Wednesday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a noteworthy piece by Nicole Etcheson entitled “Jennison’s Jayhawkers.” Etcheson discusses the origins of the term “jayhawker” (and its verb variant “jayhawking”). She also chronicles the history of the 7th Kansas Cavalry, also known as the “Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawkers” or simply “Jennison’s Jayhawkers” (for their commander, Charles Jennison). Jayhawkers, many of them veterans of Bleeding Kansas, developed a fearsome reputation early in the Civil War for their ruthlessness and depredations on the civilian population in neighboring Missouri, their old enemies from the 1850s.
Some Jawhawker units, Jennison’s men among them, commonly destroyed or carried off the property of reputed rebels in Missouri. Civil War Emancipation already has discussed the activities of Kansas’ Jayhawker general and U.S. Senator, James Henry Lane, especially his infamous raid on Osceola, Missouri, on September 23, 1861. Lane carried off many of the town’s slaves with him to freedom in Kansas. Missouri slaves seemed to be perfectly happy with this practice. As Etcheson mentions in her article, “In the fall of 1861, Kansas newspaperman John Speer encountered wagons of African-Americans on their way from Missouri to Lawrence, Kan. Speer asked if they were runaway slaves and an elderly woman replied they had been taken by ‘De blessed Kansas Jayhawkers. Dey Jayhawked us!’”
Nonetheless, the activities of the Jayhawkers, while a boon to Missouri’s slaves, arguably were partly counterproductive in the struggle for emancipation. They gave Missouri’s slaveholders a pretext to paint themselves as victims of Yankee depredations, because of the Jayhawker’s tendency to take with them whatever valuable property of Missourians that they could carry and destroy what they could not. These and other depredations created a sense of victimhood in Missouri that persists to this day. This past September, for instance, around the time of the sesquicentennial of Lane’s infamous raid, town leaders in Osceola, Missouri, demanded the University of Kansas drop its “Jayhawk” mascot name (Kansas, a victim of many Missouri raids before and during the Civil War, declined).
While there was certainly some justice in demand made by Osceola’s leaders, it conveniently overlooked that the town, Missouri, and the United States had victimized African Americans for a long time before it ended up on the receiving end of violence during the Civil War. While the raid on Osceola was arguably a war crime, it brought some justice to the slaves liberated by it. Yet by doing great harm to Osceola and other Missourians during the Civil War, units like Jennison’s Jayhawkers tarnished to some extent the act of emancipating the slaves in Missouri-Kansas border region.