Depending upon who is telling the tale, the Red Legs of Kansas were either soldiers, scouts, and guides particularly fitted for service along the bloody border, or else they were pillagers as “full of the devil as a mackerel is of salt.” The truth was even more complicated.
The Kansas Seventh Volunteer Cavalry, known in Missouri as “Jennison's Jayhawkers,” began wearing red leggings as early as 1861. Quickly picking up the symbol, other Unionist Red Legs thereafter gained a reputation for thieving, looting, and even bank robbery. A number of such gangs pillaged both sides of the Missouri/Kansas border in late 1861 and early 1862, much to the chagrin of the general in charge at Fort Leavenworth, James G. Blunt of Kansas.
Another threat was rising in 1862 that scared Kansans even more than Red Legs: William Clarke Quantrill. As the Confederate captain grew bolder, looting Shawneetown, Olathe, and a few other border towns that year, the cries grew for a protective force that could keep Quantrill at bay.
Enter Captain George Henry Hoyt, late of the Kansas Seventh Volunteer Cavalry. Though relatively new in Kansas, Hoyt was no stranger to the border. After serving as an attorney during John Brown’s 1859 trial in Virginia, Hoyt had come to Kansas in 1861 with John Brown, Jr., eventually replacing him as captain of Company K, perhaps the most fiercely abolitionist company in any Kansas regiment. As a member of Col. Charles R. “Doc” Jennison’s personal staff, Hoyt had led many raids on bushwhackers, raids from which any captured bushwhackers consistently died “trying to escape.”
While Hoyt’s poor health had forced his resignation from the Seventh, now serving in Mississippi, his July of 1862 return to Kansas made him available for a different kind of duty: running an irregular company of scouts and spies that would provide border “services” to Kansas regiments stationed in and around Kansas City.
He called his company the “Red Leg Scouts,” giving notice to Missourians that he intended to continue what Jennison’s boys had started the prior year. Into that company he gathered nearly three dozen men who knew the border, who could not serve in the army for various reasons, and most importantly, who were as fearless and as merciless as himself.
The company’s modus operandi was straightforward: if Missourians entered Kansas, the Red Legs would in turn lead hundreds of Kansas troops into Missouri on a punitive raid. In late 1862, after Quantrill raided Shawneetown a second time, Hoyt and the Red Legs led the Kansas Ninth on a 3-week expedition around Kansas City that ended only when Quantrill headed south to winter in Texas.
When George Todd’s bushwhackers attacked the steamer Sam Gaty on its way to Leavenworth, Hoyt and the Red Legs led elements of the Kansas Sixth in a retributive attack that left 40 Missourians dead. Most of them died after questioning by Red Legs or while trying to escape. In both cases, Hoyt led large numbers of forcibly freed slaves from Missouri back to Kansas.
Following General Blunt’s early 1863 departure from Fort Leavenworth, Hoyt was immediately hired as the Chief Detective of his replacement, General Thomas Ewing. The Red Legs now had another legal asset: detective papers that allowed them legal access to any home, barn, or building on the mere suspicion that it held stolen goods. The Red Legs led dozens, even hundreds, of “stolen” horses out of Missouri in early 1863.
However, by August of 1863, the party was over. Quantrill’s brilliant raid on Lawrence, which left more than 100 civilians dead and a fourth of the city in ashes, resulted in the implementation of Order Number 11, the forcible removal of disloyal families from five Missouri border counties. For that reason and others, like Price’s upcoming raid, the bushwhackers ceased to bother Kansas.
With the reputation of Ewing in shambles because of the Lawrence Raid, Hoyt resigned as Chief Detective and joined Jennison in recruiting the Kansas Fifteenth Volunteer Cavalry, and his Red Legs dissolved. Always secretive, often confused with common outlaws, and sometimes acting like them, the Red Legs lived on in the memories of Missourians, most notably in the painting Order Number 11 by George Caleb Bingham (shown above) and as the antagonists in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
For his part, Hoyt went on after the war to serve a term as Kansas Attorney General before returning to his native Massachusetts. Though he intended to write a tell-all book on the Red Legs, he died before his fortieth birthday and before he could shed any light on a group whose acts and crimes remained shrouded in mystery, smoke, and Missouri blood ever since.
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Bill Hoyt holds an MA in history from Pittsburg State University, where he works as a database analyst. He won the 2012 PSU Graduate Research Colloquium for his decipherment of John Brown Junior's encrypted war correspondence. His thesis, Good Hater, was a PSU Distinguished Thesis finalist and is his first, but not last, book.