Anti-Guerrilla Actions

The Union war effort in the Trans-Mississippi in 1861 focused on neutralizing the threat posed to Missouri by Sterling Price and the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard. Following the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862, Price and his command were ordered east of the Mississippi River and Union control of Missouri seemed assured. At that time, the relatively low level of guerrilla activity was regarded as more of an annoyance than a threat. Nevertheless, civil and military authorities felt the number of Union troops in the state was insufficient to engage in conventional operations and deal with the guerrilla problem.

A few months later Missouri was rocked by a violent upsurge of irregular activity. Guerrilla bands of every size and description, sometimes operating in conjunction with small Confederate forces based in Arkansas, swarmed out of the woods and swamps and attacked towns and railroads, carried off horses and weapons, and killed Unionist civilians by the hundreds. They even engaged and defeated small Union forces at Independence (August 11, 1862) and Lone Jack (August 15-16, 1862) in the western part of the state. Governor Hamilton R. Gamble and the new Union commander, Brig. Gen. John M. Schofield, responded to this unexpected challenge by requiring every able-bodied Missourian to take a stringent loyalty oath and to join a new paramilitary organization. The Enrolled Missouri Militia included every adult male in the state. It was a home guard similar to the militias of the colonial and revolutionary era, and was intended to serve as both a local defense force against guerrillas and a source of support for the Missouri State Militia.

The Missouri State Militia had been established the previous November by Gamble and the Abraham Lincoln administration. Despite its name, the Missouri State Militia was a full-time military organization armed, equipped, and paid by the United States government. It was indistinguishable from other Union forces except that it was controlled by Missouri authorities and limited to service in that state, though on occasion Missouri State Militia troops ventured into Arkansas or Kansas.

These developments compelled Missourians to choose one side or the other. The great majority of Missourians were Unionists who dutifully took the oath and entered the ranks of the Enrolled Missouri Militia, but a secessionist minority found this unpalatable and took to the brush instead. In the short run, Gamble's and Schofield's actions actually increased the number of guerrillas. In the long run, however, they provided the manpower and organization to carry out counter-guerrilla operations at the grass-roots level. Missouri State Militia and Enrolled Missouri Militia forces fought thousands of engagements, large and small, with guerrillas of every stripe. They suffered and inflicted heavy casualties, though precise numbers are impossible to calculate. It was a war in the shadows: brutal, endless, and unglamorous.

Union authorities gradually concluded that the most effective way to combat guerrillas was to strike at their source of support: the secessionist civilian population that provided food, shelter, horses, and new recruits. As the war progressed, counter-guerrilla activities became increasingly punitive in nature. Farms, mills, and even entire towns known to provide aid to guerrillas were put to the torch by Union forces. Outspoken secessionists and relatives of known guerrillas were fined, imprisoned, and, in some instances, killed. The most draconian example of this policy of retribution was General Order No. 11, issued by Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. in August 1863, which led to the depopulation of four Missouri counties along the Kansas border, an area known to be a guerrilla haven. The order came in the immediate aftermath of the murderous Lawrence Raid, when emotions were running high, and was later rescinded, but it had the desired effect. Smaller instances of forced evacuations took place elsewhere in Missouri and Arkansas. These tactics inflicted terrible hardships on civilians, both Unionist and secessionist, but they wore down guerrilla bands by forcing them to keep moving in search of food, forage, and safe places to stay, especially in the winter. They also ground down the economic infrastructure of large parts of Missouri and Arkansas and made postwar recovery longer and more difficult.

Union occupation forces in Arkansas adapted novel approaches to dealing with the increasingly chaotic situation in that hapless state, where many guerrilla bands had degenerated into criminal packs of the worst sort. In 1864 Col. M. La Rue Harrison established fourteen fortified farm colonies on confiscated and abandoned land in the northwest corner of the state. Each colony consisted of fifty or so Unionist families, armed and supported by the Union garrison in Fayetteville, which were able to support themselves and fend off guerrilla attacks. The program was so successful even secessionist families asked to participate. Harrison did not stop there. The operations of his own First Arkansas Cavalry represented another creative attempt to grapple with irregular warfare. Established as a regular cavalry regiment, under Harrison's direction the "Mountain Feds" evolved into an effective counter-guerrilla force that made life miserable for secessionists and irregulars around Fayetteville. Northwest Arkansas may have been the only place in the Trans-Mississippi where guerrillas were actually defeated.

Confederate authorities in Arkansas were appalled by the anarchy spreading across the northern part of the state, and in late 1863 dispatched Col. Joseph O. Shelby and his Missouri Cavalry Brigade, one of the best Confederate units in the Trans-Mississippi, to exterminate brigands pretending to be Confederate guerrillas. The next year, while operating in Missouri during Price's Raid, Shelby was assigned a similar mission. Shelby had little patience with people who preyed on defenseless civilians. He ordered his men to shoot every so-called Confederate guerrilla on sight. Ironically, Shelby and his "Iron Brigade" may have been the most effective counter-guerrilla force in the war.

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