My first foray into the world of digitizing Civil War-era sources took me not into the hills of Missouri or trekking across the plains of Kansas. Instead, I found myself not far from the desk at which I write this post. Only five floors up, at the Kansas City Public Library’s in-house archive, the Missouri Valley Special Collections opened its large, ornate, wooden doors to me for five days of digitization.
Making its entrance into the Kansas City archive circuit in 1960, MVSC houses several thousand documents spanning all types of materials, including – but most certainly not limited to – manuscripts, photographs, maps, and newspapers. Regional history and Midwestern genealogy are MVSC’s specialties, drawing throngs of local and national researchers that undoubtedly enjoy its elegant reading room and adjacent rooftop terrace.
MVSC was only the first stop on my lengthy list of historical societies and museums to visit for the Missouri-Kansas Conflict project. This project, powered by the Kansas City Public Library and 25 regional partners, will ultimately unite Civil War-era documents and photographs scattered across large and small institutions on both sides of the border into a single online destination.
During the five days that I spent at MVSC, I combed through hundreds of Civil War-era letters, diaries, and photographs. While exploring these fascinating documents, one collection in particular sparked my historically inclined interests. As I read the letters contained in the John A. Bushnell Collection, I was afforded that rare opportunity as a researcher to step back, reconsider my perspective on the past, and acquire a new understanding of an aspect of 19th-century life that had eluded me.
On December 14, 1863, John Bushnell wrote a letter to his fiancé, Eugenia, whom he often wrote when his job took him away from their home in Calhoun, Missouri. This letter, along with the entire the Bushnell Collection, supplies us with the perspective of a Southern sympathizer who, after his slaves were freed, continued to feel an obligation to provide for them.
Bushnell's words force the modern reader to reconsider the relationship that existed between master, slave, and freedman in nineteenth-century Missouri, particularly after the state’s experience with gradual (and often violent) emancipation.
After catching his wife up on daily life in St. Louis, Bushnell launched into a set of observations regarding the condition of African-Americans in the region. According to Bushnell, many of his former slaves residing there were struggling to find employment and wanted to return to Calhoun. Bushnell expressed regret for their current predicament and mentions his desire to rent his former slaves a house in order to “let them work and see what freedom is, just to try it.”
Blacks, he observed, were denied the opportunity to embrace their newly acquired freedom due to discriminatory employment measures, which kept them impoverished and unable to improve their situation. He lamented, “I still feel it my duty to take care of them although they are no profit – nor have I property in them… yet as I have been raised, so I act and feel.”1
Bushnell’s sentiment illustrates the complex connections that existed between master and slave. The notion of “duty” to former slaves, in particular, sheds light on the perspective of white masters in border states who grappled with issues of race and emancipation in unique ways that were not always reflected in the national experience.2
Download the letter as a PDF: John A. Bushnell to Eugenia Bushnell, St. Louis, December 14, 1863
The Bushnell Collection offers only a single glimpse of the stories contained in MVSC. Thanks to the active and updated digital collection at kchistory.org, you don't have to travel far to access the valuable and vast holdings of the archive. After digitizing over 250 pages of primary source documents for the Missouri-Kansas Conflict project -- an amount that accounts for a mere fraction of MVSC's collection on the Civil War -- it’s clear that whether professional or amateur, a researcher or a genealogist, there are sure to be excellent finds that have the power to make you pause, get lost in their antiquated prose, and reconsider your perspective on our collective past.
About the Author
Hannah Ballard is the Project Coordinator for the Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War on the Western Border. She earned her B.A. degree in American history from the University of Kansas with a special focus on nineteenth-century Kansas. A lover of fiction, film, and history (and any combination thereof), Hannah’s been working for the Kansas City Public Library since July 2011.