Union Prison Collapse Historical Marker
Backstory and Context
History of the Union Prison and its Collapse
The Union Prison and its collapse expose the tense environment in border states Missouri and Kansas, which was, in part, defined by neighbor-against-neighbor intrastate war. As such, guerrilla warfare was prevalent with fights between Union Jayhawkers and Confederate Bushwhackers. Beginning in 1863, however, Union officers began rounding up women suspected of providing aid and support to the Confederate guerrillas and then placing them in makeshift prisons in Kansas City. Some of the women and girls were arrested on public roads while others were taken from their homes, and all went without bond or bail. While awaiting transport and trial in St. Louis, they were housed in these prisons. The prison in downtown Kansas City was a seven-year-old, three-story building, and the prisoners were housed on the upper floors while Union guards occupied the lower floors. There is evidence showing that, to make space, the Union soldiers removed some of the support columnns from a foundation wall in the cellar.
The guards did report the dangers in the building’s structure, but no orders came to move the women, and on August 13th, around dinnertime, with 17 women and girls, one boy, and one guard inside, the building suddenly collapsed. Witnesses say they could hear the screams of frightened women up and down Grand Boulevard. Soon, a crowd gathered around the four bodies laid nearby, claiming “No accident...The Yankees did it.” When news hit the bushwhackers, they were enraged, saying the killing of Southern white women violated codes of honor, civility, and morality. Although some say the subsequent attack on Lawrence was already planned, the fighters that attacked Lawrence and killed 150 men cited revenge as justification for the attack. Today, the prison’s collapse is still a controversy, and in many cases, there are bitter sentiments among the descendants of those killed.1