- Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War, 1861–1865
In September 1861, Major General Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri State Guard (soon to be mustered in as Confederate troops), defeated a garrison of federal troops stationed at Lexington. The federal commander had been instructed to secure this Missouri River town and to remove the funds deposited in the Farmers’ Bank of Missouri. With the defeated federal commander at his side, Price ceremoniously returned the funds to the bank. As Geiger explains in this groundbreaking study in economic and social history, Price’s action underscored the importance of banks to the southern cause in Missouri.
Price—a state bank commissioner when the Civil War began—and other leaders of the state’s central slaveholding region had won the passage of a new banking law in 1857 that secured their interests. As Geiger points out, men like Price were not opposed to capital markets. Indeed, they were determined to shape those markets to their advantage. The new banking law required the establishment of new branch banks, and almost all of the banks established after 1857 were in the state’s largest slaveholding counties. These new banks “shifted capital out of St. Louis and into the high-slavery counties” (30). In the secession crisis, as pro- Confederate Missourians began to form the Missouri State Guard, they funded it with promissory notes. “Missouri Confederates gained control of most of the banks’ money, leaving behind a mountain of paper promises” (81). Price returned the confiscated funds to the Farmers’ Bank in Lexington confident that the bank’s director would continue the practice of funding promissory notes.
Geiger refers to this practice as “fraud.” The men of southern principles who signed the promissory notes had no intention of repaying them. If the debt were to be honored at all, they expected it to be funded by the Confederate state of Missouri. Unfortunately for those who signed the notes, Price’s army and the pro-Confederate state government were driven from the state. Unionists took control of the banks and began to file civil suits to recover the debt created by the promissory notes. The litigation continued for several years, but “when it was all over, most of the defendants had no property left” (99). As a result, “a disproportionate number of the young men from these dispossessed families joined the guerrilla bands” (3).
Geiger builds effectively on a 1977 study by Bowen that emphasized [End Page 663] the importance of extended kinship networks in understanding the motivation of Missouri’s guerrillas.1 As Bowen noted, many of the identifiable guerrillas were too young to own much property. But when Bowen located them in extended kinship networks, it became clear that they represented a class of ascending slaveholders. Such were the men who signed the promissory notes that were readily accepted by Missouri’s pro-Confederate bankers, only to be dispossessed when Unionist bankers collected the debt. Missouri guerrillas had good reason to fight close to home (and burn courthouses). They had scores to settle.
Geiger’s work breaks important new ground, and his extensive appendixes encourage scholars to follow his lead. One line of inquiry seems particularly promising. The guerrillas fought the federal government as a generalized tyrannical force that empowered those who dispossessed their kin. A careful study of the civilian victims of guerrilla attacks might extend Geiger’s analysis. At some level, the Civil War was about winners and losers. Geiger has discovered a new class of losers and convincingly linked them to the guerrillas. Who were the winners? Who gained control of the property taken from the guerrilla families?
1. Don R. Bowen, “Guerrilla War in Western Missouri, 1862–1865: Historical Extensions of the Relative Deprivation Hypothesis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, XIX, (1977), 30–51.