Caught in the Crossfire: Johnson County and the Civil War

Did you know that out of the 24 guerrilla raids that took place in Kansas during the Civil War, eight of them were in Johnson County? The border war between Kansas and Missouri in the years leading up to and during the Civil War was a dark period for these states. Men were killed, farms and businesses robbed and burned, and a lost sense of security was all too common for families living on the border.

Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861. The already existing tension between the abolitionist jayhawkers, led by John Brown, and the pro-slavery bushwhackers, led by the notorious William Quantrill, erupted into a wave of violent raids throughout the border towns. The majority of jayhawkers resided in Kansas and the bushwhackers in Missouri. Most of the guerrilla raids in Kansas were instigated by the bushwhackers. These gangs were not officially part of the Union or Confederate Army, they were sympathizers and independent, militant guerrillas.


Left: John Brown , Right: William Quantrill. Photos courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society

The town of Gardner experienced the first Johnson County raid on Oct. 22, 1861. Businesses had their windows smashed, and Quantrill’s guerrillas took off with wagons full of loot. In 1862, attacks were more personal, homes were robbed and Johnson Countians felt as though they were in constant danger. That year, the towns of Shawnee and Olathe were raided. The raid in Olathe left six civilians dead (KSHS, 2013). The Olathe Mirror, the local paper, was destroyed. Shawnee was nearly burnt to the ground during its raid. Quantrill and his men set fire to nearly every building after stealing desperately needed clothing.


1876 Atlas of Johnson County

As if these raids weren’t bad enough, they left the door open for common criminals to take advantage of the chaos. A lack of proper law enforcement in Johnson County left it open to be terrorized by both guerrilla bands and local criminals. Farmers lost livestock, horses and cattle to thieves. Many families left their homes and farms out of fear of the raids. In 1863, the towns of Shawnee, Spring Hill and Aubry were attacked. Shawnee was burned down yet again by Quantrill’s band, which was in retaliation for a jayhawker raid in Missouri.

Civil War Soldiers protecting from guerillas

Three Union soldiers stationed in Shawnee and Olathe to protect the border in 1964. From left to right: Gene Vince, John Watrous, James Watrous

After the guerrilla raids in Johnson County and the notorious raid on Lawrence, known as “Bleeding Kansas,” Kansas raised the 15th Kansas Regiment to protect the border. Men in Johnson County were eager to help. In the spring of 1864, Olathe was turned into a fort, and for the first time in three years, the residents of Johnson County felt protected from the terrifying guerrilla raids. After the Civil War, families that once moved away to avoid the raids moved back Johnson County and rebuilt businesses, homes and farms.

-Beth Edson, Johnson County Library


Johnson County Museum. (1993). The Civil War in Johnson County. Retrieved from

Kansas State Historical Society. (2013). William Clarke Quantrill. Retrieved from

1 Comment

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One response to “Caught in the Crossfire: Johnson County and the Civil War

  1. Cathleen Shiff

    my gg grandfather, John H. Cody, rode with Judge Treckle’s jayhawkers out of the Aubrey area. He was murdered adjacent to the blacksmith shop in Aubrey on August 21, 1863 by three of Quantrill’s men, who were dressed as Union soldiers. He was left for dead in a ditch. The book of Johnson County history lists the assailants by name. He left a widow, Elizabeth Dickman Cody and three young sons.

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