Bad Blood: The Border War That Triggered the Civil War

a co-production of Wide Awake Films and KCPT Kansas City Public Television, 2007, 90 minutes, $19.95.

Much like Ken Burns’ land- mark PBS documentary The Civil War, Bad Blood uses wonderful music, loads of archival photographs and prints, historical reenactments and professional actors who give voice to people on both sides. Bad Blood is an absorbing film that clearly describes the origins and bloody course of the border war that rocked Kansas, Missouri and the entire nation between 1854 and 1861.

Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, with ambitions to become president, set off a whirlwind with his 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which voided the 1820 Missouri Compromise and substituted a hazy concept of “popular sovereignty” instead. In other words, the Kansas Territory could become a slave state if its residents voted to make it a slave state, but that also meant the voters could make it a free state.

Douglas’ vision of popular sovereignty was an unmitigated disaster from the beginning, just as his Illinois opponent Abraham Lincoln had predicted. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively turned Kansas into a bloody battleground between proslavery and Free-Soil forces.

Once the 1854 legislation passed, thousands of abolitionists and FreeSoilers emigrated into Kansas from New England and proslavery men from Missouri began crossing into Kansas.

The film shows how election fraud was blatant and widespread. For instance, in the 1854 Congressional election, which proslavery advocates won overwhelmingly, one precinct of 20 residents reported 604 votes. At an 1855 election for the state legislature, proslavery gunmen intimidated FreeSoilers. Once again, the proslavery forces won.

The Free-Soilers, in turn, established a separate free-state government. The film shows antislavery men such as Charles Robinson organizing and denouncing “the bogus legislature.” Soon tit-for-tat violence prevailed. In 1856 violence heated up when the proslavery state militia, led by Sheriff Sam Jones, attempted to arrest Robinson and the free-state leadership. Jones was shot. In retaliation, the free-state stronghold of Lawrence was burned to the ground.

Into this landscape of violence came abolitionist John Brown. Viewers know instantly how the filmmakers feel about the controversial Brown because the narrator calls him a “snake.” During the reenactment of the horrific massacre Brown orchestrated at Pottawatomie Creek, where five unarmed proslavery men were executed, the narrator describes it as “an act of terrorism.” That is an accurate description—and Brown intended it as such—but why the terrorism label is pinned only upon Brown, and not the countless others who engaged in killing to intimidate their opponents, is difficult to understand.

The film also reenacts attempts by proslavery militia to capture Brown. At the 1856 Battle of Black Jack, Brown’s militia won a decisive victory, and he eventually escaped from Kansas to plan his famous raid in Harpers Ferry, Va. But oddly, while Brown is a crucial character, he is barely allowed to speak in this film. He is depicted as crazy, which seems oversimplistic. He may have been motivated by a sense of Old Testament vengeance, but how does that make him different from thousands of others on both sides?

The film concludes with the ongoing guerrilla war and the legislative battles (in Kansas and Congress) between those supporting the proslavery Lecompton Constitution and those opposing it. The bloodshed in Kansas heated things up on the national level. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the film’s narrator says “the fate of the South was sealed.” Again, I’m not so sure. Compromise remained a possibility right up to and even after the firing on Fort Sumter. In early 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, and neighboring Missouri soon became a crucial battleground during the war.

Bad Blood is an outstanding documentary in the tradition of Ken Burns, and the reenactors do an especially fine job bringing the passion and violence of Bloody Kansas to three-dimensional life. Despite a few historical oversimplifications, perhaps inevitable in any film purporting to cover seven complicated years, Bad Blood is highly recommended for those seeking to understand this violent prelude to the Civil War.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.