Published October 5th, 2020 at 11:30 AM
On the evening of Aug. 13, 1863, a three-story building near 1425 Grand Ave. in downtown Kansas City, near the modern-day location of the T-Mobile Center, collapsed.
It wasn’t just any building. Reduced to a pile of rubble was a Union Women’s Prison. At the time of the collapse, about 20 people were in the building, including 17 female prisoners who were relatives of and aides to Confederate guerillas — “bushwhackers” — fighting along Missouri’s western border.
The collapse killed four female prisoners and injured several others. Among the dead and injured were Jenny and Josephine Anderson, who just so happened to be the younger sisters of the infamous Confederate guerilla William T. Anderson.
Known as one of the more vicious “bushwhackers” along the Missouri-Kansas border, Anderson was a cold-blooded killer, earning the nickname “Bloody Bill”.
Riding alongside the notorious Confederate guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, revenge was on the way.
The story of the Union Women’s Prison collapse piqued the interest of Ottawa, Kansas, reader Theresa Hohl.
“What I thought was interesting is that (the collapse) is one way that women played a role in the Civil War. I would just like to know the repercussions of what happened to these women and what effect this had on the Civil War,” said Hohl, a self-proclaimed Civil War history buff.
“There’s so much about the Civil War that we really don’t realize happened behind the scenes. I think this is the perfect example of that.”
Leading up to and throughout the Civil War (1861-1865), the Missouri-Kansas border was an integral battleground over the political, ideological and legal questions of slavery.
“This area had been in war since 1854,” said Kansas City native and historian Tony O’Bryan.
“Jackson County in 1854 through the raid on Lawrence was known as the escaped slave capital of the world.”
Prior to the start of the Civil War and Kansas entering the Union in 1861, Missouri’s western border was chaotic and terribly violent. The “Border War” conflict, which started seven years prior, served as a bloody precursor to the Civil War. Violent skirmishes along the border during the period also known as “Bleeding Kansas” was most often between bands of armed civilians.
The majority of fighting took place along Missouri’s rural western border with Kansas between the pro-slavery Confederate guerillas and anti-slavery and Union sympathizer “jayhawkers” throughout counties lined with farm land. Guerilla fighters monitored and often relied on a partisan citizen population thrown into the conflict zone.
The rural, violent guerilla warfare — especially along the Confederate guerilla base of-sorts at Sni-A-Bar Creek near Blue Springs, was similar to fighting in the Vietnam War, O’Bryan said.
“If you’re a Union troop riding on your patrol and you see a farmer, you didn’t know if he were a good guy or a bad guy,” the local Civil War historian explained. “He might cook you dinner… But if they caught you out at night alone they’d cut your throat. It was very personal. It was vicious.”
Blood was shed between the groups for more than a decade between 1854 and then the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Following an especially violent summer in 1862, when Confederate forces took considerable defeats in both the Battle of Independence and Lone Jack, Union General Thomas Ewing was determined to bring peace to the region by stamping out Confederate guerilla support.
A key target? Women.
“They did the same thing fighting against Britain in the American Revolution,” O’Bryan said. “Women smuggled gun powder, carried lead shot, they made clothes, fed and housed. They did everything to support the men in the bush.”
In the spring of 1863, Ewing’s men began rounding up women and girls believed to be supporting the Confederate effort and locking them away, often in makeshift prisons. Having a large unexplained amount of cash on hand or even a scrap of the recognizable “guerilla shirt” cloth for the fighting men were considered grounds for jailing.
Locally, the women were held waiting for trial across the state in St. Louis, without bail.
Prisons were filling up fast with Confederate guerilla supporters and family members, O’Bryan recounted in Kansas City Library’s “Civil War on the Western Border”. Women and girls were forced to crowd into makeshift jails, like the building at 1425 Grand in Kansas City, where they lived in very close quarters, packed into a building that was quickly deteriorating.
“Witnesses reported that in a short time the floors began to sag, cracks appeared in the walls and ceilings, and plaster rained down on the first floor, coating everything with a fine layer of chalky dust,” O’Bryan wrote.
There’s considerable evidence that the collapse was an accident that Union guards “let happen,” O’Bryan explained. It’s a theory that holds water, considering the story of the departure of a ground floor merchant, who moved his goods out of the crumbling building the morning of the collapse (with the help of Union guards), along with court documents suggesting that support beams were removed from the building, making a collapse more likely.
The prison collapse was the final straw for Quantrill and his men, who now had sufficient cause for a raid on abolitionists and the jayhawkers across the border in Lawrence.
On Aug. 21, 1863, just eight days after the Union Women’s Prison collapse in Kansas City, Quantrill, along with “Bloody Bill” Anderson and an enraged band of around 400 guerillas rode to Lawrence, where they ransacked and burned civilian homes and businesses and killed more than 160 men and boys — many of them civilians.
A 2005 edition of the Kansas State Historical Society’s quarterly magazine “Kansas History, A Journal of the Central Plains,” published a letter penned by Sidney Clarke, an abolitionist state legislator who watched Quantrill’s raid from a nearby cornfield.
“From where I lay concealed, I could see into the streets,” Clarke wrote. “God forbid that it should ever be my lot again to witness entirely defenseless, such barbarities as were perpetrated for three long hours by these heartless wretches.”
Perhaps the most significant consequence of the prison collapse saga came in response to Quantrill’s horrific raid on Lawrence.
Just four days after the raid and two weeks after the prison collapse, General Ewing took the next step in attempting to stamp out Confederate guerilla support along the border, issuing General Order No. 11.
The order required the relocation within 15 days of anyone living in “Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon counties, excluding non-rural areas” — or areas within reach of Union posts.
If residents were able to prove loyalty to the Union government, they would be permitted to relocate to a location near a union military post, or to land in Kansas, aside from eastern border counties.
Approved by President Abraham Lincoln, General Order No. 11 was designed to cut off any sort of aid coming from Confederate sympathizers — especially from farms — along the border. The order did not put an end to guerilla warfare along the border, although nothing close to the magnitude of Quantrill’s raid spilled into Kansas after the order was issued.
However, the order and its scorched-earth, out-of-control and revenge-fueled style of enforcement by the Union soldiers forced more than 20,000 Missourians to relocate, many of them neutral, or even abolitionists. The order was not well received. By November, Ewing would allow populations to return to their residences with proof of loyalty.
The border counties became known as the “burnt district” and felt the effects of the mass migration for decades to come.
“The cause of the prison collapse is an enduring controversy, and bitter sentiments among the family descendants of the killed and injured girls and women remain to this day,” O’Bryan wrote, citing a strong gust of wind and feral hogs digging at the building’s base as speculated reasons for the collapse.
In 1878, the collapsed building’s owner, politician and painter George Caleb Bingham, lost a $5,000 lawsuit against the U.S. government claiming the Union guards were aware the building would collapse.
A vocal opponent to General Ewing and his famous order, Bingham would eventually paint “Order No. 11,” depicting the general sitting atop his horse, as jayhawkers carried out the order.
For more on The Border War and local Civil War History, check out Kansas City Public Library’s award-winning “Civil War on the Western Border” site.
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