Shades of Gray

Civil War Flag

The April 12, 1861, Confederate attack on Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the Civil War and left the populations of border states such as Missouri pondering where their loyalties lay. In the months immediately prior to the war's outbreak, the leaders of Kansas City (then called the Town of Kansas), had preferred to stay neutral and focus on the local economy instead. But when a band of residents raised a Confederate flag on April 30, 1861, it appeared that Kansas City, and perhaps even the state of Missouri, would tilt toward the Southern, secessionist side.

The situation was indeed dicey. A majority of Kansas City's population, which had barely reached 4,000 by 1860, was made up of former Southerners, and pro-secessionist forces were on the advance. An informal band of Confederate sympathizers went out and captured munitions at the Union arsenal in Liberty, Missouri, just days after the battle at Fort Sumter. And Mayor Robert T. Van Horn, a Kansas City newspaperman and avowed Unionist, had managed to win a close election against a pro-secessionist candidate only by adopting a "moderate" platform that supported pro-slavery views and loyalty to the Union simultaneously.

The Missouri Constitutional Convention, undertaken two months prior, had determined that Missouri would not secede from the Union. Its delegates declared the state's official position to be "neutral." Missouri's Governor Claiborne Jackson, on the other hand, supported the secessionists. In May, Governor Jackson ordered the state militia to attack a Union arsenal in St. Louis. From April until June, Missouri effectively had two state governments, with the pro-Confederate faction in control of the state capital at Jefferson City.

In April 1861 this pro-Southern regime denounced Van Horn's authority as mayor on account of his pro-Union declarations. Kansas City's tentative pro-Union stance came under further attack on April 30, when Kansas City residents in favor of secession raised a Confederate flag at present-day Second and Main streets. It appeared that Kansas City might be on the verge of falling to the rebels.

Notwithstanding Jefferson City's orders to resign as major, Van Horn sought and received a commission at the rank of "major" from the Union Army and remained the mayor of Kansas City. The raising of the Confederate flag within the city's limits marked a final point of decision for Kansas City. Van Horn denounced this visible sign of Confederate influence in the city and requested Union reinforcements from Fort Leavenworth.

On June 14, five companies of U.S. troops finally entered the city to secure it for the Union. They constructed the "Camp Union" stockade to house the cavalry on the foundation of the uncompleted Coates House Hotel. The Union soldiers quelled dissent among Confederate sympathizers throughout the city. At about the same time, other Union forces captured Jefferson City and established a new pro-Union state government with the unelected provisional governor Hamilton Gamble. To provide further protection, Van Horn organized a local defense unit, called the "Home Guard," which assisted the Union soldiers in maintaining order in Kansas City.

By the end of June, Kansas City and the State of Missouri were back in the hands of the Union, but neither would be truly secure until the latter parts of the war. Most notably, Confederate General Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor, led several incursions into the state. The first of these advances resulted in a Confederate victory on September 1861 at Lexington, Missouri, just 50 miles northeast of Kansas City.

More famously, in October 1864, General Price lost the largest battle ever fought in the West at the "Battle of Westport," which took place within the boundaries of present-day Kansas City, Missouri. Although the Confederates lost that battle, defeat came only after Price's army had threatened to take St. Louis and then fought its way westward across the entire state.

Confederate raiders would remain a threat to Kansas City and its environs throughout the war. Secessionist guerillas continued to suppress trade into and out of the city, and they ravaged much of the surrounding farmland. The young city remained in the Union throughout the Civil War due in large part to the efforts of Robert Van Horn.


Read full biographical sketches of Kansas City leaders during the Civil War, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.


View images from the Missouri Valley Special Collections that relate to Robert T. Van Horn and the Home Guard.


Check out the following books and articles about Robert T. Van Horn and the Civil War near Kansas City.


Continue researching Robert T. Van Horn and the Civil War near Kansas City using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections.


Continue researching Civil War battles in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections.



Brown, A. Theodore and Lyle W. Dorsett. KC: A History of Kansas City, Missouri. Boulder, CO: Pruett Pub. Co., 1978.

Haskell, Henry C. and Richard B. Fowler. City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950. Kansas City, MO: F. Glenn, 1950.

Vertical File: Kansas City - Chronology. Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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