Charles R. Jennison and Jennison’s Jayhawkers

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series The Partisan Rangers

Charles R. JennisonCharles R. “Doc” Jennison was a prominent Jayhawker who arrived in Kansas in 1858. Born in Antwerp, New York in 1834, Jennison studied medicine in Wisconsin where his parents had moved in 1846. He married in 1854 and moved to Osawatomie, Kansas four years later. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Mound City.

Leading a group of nine men he was considered one of the most brutal and unscrupulous of the Jayhawkers during the Bleeding Kansas period. Some other prominent leaders of irregulars in the border conflict shared these traits but Jennison was distinguished by his blatant plunder for personal gain. Jennison went as far as hanging Russell Hinds near the state line at Mine Creek for the offense of helping to return a fugitive slave to his master in Missouri, a legal act.

Jennison became a captain of the Mound City Guards in February 1861. He was not with Lane at the Sacking of Osceola but would soon join the pro-Union forces after receiving a commission as colonel from Kansas Governor Charles L. Robinson on September 4th.

By the end of October of 1861, Jennison would complete the mustering and training of his his 7th Kansas Cavalry, a regiment that would become known as “Jennison’s Jayhawkers and the “Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawkers.” It immediately took to the field patrolling the Kansas-Missouri border to prevent the secessionist Missouri State Guard under Sterling Price from crossing into Kansas.

Unlike Lane, Jennison was a resolute abolitionist; his sentiments on the matter were the subject of an article in Horace Greeley‘s New York Daily Tribune. The article reported Jennison as refusing to allow non-abolitionist soldiers to serve under his command, and asserting that “the slaves of rebels can always find a protection in… [his] camp, and [that] they will be defended to the last man and bullet.”

So feared did Jennison become that he liked to boast that Missouri mothers hushed their children to sleep with his name. So dubious were his activities that men described the pedigree of a horse of doubtful legal title as “out of Missouri by Jennison.”

In the fall of 1861, the Seventh Kansas’s primary activities included skirmishing with Confederate guerrillas in Missouri and protecting wagon trains. To carry out their mission, they began to retaliate against Missouri towns believed to be supporting the guerrillas.

In November 1861, the Seventh burned the area around Pleasant Hill as punishment for an attack on a Union wagon train. Other Missouri towns, including Dayton and Columbus, endured similar fates that winter. Meanwhile, the Seventh took livestock, food and slaves and burned farms in the path of its march through Missouri.

The soldiers of the Seventh were known as looters. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck described them as “no better than a band of robbers.” Hamilton R. Gamble, the Unionist governor of Missouri, complained of the regiment’s “wanton outrages.”

By the end of January 1862, the Seventh was ordered to return to Kansas from Missouri. Angered over James G. Blunt’s appointment as a brigadier general in his stead, Jennison resigned a few months later after giving a rabble-rousing speech in which he accused civilian and military officials of proslavery sympathies.

Some members of the Seventh deserted, and Jennison was briefly arrested for “disorganizing his regiment, and inducing his men to desert” before being released. He then joined the Redlegs who many considered no better than bandits.

A newspaper reporter traveling through Kansas in 1863 provided definitions of Jayhawker and associated terms:

Jayhawkers, Red Legs, and Bushwhackers are everyday terms in Kansas and Western Missouri. A Jayhawker is a Unionist who professes to rob, burn out and murder only rebels in arms against the government. A Red Leg is a Jayhawker originally distinguished by the uniform of red leggings. A Red Leg, however, is regarded as more purely an indiscriminate thief and murderer than the Jayhawker or Bushwhacker. A Bushwhacker is a rebel Jayhawker, or a rebel who bands with others for the purpose of preying upon the lives and property of Union citizens. They are all lawless and indiscriminate in their iniquities.

Meanwhile, the Union Army shipped his unit to Mississippi where they continued to cause trouble. They refused to return runaway slaves despite orders to do so. One historian of the Seventh Kansas, Stephen Z. Starr, claims “no other regiment in the Union army had so bad a reputation” or “worked so diligently to deserve it.”

Following the Lawrence Massacre Jennison was once again commissioned a colonel and called into service by Kansas Governor Thomas Carney to raise a regiment that would become the 15th Kansas Cavalry on October 17, 1863.

Colonel Jennison commanded a mixed brigade of Kansas militia and volunteers resisting Price’s Raid in October 1864. However, in December he found himself under arrest as the result of plundering while returning through Missouri after the pursuit of Price. Jennison was court-martialled and convicted on June 23, 1865, whereupon he was dishonorably dismissed from the service.

Despite his disgrace, Jennison was elected to the Kansas Legislature from Leavenworth County in 1865, re-elected in 1867, and elected to the Kansas State Senate in 1872. He died at Leavenworth, Kansas June 21, 1884.


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