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Which is more important: What happened or Why?

I have always marveled at how some people can get into the minutia of battlefield tactics, dissecting how the Indians came over the hill that-a-way and the cavalry came over the hill this-away (or the Yanks came from this direction and the Rebs from that). There is an entire segment of the population who REALLY gets into this stuff, many of them going so far as physically re-enacting those battles, complete with authentic costumes, military drills and smoking firearms.

As a history major I was obliged to memorize long lists of dates, scrutinize battlefield maps and study the tactics and maneuvers of great generals from the beginning of time. It was absolutely mind-numbing. What I really wanted to know was, why were they fighting in the first place? What is their story?

For example, we are hearing a lot these days about the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. There are anniversary battlefield re-enactments ad nauseam, but where is the dialogue about why this war happened? Was this war fought over states’ rights or was that a convenient excuse to justify the system of human bondage that was entrenched in one half of our states and banned in the other half? Or was it something else altogether?

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approached, I had my doubts that I could craft a tour program that would appeal to the military buffs as well as those of us interested in what brought citizens of the same country to blows.

And then I started learning about the troubles in Kansas Territory. I was hooked. This story has plenty of blood and guts, though more of the guerrilla warfare variety than actual battles. It has a charismatic martyr – John Brown – whom everybody has heard of, plus many more (mostly unknown) who brought the seething cauldron that had been knowingly created by our founding fathers, to a boil.

The politics in this case fascinate me, because they are so human. The compromises made in order to create our republic in the first place, only kicked the problem of slavery down the road. Everybody knew it; nobody knew how to resolve it. Even Southerners like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – well, any slave-owning founding father – knew that it was an unsustainable system of labor. Never mind the moral issue of owning human property. Yet they compromised. And then the next generation compromised, and… well, you know the rest.

Bleeding Kansas: Where the Civil War Began  (October 15-21) delves into these issues and more.  Despite its pivotal role in what has been called “the gathering storm”, this episode is given short shrift in school textbooks, and of all the Civil War programs being offered during the Sesquicentennial, Shebby Lee Tours is the only one – to my knowledge – offering it. So if you want to learn more you can read all the books, or you can join others who have a similar thirst for knowledge, walk on the soil where these events took place, join in a political squabble in the first Territorial Capital, and ask your questions in the first person to one of many re-enactors and historians we will meet.

We recently received this message from a traveler who followed the Lewis & Clark Trail with us in 2007 and is signed up for the Bleeding Kansas tour this fall:

“Right now, Kansas is at the top of my thoughts. I have been reading up about the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas/Nebraska Act and John Brown and Black Jack and I just can’t wait to get out there in October to see it all for myself. It only needs to be half as good as Lewis and Clark to be great.”

See you in October, Dave!

For next year we are working on another western theater program: The Civil War on the Border (Missouri). Through today’s prism of over 100 years of Civil Rights struggles, “border” means only one thing: Mason-Dixon. (I Googled “Civil War on the Border” and came up with nothing but sites relating to that invisible line separating the North from the South.) But in the 1860’s, “the Border” was the western boundary of Missouri, just across the river from Kansas Territory.

This story too has it’s famous characters: William Quantrill, Jessie James, Cole Younger, to name just a few. Even Mark Twain served in the Confederate army – about long enough for a cup of coffee. His heart just wasn’t in it and he lit out for the territories in search of a less dangerous occupation.

Watch for further announcements as we finalize this program and set the dates. Because of the battlefield re-enactment included (yes, we include re-enactments, too) it will most likely be mid-August.

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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