Before the Civil War — before Gettysburg, before Shiloh, before Fredericksburg, even before Confederate cannonballs rained down on Fort Sumter — a battle was fought over the issue of slavery. And it happened in Kansas.
The Battle of Black Jack took place about 20 miles southeast of Lawrence, just east of Baldwin City, on June 2, 1856. Kansas’ abolitionist icon, John Brown, led an antislavery militia force against a proslavery band from Missouri, led by Henry Clay Pate. The battle lasted a few hours, resulted in the surrender of Pate’s forces, and is called by many the first armed conflict of the Civil War.
Today, visitors can walk among the ravines where the two forces hid while shooting at each other, walk through the tallgrass prairie restoration area nearby, and imagine what it was like on that June day when John Brown and his men fired shots in battle and took home victory for a Kansas free state. Black Jack Battlefield is a 40-acre park, open to the public daily from dawn to dusk.
I hiked the trails recently, with my daughter Kelly, and we tried to put ourselves in the place of one of those early fighters. The interpretive signage and brochures told us the story of what, when, where, and why; we just had to hike the nature trails through the park and use our imagination. The 1856 battle was not huge — all together perhaps around 100 men fought — and not deadly — there were several wounded, but no fatalities. The deep creek beds offered the combatants plenty of protection, and at the time, most of the site would have been prairie.
We stayed on nature trails, past a prairie restoration site and through the woods along the ravines. Wildflowers and Big Bluestem grow prolifically in the prairie, while plenty of songbirds inhabit the woods. When we weren’t imagining ourselves hiding in the ravine with bullets whizzing overhead, we enjoyed the brief trek through Eastern Kansas’ natural beauty.
The park is a work in progress, and the Black Jack Battlefield Trust exists to promote the site and develop the trails and interpretive elements further. A visit to the Black Jack Battlefield’s Web site explains it all wonderfully and prepares visitors for a great afternoon of discovery. Few know the first shots of the Civil War took place not in some Eastern field, but on the prairie of Kansas. Black Jack Battlefield takes visitors back to that time.Dennis Toll is a native of Kansas — his Swedish ancestors settled in Wallace County in the 1890's — and graduated from Kansas State University in 1980 with a degree in landscape architecture. Then Dennis and his wife Amy, a Manhattan native, went to Indiana where Dennis got a master’s degree in theology and then to France. They returned to Kansas with four daughters in 2000 and settled in The Little Apple. Dennis enjoys writing for various publications about the Sunflower State and wishes he had more time to spend hiking the prairie. You can learn more about his appreciation for the Flint Hills at his blog, flinthillstallgrass.org.