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Civil War Kentuckians knew all about the destructive power and psychological terror wrought by guerrillas. Exceeding the violence of pitched battles, irregular warfare was the most pervasive form of violence in the American Civil War. As historians pay increasing attention to this ugly underbelly of the conflict, they confront two essential questions. Why did men (and a few women) become guerrillas and why did particular parts of the South become hotbeds of guerrilla-related violence? Mark W. Geiger addresses both issues, and he offers some intriguing answers.
In what he calls "an economic and a social history" (p. 5), Geiger maintains that banks, debts, and litigation explain why the "violence in Missouri was so much worse than in other places" (pp.102-3). It is a strictly quantitative argument but a clearly stated one. Geiger shows a high incidence of "military engagements" and "guerrilla incidents" in counties where large numbers of pro-Confederates lost their property (nearly 350,000 total acres) after defaulting on loans. The loans had been given early in the war to support the rebel cause; judgments against the defaulters came in courts controlled by Unionists. As a result of their financial reverses, many men, supposedly bent on striking back at the Yankees, joined guerrilla bands. Geiger goes on to survey the ramifications of these wartime events for postwar Missouri, but the heart of his story focuses on the war years.
Geiger does not pretend to have an explanation for all guerrilla violence in Missouri, which began at least a year before any significant number of court cases went to trial. He also admits that even the men from his "dispossessed" families may have become guerrillas for reasons other than their lost property. Yet, his statistics and the logic of many of his conclusions make sense. Certainly, his analysis strengthens a long-held belief that most guerrilla activity was locally inspired and that both rebel and Union guerrillas operated largely in their own neighborhoods. That the vast majority of his men came from an "elite group" of prosperous families (p.109) also confirms, as some other scholars have found, that not all guerrillas were the [End Page 277] poor youths or psychotic killers they were once thought to be.
However, Geiger leaves several issues unresolved, some of them necessary for cinching his argument. He is especially vague about one crucial issue. He suggests that the addition of guerrillas to the irregular war increased the "violence" of the conflict in Missouri, but his evidence shows only a wider participation in the war. He implies that these men became guerrillas in order to wreak vengeance on the people responsible for taking their lands, but he offers no proof that this was the case, nor does he suggest what form the "violence" may have taken. Admittedly, it is difficult to know very much about the activities of individual guerrillas or even of large bands, but Geiger might have found some answers, and so completed his path-breaking work in the civil court records, by examining the scores, if not hundreds, of military commissions that prosecuted captured Missouri guerrillas. Those records offer the richest sources of information historians have about the motives and activities of rebel guerrillas.
Geiger admits that the circumstances in his state were "in most respects unique to Missouri and atypical of what was happening in the rest of the country" (p. 5). Interestingly, he found a significant exception in Kentucky, which also saw sales of rebel property. They were far fewer and on a much smaller scale than in Missouri, but a careful investigation of the Kentucky cases would be another welcomed addition to our understanding of the larger guerrilla conflict.
Daniel E. Sutherland teaches history at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the author, most recently, of A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009).