first two U.S. Senators from Kansas. Commissioned a general by Abraham Lincoln, Lane resisted acknowledging the commission to hold onto his Senate seat as long as he could. Lane organized a brigade of soldiers, mainly jayhawkers, to fight Missourians and other Confederates, but would confirm neither that fact nor his role as the brigade’s commanding officer until he felt the time was right to do so.
The only real difference in this brigade between the time of the Bleeding Kansas War and the newly unleashed fury of the Civil War was that now they wore Union blue uniforms and acted in the name of the Federal government. These jayhawkers raided in Missouri and freed slaves, killing anyone they suspected of harboring Confederate sympathies. They also killed some Unionists whose property they wanted to steal.
Lane’s jayhawkers were some of the first organized Federal troops to defend eastern Kansas and western Missouri against Confederate forces under General Sterling Price and others. Under the command of the wild-looking Lane, who intentionally left his hair in an untamed fashion as part of the persona he cultivated, they deterred Confederate invasion of Kansas on a large scale. Small guerrilla incursions occurred, but the jayhawkers helped to stopped them - or they crossed the border and wreaked vengeance on their enemies.
Only active from 1861 through 1862, this brigade practiced hard war tactics that Generals Grant and Sherman would later practice, not only fighting with Confederate military but also with Confederate civilians.
Benedict does a brilliant job presenting the history of James Lane and his jayhawker brigade, revealing the nasty details and politics Lane used to thwart his opponents. He quotes primary sources and includes a bibliography, endnotes, and an index, as well as black-and-white photos and other illustrations. This book is highly recommended to those interested in Kansas history and the Civil War in Kansas and Missouri.
The author served for twenty-one years in the U.S. Army and the Kansas National Guard and now acts as lead defense counsel for the Kansas State Self-Insurance Fund. Benedict has authored several historical articles that have appeared in the Plains Guardian, the newspaper of the Kansas National Guard.