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  • Jack Bowerman

Alpheus Asbury Brenton Cavaness 1839-1916

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

Urban Cavaness, his wife Mary, and their four youngest children, Alpheus, James, Sarah and Mary journeyed from Indiana and arrived in Westport in April 1856. They walked 10 miles into Kansas and stayed two weeks at the Shawnee Mission. They may have had to avoid the roaming bands of pro-slavery agents who were actively trying to prevent immigrants from the northern tier of states from settling in Kansas. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 had decreed that the residents of the new territories would decide whether they would become slave states or free states and settlers from the north and south were flooding into the territory to try to tip the balance of power. In May, Cavaness family arrived at their destination, the free state stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, in the midst of the bloodiest year of the Bleeding Kansas era.

What caused this shoemaker to leave the relative safety of Monrovia, Indiana to head for the wild frontier of the new territory can only be speculated, but once there it was inevitable that Urban and his 17-year-old son Alpheus would be drawn into the free state cause. Tensions between the free state settlers and the pro-slavery forces had been running high for some time and several people had been killed. The free staters had held a convention in Topeka to draft a constitution for the State of Kansas and named Charles Robinson, a Lawrence resident, as governor to be. However, these actions were illegal since they were not authorized by the Kansas Territorial Governor, Wilson Shannon, who had been appointed by President Pierce. In April of 1856, the Sheriff of Douglas County, Samuel Jones, who was an ardent pro-slavery supporter, entered Lawrence and attempted to arrest the members of the free state legislature that had adopted the Topeka constitution. He was met with resistance from the residents, gunfire broke out and Jones was wounded. Jones returned to Lawrence on May 21, this time accompanied by 800 pro-slavery settlers, and proceeded to sack the town, destroying the Free State Hotel, razing Charles Robinson’s house, throwing the type from the printing presses from the town’s two newspapers into the river, looting and burning. We can only assume that the Cavaness family witnessed this destruction and aftermath.

Alpheus volunteered to join the Kansas Free State Militia which was commanded by “General” James H Lane. Lane was famous before he arrived in Kansas in 1855 having been a hero of the Mexican American War and a U.S. congressman from Indiana. His Free State Militia consisted of groups of “Jayhawkers” who would form together to raid pro-slavery strongholds and protect free state strongholds against attack. A series of battles took place during the summer and fall of 1856 including the Battle of Black Jack near Baldwin when free state forces under the command of “Captain” John Brown forced a group of pro-slavery men to surrender. There were two battles around the town of Franklin which was located several miles south and east of Lawrence and well as two battles around John Brown’s hometown of Osawatomie. Pro-slavery strongholds of Fort Saunders (southwest of Lawrence), Fort Titus (south of Lecompton) and Hickory Point (north of Oskaloosa) were destroyed by the Jayhawkers. On September 14, Lawrence was once again threatened by an estimated 2,500 pro-slavery forces under the command of former U.S. Senator from Missouri, David Atchison (the city of Atchison, Kansas is named after him). Lawrence was saved when the newly appointed Territorial Governor, John Geary, arrived with a large force of U.S. Army dragoons with cannon and took up positions on Mount Oread. Geary ordered the forces on both sides to disperse and the crisis was over. We don’t know for sure which of these military actions Alpheus was involved in, but his obituary in the Baldwin Ledger mentioned specifically that he was present at the destruction of Fort Titus and in the defense of Lawrence when sieged by Atchison’s forces. The Baker archives has a copy of his discharge from Captain Samuel Walker’s Company of Infantry of the Kansas Militia dated November 30, 1856.

When the fighting died down and an uneasy peace came to Kansas in 1857 and 1858, the Cavaness family moved to Anderson County in the vicinity of Garnett. However, Alpheus’s mother was so intent that her children should receive an education she insisted that the family move to Baldwin in 1859 one year after Baker was opened. Father Urban opened a hotel and maintained one of the first houses of public entertainment in Baldwin. He also operated a hack or hackney carriage service in town. Alpheus worked as a carpenter and began attending Baker. Younger brother James also attended Baker graduating in 1866 and later became a well-known author and newspaper publisher. Sisters Sarah and Mary married and became homemakers.

Alpheus time at Baker was cut short when, like a number of his classmates and professors, he left to join the Union Army after the Civil War broke out. He initially enlisted in the Third Kansas Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel James Montgomery, another famous Jayhawker. However, the organization of the regiment was never completed, and the recruits were reassigned, and Alpheus became a member of the 1st Independent Battery Kansas Light Artillery. The battery was organized at Mound City, Kansas and mustered in on July 24, 1861, under the command of Captain Thomas Moonlight. From 1861 to the middle of 1863 the battery was involved in battles along the Kansas-Missouri order and in northeast Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas including the battles of Newtonia, Old Fort Wayne and Prairie Grove. The battery was also involved in the infamous raid on Osceola, Missouri led by James Lane in which the town was looted and burned, and nine proslavery men were executed after a hasty trial. “Remember Osceola!” was used by the proslavery raiders led by William Quantrill when they looted and burned Lawrence, Kansas in 1863 killing roughly 300 men and boys. After mid-1863, the battery was reassigned to posts farther east including St. Louis and Nashville. While in Tennessee, the battery was involved in the pursuit of Confederate raiders under the command of John Hunt Morgan through Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. The raid was meant to divert Union resources from the campaigns going on at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and was successful in accomplishing its objective, but in the course of the 1,000-mile raid Morgan’s force of 2,500 was reduced to less than 400 when Morgan was finally captured.

Alpheus saw plenty of action during the war, but he did not emerge unscathed. During a forced march to Fort Scott, he was riding on a gun caisson and when he started to step off his foot caught causing him to fall so that the hind wheel of the cannon’s carriage ran over his body. The injury was so severe that he lay at the point of death for three or four weeks. Eventually he recovered, but internal injuries remained which caused him much suffering for the rest of his life. He was discharged from the Army on September 7, 1864.

After the war, Alpheus, having sufficiently recovered from his injuries, returned to Baldwin and Baker. By this time, Alpheus’s brother, James, was also at Baker and was an upperclassman. James became the first graduate of the College of Liberal Arts in 1866. We generally think of the fraternities at Baker having originated shortly after the turn of the century, but it is well documented in the history of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity that Alpheus and James and nine other Baker students founded the Phi chapter of the that fraternity in 1865. Several years later Alpheus and four other fraternity brothers became dissatisfied with conditions at Baker and transferred to Northwestern University. They intended to continue to operate the Phi chapter, but soon discovered that there was already a Phi Gamma Delta chapter there, Delta Deuteron. A. A. B. Cavaness wrote in 1914 that the Phi Fijis found the Delta Deuteron chapter "was made up of high-toned young bloods, city bred, and the idea of associating with a lot of 'hayseeds' was not edifying to them. A few country boys fresh in the college could do nothing, could make no headway as a Greek fraternity against others of more repute and without any such handicap in character of membership. I do recall that we initiated at least two fine fellows, men of fine qualities but without dress coats.” Alpheus was listed as a sophomore at Northwestern in 1871 and it is not clear whether Alpheus graduated.

For a short time, Alpheus was a professor of mathematics at Lewis College in Glasgow, Missouri. In 1872 he returned to Baker to help the school through a difficult time. From the Alumni Record of Baker University: “April 2, 1873. This day was probably the "low tide." This spring term opened with 35 or 40 students and one teacher, Professor S. S. Weatherby. Most of the students claimed to be in attendance by virtue of scholarships, which yielded no revenue. As there was no likelihood of salary, Professor Weatherby handed in his resignation on April 3. Under the persuasion of Reverend J. Boynton, the president of the Board of Trustees, and on the pledge of some of the people of Baldwin to aid in part, Professor Weatherby withdrew his resignation and consented to try to complete the college year. In the few hours of waiting while arrangements were being made to continue the school, a student wrote on the blackboard of the president's recitation room, "Baker University is dead." To assist in giving the varied instruction needful to meet the conditions of the student enrollment, Dr. J. G. Schnebley, Mr. A. A. B. Cavaness and Miss Myra Deming offered their services, receiving very meager compensation.”

Alpheus’ disabilities increased and Alpheus settled in as a resident of Baldwin. Unable to perform rigorous activities, he became the proprietor of the bookstore in Baldwin. He later served for four or five years as the postmaster of Baldwin. But Alpheus’s passion was poetry. His talent as a poet was first revealed while he was attending Northwestern University, where he composed a remarkable poem “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” He continued to write a number of poems as did his brother, James, and in 1896 their poems were collected and published in a book entitled “Poems by Two Brothers”. In 1906, his epic poem “Rubaiyat of Hope” was published. Bishop William Quayle, who wrote the introductions to both books, declared that Alpheus had written some of the best verse ever produced by a Kansas author. In 1898, Alpheus received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Baker.

Alpheus was also responsible for a major boost to the athletics program at Baker. From Ebright’s History of Baker University: “In the earliest days, students played ball on any vacant block in town. . .. At first, the greater part of the football playing was done south of Jersey Street between Sixth and Seventh. Later men played on the ball ground north of the public-school buildings. During the Nineties, the games were played on the ground south of Fremont and east of Second, the place where still the athletic activity is centered. . .. In the catalogue of 1901, . . . it is stated that “Mr. Alpheus Cavaness has given to the University the field that has been used for athletic purposes. It will henceforth be known as the Cavaness Athletic Park” . . .. For many years the college catalogues contained this statement: “Cavaness Athletic Park, a fine field of six acres in the east of town, the gift of Mr. Alpheus Cavaness, is well adapted to all outdoor sports. It contains a grandstand, a small well-leveled baseball diamond and a quarter mile running track.” Today, this ground is the site of Liston Stadium.

Alpheus never married and in his later years lived with his sister, Sarah, whose husband died in 1880. The Cavaness house stood for many years where Joliffe Hall now stands. He died April 18, 1916 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Baldwin.

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