Battle of Mine Creek
More American men lost their lives on the battlefields of the American Civil War than in all other wars combined, both before and since. But the collateral damage of the war, resulting from waging war amongst America’s own pastures and farmlands, shaped the lives of all citizens – male and female, young and old. Perhaps the most severe offenses against civilians occurred in Kansas, a land that bled as her people did: profusely, and often at the hands of friends and relatives. Indeed, as brother fought brother, in Kansas and all across the nation, over the moral implications of slavery, families living along the border between northern and southern values became enslaved themselves by the ravages of war. This is the story of Barbara Jane Dolson, a Kansas settler whose back-forty became a battlefield, and of the many other women who, like her, found themselves torn from hearth and home and pressed into the service of uncivil war.
Long before the first shots of the American Civil War rang out, Kansas was bleeding. 1854’s Kansas Nebraska Act prompted settlers from both pro- and antislavery factions to settle the newly opened Kansas Territory. Conflict between these two groups precipitated the most violent episode in Kansas history. Abolitionists like Sara Tappan Doolittle Robinson, who lived amongst the freestaters of Lawrence, wrote passionately on behalf of the cause of emancipation. Her anti-slavery narrative, Kansas, Its Interior and Exterior Life, published in 1856, told of the struggle for freedom that she shared with her husband Charles, a free-state proponent who had been arrested for his revolutionary activities. In nearby Osawatomie, Florella Brown Adair, half-sister to antislavery leader John Brown, lent her pen to the cause of freedom, too, supplementing her husband’s missionary work with writings flavored by the salt of experience. But abolitionist activities faced an equally passionate pro-slavery contingent. On August, 30, 1856, Osawatomie’s bloodiest day, Adair wrote, “We are constantly exposed and we have almost no protection. A few have guns and revolvers, but as a people and place we are without even these and the place is known and called an ‘abolitionist nest.’” Seven months pregnant and sheltering another woman who brought with her three children of her own, Adair faced down the ruffians who came across the border from Missouri looking for her infamous half-brother. And not far away, in Mound City, the United States government garrisoned troops to help quell the unrest between the factions. The Battle of Mine Creek would be only eight years and five miles away.
On the morning of October 25, 1864, the settlers who lived along Mine Creek in eastern Kansas awoke to the rumblings of war. Barbara Jane Dolson, young wife of a Union soldier serving the state militia at Marais des Cygnes, was at home with her mother on the Palmer family farm. As the women prepared breakfast and minded the children, they soon came to realize that they were not alone. The Confederates came first. Rebel officers compelled Barbara Jane and her mother to feed their men with the meager fare of the women’s own table. All along the path of the 15-mile long Confederate wagon train, in fact, women and children surrendered their food and clothing to enemy soldiers who then teased them for crying. Soon, though, the scene changed. Confederate men passed the Palmer homestead more and more swiftly, and the line became a disordered mob. For not far behind the rebels rode the Union cavalry, intent upon halting the destructive march of their foe.
Before long, the pastures of the Palmer land, as well as the land of their neighbors from the town of Trading Post south along the old Ft. Scott road teamed with men and horses. The women of Mine Creek greeted these men in Union blue with more hospitality than they did the ragged, grey Confederates. In his later writings, Mine Creek Union Army veteran Captain Richard Hinton reminisced:
In front of a log cabin stood an old lady, with several children clinging to her skirts, fearless of the leaden shower which ceaselessly pattered against the cabin wall; with dress disordered and grey locks floating in the wind, the old lady shouted while we whirled past, ‘God bless you, boys! God bless you boys! Hurra for the Union! Hurra for Kansas! Give it to ‘em!..’ The sight was inspiring. The blessing came like a draught of wine.
Inspiring it must have been; for in the ensuing battle, though 300 Confederate soldiers lost life or limb that day, and 900 lost their freedom, only eight Union soldiers died, with 100 wounded in the field. Indeed, as the battle raged on around her, Barbara Jane describes standing in the doorway of her father’s home, watching the melee: “…soon the rattle of musketry was so great I could hear nothing else. I could see the cannons a mile away belch out their flames and smoke, but could not hear them for the noise of the small arms all around me.” How horrifying to feel the ground quake beneath the horses’ hooves, to hear the thunderous war raging all around, to see the spurting blood, and to wait; such is so often the lot of women during war. Fortunately for Barbara Jane, her wait was relatively short: the battle had lasted a mere 30 minutes. But in that time a Confederate wagon train had foundered in Mine Creek, and the Confederacy had lost the war in the West.
“As soon as the firing ceased Mother and I went out to see what we could do for the wounded… Some were bearing their pain without a murmur, some groaning, some crying, some praying, and some dying.” (Barbara Jane Dolson)
Though the skirmish was short, its impact on Barbara Jane, her neighbors, and the nation lingered on. In the battle’s aftermath, as men lay mired in the mud and gore, Mine Creek’s women took to the field and nursed the fallen, Confederate and Union alike. The Union Army requisitioned the Lathrop cabin, scene of Captain Hinton’s warm welcome, for a field hospital, while the old woman with her clinging children fled. And two miles further south, down the road toward Ft. Scott, another woman passed an agonizing night alone with wounded enemy soldiers who begged for relief she could not provide. In fact, across the American South, women who endured battles in their own back yards soon suffered the further hardship of seeing their homes turned into hospitals. Of course, the Palmer homestead, too, sheltered wounded men. Many years later, Barbara Jane wrote of her ministrations to these men, and of how even her mother’s divan became a victim of the war, as it served as a stretcher during the removal of an injured officer. But the divan was the least of the Dolson and Palmer families’ worries.
Mine Creek’s women, terrified and abandoned after the battle, soon found that though the fighting was finished and the armies had moved on, their privations lingered: looting, pillaging, and the ravages of war had left them with no food, little clothing, wells that were polluted, and horses and livestock that wandered lost across pasture and field. Like so many women across the land, their endurance of bloody combat became only the first of their many battles for survival. It was October, and Kansas winters can be harsh. How terrifying to face that unforgiving season with depleted provisions, to suffer the persistent memory of the day’s horror, and to look out upon a barren landscape haunted by the bones of men. Only because the war raged on their very doorstep did the Palmer-Dolson household fare better than most: the women captured stray horses from the field and rode the five miles to Mound City for help. But even this small piece of providence could not salve the wounds of Barbara Jane Dolson’s soul.
“Though it has been over thirty years since these things happened, memory will bring them up almost as vividly as when they were passing before my eyes. May no one living be forced to witness such horrors again in our now happy land.” (Barbara Jane Dolson)
Into the next spring, inhabitants of Mine Creek lived amongst the bodies of the Confederate soldiers. Barbara Jane Dolson contacted the garrison at Fort Scott to point out corpses she had found in the area surrounding the battlefield. Found, too, amongst the debris of war, a soldier’s wedding band and a child’s dress tell of other families, other wives and sweethearts, who, like Barbara Jane and her family, endured the worst that war could demand of them and either survived or did not. As for Barbara Jane, in her memoires, still in the possession of her family in and around Mound City, she writes of asking the army for the return of her mother’s divan to keep “as a memento” of the war. But did she ever recover all else that was taken from her on that day: her youth, her innocence, her peace of mind? Or must she be counted amongst the living dead who populated the ravaged land long after America’s uncivil war had ceased? Though her writings shed some light on the enduring battle she fought within, only Barbara Jane Dolson could ever have known the true answer to that question.
Additional information about the Battle of Mine Creek.
Entry: Battle of Mine Creek
Author: Suezanne Thibodeau
Author information: Ms. Thibodeau lives in Lenexa and has an interest in Kansas history.
Date Created: October 2011
Date Modified: January 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.