The name “Red Legs” is often confused with the name “Jayhawkers” that describes the Kansas men who supported the Free-State cause in the border wars along the Missouri-Kansas border prior to the American Civil War.
Red Legs were a paramilitary group that was supported by Union generals such as Thomas Ewing Jr., James Blunt, and Senator James H. Lane. It was financed officially by the Kansas governor, Thomas Carney, and saw its first muster under the command of Charles R. “Doc” Jennison and Captain George H. Hoyt, a Massachusetts lawyer who defended John Brown at his trial after the Harpers Ferry Raid. These men were ardent abolitionists, but were equally as vicious as the bushwhackers in Missouri. Buffalo Bill Cody was a Red Leg and admitted that “We were the biggest thieves on record.”
Historian Albert Castel points out that,
Kansas jayhawkers and Red Legs made devastating raids into Missouri during which they plundered and murdered, burned farmhouses and crops, and liberated hundreds of slaves. These forays in turn caused pro-Southern guerrilla bands to retaliate against Kansas. Led by Quantrill, the Missouri bushwhackers sacked Kansas border settlements and shot down unarmed civilians “like so many hogs.” At the same time they waged a deadly partisan warfare against Federal troops and Union adherents in Missouri itself.
This consistent fighting along the border, and the incursions by the pro-southern Missourians into Kansas seeking retribution, led to General Thomas Ewing to issue the infamous General Order No. 11 on August 25, 1863. This depopulation of the Missouri counties of Jackson, Bates, Cass and parts of Vernon, left Missourians with an even stronger hate for their Kansas neighbors, which led to more incursions by bushwhackers and more violence.
In a compilation of letters from the era of the war put together in 1920, there is this account by Sam P. Gott;
About the first of January, 1864, a band of Kansas Red Leg soldiers same into the northwestern part of Johnson county, Missouri, and robbed, burned and murdered in that part of the country for two or three days. An old man named Shafer was killed and the house and barn were burned. An eyewitness told the writer that he saw the smoke going up from twenty-seven houses and barns at one time.
These murderers, claiming to be Jennison’s soldiers, under the command of Jim Lane, returned to Kansas City with their booty and remained there until the first of April, 1864. They then came back into southwestern Lafayette County, apparently to complete the work of devastation in that part of the country. It was on Sunday afternoon that they came into the neighborhood of Chapel Hill (I think it was at this time they burned Chapel Hill College). They hung an old man nearly eighty years old in a barn belonging to a man named William Harris. Old Uncle Joe Johnson was the man who was hung. That night they camped on the farm of Mr. Alph Cobb, about three miles east of Chapel Hill. Early the next morning they went to Washington Martin’s and took away about fifteen head of good mules and horses, besides whatever other valuables they could load into wagons and haul away.
Near Lone Jack in southeast Jackson County, an expedition led by Colonel Charles S. Clark of the Ninth Kansas Cavalry provides an example of how events involving any Red Leg imbedded with the Union troops often turned out.
Martin Rice was a loyal Unionist, but was forced from his home and land. He had obtained the required papers showing his loyalty to the Union but on his five mile journey to his new home in Johnson County, along with a number of his neighbors he was met by the Ninth Kansas Cavalry and arrested. After being questioned by the arresting officer, Captain Charles F. Coleman, Rice was instructed to ‘”Travel!”’ and set back out on his journey. He then heard shots fired and turned around to find that his neighbors and travelling companions all had been accused of assisting a group of guerillas the night before and therefore all had been shot and killed.
Historian Bruce Nichols points out that this event “was purely and act of cruelty or the result of wrong assumptions, it certainly was a case of “shoot first and ask questions later” which typified many of the actions of Union troops in this region during this period…”
Another example of how these Union soldiers went against what Order No. 11 stated was in how they destroyed property and land. Daniel B. Holmes wrote that he and his fellow members of the Seventh Kansas Cavalry lived quite well
Not from what we draw from the commissary but what we jayhawked. When we are traveling through secesh country we come to the home of some leading secesh, or of some man in the secesh army, then we take his horses and property, burn his house, or as we say, clean them out, well, in the operation we generally get a young hog … some turkeys, chickens, once in a while a crock of honey, then don’t we live.
By the end of the war the Red Leg’s faded from the scene afterwards as guerilla war diminished along the border, and “Doc” Jennison was court martialed and dismissed from service in June 1865. Even after 150 years, though, the deeds of the Red Legs are not forgotten on either side of the state line.