Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier by Matthew M. Stith (review)
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Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier. By Matthew M. Stith ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 218. $42.50 cloth; $42.50 ebook)

Historian Matthew M. Stith sets an ambitious agenda for himself in Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier. He notes that "historians have yet to fully define the war fought along the Trans-Mississippi's western fringes" (p. 8). His work sets out to delineate the nature of the Civil War in the area where Arkansas, Indian Territory, Kansas, and Missouri met, roughly the area around and between Fort Scott, Kansas, and Fort Smith, Arkansas. To do so, he brings together discussions of formal military campaigns, guerrilla activities, the travails of civilians, and the influence of race and the environment.

After a chapter that describes the region in the antebellum years, he proceeds into a chronological account of the war, charting both formal military campaigns and the activities of guerrillas. Almost immediately, the area devolved into an ever-widening circuit of anarchic violence. Neither Union nor Confederate authorities could maintain control; civilians became the targets of violence, both from guerrillas and passing regular troops. As Stith notes, "political and legal structures at all levels … either ceased to exist entirely or no longer held any real semblance of authority by late 1861" (p. 158). He charts this rapid descent, as well as the years of chaos that followed.

Stith draws upon primary sources, predominantly those of Union soldiers and civilians, to flesh out his narrative. Most interestingly, he also uses a number of postwar court cases to chart the impact of the [End Page 685] war upon citizens. Many inhabitants pressed civil claims against their tormentors after legal authority had been reestablished. These cases provide rich detail on the horrors civilians suffered. In one case, a man recalled how a guerrilla raid led to his daughter burning to death before his eyes; he later testified, with significant understatement, that it "caused him to suffer great distress of mind" (p. 2). Many similar accounts follow. With evidence such as this, Stith proves his point that the Civil War on the frontier was indeed "extreme."

While Stith ably recounts how civilians suffered, he falters when describing how race and environment shaped the particular ways in which war on the frontier was conducted. He writes in his introduction how "racial and cultural struggles emerged as an integral part of the conflict," yet these avenues of analysis rarely appear in a sustained fashion in the body of his work (p. 5). He duly notes the presence of Indian units on both sides, as well as African American troops in Union ranks. He mentions atrocities, such as the massacre of black soldiers at Baxter Springs, Kansas, but offers very little that ties these events to broader Union or Confederate actions. Certainly, attitudes about race shaped the war for these people, but Stith does little to show in depth how they did so. He also misses prime opportunities to demonstrate how racially charged events might have had broader ramifications; he passes over allegations of Native American atrocities at the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862 that sparked outrage among northern soldiers and triggered a congressional investigation.

His analysis of how environment played a role highlights many ways in which it influenced the conflict. Yet these mentions fail to build to anything larger. Weather, terrain, and available crops shaped both organized military operations as well as guerrilla activities, but Stith could have fleshed out how the environment created a set of circumstances specific to this area, or what participants thought of environmental factors.

Ultimately, Stith ably demonstrates that the Civil War ravaged the trans-Mississippi frontier. Violence quickly engulfed the region, and civilians fell victim to it early and often. Regular armies plundered [End Page 686] food and supplies, and guerrillas took what was left, often murdering those who stood in their way. He convincingly shows that the people in the area experienced "constant strain" and "total war" (p. 165).

Peter C. Luebke

PETER C. LUEBKE is the editor of Albion Tourgée...


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