Bleeding Kansas

Miranda Allegar & Julia Giordano


“Bleeding Kansas” is the name given to the violence that broke out in Kansas in 1856 when the notion of popular sovereignty for the decision of slavery was put into action, as mandated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. As the critical choice loomed, both pro and antislavery groups rallied supporters from out of state to join their cause. This further catalyzed a guerrilla war in the state, taking the lives of between 56 and 200 people and paving the road for the full-scale civil war that would come just five years later.

Bleeding Kansas- Why It Was the Point of No Return

One reason “Bleeding Kansas” was the point of no return for the civil war was because it marked first shots fired of the war, causing northerners and southerners to resort to fighting in order to resolve slavery. “Bleeding Kansas” was the first violent and large-scale fight which occurred between pro- and anti- slavery groups, deepening the rift between the two. This was the first time tensions between the north and south erupted into actual violence and was the first large fight fought solely over the issue of slavery. As the decision for or against slavery loomed near, both pro and antislavery groups sent back-ups to support their cause, with Missourians rushing to the aid of the proslavery side and the New England Emigrant Aid Society for the anti-slavery side. Many pro-slavery groups sacked the free-soil city of Lawrence, Kansas, murdering at least 55 free-soilers and destroying countless homes and shops. This attack enraged free-soilers, leading to mounting tensions. In 1856, the northern-based newspaper The Tribune described “Bleeding Kansas” as “a battle.... waging war against slavery”. This proves that the North viewed these attacks as a war directed against slavery, extremely similar to how the civil war was fought directly about slavery. Additionally, there was a number of accounts of rape of white free-soiler women by the proslavery invaders. These rape accounts were exploited by Northern newspapers who used the attacks to protest the brutality of slave owners. These accounts caused many once- ambivalent northerners to rally up and take a stand against slavery. The fight showed that compromise would not be an option and that war was inevitable. While President Pierce backed the pro-slavery legislation of Lecompton, Kansas, the majority of Kansas residents pushed for the opposite, turning to violence as the pro-slavery groups looted Lawrence, a free-soil town, meeting the resistance of abolitionist Jacob Brown’s militia when Brown’s men killed 5 in Pottawatomie. The differences between the north and south were too deeply rooted to be fixed with compromise, proving that full-out war would be the only way to fix the slavery issue. This was noted by Edward Bridgman, a Kansas free-soiler, who believed that “free state men are compelled to… engage in battle” because “at sundown [America] divided into 2 divisions”. Bridgman’s letter proves therefore that because of Bleeding Kansas, both free soilers and slaveholders felt like they must fight each other and clearly were divided into two separate sides. This intense separation and desire to fight therefore led directly to the Civil War. “Bleeding Kansas” therefore was the point of no return because it showed that people were willing to resort to violence in order to solve the issue of slavery. Additionally, pro-slavery men’s murder of free-soilers enraged the North greatly and caused many to more vehemently oppose slavery. If Bleeding Kansas had not occurred, the civil war could have been avoided because many northerners would not have opposed slavery quite so much. Furthermore, Bleeding Kansas was a catalyst for full-out civil war the gruesome fighting occurred almost like a “dress rehearsal” for actual war. Therefore, Bleeding Kansas was the point of no return for the civil war because it caused northerners and southerners to want to fight in order to resolve the issue of slavery.

Further, the events in Kansas dominated the political scene on a national level, turning all parties and levels of government to the now unavoidable issue of slavery. While parties and presidencies had been dodging the issues of the expansion or abolition of slavery for years, the election of 1856 saw slavery enter the forefront of politics in a major way. During the conflict itself, popular sovereignty as a solution was questioned as it had led to such tampering and volatile results in Kansas. Further, Pierce’s administration had strongly backed the proslavery Lecompton legislature, which had widened the gap between the residents in Kansas and catalysed the fighting. As the election of 1856 moved forward, the various parties were forced to declare their stances. While the Democrats reaffirmed their belief in popular sovereignty, the Republican party denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act and pushed for federal abolition, as illustrated in the campaign songs for the Republican candidate, Fremont, which proclaimed “we’re a band of freemen and we’ll down with slavery” and characterized slavery as “stealing” practiced by “arrant knaves.” Yet, through this all, the American party had been eradicated, with the Republicans in the place of the Whigs, marking the end of the Second Party System and the start of a new era for the nation. With slavery as the hot topic of the moment in the wake of the violence in Kansas, political leaders had no choice but to begin the hunt for a real solution, unlike the wishy-washy policies set by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Compromise of 1850 that largely strove to postpone the issue. Now, with the country divided, as seen in the rallying of the New Englanders with the abolitionists and the Missouri residents with the proslavery side, a final answer to slavery was overdue and set in motion with the blood spilled in Kansas. There was no turning back.

War With Mexico- Why It Wasn't the Point of No Return

One major event which many would argue was the point of no return for the civil war was war with Mexico. However, this was not the point of no return for a number of reasons. First, the war with Mexico had little to do initially with the issue of slavery. Fueled by ideas of manifest destiny, America instigated war with Mexico. Therefore, this war was fought for territorial expansion rather than for the issue of slavery. Because the war had so little to do with slavery, it was not the point of return for the civil war. While some may argue that the land gained from the war caused slavery issues, many slavery issues erupted without the newly acquired land. Civil war would have occurred regardless of how much land America owned. Similarly, if War with Mexico had not occurred, the civil war still would have happened. Slavery issues still would have escalated in the lands not gained through war with Mexico, and eventually led to the Civil War. Therefore, war with Mexico was not the point of no return for the Civil War because the war would have occurred regardless of war with Mexico.


Thus, as the first blood was spilled, the nation turned to the government for a definitive response on the now unavoidable question of slavery, and the ideological splits between parties widened further than ever, the Civil War was ineluctable. The people of the United States had drawn a line in the sand, or across the country as it were, and the first steps over it had been taken.


"Bleeding Kansas," Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century, Edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001. GALE|BT2350040041.

"The Bleeding Kansas Crisis Begins: 1854," Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout

History, Edited by Jennifer Stock. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. GALE|YBKCHG220633562.

Weyman, Charles S. “Fremont and Victory. The Prize Song,” New York Daily Tribune. 1856.

Bridgman, Edward. “Letter from Edward Bridgman,” Africans In America. 1856.

Arnold, Brie Swenson. “"To Inflame the Mind of the North": Slavery Politics and the Sexualized Violence of Bleeding Kansas." Kansas History38. 2015.

Image URLs: