Discover the Civil War: The Border Wars Conference

The Border Wars Conference 2011

As a crisis in law and order unfolded, Northerners and Southerners villainized each other by “blackening” the identity of their foe. When Abraham Lincoln set foot on Kansas soil in December 1859, Missouri women were hard at work sewing “guerrilla shirts” for their men who would wear them as a sign of their regional character and loyalty.

After the war ended and Reconstruction later came to a screeching halt, Missourians gathered to commemorate Quantrill’s Raid while Kansans proudly claimed an antislavery legacy, yet utilized physical violence in response to the influx of former slaves into their state.

All of these events, ideologies, and identities provided topics for discussion at the Border Wars Conference recently held at the Kansas City Public Library.

On November 10 – 12, fifteen historians, hailing from local and national institutions, came together at the Plaza Branch to discuss their latest findings on the set of conflicts that have come to be known as the Missouri-Kansas Border War.

Kicking off on Thursday evening with a riveting conversation about religion’s role in justifying the violence that took place on the border, Dr. Michael Fellman set the stage for a full day of presentations on Friday that spanned the Bleeding Kansas period through the end of the Civil War.

The Saturday session delivered the finishing touches as the last five scholars tackled Reconstruction, historical memory, and the conflict’s lasting legacy. If I had it my way, as an avid lover of history, I’d spend the majority of my days in the Plaza Branch auditorium – listening, learning, and engaging with these scholars who interpret our collective past.

After all, it’s not often that one has the opportunity to hear nationally recognized historians debate slavery, gendered identities, Civil War fashion, or historical memory in a manner that is engaging, thematic, and designed for a general audience.

Far too often, historians tend to discuss their research only amongst themselves, away from the eyes and ears of those who, in many cases, would most greatly benefit from their knowledge. Most professional history conferences are limited in their social reach and appeal, leaving scholars with few outlets of communication that can bridge the gap between the academic and public sphere.

Dr. Diane Mutti Burke and Dr. Jonathan Earle must have taken notice of this fact as they sought to organize a conference that not only broke new ground in terms of historical scholarship on the border region, but also actively pursued a public audience for its presentations.

When I asked him why the public should pay attention to the events that occurred on the Kansas-Missouri border 150 years ago, Dr. Earle, a 19th century U.S. history scholar recently focused on Lincoln, responded, “ In order to grasp what occurred during the Civil War, you have to have understand what happened in Kansas and Missouri. The territorial disputes alone were a precursor to so much of what happened between 1861 and 1865.”

When asked to describe his impressions of the three-day conference, Professor Earle went on to note that due to the fact that the scholars had met in April for a pre-symposium, “the final papers were incredibly polished and flawlessly integrated themselves into our thematic structure.”

“Overall, I’m thrilled with the outcome of the conference,” Earle said. “It’s so rewarding to present cutting-edge research to a public audience; it makes us step outside of our comfort zone and craft a dialogue that is accessible to the public, which we should all have to do from time to time.”

Burke, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, echoed Earle’s sentiments in her opening address when she spoke of the conference’s origins and their goals of uniting not only Kansas and Missouri historians, but also scholars and the general public. Lofty goals for a ten-hour history conference, yet judging by the varied demographics of the audience and their insightful questions, these proved to be readily achieved objectives.

The importance of engaging the general populace in the conversations about our past resonates in a region that, in many ways, is still dealing with the legacies of this time period. As one of the scholars, Dr. Jennifer Weber, pointed out, regional identities still stand strong as we often revive the Border War mythology for use in collegiate sports and other competitive arenas.

Regardless of the social space that our memory of the conflict fills, or the dialogue crafted around it, Missourians and Kansans possess a unique connection to their past that is not only tied to a region, but often a foil of the remembrances that exist across the border.

By examining these identities closer and chipping away at their historical foundations, these fifteen scholars asked us to reconsider our simplification of the narrative, to take notice of underrepresented stories, and to utilize our awareness of the past as we face the challenges of today.

About the Author

Hannah Ballard was the project coordinator for the Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War on the Western Border. She earned her B.A. degree in American history from the University of Kansas with a special focus on nineteenth-century Kansas.

About the Author


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