1859 Marshal Jail and Home
Civil War rife and revenge bound the town of Independence
Independence, a prosperous frontier town near the Missouri River in 1827, was the gateway to the West. It was a strategic point for any traveler seeking new worlds via the Oregon, Santa Fe, and California trails.
It’s fitting then that so many Civil War battles identified as “historic battles” by the National Park Service occurred in or near Independence, a town named for freedom. Although these battles all ended in Confederate victory, the Union finally prevailed at a battle just ten miles west of Independence, in Westport, on Oct. 23, 1864, putting an end to Confederate military efforts in Missouri.
But before this Union victory in 1864, retaliation among opposing forces was rampant. In Independence in 1863, women and children believed to have been smuggling information or aid to Confederates were being incarcerated. Some were placed in the Jackson County Jail (which today is part of an often-toured historic site known as the 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home, and Museum). When this jail overflowed, other buildings in surrounding areas were used. On Aug. 13, 1863, a jail in Kansas City collapsed from overcrowding. Four young women died, and one was the sister of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Capt. William Clark Quantrill, a Confederate guerilla leader, was a close friend of Anderson’s, and the collapse likely intensified the violence of Quantrill’s raid in Lawrence, Kan., on Aug. 21, 1863. On that day, Quantrill’s 450 border ruffians executed 180 Union-supporting boys and men.
Yet more retaliation was looming. Just four days after Quantrill’s raid, Union general Thomas Ewing authorized General Order No. 11, which forced everyone, both Union and Confederate supporters, to evacuate farms in four rural counties on the Missouri-Kansas border. Gen. Ewing hoped to shut down rural support of Confederate guerillas. Those who could prove Union loyalty were allowed to move to nearby military camps. General Order No. 11 depopulated the countryside. Homes stood abandoned; some were burned down.
An artist and Union Army captain, George Caleb Bingham, warned Gen. Ewing not to go forth with the order. In a letter of protest, Bingham threatened to tarnish Ewing with his paintbrush: “If you execute this order,” Bingham writes, “I shall make you famous with pen and brush.”
In 1868, Bingham made good on his promise and retaliated by painting General Order No. 11. The painting will hang in the Truman Library and Museum in Independence until Sept. 8, as part of a Bingham exhibit. Bingham expressed his passionate opinions in his journal, in which he writes this about the order:
“It is well-known that men were shot down in the very act of obeying the order, and their wagons and effects seized by their murderers. Large trains of wagons, extending over the prairies for miles in length, and moving Kansasward, were freighted with every description of household furniture and wearing apparel belonging to the exiled inhabitants. Dense columns of smoke arising in every direction marked the conflagration of dwellings, many of the evidences of which are yet to be seen in the remains of seared and blackened chimneys, standing as melancholy monuments of a ruthless military despotism which spared neither age, sex, character, nor condition. There was neither aid nor protection afforded to the banished inhabitants by the heartless authority which expelled them from their rightful possessions. They crowded by hundreds upon the banks of the Missouri River, and were indebted to the charity of benevolent steamboat conductors for transportation to places of safety where friendly aid could be extended to them without danger to those who ventured to contribute it.”
Ewing’s order did nothing to resolve the struggle for Independence—not even close. It increased the hotbed of resistance. But the area would finally cool with the Union’s capture of Westport. After that, so too would the nation begin cooling, with the close of the Civil War.
And like so many other towns affected by the Civil War, Independence was left a scarred yet strengthened town that remembers.