Samuel J. Reader: Kansas Pioneer and Civil War Diarist

To persons living east of the Mississippi River during the Civil War, Kansas was “that new state out west,” where land cost little and men’s lives even less. For one intrepid young settler from Illinois, his new home became the source of inspiration for a revealing collection of diaries and artwork that comprise a treasure trove for Civil War historians.

Samuel J. Reader, of Indianola, Kan., was born in Illinois in 1836. He trekked to the new territory with his aunt and her husband in 1855, and kept a running chronicle of the events in “Bleeding Kansas” in a series of annual diaries. Along with written comments about that turbulent time, Reader also included some paintings. In one of his diaries, he painted himself staking his own Kansas claim. During the Civil War, Reader carried his diary while serving as a member of the local militia. His words and art, discovered after his death in 1914, became a unique record of the war.

Shortly after his arrival at Indianola, Reader wrote that the town would never amount to much. In 1862, he complained to his family back in Illinois that “instead of laying it out on the prairie the Mo. [Missouri] proprietors laid it out mostly in timber and bushes.”

The Kansas town–named after Indianola, Texas, by its Southern-sympathizing founders–was the subject of many Reader paintings. He depicted all the usual frontier establishments–a sawmill, a blacksmith, two or three stores, two hotels and a couple of billiard saloons or “whiskey dens.” At the height of the town’s prosperity, lots sold for $250 or $300, with one going as high as $500. Reader commented that “intemperance is the special vice of this neighborhood” and dubbed Indianola “Whiskeytown.” He also associated the town’s saloons with the secessionist movement, all of them being owned by pro-slavery sympathizers.

Young Sam’s opinion of supporters of slavery developed after he settled in Kansas Territory. He wrote: “Rich cheap farm land was the principal incentive that lured me on from my Illinois home. I had heard and read much concerning the political troubles in the territory; but the question of a free or a slave state was a secondary consideration with me at the time. In fact, I had given little thought to the subject; viewing the ‘Peculiar Institution’ as a great wrong, but leaving its adjustment to older and wiser heads.”

The largely Southern population of Indianola inevitably brought the town into conflict with its Free State neighbors. Recalling a raid by Topeka pioneers, Reader wrote: “Our neighborhood was badly stirred up. … A party of Free-State men … took from the most rabid pro-slavery citizens, their arms and military stores; together with Sundry articles, claimed to be contraband of war. The whiskey was emptied in the street. I had no hand in it; and whether the act was justifiable or not, is not for me to say. It was called a reprisal; but two wrongs do not always make one right! … But it was reported that our ruthless enemies [Missouri border ruffians] did far worse. Besides plundering, they added, ‘fire and sword’ and numberless outrages, on Free-State men!”  

Reader, Free-Staters and the Grim Chieftan

When Reader learned that Southern-sympathizing border ruffians were about to attack the town of Grasshopper Falls–present-day Valley Falls–in the next county to the east, he joined other Free Staters under Colonel James H. Lane as they rushed to confront the raiders at a place called Hickory Point. Lane’s ragtag militia crossed the Kansas River by ferry on Friday morning, September 12, 1856. The date was recorded forever in a watercolor depiction of the momentous crossing in Reader’s diary.

After an early morning skirmish that Sunday, Reader dashed off some lines in his diary, noting that the Free Staters had arrived at Hickory Point, a short distance east of Grasshopper Falls, at about 11 in the morning. “Fired some,” and then “retreated to O[zawkie],” he noted in his diary. Reader also claimed that his side had only lost three horses and one man wounded, compared to “Several B.Rs. [border ruffians] killed.” Actually, only one Southern sympathizer died in the skirmish. With that brief triumph behind them, young Reader and his companions in the Free State company ate some watermelons and in the evening started home, “sleepy and tired but full of glory.”

But there was little glory to be found in Kansas in 1856. This was the period of “Bleeding Kansas,” which featured the fanaticism of John Brown and the death and destruction sowed by contending bands of pro-slave and Free State partisans. During that one year in Reader’s Kansas county, three houses were ruined, 46 horses were stolen, and 67 head of cattle were rustled. But the federal government, from whom the people sought relief, never compensated the victims of either side, Reader recorded, and the claims passed into history and myth.

A number of Lane’s Free State militiamen involved in the raids were arrested that fall and imprisoned in the territorial capital, Lecompton, and the small neighboring town of Tecumseh–both Southern strongholds. Most were acquitted. At one time the jail in Tecumseh housed some 47 prisoners. About 10 o’clock on the night of November 21, 1856, about 30 of them escaped “by pegging a hole in the wall and crawling out like rats,” recounted the proSouth publication Lecompton Union on December 11. Officers caught one fellow halfway out and towed him back in. His excuse, “I am following the rest.”

Shortly after Kansas Territory became a state, its citizens experienced the myriad trials of civil war. The war, which broke out at Fort Sumter, S.C., three months after Kansas entered the Union, took a heavy toll on Union-loving volunteers. Reader wrote that “a great many farms are not cultivated in this section for want of working men.” Such a severe shortage of manpower existed in the entire state by the middle of the war that Governor Thomas Carney felt it necessary to caution recruiting officers to go more slowly in their efforts.  

Reader himself did not immediately enlist in one of the Kansas volunteer regiments. Instead, he served in the Union militia, which had formed during the territorial period, and subsequently took part in the bloodless “Battle of Indianola” and another confrontation at Hickory Point.

On the home front, Reader became an astute social observer in his letters and diaries. For example, in a letter dated January 19, 1862, he wrote to his brother that he had recently been in Topeka, where he “saw quite a number of negroes employed by its citizens. They looked intelligent and happy. I believe they have 15 or 20 there but none have come over on this side of the [Kansas] river, yet, that is.”

His social observations were sometimes tinged with martial language: One day, when a prostitute quarreled with the more respectable ladies of Indianola, the outraged reaction provided Reader with the opportunity to exercise his wit in his diary. The “fancy lady, to use no harsher term … established her headquarters in Billy P[russeit]’s shoemaker shop,” he observed. Five of the town’s womenfolk, “after holding a council of war determined on a vigorous policy, and forth-with set out for little Bill’s house. … The attacking force filed through the gate and by a skillful maneuver gained possession of the backdoor without the loss of a man (or woman rather).”

Immediately following the sack of Lawrence by William Clarke Quantrill, the citizens of many Kansas towns understandably feared a similar fate, and they organized Union militia companies to protect themselves. Elizabeth Reader, a resident of Indianola and relative of Samuel, wrote that the militia members continued to meet and drill until the fall of 1864. In that “Secesh” town, even some of the former pro-slavery men joined with the Unionist militiamen to make up Company D of the Shawnee County regiment.

The Shawnee County unit was designated the 2nd Regiment, Kansas State Militia, with Colonel George W. Veale commanding. The 2nd Kansas was brigaded later with the Lawrence unit, men who had suffered at the hands of Rebel guerrillas. A log stockade was erected in the center of Topeka as a refuge to which Shawnee County residents might flee if guerrillas appeared. And since Topeka had become the state capital, the city’s residents were sure it was a prime bushwhacker target.

Sterling Price’s Great Raid of 1864

Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price invaded Missouri in September 1864. As he led three divisions of cavalry across the state where he had once been governor, Kansans watched anxiously to see if he would turn east toward St. Louis and the Mississippi River or west to capture Fort Leavenworth and plunder Kansas.  

Reader continued making entries into his diary that month as Governor Carney called out the militia. A lieutenant and quartermaster of the regiment, Reader reported on equipping the 2nd Kansas. Reader’s unit was ordered to assemble at Olathe on the Kansas-Missouri border, along with 10 other militia regiments. Each outfit had to provide its own transportation and rations. Members of each regiment were supplied with “two blankets, a tin cup, knife and fork, and a haversack,” Reader noted. In addition, Reader participated in the distribution of new Enfield rifles in place of the old and nearly worthless carbines that had been issued directly following the Lawrence raid.

Two days after the militia was called out, martial law was declared and every man between the ages of 18 and 60 was ordered to arms. On the morning of October 12, the 2nd Kansas moved out for Missouri. Reader took his diary along on the march, illustrating much of the campaign with charcoal and pencils–sketches he would later flesh out with watercolors. One such painting was called 2nd K.S.M. Invading Missouri. Many of the untrained, inexperienced militiamen refused to cross the state border to meet the Confederate invasion. The Shawnee County regiment was one of the exceptions, and the men from Topeka and vicinity proved their worth during the ensuing Battle of Westport.

Another painting, Night Before Battle, depicts the campsite of Kansans on October 21, 1864, the evening before the second day of fighting at Westport. The next day, the 2nd Kansas saw combat. The regiment waited at a shallow crossing of the Big Blue River through most of the day. Late in the afternoon, Brig. Gen. Jo Shelby’s “Iron Brigade” of Missouri cavalry broke through Union lines while attempting a flanking movement. Shelby’s Missourians ran headlong into the 2nd Kansas. The regiment held its ground without aid against vastly superior numbers for nearly an hour in what became known as the Battle of the Blue.

Reader fought among the embattled Kansans and later would commemorate in words and pictures the brave stand that repulsed the Confederate advance into Kansas. The 2nd Kansas counted 24 killed, 20 wounded and 88 taken prisoner.

Further confrontations along the border sent Price scurrying back toward the safety of Arkansas with a cache of captured arms and prisoners. Reader was one of the captured Federals. After a three-day forced march through southern Missouri, which he illustrated with a drawing he called Double-Quick, You Yankee, the 28-year-old Reader managed to escape and found shelter with a Kansas farmer. He eventually turned himself over to a company of Federal cavalry, using his diary to prove his identity. He was one of the fortunate ones–many of his fellow prisoners died of exposure and pneumonia. Years later, Reader spent time honing his artistic talent. Although he is best known as a diarist, he was also a natural artist whose work illustrated his words. In addition to the diaries he kept faithfully from age 13 until his death, he also wrote and illustrated his autobiography. The watercolors in the latter work are now considered a valuable record of the Civil War in Kansas and Missouri.

Reader used pigment ground in gum and applied with brush and water to produce some of the best Kansas art depicting the war. Most of his work was primitive, but his action scenes of the Battle of the Blue at Westport, now held by the Kansas State Historical Society, are the equal of any combat painting of the Civil War.

Reader’s reminiscences, eternized with both pen and brush, have only been partially tapped. His story of the border warfare in the state, in both pictures and words, is an invaluable glimpse into Kansas’ Civil War heritage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *