Reconsidering Guerrilla Warfare in Missouri During the Civil War

Part Four of a series of posts on the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

Irregular conflict and guerrilla warfare was commonplace during the American Civil War. Small bands of irregular troops engaged in raids, ambushes, and in some cases outright slaughter against the United States military and their supporters in war-torn states like Virgina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. The Confederacy recognized the destructiveness of guerrilla warfare early in the conflict and attempted to forge a partnership with these irregulars by passing the Partisan Ranger Act on April 21, 1862, which gave President Jefferson Davis the ability to recruit officers for companies, battalions, and regiments of partisan bands. According to Washington & Lee history professor Barton Myers–a speaker at the CWI 2014 Summer Conference–the Partisan Ranger Act provided an opportunity for Southern men who had not enlisted in the Confederacy a chance to do so on their own terms. These partisan bands, however, proved to be more of a hindrance than a help to the Confederacy, and in early 1864 the Partisan Ranger Act was revoked by the Confederate Congress.

The bloodshed from guerrilla warfare was particularly acute in Missouri, where guerrillas such as William Quantrill, “Bloody” Bill Anderson, and Jesse James conducted raids in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Such internecine warfare had taken place on the Missouri-Kansas border well before the firing of Fort Sumter in 1861 thanks to heated disputes in the 1850s about whether or not the new territory of Kansas would be a free or slave state. Myers focused much of his discussion on guerrilla warfare towards events in Missouri, and this discussion inspired me to write out some personal thoughts on how guerrilla warfare in Missouri has been remembered since the end of hostilities in 1865.


It is my opinion that guerrilla warfare in Missouri before and during the American Civil War has been greatly romanticized since the end of the war, dominating the memories of Missouri’s Civil War experience at the expense of a more holistic understanding of Missouri’s relationship to both the United States and Confederate governments.

Missouri was a crucial state for both the United States and the Confederacy for four reasons:

1. Missouri’s population increased 73% from 1850-1860, creating a large pool of fighting-age men willing to serve one side or the other.

2. In 1850, there were no railroads in Missouri. By 1860, however, a rapidly expanding railway system of roughly 770 miles of operational railroads traversed the state.

3. Navigational access to two extremely important riverways (the Missouri and the Mississippi) had implications for the entire war.

4. Resources like iron (readily available in large quantities in Southeastern Missouri) were desired by both governments.

Events such as Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson’s attempt to have Missouri secede to the Confederacy in 1861, the Camp Jackson Affair, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Confederate General Sterling Price’s failed effort to conquer St. Louis in 1864, and Missouri’s abolition of slavery in January 1865 prior to the passage of the 13th amendment are frequently overshadowed by the narrative of guerrilla warfare. For example, there is a Jesse James Wax Museum in the state that bills itself as the homeplace of “The TRUE Missouri Legend,” while a recent film aimed at promoting Civil War tourism in Missouri argues that “Missouri lays claim to legends of its own” and then proceeds to focus on the aforementioned guerrilla warriors at the expense of other important figures like Jackson, Price, Frank Blair, and B. Gratz Brown.

Why does this narrative have such staying power? Part the answer lies in the efforts of surviving guerrillas to shape the memories of the war in the late 1800s and early 1900s, while the other part lies in popular depictions of the Civil War in Missouri throughout the twentieth century.

Following the end of the war, former guerrillas like Frank James (brother of Jesse) told their stories to anyone who listened. In the early 1900s Frank led a short-lived traveling pageant entitled “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West” that traversed Missouri and attempted to educate audience members about the Civil War in Missouri. Former Missouri guerrillas also started having annual reunions beginning in 1898. These affairs were open to the public and both Republican and Democratic politicians gave speeches at these events. Although the reunions professed to be non-political events, speakers often discussed contemporary events like the ongoing Spanish-American war and the gold/silver coinage debate while using the past to justify their positions in the present. While the rhetoric of reconciliation and “burying the hatchet” was prevalent in these reunions, Missouri State history professor Jeremy Neely argues that “the Quantrill men reunions . . . became a public expression of one distinctly local flavor of [Confederate] lost cause history” (249).

Many former guerrillas argued at these reunions that their exploits were actually honorable and courageous. Local members of the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy argued that these men were fighting a defensive war against an overbearing Union military that regularly attacked men, women, and children in Missouri who were alleged supporters of the Confederacy. The guerrillas, according to their supporters, had not strongly supported one side or the other and simply defended local residents and “hearth and home” against Union outrages such as the Sacking of Osceola and Union General Thomas Ewing’s 1863 General Orders No. 11 expelling all residents from four counties in Western Missouri. And to be sure, revenge was certainly a factor in the actions of some guerrillas. “Bloody” Bill Anderson, for example, led the massacre of more than 150 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863 partly in response to three of his sisters being imprisoned by the Union military on suspicion of housing guerrilla fighters. When their makeshift prison collapsed one sister died, another broke both of her legs, and another had permanent injuries that crippled her for the rest of her life.

This “guerrilla defense of hearth and home” argument was depicted most clearly in Clint Eastwood’s 1976 film “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Eastwood portrays Wales, a simple Missouri farmer whose wife and son are murdered by a Unionist Kansas brigade. After burying his family, Wales decides to join the Confederacy and Anderson’s guerrilla fighters not because of his dedication to the Confederate cause but because of the U.S. military’s murdering of his loved ones. This narrative undoubtedly appeals to some Americans today who view the relationship between the federal government and the various state governments with suspicion and disdain. Guerrillas who fought against an overbearing government were virtuous individuals heroically defending Missouri families, especially women and children, against an abusive federal government rather than fighting for the preservation of slavery or any other pressing political question at the time.

The actual reality of guerrilla fighters and their motivations for fighting is much more complex than the “defense of hearth and home” argument would have us believe, however.

According to Diane Mutti Burke, one reason guerrilla fighters gained so much support in Missouri was because they readily acted as slave patrollers for local slaveholders. Guerrilla fighters regularly engaged in violence against and sometimes killed runaway slaves. In some extreme cases they even sold runaway slaves to new owners. To wit:

Patrollers . . . always brutalized slaves . . . Many Civil War-era “patrollers” were indeed Confederate Bushwackers, who attempted to intimidate local slaves into remaining with their owners, targeted white Missourians who hired former bondsmen and -women for pay, terrorized slave women through physical and sexual assault, and after 1863, brutalized slave men on their way to enlist in the Union army. Confederate soldiers and guerrillas kidnapped others and took them south, where they were sold (158-159).

In sum, the “guerrilla defense of hearth and home” argument falls short of explaining why so many men in Missouri chose to follow Anderson, Quantrill, and James into battle during the Civil War, and the idea of these guerrillas having no preferred allegiance to either side along with a distaste for politics is hard to justify. Politics were often central in the decision to become a Missouri guerrilla fighter.

Even though guerrilla warfare in Missouri was especially harsh compared to other states and remains a key factor in scholarly analysis of Missouri’s Civil War, scholars like Barton Myers at the same time readily acknowledge that guerrilla fighters were “mere rouges” in the larger battle for Missouri during the Civil War. Ultimately, I’d like to echo Bob Pollock of Yesterday…and Today in challenging us to consider “why the focus on Anderson, Quantrill, and Jesse James? What makes them so important? Is the guerilla warfare really the most important story to tell about the Civil War in Missouri? Is it the most compelling? Is the average visitor to Missouri more interested in people like Quantrill than in other people of the time?”



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