Major Guerrilla Warfare Actions

Irregular warfare was the great scourge of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory experienced a higher level of irregular warfare than any other part of the country and, if that were not bad enough, the intensity and brutality of irregular warfare in the Trans-Mississippi was unmatched anywhere else. Because of its very nature, however, irregular warfare is difficult to document and describe. In the case of the Trans-Mississippi it involved regular military forces, an array of paramilitary and militia organizations, and literally hundreds of guerrilla bands, large and small, that tended to act independently of civil and military authorities and of each other. These bands coalesced and dissolved as they pleased and left few records of their activities. Most of what we know about this shadowy struggle comes from the records of regular military forces that encountered irregulars.

Irregulars can be grouped into three broad categories. Many were firm adherents of one political cause or the other, that is, they considered themselves to be Union or Confederate partisans and therefore part of the Union or Confederate war efforts, however unofficially. They operated in reasonably well organized bands and sometimes cooperated with regular military forces. These irregulars fit the classic description of guerrillas.

Many irregulars, however, were motivated as much by personal issues as political ideology. They took up arms to avenge acts of violence against their families, settle old scores, or defend their turf against outsiders. They dropped in and out of the war as they chose and only occasionally cooperated with regular forces of either side. For them the only theater of operations that truly counted was the community where they lived, and most stayed close to home throughout the war. These irregulars also can be described as guerrillas, but with the understanding that their primary interests were intensely local. Union and Confederate military authorities had, at best, only limited influence over these local bands.

Still other irregulars were not guerrillas at all but brigands: roving packs of deserters, criminals, and psychopaths who professed no political allegiances (except when it was expedient to do so) and took advantage of the chaos of war to wreak havoc on the defenseless. Their calling cards were murder, rape, torture, theft, and destruction. Union and Confederate authorities sought to suppress these brigands whenever possible.

The irregular war consisted of thousands of battles, skirmishes, ambushes, pursuits, and other acts of violence. When regular Union or Confederate forces were involved, these incidents might rate a few sentences in an official report. But the overwhelming majority of acts of violence in the irregular war went unrecorded, for they involved no regular forces and often left no survivors. Moreover, many civilians, especially women, were illiterate or otherwise unable or unwilling to leave a written account. Nevertheless, the historical record, however incomplete, provides a glimpse into the true nature of irregular warfare in the Trans-Mississippi.

The most notorious episode in the irregular war took place in Kansas on August 21, 1863, when William C. Quantrill and about 350 Missouri Confederate guerrillas attacked the defenseless town of Lawrence. Quantrill claimed he wanted revenge for the damage done by murderous raids into Missouri earlier in the war. (These earlier raids, it should be noted, were the work of Union military forces and guerrilla bands based in Kansas.) Whatever the actual motivation, the raid was essentially an act of terrorism. It had no military purpose nor was it sanctioned by Confederate military authorities. The guerrillas rounded up all the men and boys they could find and shot them down in the streets. At least 185 people were murdered, some barely into their teens. The guerrillas then sacked and burned much of the town before returning to Missouri.

Another equally infamous episode was the Centralia Massacre. On September 27, 1864, a Missouri Confederate guerrilla band led by William T. ("Bloody Bill") Anderson stopped a train in Centralia north-central Missouri. The train was carrying 23 unarmed Union soldiers on leave. The guerrillas murdered all of the soldiers but one, scalped and mutilated the bodies, then rode away. A detachment of the 39th Missouri Infantry (Mounted) pursued but stumbled into a trap and was nearly annihilated. The soldiers outnumbered the guerrillas nearly two to one, but they were equipped with single-shot muskets while the guerrillas were armed with two, three, and even four revolvers per man. The guerrillas killed 123 of the 155 Union soldiers and again scalped and mutilated the bodies, a practice Anderson and his men flaunted as a trademark. Anderson was killed in a skirmish a month later near present-day Orrick. His head was stuck on a telegraph pole and his decapitated body dragged through the streets.

The atrocities at Lawrence and Centralia were atypical of the irregular war. Most of the violence did not garner headlines or notoriety, but it went on without letup for four years. During all that time hardly a day went by without a fight, a killing, or an act of retribution somewhere in the Trans-Mississippi. In October 1862, for example, Arkansas Confederate guerrillas wearing blue uniforms killed a Union soldier near Cross Hollows. In response, Union troops hanged four men from a nearby settlement, burned their farms, and left their families homeless in the face of winter. That same month Union soldiers dressed in gray uniforms and sporting a Confederate flag encountered a dozen Arkansas Confederate guerrillas near Fayetteville, a few miles to the south. Completely taken in, the guerrillas warmly greeted their supposed compatriots. The Federals pulled out their guns, disarmed the astonished guerrillas, and executed them. Two minor incidents in an obscure corner of the war, hardly worth mentioning in the great scheme of things, yet the result was seventeen lives lost and as many families devastated.

The irregular war did not end with the Confederate surrender at Shreveport in May 1865 but continued in various forms for decades. Most guerrillas acknowledged the cessation of hostilities and quietly resumed their prewar activities, but some of the most notorious brigands, notably Frank and Jesse James and Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger, chose not to return to peaceful pursuits. They regrouped into criminal gangs and robbed trains, banks, businesses, and individuals. They gained misplaced notoriety as the Wild West's first outlaw gangs, but in fact they rarely strayed beyond familiar turf in the Ozarks. (A rare exception was a botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, carried out by the James and Younger gangs in September 1876.) Within fifteen years of the end of the war most of these brigands were killed or incarcerated.

Postwar violence spawned by the irregular conflict continued in two other forms. Throughout the Trans-Mississippi aggrieved individuals and families sought vengeance for what they and their relatives and friends had suffered, often at the hands of neighbors of differing political allegiances. Instead of seeking redress through the legal system, which in many places functioned poorly or not all, many took the law into their own hands. In the decades following the war hundreds of people were murdered (sometimes shot while on their doorsteps or in their fields, but most often ambushed on lonely rural roads), innumerable houses and barns were burned, and entire herds of animals were slaughtered by those determined to settle old scores. This new cycle of violence engulfed the next generation and generated murderous feuds. Killings continued into the 1880s and hard feelings existed well into the twentieth century. Even today there are families in Arkansas and Missouri that will have nothing to do with each other.

Attempts by freedmen (as newly freed slaves were known at that time) to take their rightful place in southern society were crushed by violent resistance from former Confederate soldiers and pro-Confederate guerrillas. The latter used the same brutal tactics against freedmen and their white supporters that they had used against Unionists during the war. Murders and myriad violent acts of political terrorism played a key role in the eventual failure of Reconstruction in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The brutal suppression of the freedmen may have been the most significant victory won (at least in part) by pro-Confederate guerrillas. It did not restore slavery or achieve Confederate independence but it kept many freedmen in a form of serfdom for generations, paved the way for the imposition of racial segregation, and delayed the implementation of civil rights for a century.

The story of irregular warfare in the Trans-Mississippi is an ugly one. The level of violence was so horrific postwar generations tried to obliterate it from the popular memory. They celebrated regular warfare with bronze statues and marble monuments and neatly manicured cemeteries, but chose to put aside the grim memories of irregular warfare. Only in certain quarters of Missouri were guerrillas and brigands transformed into Confederate heroes, and only after their dark deeds were thoroughly sanitized. Fortunately, historians are now uncovering the complete story of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi.

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