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.
War to the Knife is a riveting story of blood, fire, and death. It is also a story with an impressive cast of characters: Robert E> Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, Sara Robinson, Jeb Stuart, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, Julia Lovejoy, William F. Cody. These and more step forward to tell their tale. And casting his long, dark shadow over al is the strange, haunting figure of John Brown—hailed as a prophet by some, denounced as a madman by others.
Thomas Goodrich, whose focus is the American West, is the author of Black Flag, Bloody Dawn, and Scalp Dance. He is a native Kansan and lives near Topeka.