Wornall Home Family Memories Stirred by PBS Mini-Series  4

Sunday evenings this winter, when James Wornall and his family gather to watch the PBS Civil War miniseries Mercy Street, it feels as if they are watching part of their own family’s history. James is the great-grandson of John Wornall, a prosperous farmer and one of Kansas City’s earliest residents. Now in its second season, the television drama tells the story of how many antebellum homes were turned into makeshift hospitals during the war. Troops on both sides took over houses, turning the space into operating, recovery and convalescent rooms for injured soldiers.
The historic John Wornall House is located at 6115 Wornall Road, near the center of the Battle of Westport. The house served as a battleground hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers. The conflict, which occurred October 21-23, 1864, was the largest battle west of the Mississippi, and it marked the end of the 10-year conflict between Missouri and Kansas.
“I lived in the house with my grandfather, parents and brother from my eighth-grade year on. My most vivid memory is of mowing the lawn, which took all day!” James Wornall says. “I knew that the house had been used as a hospital, but I’m not sure I fully understood the magnitude of what had gone on.” 
Wornall, 79, now lives in Overland Park with his daughter, Desiree Wornall Rivas and her family.
The Kansas City/Wornall story began in 1843 when James’ great-great-grandparents, Richard and Judith Wornall, moved here from Kentucky looking for better business opportunities. After their first successful year of farming, Richard purchased 500 acres of land in the area now known as Brookside. A few years later, Richard gave the land to his sons, John and Thomas, and later returned to Kentucky. Thomas died of cholera in 1849 and John became the sole landholder.
John’s first wife, Matilda Polk, died a year after they were married. In 1856, he married Eliza Johnson, the daughter of the Rev. Thomas Johnson, who founded the Shawnee Methodist Indian Mission. In 1858, John, by now a wealthy farmer, built a large columned house, with bricks made on site. He wanted a home that would be a statement, a landmark house on the road south from Westport leading to the Santa Fe Trail. Eliza had hopes of enjoying the new home, but the Civil War enveloped the family.
“Eliza was home during the Battle of Westport. John was being held miles away by bushwhackers,” James says. “Confederates spent the night in the yard; then Eliza cooked them breakfast. As they started to eat, they were rushed by Union soldiers, who finished the breakfast.”
In a memoir, Eliza’s son Francis wrote, “Dad often said the Battle of Westport was over a breakfast, for (General) Price ordered his advance, and (soon) our home became the hospital for one of his divisions. The beds were knocked down, pallets laid close to each other, all of the hospital arrangements of that time quickly placed within reach of the hand of those who were to administer help and in a few hours, the house was full of wounded and dying.”
Medical treatment of the day was rudimentary. A soldier who sustained a gunshot wound to his chest or abdomen was left on the battlefield to die. Surgeons, doctors and nurses had the medical expertise to save only soldiers who had leg or arm wounds, and that treatment often resulted in amputation. In the PBS drama, soldiers groan in pain and scream in agony because whiskey was their only form of anesthesia. In the 1860s, the use of antiseptic practices was virtually unknown. Many who died succumbed to diseases such as dysentery, pneumonia, typhoid fever and tuberculosis. Illness, food shortages and the hardships of battle resulted in the loss of thousands. In the Battle of Westport, 30,000 fought and 1,500 died on each side.
“Growing up, we heard stories about how the bodies of soldiers were passed through the dining room window and stacked along the side of the house,” Wornall says.
Eliza was the mother of seven children, only two of whom survived infancy. She died days after delivering her last child. Following the war, John remarried, this time to Eliza’s first cousin, Roma. 
“On their honeymoon, John bought Roma a bedroom set, an heirloom that my daughter uses today,” Desiree says. “My great-great-grandmother Roma hosted parties and brought happiness back to John.” 
The couple had two sons, John and Charles.
The John Wornall House holds a remarkable spot in Kansas City history. It remains alive with year-round tours, authentic reenactments and holiday candlelight tours. Check out the website for the Wornall House, along with the historic Alexander Majors House, at WornallMajors.org.
James and Desiree often attend Wornall House events, and they enjoy watching Mercy Street.
“It could have been filmed here.”