The Pitch has learned that an unsettling discovery made nearly two months ago by workers excavating land for a new downtown arena has put that project in doubt.
On April 25, workers digging at the site of the former UMB Bank branch at Grand Avenue and Truman Road discovered human remains and immediately contacted authorities, records obtained by the Pitch show. The unearthing of what turned out to be multiple grave sites has been kept from the public while city, county and state officials wrestle with the implications for the arena project.
Within weeks of the discovery, city officials were certain that the six grave sites represented a previously unknown downtown cemetery dating to the 1860s. Examination of the remains and the artifacts found with them suggest that all six were adult males who were dressed in military uniforms and had suffered violent deaths. The Pitch has learned that officials quietly consulted a panel of three military historians; late last month, the experts concluded that the deceased were Confederate soldiers referred to in the journals of officers who wrote about a violent confrontation in Kansas City in October 1864.
“If they’re keeping this under wraps, I can understand it,” says Fletcher Gray, a history professor at the University of Kansas, who examined documents obtained by the Pitch. “What you’re showing me doesn’t just mean they’ve made a significant historical discovery. It also means the sports arena is in serious jeopardy. Unless, of course, the city can work something out with Confederate interest groups.”
Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields and Gov. Matt Blunt declined to comment for this story, but all three have been intimately involved in an extraordinary series of negotiations since the discovery of the remains. Secrecy has been very tight around the entire episode. Last month, for example, officials were so concerned that the arena project’s budget would be compromised by the delay that the arena’s design was rapidly scaled down and released to the public with little explanation.
“A pillow? A life preserver? Jiffy Pop popcorn? Believe me, those criticisms were a relief when we heard them,” one city official says about the local media’s response to the new designs. The official spoke to the Pitch on the condition of anonymity. “You aren’t going to believe what kind of changes are coming if Kay is going to keep the arena from blowing up entirely. She was awfully smart to unveil that ugly new design first, to prepare the public for what’s coming later.”
What’s coming later is revealed by interviews with key sources close to the emergency negotiations that are still going on as this issue of the Pitch goes to print. This week, an official groundbreaking will be held for the arena, but it was scheduled before problems with the site arose and will largely be a ceremonial event, sources in the city tell the Pitch.
This much is certain: The discovery of six long-deceased rebel soldiers has thrown Kansas City and the state of Missouri into a crisis.
KU’s Fletcher Gray was not among the three military historians consulted after the remains were uncovered, but the citations and photographs on the walls of his Lawrence home testify to his reputation as one of the country’s foremost experts on the War Between the States.
Gray agreed to examine documents obtained by the Pitch that detail much about the discovery and subsequent examination of the remains unearthed downtown. Almost immediately, as he leafed through a large stack of records last week, Gray exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke and exclaimed, “There’s no doubt about it. These bodies are clearly the remains of Barrett’s Unfortunates.”
Gray was referring to an event known to historians from the journals of several Confederate officers who were part of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri. The journals recount how Price’s force was on a westward trek when, on October 23, 1864, the group clashed with Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. Known today as the Battle of Westport, the skirmish would be the largest in the Kansas City area, resulting in the deaths of about 1,500 soldiers on each side. In the days before Price’s soldiers ran into Curtis, they had been moving west from Jefferson City and had spent several days in and around present-day Kansas City, Missouri.
Gray quickly retrieved from his shelves a typescript of a journal by Capt. Joshua Phipps, who was one of several officers under Price who recorded an incident that occurred on October 19 or 20, 1864.
“Phipps notes that six men commanded by a Sgt. Barrett were ordered to enter the town of Kansas and retrieve supplies,” Gray says. “Instead, they met their deaths. Even in the hastily jotted notes of a busy officer and masked by the language of propriety of the time, it was pretty clear what kind of supplies those boys were after.”
The Phipps journal was one that Gray relied on for one of his seminal monographs about the war, “Rebel, Rebel, Your Face Is a Mess: Hygiene in the Armies of the West, 1861-65.”
Piecing together multiple accounts available to historians, Gray says that Barrett’s men entered a town that even in the mid-19th century was known for its wide-open ways.
“The zenith of Kansas City’s whorehouses may have come in the 1920s,” Gray says, “but river travelers were giving it high marks many decades earlier. Any soldier in Price’s forces would have known what the town had to offer.”
Gray says that Phipps and others left behind enough notes to form sketchy descriptions of the six men, accounts which have been amplified and embellished by legions of amateur Civil War historians ever since. “The popular histories probably aren’t correct,” Gray says, “but they’ve become as much a part of the record as the actual primary sources.”
That popular account says that the six were led by burly James Bullin, a Louisiana barber who stood 6 feet 2 in his stocking feet and left behind a wife and two small children when he joined Price’s army. Younger recruits such as G.W. Grubbs and W.F. Scanlin, about whom little is known, were said to have been drawn to Bullin’s swagger and skill with a straight razor. Vaughn Carroll was a crack shot who could play the fiddle and never seemed to sleep. Matthew Pettigo claimed to have been trained as a cook, “but the others never let him near a pot or a plucked chicken,” writes Phipps. Of the sixth soldier, the only things known are his last name, Robinson, and his ample girth.
“There are conflicting reports about how the six died,” Gray says. “One account had them dying in a knife fight with ‘river toughs’ at a brothel. Another had them killed just outside the same bordello by an out-of-control driverless carriage. But Phipps dismisses both of those versions,” Gray continues. “And another officer, Hayes, backs him up. Both complained that the men had got roaring drunk after a night of whoring, and when they refused to pay, it was the women themselves who did them in. Phipps and Hayes apparently made note of the event as a lesson to their men. The message was clear: Don’t vex the whores of Kansas.”
Where the men were buried, however, wasn’t mentioned in any of the journals. “It’s really not very surprising that their burial would be elided by the officers and their grave sites lost. Over the years, researchers have wondered if Barrett’s men had ended up in more well-known resting places, like Higginsville or one of the Jackson County farm cemeteries where other soldiers were laid to rest. It looks like we finally have our answer — these men were buried practically where they fell.”
Skeletal remains were found in the excavation, along with rotted planks from pine coffins and telltale identifying items such as uniform buttons. Forensic examinations of the remains show that three of the men had broken bones and skulls. Two showed similar injuries but also marks consistent with knife attacks. And the sixth clearly displayed a bullet wound to the skull.
“These guys were massacred,” says an official in the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which has taken control of the site. “At least we were able to make a preliminary identification of who was who.” Bullin was assumed to be the tallest. The others carried some identifying items. And one set of remains showed signs of having carried much weight. “We figured that was Robinson. He was the first we identified,” says the DNR official.
The graves were simple and apparently were hastily prepared. But their location, directly under what will become the floor of a $250 million arena, makes them far more significant than their humble condition might suggest.
Officials were thrown into something of a panic after the April 25 discovery. City and county employees suggest that it was unclear whether the site should be considered a crime scene, for example. Some county officials insisted that the Jackson County medical examiner’s office should take control of the remains. But once the identification of the soldiers was completed, it became obvious that state laws regarding archaeological remains would apply and take precedence.
“I think it was about five minutes after the historians gave us their report that we realized we were going to have to get Gov. Blunt on the phone,” says a county employee who asked not to be named. “Barnes and her people didn’t like that idea at all. I think the words I heard were ‘Why do we have to get that mushmouthed brat involved?’ It was a tense time.”
Blunt reportedly participated in a conference call with Barnes, Shields and several other officials on May 17. One of those listening, a state employee in the Department of Natural Resources, agreed to describe the call on condition of anonymity. “We have an unmarked-human-burial law that makes it pretty clear that the Department of Natural Resources would have complete control over this parcel of land once those bodies were discovered,” says the DNR employee from a Jefferson City office.
Officials had more questions than answers about how the remains would affect arena construction. “This was a city project, but the state was now in control of the land because of the remains. Would the bodies be moved and interred somewhere else? If so, where?” the DNR official asks. “Who would pay for the excavating or exhumations? What would the public be told? Should there be a memorial to the remains even if they were taken away? I tell you, that was the most remarkable call I’ve ever been a part of. And you have to remember, it was right at that time that Gov. Blunt was making up his mind about the Higginsville event, and the coincidence wasn’t lost on him.”
Indeed, Blunt was under considerable pressure by Confederate historical groups to overturn a ban on flying the Confederate battle flag over state-owned land, a law enacted in 2003 by his predecessor, Bob Holden, a Democrat. To the surprise of many — and to the outrage of the NAACP — Blunt allowed the one-day flying of the flag at the Confederate Memorial Historic Site in Higginsville on June 5, Confederate Memorial Day. The site at Higginsville is the burial place of not only Civil War dead but also Confederate veterans who lived out their days in a state-run home. About 400 people showed up for the ceremony, and about 40 others picketed the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City to protest the flying of the flag.
“Some were surprised that Blunt would allow that,” the DNR employee says. “I think many put it down to him being a Republican. But the truth is, he knew about the Kansas City discovery and was thinking ahead. He knew that all hell would break loose once the news of those bodies was released, and he was going to need cooperation from the Confederate historic groups because he knew they were going to demand a lot.”
The official confirmed that Blunt had in mind one person in particular — a person who would do everything he could to turn the downtown discovery into a new chapter in the Civil War.
“Those boys aren’t going anywhere,” says Clem Bradshaw in his familiar drawl from his home in Sedalia. Bradshaw, 49, is executive director of Friends of the Confederacy, a for-profit memorial association based in Missouri with chapters in several Southern states. The group puts on Civil War re-enactments throughout the country. His association has repeatedly made the news. It was Bradshaw who led a high-profile fight more than a decade ago to allow live-ammunition re-enactments in controlled settings, a push that ultimately failed to succeed in every state and U.S. territory except parts of Puerto Rico and Guam. Called a publicity stunt by many, the effort nevertheless made Bradshaw a familiar face and an often-quoted source for reporters covering the growing Confederate-heritage movement.
“We’ve got two dozen other Confederate-heritage groups lined up on this,” Bradshaw says. “We’ve already made it very plain to the governor that those soldiers won’t be disturbed any more than they already have been to identify them. That’s hallowed ground, and it’s going to stay that way.”
Republican strategist R. Wilson Emery tells the Pitch that, despite their relatively low profile, Confederate-heritage groups do have considerable clout in Missouri, particularly with Blunt. “Some of the governor’s biggest contributors were on the phone to him minutes after Bradshaw got wind of what was going on,” Emery says. “That’s going to get the attention of a man like Matt, whose numbers haven’t been stellar since his election.”
Bradshaw says he has already demanded that Blunt allow Friends of the Confederacy to put on a re-enactment of the death of Barrett’s men near the discovery site, to be followed by a symbolic — but legally binding — military reburial, which would include the flying of the Confederate battle flag.
“He knows how we feel about it. That flag isn’t a symbol of racism. It’s a symbol of our heritage, and we deserve to fly it just the same way the Mexicans do on Cinco de Mayo or the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” Bradshaw says. “Only here, it’s even more fitting, because these men died for that flag.”
Asked if the manner of their deaths gives him pause, Bradshaw angrily retorts that Barrett’s men were heroes. “They died defending an ideal that some of us do our best to live up to every day. They will never be forgotten as long as we keep them in our hearts.”
Bradshaw says that Bullin, Carroll and the portly Robinson are among the most popular roles for Missouri re-enactors. “I’ve seen men come to fisticuffs over who is going to portray even the least well-known of these men, Grubbs and Scanlin, at our events,” he says. “And denying the Matthew Pettigo re-enactor the right to cook the morning meal is like a Confederate sacrament. These men are not forgotten.”
Bradshaw says he has already told Blunt that his association will fight the arena project unless the city makes it, at least in part, a memorial to the men buried beneath it. “And I don’t mean flying a 6-inch-by-4-inch Confederate battle flag from a second-floor balcony every June 5, either,” Bradshaw says. He faxed the Pitch a copy of the features he says Confederate memorial groups will demand that Blunt push through before allowing the city to continue arena construction.
Bradshaw’s coalition of memorial associations wants the Confederate battle flag to fly permanently over the arena or any other structure built on the site. The sports arena, which is slated to include the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and offices of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, would also include a Confederacy Hall of Fame with revolving displays, hands-on activities, an interpretive kiosk and a multipurpose room. Bradshaw’s demands also include design proposals, including stately columns in the style of southern plantations, rather than the glass-and-steel models favored by city officials.
Bradshaw, who continues to gather suggestions from Confederate sympathizers, asked the Pitch to print his organization’s telephone number: 816-218-6915.
“They can have their arena. But it’s going to be a monument to those six brave boys,” Bradshaw says.
Emery says Bradshaw’s demands won’t be ignored. “You have to imagine what a power struggle is going to be consuming these jurisdictions in the coming weeks,” says the Republican strategist. “Blunt’s in a position to keep the city from building the arena unless Bradshaw’s demands are met. And Matt’s shown in the past that he cares what Bradshaw and the heritage movement want. That’s going to put Barnes in a terrible position — either agree to the changes or give up on her promise to bring the city its arena.”
Gray, the Civil War historian, says he is repulsed by the idea of a sports arena built to commemorate Confederate war dead. But in a way, he says, such a structure would fit Kansas City. “Kansas City, and Missouri in general, were enormously ambivalent about the Civil War. The state never seceded, and as many Missourians supported the Union as supported the Confederacy. But 150 years later, Kansas City remains one of the most segregated cities in North America. So maybe this crisis will force a long-delayed period of self-examination,” Gray says.
Sports marketing guru Lynn Stelling-Asoki, however, says the controversy will have a much more immediate effect. “You can kiss the NBA goodbye,” she says. “Kansas City was taking a huge risk by building a quarter-billion-dollar arena without a tenant. The city was going to have a hard enough time enticing major professional teams to sign up. But after this? Are you kidding me? Even a spoiled multimillionaire thug like Allen Iverson has his limits. I can’t see black athletes coming to play in an arena flying a Confederate flag.”
The Pitch contacted noted sports analyst Charles “Bump” Reed at his hotel room in Detroit, where he was preparing for last week’s telecast of an NBA Finals game between the Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs. “Look, how often do I agree with Lynn? But this time, she has it right. I mean, Kansas City already has a baseball team named after an overthrown system of government and a football team with a name that’s insensitive to Native Americans, so your city obviously doesn’t care much about keeping up appearances. But what kind of a basketball team would play in an arena styled after a plantation like Tara? The Kansas City Sharecroppers? The KC Klan?
“On the other hand,” he says, “the NHL is whiter than the ice it skates on, and the league is a total mess, so your arena may still have a shot to attract a team, no matter how many graves it’s built on.”
Barnes is expected to fight the proposed changes to the arena and is reportedly determined to battle Bradshaw on his own terms.
Barnes declined to comment, but a memo she distributed to top aides was obtained by the Pitch. In it, Barnes notes that “the Barrett six” were on a less than honorable mission, which could be exploited in an attempt to fend off Bradshaw’s demands. “That is, if Roy’s baby boy can take a hint,” she states in a sarcastic reference to Blunt.
“If Bradshaw wants a monument to the Confederacy, we’ll counter that any memorials to the Barrett soldiers will be set in a larger context of Kansas City’s long association with the sex trade,” reads the document from Barnes.
“I can’t tell you what a remarkable turnaround that would be,” says University of Missouri-Kansas City social ecologist Hayden Cruller of the Barnes memo. “You have to understand, this city has spent the last 50 years sterilizing itself from its jazz and red-light-district past like it was fumigating a pest-ridden tenement building. For it to suddenly embrace that past would be a stunning about-face. And all because six whoremongering rebel soldiers were dug up? That’s poetic justice on crack is what that is.”