The Burnt District

Following the sack of Lawrence, William C. Quantrill’s Confederate partisans rode back to sanctuary in Missouri. Brigadier-General James H. Lane’s Kansas Jayhawkers briefly pursued them but could not track them down. Lane retaliated by murdering over 100 people in western Missouri suspected of helping Quantrill and destroying the property of any alleged Quantrill sympathizers.

Panic-stricken Unionists in Kansas and western Missouri turned to Brigadier-General Thomas Ewing, commanding the Federal District of the Border from Kansas City, to punish anyone not clearly professing Unionist sympathies. Many saw the reluctance of Ewing to exact such harsh revenge as a sign of weakness or incompetence. An editorial in the Missouri Democrat stated, “Ewing is frightened, and in the chase after Quantrill was in a complete quandary. He is looked upon as being a general without heart and brains.”

Kansas Governor Thomas Carney frantically asked the War Department for military aid after hearing rumors that Confederates in Mississippi were on their way up to invade his state. He also demanded that partisans such as Quantrill “be steadily pursued and surely punished, for there can be no safety in the present or in the future while these miscreants are permitted to live.”

Brig Gen Thomas Ewing | Image Credit:

Lane drew up a vindictive military order and, as a U.S. senator with strong political connections, threatened to end Ewing’s career if he did not issue and enforce it. Under General Order Number 11, Federal troops were to depopulate the Missouri counties on the Kansas border south of the Missouri River: Jackson, Cass, and Bates, plus part of Vernon County. All people, regardless of age, race, gender, or loyalty, were required to leave their homes within 15 days. Those who proved themselves loyal to the Union could reside in military camps under protection. Those who could not had to leave without protection. Anyone resisting the order would be executed.

Major-General John Schofield, commanding Federals in Missouri, explained, “The utter impossibility of deciding who were guilty and who innocent, and the great danger of retaliation by the guerrillas upon those who should remain were the chief reasons for adopting the present policy.” Though the move was severe, Schofield believed it to be “wise and humane.” Ewing stated, “Though this measure may seem too severe, I believe it will prove not inhuman, but merciful.” He admitted that such harshness would “possibly lead to a still fiercer and more active struggle,” but “with much unmerited loss and suffering,” it would ultimately bring peace.

Ewing directed the 15th Kansas Cavalry, led by hated Jayhawker Colonel Charles R. Dennison, to enforce the order. Jennison displaced an estimated 20,000 people, many of whom were harassed and robbed by Jayhawkers as they clogged roads hauling wagons filled with all their worldly possessions. Once the counties were emptied, Federals looted and burned all remaining homes, barns, and crops.

Ewing’s order, at Lane’s insistence, was one of the most brutal ever enforced in U.S. history. Predictably, it did little to stop Confederate partisan activity in the area; if anything, it made the raiders even more determined to resist Federal authority. The order also ruined western Missouri’s economy and caused deep resentment for generations. For years, the desolate region was known as the “Burnt District.”


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