Guerrilla Warfare

The large Union and Confederate armies that fought back and forth across Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia devastated the countryside and caused much distress to local civilians. But in proportion to population, the destruction of civilian property was much greater in the Trans-Mississippi and nowhere was life more thoroughly disrupted. In Missouri, for example, a full quarter of the population – over 300,000 people – became refugees. Suffering was also widespread in northern Arkansas and the Indian Territory. This was primarily due to the guerrilla war, which was more acute in the Trans-Mississippi than elsewhere.

When war broke out in 1861, some Kansans took the opportunity to exact revenge upon Missourians. In September James Lane, a Kansas senator and prominent abolitionist, led a force of some 1,200 men into Missouri, where they attacked and looted the town of Osceola. Several hundred slaves achieved freedom by following Lane back to Kansas. The Seventh Kansas Cavalry, raised by another prominent abolitionist, Charles R. Jennison, earned the nickname “Jennison’s Jayhawkers” for its raids on Missouri early in the war. Similar to the earlier term “Jayhawker,” the obscure term “Redleg” came into use to designate those who mixed patriotism with an opportunity for personal profit by raiding Missouri.

“Guerrilla” was a term some Southerners bore proudly while other Southerners disdained it. Nineteenth century military law declared civilians in arms to be guerrillas and subject to immediate execution. In the Trans-Mississippi, however, the Confederate government was often unable provide for its troops properly. A mixture of civilian clothing and captured enemy equipment was common. Organization was slack, giving rise to many independent units, some of which mixed personal profit with revenge. By the summer of 1862, the situation in Missouri was particularly confusing. Almost all Missouri Confederate units had been pushed south into Arkansas. Missouri recruiting officers therefore moved clandestinely across the state, enlisting men into Confederate units and taking them back to Arkansas. While doing so Colonel Joseph C. Porter raised such a large force that he fought several major engagements. At the same time, small units of the Missouri State Guard remained in the state. All of these were regularly organized and enlisted personnel, but because they seldom wore uniforms and often fought unconventionally, the Union authorities usually treated them as guerrillas. Confederate forces in Missouri also included Partisan Rangers, independent units organized under the Confederacy’s Partisan Ranger Act of April 21, 1862, and theoretically subject to military orders. They, too, were labeled guerrillas. Finally there were true guerrilla bands, men who never enlisted but resisted Union forces, usually sticking close to particular region in order to protect their families.

All of these types were present at the Battle of Lone Jack, August 16, 1862. There, following a small but fierce five-hour engagement, Colonel Jeremiah Vardaman Cockrell’s composite force of over 1,000 men defeated a much smaller Union column led by Major Emory S. Foster. The Southerners dispersed after their victory, with some of them raiding Kansas. Not everyone was motivated by patriotism. Union authorities employed the term “bushwhacker” to designate Southerners who used war as a cover for robbery and mayhem. Missouri’s Provisional Union government organized a Missouri State Militia which employed tens of thousands of men in anti-guerrilla operations during the course of the war. Like the guerrillas, these men often roamed the countryside in small units, living off the land and the civilian population. Some of them were as guilty of misbehavior for personal gain as Kansas “Jayhawkers,” but most fought a hard, brutal war that brought them little public recognition for their sacrifices. The Union also created a county-level defense force, the Enrolled Missouri Militia. Since all males of military age were subject to service, its activation served to separate the county’s residents according to their political sentiments.

Guerrilla problems were not limited to Missouri, of course. From the beginning of the war thousands of loyalists fled Arkansas for Missouri. While many joined Missouri’s Union regiments, whole units of exiled Arkansans were enlisted for the Union cause. Regiments like the First Arkansas Cavalry fought against Confederate soldiers and Southern guerrillas alike for control of their state.

The largest guerrilla operation of the war occurred on August 21, 1863, when William Clarke Quantrill led over 300 men to attack Lawrence, Kansas, where they massacred some 150 people. A small number were army recruits, but the remainder were male civilians, some as young as sixteen. The raid was motivated in part by abuses against the guerrillas’ families by Union authorities, but it helped provoke actions that sharply intensified civilian distress. Union General Thomas Ewing’s Order No. 11, issued on August 25, 1863, forced Southern sympathizing civilians to evacuate four Missouri counties bordering the Kansas state line. Even civilians loyal to the Union had to leave rural areas for designated military posts. The military recognized that civilian support was essential to the guerrillas. They supplied the guerrillas with food, cared for them when they were sick or wounded, and provided information about Union operations.

Conditions were bad across much of the upper Trans-Mississippi, not just along the Kansas-Missouri line. Since guerrillas could never defeat the Northern armies and Union troops could rarely bring guerrillas into decisive combat, each side took action against the one readily available target, the civilians who supported the other side. A cycle of violence arose, made worse when pro-Southern civilians demanded vengeance against their Unionist neighbors, and vice versa. Houses, barns, mills, and country stores went up in flames. Although women were rarely targeted directly, men were routinely murdered and male children were not always spared. Women suffered indirectly, of course. Many lost not only husbands or sons, but their homes as well. Outside of garrisoned towns no one was safe. Commerce and government collapsed in much of Missouri and Arkansas. Some civilians starved to death and hundreds of thousands left their homes in search of safety.

The guerrilla problem was never “solved,” largely because they could never be pinned down. Although some guerrillas wore flamboyant clothing, particularly when posing for a camera, most dressed either as civilians or donned captured Union uniforms and equipment to disguise their identity. While a few large bands operated under notorious leaders such as Quantrill or William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, most belonged to small groups dedicated to controlling the area near their homes. Most of those who became guerrillas “took to the bush” after a particular incident or run-in with Union authorities. Support for the Southern cause and a desire for revenge could be inextricably mixed. They were often poorly armed and mounted, and they were rarely the crack shots of legend. Yet they caused the Union to devote enormous resources to the Trans-Mississippi that might have been utilized elsewhere.